48states

A 2001 drive around the 48 states in 48 days

Category: About

Three months in…

Which means nine months to go. The story’s still up here for those of you who started but didn’t quite get round to finishing.

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One final final thing

OK, so I lied. There is one more thing. You may be interested to know that the story is now available in chronological order, so you don’t have to scroll down to the bottom and read up. Just go to www.48-states.com and click on the “read in chronological order” button at the top.

And I’ll probably do another plug in a month or so. So this isn’t one final final thing at all.

Day 39. MI/OH: urban sprawl, irish jigs, amish bikes, shaker sticks

I had done a recce of the facilities when I had first arrived, and so I was aware of the score when I woke up. There was absolutely no chance of even basic breakfast, let alone deluxe.

Even the drinks and candy vending machines were broken. There was one of those contraptions that churns out ice which, in truth, probably came closer to meeting my requirement than anything. I still felt a little rough from the night before.

Now that I was up, I decided that an early start could see me in Fraser in time for breakfast. Then I could see if the place was all that the ladies had cracked it up to be.

The problem (from the visiting traveller’s point of view) in being a suburb that’s part of a huge urban sprawl is that it is very easy to pass through and be away before you even realize that you’ve arrived. There isn’t the break in continuity that punctuates other places. I’d seen the sign saying that I was entering the city limits of Fraser, and then I seemed quickly to come across the same thing for Roseville. I doubled back and found some shops. One of them was a general store, so I went in to see if there were any souvenirs going.

The guy serving recognized my accent and asked me what part of London I came from. It turned out that he had just returned from a two-year stint studying to be a Cordon Bleu chef and living in very well-to-do Regent’s Park.

He wasn’t happy to be back in the US, and longed to return to London again. He was too precise and knowledgeable for it to be all bullshit, but it must have been a strange pass that saw him catapulted from that life in London to serving in a general store on the outskirts of Detroit.

They didn’t do postcards, and so the guy suggested that I try the pharmacy next door.  The pharmacy didn’t have any postcards either, but again my accent was noticed. The woman behind the counter, whose name badge said Mary, had just been over to England visiting relatives in Newcastle, where her family had originally come from. They had made a trip down to London, and she’d been amazed to find out that it was the first time that her relatives had been to the capital too. It was a reminder that it’s not only Americans who like to stick to their home turf.

I didn’t have many miles to cover that day, and so I decided to return to Ann Arbor for brunch. I’d regretted not getting out and wandering around the day before, and so I could have a second bite at the cherry. The sun was bright in the sky as I drew once more into the main street, creating a dappled effect on the footwalk beneath the trees. Parking was easy and soon I was installed at a table outside Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub.

It was just as I had imagined it from my cursory drive through the previous day. Seasoned academics rubbed shoulders with eager students as they enthusiastically attempted to unpick the mysteries of life. Others read quietly, keeping their thoughts to themselves. The occasional embarrassed undergraduate came past, hampered by two smartly dressed but over-anxious parents.

Inside the pub, it was dimly lit and a live band complete with fiddler were striking up the first notes of their lunchtime concert of traditional Irish music. It may have been a theme pub, but it felt more authentic than most of the similar efforts back in London. They only served Irish Whiskeys, and they had both Guinness and Murphys.

Despite having come that way the day before, I got lost leaving Ann Arbor and trying to get back to the freeway. Somehow, I ended up going down the road to Saline but it was no great drama. It did mean that I spotted the Shipshewana road show taking place in a field though. I presumed it was some sort of travelling Amish freak show. And they wonder why tourists flock to take photographs of them.

Even with these distractions, I was over the state line and going round the Toledo bypass in less than an hour. I noted that some of the state’s license plates bore the legend “Birthplace of aviation”. It was a subtle difference to North Carolina’s  “First in Flight”. The Wright Brothers came from Ohio, but neither state had offered them much encouragement prior to 1903. Still, everyone loves a success after the event.

I had spent a week in Toledo back in the summer of 1994, during the USA World Cup, and had gone to Detroit to see Brazil play Sweden. The ticket had been arranged for me by a young lady on whom I had vague carnal designs at the time. I had known her in London, but she had moved back to America and was living in New York. The idea was that we would stay with her parents in Toledo, I could go to the football and we could spend the rest of the time hanging out together.

The evening before I had flown, she had phoned me to say that she couldn’t make it back home, but that her mom and dad (whom I’d never even spoken to, let alone seen) would meet me at the airport and I’d still be welcome to stay with them. I took this as a none-too-promising sign. Perhaps the desire was not reciprocated after all. Either that, or she was playing ludicrously hard to get.

Her parents were very pleasant and did everything to make me feel at home, but I’d seen enough of Toledo in the week that I spent with them not to feel the need to return now.

My plans had gone faintly awry. After going off-piste the day before in Michigan, I now had to pick up the threads of my strict itinerary that indicated I should have been in Ohio for lunch. I had wanted to eat at the Roscoe Village Inn near Coshocton, which one of my guidebooks described as having the finest dining room in Ohio. When I had telephoned the inn, they’d told me that the dining room didn’t open on Sundays. This had thrown me somewhat, and in the ferment of my confusion I had become over-excited and ended up booking a room there for the night instead.

Astonishingly, the radio station that I was listening to was seeing fit to play a cover of Bye bye baby, which had originally been a hit for the Bay City Rollers back in the seventies. Why anyone should want to cover that track wasn’t explained before I found myself tuning elsewhere.

I picked up the excellent Dr Joy Browne. She was dealing with a caller who was perplexed because her sister had just got married and was now away on honeymoon. They had cleared everything up after the party and had realized that – shock horror! – some of the guests who had come to the reception had not brought a gift for the couple.

What a dilemma! That sort of thing’s never happened to me, but I’m sure that if it ever were to then the first thing that I’d do would be to get on the phone to a radio psychiatrist’s show. Dr Brown dealt with the call with elegant tact, finding a beautifully roundabout way to tell the caller to piss off.

I continued down towards Wooster (pronounced “Worcester”) and on to Wilmot, which was very pretty as the books indicated it would be. The roads were quiet, the trees were mature and the houses very large. My next stop was Zoar, which offered more of the same. It was the kind of place that was so peaceful that you found yourself turning the volume on your radio down almost as a subconscious action when you drove into it.

This was where I would have stayed the night if I had remained on track, and I was rather thankful that I hadn’t. Although it did have an inn and restaurant, it wasn’t the sort of community where anyone would have ventured out after seven. They’d all be tucked up snugly in their huge family homes, and I would have spent another solus evening gazing at the wallpaper.

I was re-entering Amish country. If I had not known this from the legion “traditional Amish” shops and restaurants, then I would have got it from the warning road-signs that had little pictures of horse drawn buggies. These villages were all well and good, but too many at one sitting was proving hard for my digestion.

I took a short-cut from Sugar Creek down to Coshocton forgoing my intended visits to Walnut Creek and Berlin, supposedly the Amish capital of Ohio. It was a comely run through the fields, and I passed a number of Amish homesteads, which were very recognizable from the fences and wooden style. I also saw several Amish on bikes, pedalling strenuously in a manner that seemed hardly appropriate for the Sabbath.

Whatever reservations I’d had about Zoar, it couldn’t have proved a worse place to spend the night than Roscoe Village turned out to be. This contrived hamlet on the edge of Coshocton was old and traditional in a way that seemed to have no continuity with the past. It was all rather Limehouse and Mudchute. The inn was more of a hotel complex with eighty rooms and little cosiness about it. I was one of only a few guests staying and all conversations were being held in hushed tones. Everywhere was closed apart from one restaurant in a converted warehouse at the other end of the street, where I had a hurried and far from pleasing time that found me back in the lobby of the inn by 8.30.

With none of the inn’s three bars open that evening and nowhere else in town to go, I retired to my room to enjoy the highlight of staying at that particular establishment: the Shaker furniture.

I looked at the desk, opened and closed its drawers, sat on the chair, and ran my finger over the wood. However much I tried, it was an activity that could only preoccupy me for a couple of minutes. I was left with nothing else to do than wrap some presents. My only further respite from the tedium was when I ran out of Scotch Tape and was given the thrill of going out to reception to see if they had some I could use.

It afforded me a ten-minute chat with the same woman, Tricia, who had been there since I arrived. She told me that Berlin was well worth seeing, but probably not if I’d been to Shipshewana because I wouldn’t see anything new.

I gave up and went to bed.

Day 38. IN/MI: anabaptists, wind chimes, assisted residence, duelling pianos

The familiar sound of Fraser hullabaloo informed me that breakfast had begun. Out in the lounge area, several tables had been set up and there was a free-for-all in the kitchen.

I sat on the same table as LuAnn and Mrs Culver whose agenda for the day was shopping. They reckoned that I should go to either Ann Arbor or Port Huron. The former was a university town and the latter had a great place to stay on the waterfront called the Thomas Edison.

Mrs Culver, who tended to be known outside the classroom as Sue, also enthused about a bar called the Duelling Pianos where she had got so drunk once that she was now banned. Before they left, Sue thrust a scrap of paper into my hand. It had two cell-phone numbers on it, hers and her husband’s. “If you have any problems at all…” she smiled.

It was odd to be at the beginning of a day with little idea of where it would take me. Every other day had been carefully planned, but I had no blueprint to follow for today.

Anna suggested a good shop to buy Indianan souvenirs and also said that it would be beneficial to visit the Menno-Hof Museum. I took the hour-long guided tour with various shows about the Anabaptists, covering not only the Amish, but the Mennonites and the Hutterites too.

The building had 18 different rooms to troll through, and had been built in six days flat (although it took another year and a half to equip it with wiring, pipes, rendering and finished décor). The Anabaptist movement had started in the 16th Century by people who objected to infant baptism and who sought a more biblically oriented way of life.

Underlying a lot of it was the conviction that community could only exist if it were in some way separated off from others, and stood for something distinct. The reason for Amish dress was to avoid becoming muddled and possessed by the world of fashion.

There was a threefold justification for the buggies. Firstly, the waste created by this mode of transport was recyclable and so environmentally friendly. Secondly, the average family went through three buggies in a lifetime (versus an average of ten cars for an American family), and usually only changed in response to a need for a larger vehicle. Thirdly, their ethos was concentrated around the family, and buggies meant that nobody ever got to stray too far from the homestead. Presumably they could also have claimed the fourth benefit of much less roadkill, but they chose not to.

The Anabaptists had been subjected to great persecution back in Europe and when they arrived in America. One of the eighteen rooms was a replica of a torture chamber and made the point that the more they were reviled the more entrenched they became.

There seemed to be a pertinent lesson for today in all this history. Nowadays the community was prospering and their numbers swelling, partly down to the average family having ten children.

It was all interesting stuff. I would have stayed longer, but I was conscious of time rushing on. It was now 11.30, and I would have to pay later today for Indiana’s having the same approach to daylight saving as Arizona when I lost an hour going into Michigan.

I made my way round to Fork’s Store as Anna had directed to pick up a souvenir. The store had a large parking lot, with long thin bays rather than short fat ones. It had been designed for buggies over cars and there were about thirty of them tied up along one side.

It wasn’t the kind of store that I was after, being more of a grocery supermarket than anything else. I wandered the aisles of fresh produce, conscious that my bright yellow Benson & Hedges Jordan Formula 1 fleece was far from “plain” attire.

Anna had also told me that the main characteristic of Amish cuisine was that they prepare everything from scratch and don’t use any pre-packaged food. I’d learnt at the museum that nowadays some made a concession to breakfast cereals, which were the only recognizable food brands that I could find on the shelves. There certainly weren’t any souvenirs. Not even a picture of Kelly McGillis’s bosoms.

I returned to the Visitors’ Center and they suggested that I tried Yoder’s, which turned out to be an Amish department store. The people in there were very helpful and one Amish woman scurried off to find “just the right thing”.

She returned struggling under the weight of some wind chimes that were nearly as tall as she was. Regardless of the fact that you’d need to live in a house along the lines of Admiralty Arch for a set that size, there was also the issue of getting it on the plane home given that I didn’t have any five foot long baggage. I wasn’t exactly wild about the $600 price tag either.

In the end they found me a much smaller set and I was off. I had been surprised to hear from Kentucky David that he had used some Amish folk to do building work and that they had got very well paid for it. My impression had always been that they shunned everything to do with the modern world, but this clearly didn’t include cash. They were voraciously commercial, and had little compunction capitalizing on their myth when it came to selling tat to tourists. Various Amish goods/crafts/ food shops along the way were shameless in their exploitive positioning.

I had chosen this area rather than the more renowned Lancaster County PA, which was described in the books as an over-commercialized Amish Disneyland. I shuddered to think what could possibly constitute greater commercialization than this place. What on earth did they have? Amish bordellos and gambling parlors?

Once in Michigan, I continued to Ann Arbor without stopping. It looked lovely, just as I had imagined an American university town. The main street was tree-lined and arrayed with book shops and cafés, and fresh faced students were bustling about with folders under their arms or sat outside at tables having earnest conversations.

It was too late for lunch, so I continued on to gruesome Motown. I found myself in stationary traffic when I hit Detroit. Rather handily the northbound carriage of the Interstate had been closed for a 25-mile stretch and all cars diverted onto the much smaller MI 3.

Here I was in the state with the longest coastline of the 48, where you could never be more than six miles from a lake or trout stream (if you laid all the state’s rivers and inland lakes end to end, it would stretch for 36,000 miles), and I was stuck on pot-holed tarmac in the middle of crappy old Detroit.

Port Huron lay at the southernmost tip of Lake Huron and stared over a narrow stretch of water at Canada. It was approaching seven by the time I arrived in town and been able to locate the Thomas Edison Inn.

All that the Fraser women had been able to tell me was that it was just past the bridge over to Canada. The car park was jammed full and teeming with golf club members and their families, all dressed up to the nines. They may not actually have been golf club members, but they were certainly of that ilk.

It was strange after the last few weeks in the wilderness to see such seemingly formal dress. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had seen a woman wearing a dress and court shoes. Some function, or several, was obviously going on.

It didn’t surprise me when I went to enquire to find out that they had no rooms. It didn’t particularly bother me either, as the place wasn’t what I had imagined. I was hoping for a snug little inn bravely sheltering in the face of the great lake and offering warm refuge to travelers. This place was like a Holiday Inn: large, faceless, bureaucratic.

Driving along the main drag, I came upon some shops and then more shops and then more shops. The neon of about twenty gas stations and endless pharmacies and fast food places lit up the dusk. I wasn’t sure whether the sign outside the Rite Aid pharmacy – “With us it’s personal” – was a reference to September 11th or to their relationship with their customers. One dry cleaners had a special offer on: American flags cleaned for free.

Back near the center, I saw a place called the Historic Harrington Hotel. A sign outside commemorated it as one of the oldest in Port Huron, dating back to the 19th Century. It looked like a characterful building and promised an atmospheric reception.

A couple of old dears were relaxing in armchairs in the lobby. Behind the desk was a grey haired woman, who seemed to be a little deaf. She was preoccupied with searching through all the drawers in the desk for something.

I tried coughing, tapping my credit card on the counter and even a couple of “Excuse me”s, all to no avail. When she had finished her search she picked up the phone and in the middle of the ensuing conversation finally noticed me. She looked slightly scared, and when she put the phone down she just stared at me.

I asked her if they had a room for the night. She looked at me for another moment and then came round from behind the desk and walked down the corridor. She beckoned me to follow. The thing that I had assumed was a turquoise pinny, was tied down her back like a hospital gown.

At the end of the corridor, we turned left into a large hall with a trestle table at the door. Inside, chairs had been arranged all around the edge of the room and most were occupied by pensioners. It was some old-timers’ shindig, and everyone looked like they were enjoying themselves.

My guide pointed to another woman who was behind the table collecting entrance fees, tugged at her sleeve, pointed to me and scurried off. The fee collector was more formally dressed and in her fifties. She looked like she might be the owner.

“You want to come to the dance?” she asked quizzically. I laughed. No I was after a room for the night.

She laughed louder. This wasn’t a hotel any more. It was an assisted living residence for the elderly and infirm.

I had found the Duelling Pianos place that Sue had enthused about, and there was a Super 7 Motel a couple of blocks away. Resigning myself to yet one more Saturday night of high-living, I checked in. It was a room, it was cheap, and it was near the centre of town. Apart from that, it didn’t have much going for it.

I never liked leaving my car in a car park that had three shady characters hanging around for seemingly no good purpose. As a precaution, I gave them my mean-motherfucker look as I coolly grabbed my bag from the trunk. They probably thought I was squinting.

When I got to Duelling Pianos there were still plenty of stools free over by the bar in a raised area, but the tables down in the pit by the stage were packed with diners. On the stage there were two grand pianos facing each other. I ordered a beer and waited to see what was going to happen.

A couple of likely looking lads were larking about on the stage, seemingly as part of a boys’ night out. One was podgy and clumsy looking and reminded me a bit of John Belushi. The other appeared to be about fourteen. He was scrawny, wore specs and generally came across as a bit of a dweeb. A third guy with a menacing appearance, long blond hair and a fresh bruising around his eye and cheekbone seemed to be keeping watch, ready to throw them out at any minute.

From my first impression of these blokes, I would never have guessed that they were to be the evening’s entertainment. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that they were as talented musicians as they turned out to be.

The fat one was called Doug, the pre-pubescent Jeff, and the bruiser Danny. They took it in turns to face off against each other, with only two of them on the stage at a time. The audience wrote the names of songs on napkins and passed them over, and then the two musicians tried to outdo one another in playing the tune while still staying melodic and in harmony with one another.

It was like the duelling banjos scene in Deliverance, only a touch less sinister: a constant cabaret, a kind of cross between Jools Holland and Norman Wisdom. Despite the horsing around, the music was good.

At one point, Danny got his guitar and sax out and changed the mood. When he sang God bless the USA, not only was the whole restaurant joining in and booming out “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free”, but everyone to a man was on their feet. Some were waving lighters in time to the song.

Without thinking about it, I’d got through a fair amount of beer. During one of his breaks, I saw Doug near me at the bar and I went up to congratulate him. He was probably the best musician of the three and clearly the most charismatic.

My enthusiasm was a bit overstated, but he handled it well. When he heard that I was from England, he politely said that he’d always wanted to play London. He came from Boston, but his family were originally from Walsall in Staffordshire.

I told him that I thought he’d be a storming success. I gave him my details and told him to contact me if he ever felt like coming over. I’m pretty sure that I also told him that he could stay at my house and that I’d be able to fix him up with some gigs. He thanked me and said that that sounded great and he’d be in touch.

As he resumed his spot on stage, it began to sink in what I had just done. I was sure that he would be successful if he ever came to London, but I was going to be in a real pickle if he got in touch.

I wasn’t sure whether inviting a complete stranger to come and stay open-endedly was a very wise thing to do. I was absolutely sure that offering to set up gigs for him was just plain idiotic, seeing as I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to go about doing such a thing. If I had been that much of a twat, then it definitely was time to go home.

The fresh air outside hit me like a tank. Although it had been a short walk there, it proved to be a lengthy stagger back. It had been a great evening out, which was unusual given that it was a Saturday, but I was relieved to be back in my room. What’s more the car looked intact out of the window.

All that I needed to hope for now was for Doug to lose that scrap of paper with my details on it, in amongst the napkin requests for Your Song, Wully Bully and the Hawaii Five-O theme.

Day 37. WI/IL/IN: underpants, Reagan lore, Amish country, shouty housewives, ass-wipes

CNN was still on when I woke in the morning. It didn’t look like the news had changed much while I’d been asleep.

It also looked like my laundry hadn’t dried much either. With a miscellany of damp T-shirts, boxers and socks strewn across the back seat and parcel-shelf, I set off for Illinois.

I took the Blue Star Highway, a tribute to the US Armed Forces who had defended the United States of America, to Galena where U S Grant had once lived. This highway could have been a road in Wiltshire. It swept through rolling hills of green fields and trees, with neither the mind-numbing straightness nor the testing twists that had broadly been the alternatives so far.

The next town was Hanover, which to all intents and purposes had two streets (or perhaps just one arranged in an “L” shape, depending on how you looked at it). This wasn’t enough to prevent them proudly claiming the lofty title of being “The Mallard Capital of the World”.

More rolling countryside led to Dixon, where my guidebook assured me I could find the boyhood home of one Ronald Wilson Reagan. I hadn’t intended to hang around long, but there was a sign inviting people in for a free guided-tour.

Three other cars were in the lot, each with a bumper sticker voicing approval of the former President: “I [heart] Ronald Reagan”, “Ron’s the best”, and “God bless Ronald Reagan”. I parked my car, with its South Carolina plates and arrangement of undies on show through the rear window, alongside. It would make an interesting photo for someone.

I walked through the door into a lobby area, where an elderly couple and a young child were milling about. An old biddy stepped forward to greet me. She was wearing a badge sewn onto her shirt that informed the world that she was a “Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home Tour Guide Volunteer”.

After a couple of minutes, the guide announced that the tour was about to commence. We all took one pace to the right and stood facing a quilt that hung on the wall. On it had been embroidered six pictures depicting key stages in Reagan’s life.

The guide painstakingly explained the details of each as we stood there motionless for twenty minutes. I was interested in the waves and the tree, which represented Ron’s time as a lifeguard on the River Rock. He saved 77 lives in his time.

Or so he said. He used to carve a notch in the tree each time he performed another heroism, so I guess the count had to be irrefutable. He sounded like the type of guy that would have been really popular around town.

I commented that it seemed like a high number. With a wink, the guide told me there was a theory that, because Ron was such a heart-throb, some of the local girls would deliberately get into trouble (in the water) so they could be saved by him.

With the quilt lecture over, we moved through to the adjoining room where the process began again with various framed photographs being explained in laborious detail. The stories were identical to the ones that we had heard in the previous room.

After another half an hour, we were ushered into the next room where seats were lined up facing a TV screen with a U-matic. The lights were dimmed, and a twenty-minute video reiterated the same stories a third time just in case they hadn’t sunk in yet.

I was itching to leave, but there had been no real opportunity. I hadn’t banked on it taking so long. The lights came up and the guide announced that we would now be welcome to go next door to see the house.

We weren’t even in his boyhood home! We’d spent an hour of eulogy in triplicate in the house next door! The others were keen Ron fans, so I rushed ahead to have a quick look around. It seemed silly to have wasted all that time and not even seen the house. Another volunteer biddy greeted me as I arrived, but we had to “wait for the others”.

Ten minutes later we began our plod around the actual home. During this second phase, a few important facts came to light. Since his time living there, the house had become dilapidated. After he had become President, a trust fund had been set up to renovate the property. It had been gutted and built again exactly as it had been. None of the furniture was original, although the Reagans had been sent catalogues from the era and had picked out what they could remember. Not all the furniture was modern reproduction. They had one rocking chair from a friend’s house that Ron used to go around and sit on sometimes.

It also transpired that Ron had not been born in Dixon. He had lived there for three years, between the formative years of 14 and 17. He’d come back twice since the house had been renovated, once as President in 1984 and once again in 1990. He’d even taken a meal in the dining room.

Or at least that was the story told by the volunteer guide. I picked up a leaflet as I was leaving. From this, not only did I learn that “only three weeks after moving here, Ronald and [his brother] Neil both took out library cards” but also that he had moved to this house at the age of nine. It confirmed that he only lived in this property for three years, but that the Reagans had had four other houses in Dixon. And that he’d grown up to be King of Brazil.

It was now about 12.30. I had planned to be away by eleven with a view to having lunch in Chicago. It needed to be full steam ahead along East-West Tollway to the Windy City.

Unfortunately, despite paying my 70 cents for what I assumed would be a fast road, a combination of roadworks and heavy traffic exacerbated my delay. The absurdity of trying to see a city such as Chicago in a couple of hours had not really dawned on me until I got there. It should have been obvious, but I had naively thought that a Sicilian lunch in Cicero (Al Capone’s old stomping ground) followed by a drive through the skyscrapers of downtown would do the trick.

It might well have done, but it wasn’t much of a plan if you arrived in Cicero at 3.30. I parked precariously outside Cicero Post Office, unsure whether my chosen spot was safe from the twin dangers of thieves or meter maids. Inside the pleasure of a twenty-minute queue lay in store.

While I was waiting I witnessed some fantastically rude customer behaviour. These people subscribed to the “if you don’t like what you’re told, then shout obscenities back really loudly” school of thought. When it came to my turn, the woman seemed taken aback at my politeness. She told me that it would be best to get out of Cicero as quickly as possible and go downtown, which was both much more interesting and safe.

With the looming skyscrapers came a depressed feeling. This was pointless. I couldn’t park and had no time to do anything here. I took a photograph of the Sears Tower and decided to come back another day when I had a sensible amount of time. Like two weeks. At least I could be thankful that I had broadly stuck to small towns on this trip. The big cities were just not amenable to speed tourism.

I had booked myself a room in an Amish village in Indiana. The directions I had been given were excellent, and I was soon approaching Shipshewana. With the hour added on after passing into Eastern Time, it was 8.40 pm.

My headlights reflected off a red triangle up ahead in the darkness. It appeared to be oscillating. As I drew near I could make out a square silhouette. I’d come across my first horse-drawn buggy.

The inn was run by Anna, who came originally from Austria. She was a strapping woman with soft edges and a kindly smile. When I mentioned food, she looked at her watch and told me that I’d have to hurry as the restaurant nearby closed in fifteen minutes.

The place to which she was referring was an Amish restaurant, with an appended gift shop selling hand-made crafts. All of the waiting staff were dressed like something out of Witness.

I wasn’t sure whether this was a gimmicky uniform or whether they were all for real. The dining area was large and felt more like a refectory than a restaurant. Although it was newly built of some sort of light-colored wood, it had a huge angular vaulted ceiling. The furniture was all very solid stuff and made of the same wood.

The place was brightly lit and also packed. I was squeezed in to a table near the middle of the room and handed a menu. It didn’t take long for me to decide that I wanted to try the Amish Sampler, a plate with a variety of good wholesome Amish fare including ham, beef and chicken.

My waitress seemed to have disappeared, although dozens of other uniforms were swarming about. They were all around the late-teenage bracket and were all girls. I might have assumed that they were for real if it weren’t for the high tech nature of the operation. I’d already noticed the cash register area, which was more like the reception at a five star hotel with computer terminals instead of tills.

Two or three slightly older girls stood at starship command near the head of the room, brandishing an assortment of mobile phones and walkie-talkies. And all of the waitresses had pagers clipped to their waistbands. What was more, some of these girls were wearing clumsily applied make-up, the Jezebels. It was obviously just a theme restaurant.

Most of the diners looked like civilians, but some Amish were lurking in the lobby. They really did look the part. And all the men appeared to be chewing matchsticks, which hung out of the corners of their mouths, and had full on beards and pudding-bowl haircuts.

I had a quick look in the gift shop. It was mainly wooden artefacts and books, including one called Living without Electricity, which seemed a bit incongruous given the environment.

It was a non-smoking establishment and I figured the inn would be too, so I had a cigarette in the car park before returning. It was bizarre. There was no noise of conventional traffic, just the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves approaching and receding. The buggies were all out in force.

Relative mayhem had broken out when I returned to the inn. “Inn” was a rather grandiose word for it; it was really just a big family home. I was greeted by Anna, who looked embarrassed and apologetic.

Screeching and jabbering from the lounge filled the air. I assumed that she had friends or relatives over, but it turned out that they were other guests, a party of housewives down from Michigan. It was their annual girls’ weekend away, which always preceded the start of the hunting season after which their husbands would all be gone every weekend for about six months.

Anna assumed that I would like some peace and quiet. I had told her briefly about what I was doing and she seemed to accord some VIP status to it. She appealed for hush and announced to the room that I was an author over from England and was researching an important work.

The implication was that people should calm down because I would probably not want to be disturbed, but the announcement had the opposite effect. The women screamed like teenagers seeing David Cassidy walk into the room. They begged me to come and join them. I didn’t need asking twice.

About half a dozen made up the Michigan contingent but other guests had already joined the party: a mother and daughter from Indiana and a couple who lived in Indianapolis. Anna was serving iced tea but you would have guessed that the rabble had been feasting on Champagne all afternoon.

It was riotous. I listened for a while, and talked below the din with a woman called LuAnn who was sat on my right. I also had a chat with a teacher called Mrs Culver, whose face had been decorated like a Christmas tree. It looked like someone had painted on it. She had the letters LHS in glitter on her cheek and the end of her nose was blue, as if she’d been chalked up for a game of billiards.

The Michigan women came from a town called Fraser, which they loved. They wanted to know where I would be going in Michigan and I answered that I didn’t know yet. Michigan was the most unplanned of my states and the only thing I knew was that I wanted to avoid Detroit because it was the only place I’d been to previously in the USA that I thought was a complete shithole. I didn’t appreciate when I said this that Fraser was a suburb of Detroit, but they accepted my immediate apology with good grace.

Everyone had something to say about where I should go and what I should see. The lower peninsular of Michigan is shaped like a mitten, and soon the whole room were holding up their right hands and pointing to “places” on their palms.

They also wanted to know what I thought of the USA, and I held court for a while with stories of my adventure to date. I asked the assembly whether every American place had to have a superlative claim, and whether best/biggest/most in the world actually meant that or did it just mean there wasn’t anything like it within the known vicinity.

They laughed and laughed. They seemed to think that it was one of the most incisive observations that had ever been made about their country.

They asked me what it was like in the UK, and whether all the Brits hated the Americans too. They wanted to know whether the UK would be a friendly place to go for an American.

The woman from Indianapolis was concerned about the Queen, because she was quite old and likely to die soon. She wanted to know what we would do then. Would there be another queen or would Prime Minister Blair take over?

I explained the function of the monarchy, and she was surprised to learn that British laws were passed by an elected parliament and not on the whim of the Crown. When I pointed out how succession worked and that Charles and William were lined up to follow the Queen, she was quite dismissive. “Well, that’s not going to work, is it?”

Anna joined us and I asked her about the Amish. She said that a number of her neighbours were Amish. She reckoned that the restaurant staff were all bona fide. The aversion to electricity only applied to their homes. It was OK to have it in the workplace.

The make-up meant that the girls were aged 16-18, the period when they are allowed to try the “other way”. The Amish bring children up to follow their strict code until 16 and then they are allowed to experiment with modern living for two years before deciding whether to go back. Make-up was part and parcel of this deal.

It seemed surprisingly enlightened. You couldn’t imagine the Catholic Church giving everyone a free spin at abortion, contraception and adultery to see if they liked it.

The women wanted to know whether I had been to a garage sale yet. They claimed that they bought all their clothes from garage sales, basically off one another. Mrs Culver tugged at her lapel and announced that she’d bought that shirt for a dollar at one of LuAnn’s garage sales.

It struck me that somewhere along the chain, clothes had to be introduced from outside or else everything would just go round and round, but I let the point lie. The woman from Indianapolis confirmed that she generally did the same, but announced that today she had bought a present for herself from a real shop. She was decked out from top to toe in Tommy Hilfiger gear, as a reward to herself for losing 56 pounds in the last eight weeks. I thought that everyone was going to applaud.

I turned to Mrs Culver. I just had to ask. What was all that stuff on her face, or did she usually go out like that? She laughed and explained that her kids at school had done it. They knew she was going away for the weekend and so she had let them daub colours all over her face.

I tried to think of a teacher from my high school who would have agreed to such treatment, but drew a blank. The LHS stood for Lakeview High School. My watch told me that it was almost 1.30 am, which seemed quite late to be gabbling on.

I asked them whether they usually stayed up to this time, and one of them looked at their wrist and exclaimed that it was twenty-five after midnight. I queried this. Wasn’t this part of Indiana on Eastern Time?

Indianapolis woman confirmed that it was, but that Indiana didn’t participate in daylight saving and so never changed its clocks. For the time being it was in synch with Illinois instead of Michigan, although she became irked again when I described it as being on Central Time. “No, we’re on Eastern, it’s just that we don’t change our clocks.”

Whatever, it was time to turn in, and the Michigan housewives had to go across the yard to the barn where they were sleeping. They warned me that there were another dozen girls over there, and that I’d be able to meet them all at breakfast.

Indianapolis woman went out onto the deck for a cigarette, and I was delighted to join her. Her husband came out too and we exchanged frivolous small talk.

We were just about to go in, when he sidled over and enquired whether he could ask me a question. He was shifting from foot to foot, as if something were really bothering him. As he prefixed his question with “This is probably a dumbass thing to ask but…”, I braced myself.

“You know over there in Europe like? You know, where you come from?”

I nodded. So far so good.

“Well, I’ve been meaning to ask. What I mean is, I’ve never had the chance to ask a European face to face…”

For goodness sake, spit it out man.

“Seeing as you’re here, I just wanted to know…”

Yes. Get on with it.

“Do you have, you know, toilet paper in Europe? Or do you use your hand?”

Day 36. WI: disappointments: cows, rocks and houses, pasties

Bayfield was very pretty. So had many places been that I’d visited, but this one had an extra factor. There was a joy about it, the whole place felt very up and positive.

It also felt as if I had returned to civilization (or, at least, population); as if the east began here. I wandered down to the pier and around the harbor, but the town was barely awake and there wasn’t much going on.

It was only 8.45 when I left, and Alia and another of the girls were just arriving. They were coming in to bake cakes for some fundraising event. To an outsider their gesture just underlined the palpable pleasure about the place, although such behavior probably had its roots in the Lutheran background of the town. There weren’t any of those “No whingeing” signs, or the like. It all epitomized pleasantness and friendly community.

I followed the dotted line in my atlas, justifiably designating a scenic view around the coast of the peninsular. It took me through the ironically named Grand View, which was in a valley and afforded no views of any description, grand or otherwise.

Perhaps it was named after the view of it that you could get if you stood on the crest of the distant hills. I had an ambitious schedule for the day. It was only 400 miles, but I wasn’t out west any longer and the roads were less straight and far more congested.

Wisconsin claimed to be America’s dairyland, but to date I hadn’t seen a single cow anywhere. I came down through Eau Claire and covered over half of the north-south distance of the state without the faintest whiff of a moo.

As I left the outer reaches of Eau Claire, the orange light popped on. I was low on gas but, this being a car made for America, it probably meant that I still had at least fifty miles in the tank. Nevertheless, I was mightily relieved when I finally came to a gas station that was open thirty miles later in Independence.

It was an old fashioned station called Pietreks with full service, as opposed to self. As the guy was filling the tank, he also wiped down the windscreen and started to scrape off the major insect morgue that had established itself on my headlights and front bumper. I asked him casually how often oil should be changed and he replied that “they” said once every 3000 miles. He’d heard the commercials too, but his tone suggested that he didn’t really believe them either.

I asked if there was any place hereabouts that I could get my oil changed, and he said that they could do it for $23.16. It would take about half an hour. The car had done 12,072 miles since I had picked it up. Within 35 minutes the job was done, and the guy was very apologetic for taking so long. They’d checked all the fluids and lubes as well, and put some air in the tyres. The oil had been “pretty black”, and they had had to send out for an oil filter as they didn’t have the right one in stock.

Remarkably, the bill did come to $23.16 precisely. No additional tax. No “sorry mate we found a problem and it cost an extra $150 but, what can I do, it had to be done”. No “that was just the labor cost, the oil was an extra $30 on top”. There was just the apology for taking all of five minutes more than they had promised. It was most refreshing.

The car felt like new as I drove off. I felt comfortable that I had made a wise investment which, with a bit of luck, would see me home to NYC. At Arcadia, I made the minor diversion to Fountain City to look at the Rock in the House. I assumed that it was named as a play on the more famous House on the Rock in southern Wisconsin.

The story was that this house at the bottom of a cliff in Fountain City was smashed by a falling boulder in 1901. The same thing happened with an even larger boulder in 1995, this one being ten times the size of the 1901 rock. The owners packed up and left and sold it to some folks who now kept it open as a tourist attraction.

I parked in the driveway, left my dollar entrance fee in the box and went in to look around. The 55-ton boulder occupied all of what used to be a bedroom. The house was unstaffed, out of superstitious tradition, which was fair enough if it weren’t for the fact that there were souvenirs on sale. I would have been happy to leave money for a T-shirt or something, but all the gifts were locked away in glass cabinets.

I followed the Great Mississippi River Road down to La Crosse, but it was painfully slow. It was now gone four and I was desperate to see the House on the Rock and knew that it was bound to close within the next hour or so. The traffic continued to be unkind and it was already 5.30 when I reached Gotham.

Disconsolate I resigned myself to not seeing one of the few spectacles that I had really been looking forward to since before I had left London. I pulled into Spring Green, the nearest town, and went in to an antique/craft/curiosity shop and asked if they knew when exactly the House on the Rock closed.

They said that it might stay open until six, but the man behind the counter told me that it would be a mistake trying to get round it in what remained of the day. Apparently they reduced the price for late entry and everyone who tried it regretted it and ended up going back again the next day.

I explained that I wouldn’t be here the next day, and enquired whether there was some point where I could see the remarkable construction from the highway. There was a viewing point that I’d come to a bit further down the road. At least that seemed better than nothing, although when I got there I wasn’t so sure.

The viewing point was a bit of a misnomer, unless you happened to be gifted with Jodrell Bank eyesight. Across the valley you could just see a sharp thing jutting out from a cliff. It took a while for me to notice it at all, as a blinding sun was setting immediately behind it. Forlornly I took a photograph, expecting little of consequence to come out.

A couple of miles further down the road, I found the entrance. The sign said that it was open until 7 pm but that last admissions were at six. My watch said 6.10. I thought that it was worth chancing it. The car park didn’t look promising, with only four cars, but I parked in any case. Just as I was approaching the doors, a voice called out asking me what I thought I was doing.

A fifty-something security guard was walking towards me, shaking his finger and saying that it was closed and that I’d have to come back tomorrow. I explained my situation and said that I’d be happy to pay even if I could only have a quick five-minute look inside. All that I wanted to do was see the Infinity Room (admittedly this didn’t sound like a five-minute pop inside).

He said that he couldn’t do anything as the cashiers had all gone home now. Part of me realized that he was being perfectly reasonable, but part of me thought that he was just being a jobsworth tosser. He clearly had the power to let me in for a quick peak, but then again there was no reason for him to do so and every reason for him not to.

It was about twenty miles to Mineral Point, where I wanted to stop for the evening. When I had called earlier, I had learnt that the town was pretty much booked out for the night because there was a meeting of the Cornish Brethren or something going on over those few days.

It was a town that was supposed to be akin to rural England with hilly winding streets and had originally been founded by Cornishmen. Even without lodging sorted, I thought I’d have a look regardless.

Approaching on the highway, the Redwood Motel was offering good rates and appeared to have vacancies. I made a mental note and drove the mile or so down the hill into town.

The streets were teeming with folk, and so something was obviously happening. I drove the length of Main Street, and concluded that it looked like an interesting place to stay. Driving back to the motel though, I figured that it didn’t look like an interesting hill to have to hike up after a night on the beer.

Contemplating my situation, I decided that I would sooner limit alcohol intake and drive than have to do that walk both ways.

The Brewery Creek Inn, one of the places where I had tried unsuccessfully to book a room, had a blackboard outside advertising pasties. This I had to try. I was just in time as the kitchen was closing at 8.30, Cornish Brethren or no Cornish Brethren in town.

Entering fully into the spirit of the occasion, I ordered a pint of cider with my food. The cider was very good, but it was a sorry excuse for a pasty.

The English are supposed to have a reputation for bland food, but it tends to be the concept of the dish, not the preparation of it that’s bland. It’s the Americans who put all their blandness into the actual cooking, so when you let them loose on a fundamentally dull thing like a pasty, the outcome is sure to be a disaster. You might as well go and chew some damp cardboard.

The couple behind the bar were friendly enough and I wasn’t the last one there, but I got the impression they wanted people to leave so that they could pack up themselves. I bought one of their T-shirts and explained that I had a close friend back in London who came from Cornwall, but they didn’t bite. They just nodded politely and commented that it must be nice for me, or words to that effect.

Across the road was a more buzzy looking place called Riechers’ Corner Bar, so I went there to use up my alcohol quota. It was lively enough, primarily due to the antics of Chris the barman. He was a young guy and clearly a life and soul kind of character. As he promenaded up and down his side of the counter, he seemed to stop and have something to say to everyone and anyone.

He saw my packet of Silk Cut and was intrigued. He picked the box up and examined it really carefully. You’d have thought that he’d never seen a small cardboard box before, rather than it just being an unfamiliar brand.

He thought the “Smoking Kills” health warning in huge letters was hilarious and wanted to show everybody in the bar. Within a few moments, the phone rang and Chris was still within my earshot when he grabbed the receiver. His greeting was unconventional: “Hey, this is Chris. Who the fuck is that?”

It was a fine enough place, but I wasn’t much in the mood. I certainly wasn’t having such a good time that I fancied leaving the car in town and having to walk back. I also felt a little out of place without a mullet and a moustache.

I finished off my beer and set off for home. Back in the motel, there was a piece of paper on my bed saying that Neal from Hoboken had called. For some reason, I didn’t like the fact that they had come into my room to deliver the message. I would sooner they had poked it under the door or something. I hand-washed some laundry and remembered what wonderful things washing machines are.

My schedule had allowed one contingency day for disasters, and to my surprise, I’d  yet to use it. I had always planned to use the extra day to extend my time on the Illinois/Indiana/Michigan leg, if I still had it. The time was coming to make that call, as this part of the journey began tomorrow. The alternative would be to hang on to the contingency and finish with a day in NYC.

When I called Neal back, he suggested that I do that as it would then see me back for Columbus Day, a big deal for the city with its large Italian population. There was also the small matter that Neal and Lisa were going to see Joe Strummer and wouldn’t be there if I got back the next day.

All in all it was a convincing argument. I made up my mind that I wouldn’t extend any of the immediate bits of the trip, especially as time spent rather than distance travelled was proving to be more useful for finding out about each state.

I wrung out my washing, turned on CNN and contemplated the day’s disappointments.

Three quarters of the way round: cumulative mileage 14729

Day 35. ND/MN/WI: grumpy riser, true head, celebrity guests, icy blasts

The house was dark and silent when I got up. I went into the kitchen and wasn’t sure quite what to do with myself.

I snuck outside for a much overdue burst of nicotine, but even then felt guilty about polluting the crisp rural air that was billowing politely in the cornfields.

When I had finished, I put the butt in my pocket and went back in. The crashing of pans from the kitchen, a couple of doors down from my room, alerted me to woken life.

By the look on her face, I’d say Kathleen didn’t much like being up at 8.30 in the morning. Jerry, on the other hand, came bouncing in from outside ten minutes later with the air of a man who had already done a day’s work.

The country lane  on which they lived looked very different by daylight. The previous night it  had seemed menacing, but now it was like something out of a Famous Five  book. I fully expected to see some kids in pre-war garb come bounding across the corn with their excited pet dog in tow, off in search of daily japes.

Soon I was in Fargo, and approaching the state line. The traffic was slow moving, and as I edged along Main Avenue towards Moorhead, I noticed a Pennzoil service station offering an oil change and lube check in 10 minutes for only $17.95. The radio had been bleating on throughout the trip with commercials, surprisingly enough from companies offering the service, advocating the necessity of having your oil changed every 3000 miles. It had been almost 12,000 miles since I had picked the car up in Savannah GA.

As well as being home to the Artiste formerly known as Zimmerman, Minnesota is apparently a state of 10,000 lakes. I passed so many of the latter that I didn’t bother stopping to take any photographs because the day was evidently going to bring me many opportunities. And who would want fifteen photographs of various lakes, in any case?

My first Minnesotan port of call was Lake Itasca, or more precisely its State Park, where the headwaters of the Mississippi were to be found. Itasca was a contraction of the two Latin words, veritas and caput.

It was another astonishingly beautiful park, and I enjoyed teetering through it at 25 mph to reach the northern end where I parked and walked the last 600 yards to the point where the mighty Mississippi began as a small stream. I had a brief look around the inevitable gift shop but there was little of interest. It seemed the more important the sight, the more shoddy the gear that was sold in the official shops.

The river ran north out of the park before looping south, and I followed its course to Bemidji, the first town on the Mississippi. The place was also famous for its statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox called Babe. The Bunyan legend told of a giant lumberjack who had walked across the state with his pet ox, and it was their plodding that had made all the lakes.

He must have been pretty bloody big – he’d also made the Grand Canyon and Puget Sound in his time – and his statue was obviously a scaled-down version, about 15’ tall. It appeared to have been made by the same bloke who did the figures for Trumpton. He looked like one of the soldiers out of Pippin Fort.

Not that I would have said anything publicly to criticize such a state icon. You had to be careful in Minnesota. The governor of the state, in true Bunyan style, was an ex-professional wrestler who gloried in the name Jesse “The Body” Ventura. His response to some recent press criticism had been to sue the newspapers concerned, on the basis that his name was trademarked and they hadn’t received his permission to use it. It seemed quite a no-holds-barred approach to public relations.

I was running low on cash, and there was a bank nearby so I went in to change some travellers’ checks. The cashier had a thorough look through my passport and then, with a “My, you’ve been all over haven’t you?”, asked me if I had an account with them. When I confessed that I hadn’t, she pointed to an ink-pad next to the chained pen and I was asked to put my thumbprint on each cheque that I wished to cash.

Across the road was the Chipewa Trading Post, with anxiously helpful staff. Within two minutes of entering and explaining that I wanted something different (ie. not a shot glass) distinguished as being from Minnesota, I had three of them ferreting around for ideas. After a dozen or so attempts, I finally settled for a Paul Bunyan/Babe golden Christmas tree decoration with the word “Minnesota” at the bottom.

The owner came over to introduce himself and to welcome me to the USA. He was interested in what I was doing, but seemed to struggle with the concept. “Wowee. That’s great. So you’re doing the 27 states in 29 days. Amazing.”

It was a beautiful drive out of Bemidji through the Chippewa National Forest and past the superbly named Lake Winnibigoshish. It sounded like a Japanese game show where the contestants vie for a large kebab. A nearby school had the equally impressive name of Bug O Nay Ge Shig. It must have been a laugh being a cheerleader there.

As I came out of Grand Rapids, it dawned on me that I’d not taken a photograph of a single lake let alone one of Prince or Bob Dylan. A quick glance at my road atlas showed no more blue blobs between where I was and the state line. My fears were confirmed when I arrived in Duluth with no lakes on my film.

It seemed a ridiculous oversight, but little I could do about it now. At the very least though, I wanted a shot of the great lake taken from Minnesota. This proved more easily said than done, and I wasted another 45 minutes driving around the manic streets of Duluth trying to find a decent vantage point where it would be safe and legal to stop and snap the blue expanse.

I had booked a room in Bayfield, Wisconsin, on a peninsular overlooking Lake Superior. As I picked my way through the darkness along the coast road, I thought I saw movement up ahead but then lost it. Seconds later, I saw it again but it was too late, I was right upon it.

As I flashed my full beam and held on my horn, the deer twenty feet in front of me in the middle of the road froze. I threw on the anchors and swerved into the oncoming lane, missing the hapless beast by a couple of inches. I drove gingerly the rest of the way and arrived in town at about 8.30.

The place I was staying at was called Greunke’s First Street Inn. I was the only person staying that night, and so sharing a bathroom was a fairly minor sacrifice. I was shown up to the room by a waitress from the restaurant/bar downstairs, and warned that food was only served until nine. I didn’t feel like eating immediately, and so sat at the bar and chatted with the two barmaids until closing.

The younger was called Alia, and thought that it was absurd that I was leaving the following morning without going to see the islands. The Apostle Islands lay just offshore and were the major tourist lure for the area. I explained the nature of my trip and, in the nicest way possible, she told me that she couldn’t see the point of it.

I didn’t think that I could argue with her. She did want to know what I had made of New Orleans though, as she was going there herself the following week. I said that I had found it quite decadent.

Although they had closed for the evening, Alia let me have one last drink after hours and the kitchen staff all came out and congregated by the bar. They asked me if I minded them smoking, apparently something only permitted after all customers have left.

A rather stern looking middle-aged lady, who turned out to be the owner, joined us and started examining the till roll. She introduced herself as Judith and said that she came originally from Sweden. When she heard about my trip, she was a lot more interested and impressed than Alia had appeared to be.

She asked if I was going to Montana, as she had a cabin to rent in Red Lodge. I told that I’d already been and had not gone to Red Lodge, but had thought about it. Impressed turned to sniffy.

What looked like an old news-sheet was pushed across the counter to me. It was actually a rather neat promotional tool of the Inn, with the menu printed inside. It advertised the lodge in Montana, but also had stories about the great and the good who had stayed at the Inn in Bayfield. I hadn’t heard of many of these celebrities (Leo Kottke? John Prine? Pat Paulson?), but was slightly impressed by John F Kennedy Jr, and almost slightly impressed by Garrison Keillor. It seemed a touch intrusive to detail what all of these people had chosen to eat during their stays though.

Alia told me about Maggie’s, only five blocks away, where I could get good food and something to drink now that they were closed. She said that the Rum Line was closer, but was pretty rough and they only served “shitty pizzas”. I was surprised that it was possible for somewhere to be five blocks away in a town that size.

I passed the Rum Line on the way, and it looked perfectly fine to me. I’d certainly found myself in less salubrious joints elsewhere on the trip. Indeed I was soon to find out how rough it was because when I got to Maggie’s it was closed, and so I had no other options.

It turned out to be very civilized, even if they had overdone the pink lighting a touch. Alia obviously wasn’t the most reliable source of local knowledge. She also told me that there was a call box at the end of the pier, which of course there wasn’t.

I overheard the guy next to me say to the barmaid that they’d been to Hawaii the previous year and it was lovely. I took my opportunity, and turned to him to join in.

Summoning my most obvious English accent, I asked whether being in Hawaii felt like you were in America or did it feel strange. I’d been to Gibraltar, where the language, money, food and shops were the same but it felt no more like the UK than Timbuktu.

He and his wife got my drift straight away. He answered cursorily that it felt half-American and half-Japanese, because that was the proportions of each nation visiting the islands and all the menus were in both languages. They saw that I was a foreigner by myself and that I was just trying to start a conversation. And it worked.

Their names were Tom and Marty, and they were originally from Wisconsin but now lived in Colorado. They’d been back for a wedding and were now spending a few days looking around and reminiscing. He was a Latin teacher who bore a striking resemblance to Jimmy Hill (only with white hair), and she was a primary school teacher.

When I mentioned what I was doing, their reaction was to say that I was probably going to beat them to it then. They’d been around all 48 with the exception of four, “the Carolinas, Mississippi and Louisiana”. I said that I thought they were an odd four to have left until last and they agreed.

They were a fantastically amiable couple. Given their professions they were understandably scholarly. As well as hitting me with a bit of “Conticuere omnes, intentique ora tenebant”, he wanted to talk about Chaucerian English. It also turned out that they had both started to learn to ski in their sixties. Very charmingly, they insisted on paying for all my beer.

It took me a while to get back into the guesthouse. The route through the restaurant was now closed, and so I had to find the outside stairs and walk along the balcony to a door that my key was supposed to open. Only it didn’t.

The wind was whipping in off Lake Superior making swift entry fairly imperative. I didn’t reckon that I could bank on being as lucky as William E Larson, if I fell foul of the weather. He had recently lost some fingers to frostbite after falling asleep outside while drunk. Because this had occurred outside his mobile home, which doubled as an office, it had been deemed that he had suffered “work related injuries”.

He had been awarded $85,000 compensation by the state of Wisconsin.

Day 34. SD/ND: “unique” shops, metal sculptures, Royston Vasey, crappy boxes

Noise from the corridor woke me at 6.30. A family was shipping out even earlier than I had intended to, and the kids didn’t like it one bit and were kicking up a right noisy fuss.

I suspect that the adults weren’t that chuffed either. It was a disturbance that worked in my favor though, as I really had no desire to hang around Stepford Cove any longer than necessary. Deluxe continental breakfast consisted of some bread and bagels that you could put in the toaster yourself plus as many polystyrene cups of coffee as you could drink.

I was soon on the road heading up to Spearfish, and north to the state-line. There was nothing new to see all the way to the North Dakota, unless you counted the numerous small snakes that were wriggling across the highway. The roads were straight, the fields were flat and other vehicles appeared at approximately fifteen-minute intervals. It was the basic story of most of the US west of the Missouri.

An astonishing item came over the radio, which even the otherwise bullish host almost balked at reporting. A speculator in Baltimore MD had invested $4.5 million putting together a new concept restaurant called the Crash Café. Its features had been due to include the tail fin of a DC 10 sticking out of the lobby and a burning engine as the charbroiler for the outside barbeque. He had now changed his plans because he had worked out it might be considered an inappropriate theme under current circumstances. No shit, Sherlock.

As I entered North Dakota, signs anticipated imminent arrival in Bowman with the imprecation “ a time to stop for our unique shops”.

It appeared that North Dakotans had come to terms with their lot by developing a huge sense of irony. I remembered New Mexico Pete’s stories about the tourism posters, and here was another example when entering the state from the south. The only shops in Bowman were all parts of chains, as were the hotels. The town was full of things like Burger King, Super 8 Motel, Walmart, Conoco and True Value.

It was, in fact, a place with nothing but run of the mill shops. The Gary’s Jack and Jill Food Shop was the only frontage I spotted that I didn’t immediately recognize from elsewhere.

I sensed a foreboding of the thrills to be had in the state when the question was posed over the radio: “Have you ever looked at your garage door with disgust?” It transpired that Midway Stores in Dickinson were sponsoring an ugly garage door competition. In order to win first prize, you had to take a photograph of your garage door and send it in to them with an explanation of why you thought it was worthy of the accolade. There was no mention of what the prize was. Lobotomy vouchers possibly.

NM Pete had assured me that the only place worth visiting in the state was Medora. It was an eighteen-mile diversion west on the Interstate. I took the exit and drove past a row of old wooden shops then on past a park.

Two miles later, I was approaching the Interstate again. I’d managed to miss the town altogether. Back at the row of shops, I filled up at the gas station. I was about to ask the obvious question about where the town was and what had happened to it, when I noticed a rack of free maps. I asked if I could take one and the woman kindly showed me where the gas station was so that I could orientate myself.

I felt a little foolish to discover I was actually right in the middle of town. I found a phone box and called Pete’s sister, Kathleen. She told me that of course it would still be OK to stay and that they were looking forward to meeting me. She gave me careful directions, pointing out that if I got as far as Leonard then I had gone past their turning.

She told me not to worry about food as she would have something for me to eat there when I arrived. It felt like I was talking to an old family friend, not someone about whom I knew nothing but her name, where she lived, and the fact that she was interested in art & crafts and travelled all over the country.

One of the shops in the original row that I had seen when I first passed through the town was open (unlike everything else in town), and so I was able to pick up a North Dakota letter opener. I had heard stories that since September 11th no knives of any description were being allowed on to planes, but nobody seemed sure whether this applied to checked baggage also. As a precaution, I bought a North Dakota scented candle also. My accumulation of tat was blossoming nicely.

I was still faced with about 350 miles to cover that afternoon, but at least North Dakota allowed 70 mph on its Interstates. I joined at the 27-mile point. My exit would come just before Casselton at 324 miles.

I set the cruise control to 72 mph and sat back to enjoy whatever was to come into view. The mountain removal project most certainly had been completed. North Dakota was as flat and featureless as a billiard table.

It wasn’t that there was nothing to see though. My curiosity was first roused by a succession of what can best be described as scrap metal edifices. A variety of metallic animals littered the verge at regular intervals. Then a big metal eye. A large sign invited me to “hop hop hop over to the Enchanted Highway” nearby, where more of these creations were displayed en masse. It claimed to be the “World’s Largest Metal Sculptures”. Superlatives obviously didn’t always need to be singular.

I did pull off the road at the New Salem exit briefly to take a snap of the largest concrete cow in the world. It was pretty big and I was able to photograph it from about a mile away at the top of the ramp. I was unaware of any challengers to its claim to fame elsewhere in the world.

They had a thing about odd roadside adornments in these parts. A few miles down the freeway, a row of perfectly choreographed scrap cars adorned the grass verge like a junkyard showroom.

As I neared Bismarck, something very strange happened. The radio was interrupted by a voice, apropos of nothing, saying “I knew they didn’t put red dashed lines on the ground where the time zone changes. What were Rand McNally thinking of?” As chance would have it, this broadcast came over the air at precisely the point that I was crossing the time-zone line. It was either a coincidence, or showed a sophistication of pointless interactive marketing that I didn’t even know was technologically possible.

Since September 11th there had been a run on US flags to the extent that it had become virtually impossible to get one for love or money. This had turned out to be good news for the nation’s tattoo artists who were reporting a massive upswing in business. According to the radio, full chest tattoos were proving very popular and the three most requested designs (in order) were the stars and stripes, a teary eyed eagle and the World Trade Center on fire. It seemed quite a gesture of solidarity to have a picture of the burning twin towers seared indelibly across your chest or back.

So single-minded had I been about the drive that I reckoned I might still have time to visit Fort Ransom, which had been my planned stopover before NM Pete had offered up his sister’s house.

I swung off the Interstate and headed south, pursuing a maze of roads before I finally got there. This place, with its population of 105, really was off the beaten track. The bar across the road from a general store cum gas station was full of faces staring out at me. I filled up my tank, conscious that I was taking loads of their local gas and they probably wouldn’t get another delivery until December.

It felt like visiting Royston Vasey. A hush descended in the store as I went to pay, and all heads turned to look at me. The Fort itself was nearby, so I went to have a look only to find it closed. Returning to the village, I got out of my car to take a photograph but jumped back in quickly when a number of those in the bar spotted me and came out to see what I was playing at. With mild wheel spin, I made safe my escape.

I tried to take a short cut to Leonard, but soon found myself stranded at a dead-end on an unmade track in the middle of some fields. It was a costly mistake. By the time I had retraced my steps, I had lost almost an hour. I roared off to make up the time, but in my haste I missed Kathleen’s turning and ended up in Leonard itself.

It was almost quarter to nine by the time I thought that I had found her road. I needed to look for the second farm and a redbrick building. It was dark, but I passed one building after about a mile and it was white. Another two miles down the road and I saw a silhouette of what I assumed must be the second building.

If so, I was there. The precariousness of my position suddenly struck me. I was alone in the middle of nowhere and about to knock on the door of a house that I did not recognize, hopefully to be greeted by someone whom I’d never met. I didn’t have the faintest idea what she looked like or even what age she was.

I was saved from my concerns by the front door opening. A kindly middle-aged woman bustled towards me and I nervously said hello. To my enormous relief she greeted me with a “By your accent, I guess you must be Kevin.”

She welcomed me into the house and we took off our shoes. Her husband, Jerry, was at the computer. He jumped up and invited me to check my e-mail if I wanted to. I took him up on the offer and he said he’d go off to fetch some coffee. Fifteen minutes later, I was perched on a stool by the breakfast bar and already on to my third cup.

Jerry disappeared and I didn’t see him again all evening until he went to bed, except for the frequent times that he returned to the kitchen area to fill up both our cups with more coffee.

By the end of the evening, I must have had a least a dozen refills. At one stage I steered the conversation gently around to beer. I had a couple of cans in my bag that I would have loved to crack open. I was thankful not to have suggested this prior to learning that they had a strict policy of not allowing any alcohol inside the house.

Kathleen had clearly given herself a brief to make North Dakota sound as interesting as possible for me. She was narked by the press that it tended to get within the US itself. Some people thought that the whole state was snowbound for half the year and that nobody could even leave their homes. I told her that I blamed the Coen Brothers, but she didn’t seem to get the Fargo reference.

Her conversation seemed almost rehearsed, but jumped all over the place. One moment we’d be talking about travel, or London, or September 11th and the next she’d be off on an anecdote that bore no relevance to what we’d just been discussing.

She had a list of things that she wanted me to know: the things that were good about America, and about North Dakota and then a few left-fielders, such as the four people that she was most looking forward to meeting in heaven (for the record, they were a couple of country and western singers, Abraham Lincoln and Sacagawea).

On the subject of her brother Pete, she told me that he was in the Guinness Book of Records for being the oldest man to throw a Frisbee. I had to admit that I hadn’t realized that the category existed, but thought that I might have a pop at it myself in a few years time. Pete was only 43.

Kathleen was unusual for an American because she had done so much travelling around. At her son’s wedding a year or so previously she had finally met a couple from Delaware and that had completed her set. She now had at least one friend in each of the fifty states whom she could call up at any time for a quick chew of the fat.

We started to talk about her arts and craft, and she explained to me that she made boxes and decorated them, and that formed the basis of most of their livelihood these days. We went through to her workshop to take a look. She showed me some small plain boxes, the sort that cigars sometimes come in. She had a pile of what looked like magazine cuttings and greetings cards, and explained that she cut out things like this and glued them on the boxes. Nice.

She showed me an example of a finished box. It was certainly very distinctive. It would have been great to have been able to take one (or even buy one) as a souvenir, but Kathleen explained that they were so in demand that she only made them to order nowadays and all of her stock was due for pretty immediate delivery. I’d have to live with just the memory.

Back in the kitchen we jabbered on for a while until Jerry went to bed at around eleven. She was clearly proud and happy to come from North Dakota. She had been amused to see me lock up my car and explained that this wasn’t the done thing around there.

This wasn’t the usual “oh in the country everyone leaves their front door open” malarkey that you even get back in the UK. It had a practical benefit. With so many people working in remote fields, it had become acceptable just to borrow the nearest person’s car if you needed to get back in a hurry.

One local had recently been informed by the police that his car had turned up in Minnesota and he hadn’t even been aware that it had been stolen. It had been missing for three weeks, and he had just assumed that a neighbor had borrowed it. I silently congratulated myself on locking my doors.

The chat was still going strong at midnight, when I glanced at my watch and apologized for keeping Kathleen up so late. She said that it was fine because she never really went to bed much before two or three usually. I was far too knackered for such a marathon, much as I was enjoying my chat with her, so I made my excuses.

In the bedroom, I examined all the windows to see if I could get one open. I was dying for a cigarette, but was going to have no joy. The caffeine was coursing round my body. I felt like my whole torso was pulsating.

In the end, I might as well have stayed up with her as it took me about three hours to calm down enough to sleep.

Day 33. NE/SD: badlands, dead men, presidents, gamblers

My plan was flawed. I’d been aware of this for some time, but today was the day that I would have to confront it.

The west end of both Dakotas is in the Mountain Time zone while most of the rest of each is on Central Time. I wanted to visit Mount Rushmore this evening; Texas Jeff and Karen, on the basis of their extensive globetrotting, had implored me to see the Presidents by night.

This meant a drive of less than 300 miles with an additional hour thrown in when I crossed zones. This wasn’t so much the problem as the fact that I would cross back the following day, and be left with over 500 miles to cover and one hour less in which to do it.

It meant that I had no need to rush off this morning, and so I got up around eight and had a leisurely breakfast as Cheryl pottered around the house. I was particularly impressed by the jam, and complimented her on it. It was Very Berry Jam, whatever that meant.

It was an odd feeling leaving. I had only met Cheryl fifteen hours earlier, but I felt as if I’d known her fifteen years. It also felt more like I was just nipping out to the shops rather than driving away into the distance never to come to this place again.

As I turned the ignition, Cheryl came bustling out of the house carrying something. I wound down my window and she pressed a jar of the jam into my hand, as a present for “your girl back home” whose photo I had shown to Cheryl. This one had a sticker on the lid that read “Nebraska Food Industry Assn. WINNER. Jelly Division.” No doubt a fiercely contested competition, that one.

The road north to South Dakota continued to be eventless. Apart from the brief punctuation offered by Valentine, there was nothing to see but fields. I stopped to cash a travellers’ check at the Wells Fargo in Valentine. The cashier looked a touch flummoxed when I handed over my passport. As she nervously fingered the pages, I pointed out that the photo was at the back. She thanked me and then added apologetically that she’d never seen a passport before. Not even an American one.

Every now and then there was a cluster of trees that, at a guess, looked like they covered about five acres. Cheryl had been perplexed this morning by an overnight frost that had killed some of her plants. As I was crossing the state line, a voice on the radio confirmed that last night the temperature had dropped to 28ºF and that today it was expected to reach 92ºF. It struck me as quite a fluctuation.

To see the Badlands, I needed to turn west at White River on to a narrow twisting lane. It was my luck to get stuck behind a large cement truck that was moving more slowly than I would have liked, but fast enough for it to be difficult to get by. After almost thirty miles of jockeying, I finally managed to overtake.

No sooner had I got by than the road straightened itself out and stretched before me into the distance. I was whizzing along taking in what scenery there was on offer, when something red and disc shaped flashed by my window. It looked like a Stop sign, but I was over the junction and fifty yards down the road before I could obey its command.

I’d just jumped Highway 73. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen it coming. I couldn’t believe how fast I’d been going. I couldn’t believe that I had just come belting straight across a main road with no right of way. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel and took a deep breath. Behind me, the truck arrived at the junction and took the precaution of actually drawing to a halt.

The Badlands could not be better named. As inhospitable terrain goes, this was even a notch up from the wildernesses of Nevada and Utah. It was a mass of craggy rocks and lumpy ground that looked like it was made of ash and concrete. There was no chance of even the Indians knowing this as a Land of Many Uses.

Wandering around it, I kept expecting the ground to crack under my feet. If the conspiracy theorists who believe that the Americans never really landed a man on the moon were right, this must have been where they forged the film. You could have put Armstrong, Aldrin and a lunar buggy down here at night and nobody would have known the difference.

With lunchtime fast approaching, I reached the Interstate. Before I set off for Rapid City, I wanted to visit Wall and the famous drugstore there. It had made its name by offering free iced water, a tradition that it still maintained, and with 30,000 customers a day it claimed to be the largest drugstore in the world.

Being a pedant, I noted that the pharmacy section was in fact rather limited, but there was loads else in the shop. It was enormous, but there were surely other shops in the world that were bigger than this. The major department stores for a start. It all depends upon how you define drugstore. If it’s a shop that sells a miscellany of old kak, then Wall’s claim probably had some validity.

Deadwood had recently legalized gambling on the condition that a hefty tax levy be put towards maintaining the town’s authentic western appeal and to pay for the main street to be cobbled.

Or at least that’s what my guidebook said. It seemed odd that a town probably most famous for being the place where Wild Bill Hickock met his end while playing cards – giving rise to the aces and eights that he held at the time being known as dead man’s hand – had only just embraced betting.

It looked like an interesting enough place, certainly more appealing than Cripple Creek CO, and so I looked around for somewhere to stay. I figured that I could have an hour’s wander around before I needed to set out for Mount Rushmore. I had gathered from the Visitors’ Center that it stayed open until eight.

I went to check out a couple of B&Bs that I had spotted earlier. There was no answer at the door of one. Nor was there any answer at the second, but the door was open. I walked in. It was a hair salon of sorts, but appeared to be someone’s front room. I came out and walked around the side to the door with the B&B sign. That led to the back of the same hair salon room.

I could see up the stairs and into what I assumed was a bedroom. A pile of clothes lay on the floor just by the door. I called out without reply. I passed up the opportunity to steal my fill of Paul Mitchell hair care products and left.

Before Mount Rushmore, I wanted to visit the nearby Crazy Horse memorial. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was supposed to be impressive. I could see the outline of a man’s head on the mountain as I approached the barrier and paid the eight bucks for the entrance fee. I didn’t fully appreciate that this got me no closer to the (unfinished) monument than a hundred feet past the barrier.

If you wanted to get a closer look, you had to stump up another three bucks to take a coach to the foot of the mountain. You weren’t allowed to walk there by yourself. This piqued me somewhat, and on principle I declined to take the bus ride. Instead I took a distant look at the memorial. It did look incredible, and would be great when it was finished.

In the same style as Mount Rushmore, lumps of mountain were being blasted and carved away to leave the image of Crazy Horse on his crazy steed. I felt a bit stupid that I had not even realized that the work was way off completion. I also felt a bit stupid to have paid eight bucks for a view that I could have got for free from the roadside.

When I got to Mount Rushmore, I was glad to see that they were decent enough to be up front and give you the option. Eight bucks bought you parking rights and the opportunity to approach the monument as a pedestrian. The alternative – “remote viewpoint” – was free.

It was just as I had imagined it, only smaller. The four presidents looked just like the photographs I’d seen, which was hardly surprising I suppose, but they seemed tiny. Certainly Crazy Horse looked as if it were going to turn out to be a lot more imposing.

It was 6.15, and I’d been there, done that and taken the photograph. It was now a question of whether I sat it out until eight to see the after dark spectacular. A crowd was already gathering. It reminded me of my dilemma at Old Faithful, and I hadn’t regretted staying for that. I made up my mind to wait.

An amphitheatre of benches faced the monument, but I elected to stand at the back so that I could get away as quickly as possible when I’d seen the scene.

It started to get dark around 7.20, after arguably one of the most boring hours of my life. Next to me stood a large lady in her late thirties. “Have you ever seen the Presidents after dark?”. I wasn’t sure if she was speaking to me, so I replied with a tentative no and explanation that it was my first time at Mount Rushmore.

She obviously had been speaking to me, and she picked up on the accent immediately. Our conversation must only have lasted five minutes, but in that time she gave me a fairly detailed potted history of her life. She came from South Dakota but now lived in Columbus OH. She’d been to Mount Rushmore fourteen times before, but never after dark. Her mom and dad were still alive and well, living where they always had. He was a farmer. She’d gone to Ohio with her husband, but was now divorced. She had two kids, who were great. She worked as a pharmacist. She loved James Herriot books. She had difficulty keeping her knickers on whenever she met a man in uniform.

Her flow was only interrupted by the lights suddenly being turned on the faces by the flick of a switch. That was it. White spotlights shining on something that had been perfectly visible ninety minutes earlier. No colors, no music. I’d kind of expected a light show of sorts, but this was illumination at its most basic.

In truth, I was more entranced by the fireflies. All very nice, but barely worth the lengthy wait. It certainly wasn’t worth it given that I was still to sort myself out for the night.

I tried to break off the conversation, but was unable to until we had exchanged addresses. She told me that, if I were in Ohio in three weeks time, I should go to the Pumpkin festival. I told her that I would be there in six days’ time, and ran back to the car.

It had been an expensive day, and so I was more interested in cheap rather than luxurious accommodation when I got back to Deadwood. A motel called Thunder Cove was advertising rooms starting from $29.95. What’s more, deluxe continental breakfast was included, although I was unsure which continent was being referred to.

Before I was allowed to check in I had to sign an affidavit promising not to allow pets or smoking in the room, and to agree to pay $75 if I introduced either of those evils to any of the buildings.

The guy behind the counter had his patter off to a tee and ran through the welcome chat without breaking tone or pausing for breath. “No smoking. No pets. Breakfast from seven. Here’s a timetable for the trolleybus. Give 50 cents to the driver. No smoking. No pets. Would you like some ice? Here’s an envelope with a map and discount vouchers for places in town. No smoking. No pets.”

At least the guy in Delaware had had some personality. It wasn’t clear whether it was a one-off fine, or whether it accumulated to $150 if you engaged in both smoking and pets in your room.

The trolleybus facility was a bonus. It left and dropped off from directly outside the motel, and the next one was at 9.25. I dumped my bag in the room and rushed out on to the forecourt. I had five minutes to spare and so I sparked up two cigarettes and smoked them concurrently, in deliberate full view of the dalek on reception.

In town I headed for Big Al’s Steakhouse Saloon, which did food until midnight. It had been owned by a friend of Buffalo Bill, and Mr Cody had whiled away many an evening drinking and fighting in there.

This was not an establishment for the world’s most beautiful people. I was shown to a table and given a paper menu that was stiff from previous drink spills. Smokers puffed at every table.

I opted for the “filet” steak but when I gave my order to the waitress, she looked at me as if I were some kind of idiot. I had pronounced the “t” on the end of “filet” deliberately, so as not to come across as a gentrified ponce. “Oh, do you mean the fee-lay?” she asked with a laugh. Cheeky bitch. She was still laughing when she came back with the food. “What was it you called it again? Fillert?” It was obviously hilarious.

After eating, I took the remainder of my beer and sat on a stool by the bar. Just as I was finishing off the pint and contemplating another, a woman came and sat down next to me. She was wearing a short skirt and stilettos and her face was carrying an ungodly amount of make-up.

She opened her bag, took out a cigarette and then looked at me with a pout and asked if I had a light. She swiveled on her stool friskily, re-crossed her legs and ran her red talons up her calf to her knee. I couldn’t be absolutely sure she was a hooker but, if she wasn’t, I was prepared to bet she frequently got mistaken for one. Either way, I didn’t really want to find out so I quaffed and left.

Out on the street, I looked at the cobbles. They were very strange for cobbles. The road was made of small strips of red stone arranged in a fashion akin to parquet flooring. It was perfectly flat and smooth. I’d just call it fancy red paving.

I walked past a number of bars that were really just casinos. If I’d seen somewhere that appealed, I’d have stopped but nothing did. The fact that I was carrying a concealed tape recorder and probably wouldn’t have been the most welcome guest in a casino had nothing to do with it.

In any case, I needed an early start the next day given my schedule, and so was happy to wait when I reached the trolleybus stop. The timetable obviously was of very little use or accuracy. The trolleybuses just turned up when they felt like it, bang off time.

My motel was the last drop and I was back inside by 11.30. It had been my final taste of the Wild West. I could heartily confirm that these towns were not the places for vegetarian non-gamblers.

The next day I would turn finally and irrevocably east for home. It was a nice feeling.

Day 32. NE: pioneers, Pony Express, geodesic domes, amazing space

There was little sorrow to be felt leaving town. Nebraska wasn’t a state that I’d had particularly high expectations of, but I had hoped for something a little more elevated than a brush with Lucy does Lincoln.

I’d also hoped that coffee might have been available at the motel in the morning, but their generosity only went as far as free pornography. The breaking of dawn saw me escape towards the delightfully named town of Friend, with its convenient population of 1,111. Such specific numbers were not unusual as cited populations, but the figures were rarely so round at the same time. It made me wonder how often they bothered to update the signs.

Nebraska was another state that seemed largely comprised of huge flat fields. It would have been as dull as Iowa if it hadn’t been for the birds. These birds were startling, they didn’t so much flock as swarm.

All along the route they would suddenly appear as one black mass, and then just as quickly disappear down onto the ground. It was impossible to see how they achieved this remarkable feat of co-ordination, at speed and with no obvious lead bird. It was perfectly synchronized but with no regular shape, like a plague of locusts working its way across the countryside.

I had set out so early that it was only just gone nine when I pulled into my first port of call, the small prairie town of Minden. I would have been there even earlier, but I got caught behind a slow moving truck that I had been unable to overtake.

I probably could have tried, but today wasn’t the day to get arrested. It was far too cold and windy. I had also concluded that it wasn’t worth risking an accident. If I were to die in the course of this trip, I definitely did not want it to happen in Nebraska.

The streets of Minden were as quiet as you would expect at that time on a Sunday morning. An “open” sign on the main highway directed me four blocks south to JJ’s City Café. It sat on the main square, in the middle of which was a tall and imposing old courthouse with a white dome.

American flags all around beat in the gusty wind that had picked up. It was chilly when I got out of the car, and I was pleased to have been able to park close to the café door. Inside the  temperature and atmosphere were warm. The inside of the windows were smoked with condensation. I snuggled in to a booth and awaited a proper home cooked American breakfast.

Four blocks away was the Pioneer Village, a museum that charted the development of America from a newly independent nation through to its emergence as the world’s number one superpower. Its 20 acres housed 28 buildings and 50,000 exhibits dating back to 1830.

It covered anything that touched American life, from decorations and furniture through hobbies to transportation. It included the oldest combustion engine, the first Model T Ford to roll off the production line and the first jet aeroplane. A number of original historic structures, such as Minden’s original church and a sod house, had been rebuilt around a village green.

One building housed an extensive collection of correspondence and you could watch demonstrations of some traditional crafts like blacksmithing and broom-making by hand. It was all intriguing and the time whistled by. I spent half an hour just reading through letters to Nebraska’s senator sent by various Presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton.

Three hours had disappeared while I was in the museum and I still felt that I had only scratched the surface. It was close to lunchtime and so I needed to get going. I motored north in search of the Interstate. My goal was Gothenburg, a town that not surprisingly had Swedish origins, but before I got there a roadside sign warned me that there was a monument ahead and that I was not to slow down.

Blatantly flouting the law I did, and I can’t say that it was worth it. The sign was more memorable than whatever the site was supposed to be. The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument? Answers on a postcard please.

Gothenburg was home to an original Pony Express Station, a compact hut which now doubled as a gift shop selling predictable paraphernalia. The woman running the place gave a quick lecture to me and a couple of other visitors on the history of the Pony Express. Reprints of the old recruitment posters were available, citing the requirement for “young wiry fellows under 18, preferably orphans” and wages of $25 a week (at a time when the average salary was just a dollar).

I drove due north and then dog-legged via Anselmo to Dunning. This part of the world felt a lot like England, with rolling hills and familiar-looking trees. When I had telephoned to book the room, the woman had warned me that there was no food to be had anywhere around those parts and that I had best eat before or bring some of my own.

She had suggested stopping in Thedford, 47 miles to the south of where she was and the last major town that I would pass before I got to her place. As major towns go, Thedford proved to be pretty minor. A sign announced: “Welcome to Thedford. Fuel. Food. Lodging. Churches.” It was Sunday I suppose.

With supplies in place I continued north into the wilderness of enormous Cherry county, one of the largest fifty counties in the whole country. It was bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together, spanned two time zones but only had one town of any note, called Valentine.

I listened to an interview on the radio with a woman who had been in the first tower on the storey where the terrorist plane had hit the building. She’d been on the other side of the building from the impact and had managed to get out just before the collapse. She had had to crawl in pitch black across devastation-strewn offices and pick her way down various staircases as there wasn’t one that led all the way down to the ground floor.

The interviewer asked if she wanted revenge. She didn’t. She thought that the first thing that was needed was to understand why there were people out there in the world who hated Americans so badly that they could have done this. Until that could be understood nothing could be done about these problems.

The place I was staying at was 17 miles short of Valentine and a couple of miles back from the highway. There was no obvious landmark to watch out for so I had to keep an eye on my mileometer. If I hadn’t turned off by the time I was 48 miles north of Thedford then I’d have missed it.

Thankfully, I managed to find it at first time of asking. At the end of a long track was a building that looked incongruous to say the least. The technical term for it was a geodesic dome, and it looked like a spaceship had landed.

At first I couldn’t believe that this was Lovejoy Ranch but there wasn’t another building for miles, apart from an old barn. As I parked, the door opened and a middle-aged woman came out and introduced herself as Cheryl.

She showed me into and around the house. She lived there alone and I was the only guest staying that evening. I had been offered the choice between the King and the Queen sized bed. I had opted for the latter, on the basis that even my lardy backside barely justified a King sized bed to itself. I didn’t see the other room, but the one that I ended up with could have slept a small troop of Scouts.

Cheryl explained that her husband’s great grandfather had come out to Nebraska in 1884 in the days when the government had offered 150 acres for every five that were planted with forest. Unfortunately, her landholding had diminished through it being divided up among all the children as it was passed down, and now all she had left were about 4000 acres. The old man must have put down an awful lot of trees.

Cheryl was keen that I go for a walk while it was still light. In one direction the hills rolled away forever, and I walked until the house was just a dot behind me. This was isolation of the highest order. I was in a field by myself and, not including Cheryl, tens of miles from the nearest person on earth.

An hour and a quarter had passed by the time I returned to the house, where Cheryl was in the kitchen baking. She didn’t look that much older than me, but had two grown-up children. Her son was pursuing love interests in South Dakota and her daughter was married and lived nearby. She and her husband used Cheryl’s land for ranching and in return looked after Cheryl’s cattle for her.

It was a precarious way to make a living as there were only two points in the year when any real trading was done, following weaning in the Spring and Fall. Cheryl’s annual income was largely dependent on meat prices at those points in time. These fluctuated significantly, according to climatic and economic factors beyond her control. I got the impression that she was weary of the business.

Cheryl asked if I had any photographs of my nearest and dearest. I had brought a small album of 24 snaps in case this question ever came up, but Cheryl was the first person whom I’d met who had enquired.

As I went off to fetch the photos, she asked what she could get me. To my surprise, it was a reference to alcohol. I had become accustomed to middle-America’s revulsion at social drinking and had just accepted that it would be another dry evening. The choice on offer was between scotch and gin.

The conversation became as free-flowing as Cheryl’s measures, and soon three hours and four gins had slipped by. She was very easy going, extraordinarily so for an American. Usually I found them quite intense and in your face but there was a contentment about Cheryl that was even more startling given that she’d not had the easiest of lives.

Also unusually, she was more interested in listening than talking about herself. Her only words were in response to things that I said. She tried to help me out with some of the holes in my story. She reckoned the birds that I had seen swarming earlier that day were red wing blackbirds and she wrote down the name of the parasitic ivy from Alabama on a scrap of paper (that I lost almost immediately).

With a casual disregard for any English concept of distance, Cheryl explained that she used Valentine, 17 miles to the north, for her “day to day shopping” but that for “more important purchases” (her example was a bucket), she would go to Denver CO. According to my rough calculations, that was almost 500 miles away. I learnt that it was also the nearest international airport, with Chicago being the second nearest. I gulped, and hoped that I didn’t need to swing by a Hertz in the near future.

When the conversation turned to September 11th as sooner or later it had to, I repeated a point that I had made on a number of occasions previously: I couldn’t imagine what could incite you to jump out of a window a hundred storeys up in the sky. However hopeless you saw your position to be, jumping only guaranteed you one fate.

Cheryl said she could understand it perfectly. She’d been in a fire and it was terrifying to the point that you lose all sense of proportion and just become desperate to get out. It doesn’t cross your mind how high up you are, you need to go and can worry about whether it’s ten, a hundred or a thousand feet on the way down.

Their original ranch house had burned down in 1979 and it was in this fire that she had lost her husband. She had lived for a while in a mobile home with her small kids and then decided to get the place built where we were now sitting. She wanted something completely different – environmentally friendly and energy efficient – which was certainly what she got with her geodesic dome.

I stepped out on to the deck for a cigarette. It was a perfectly still and clear night. I stood shivering for my addiction and gazed at the sky. I had never realized that so many stars even existed.