A 2001 drive around the 48 states in 48 days

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Day 48. New York City: bewilderment

After sorting myself out in preparation for my holiday, I went out for a walk around Hoboken.

Some of the lampposts still had missing portraits on them. Many of the hospitals in New Jersey had been put on alert for the casualties that never arrived, and desperate relatives and friends were covering every conceivable base in their hopeless search.

I had arranged to meet my friend Damian for lunch in Manhattan, close to where he now worked. It was an easy ride on the PATH train from Hoboken.

With admirable discipline for a writer, Damian wasn’t drinking. He had more work to do later that afternoon, and his wife Emma was expecting their first child any day now. He didn’t much relish the potential humiliation of turning up at the hospital slurringly drunk.

They lived a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Center and had been out of town on the morning of the disaster, but the proximity of their home to it had affected them a lot. Bits of engine and some body parts had landed on their roof. The remains of one air stewardess, still tied to her chair with her throat slit, had been found on the roof of a neighboring building.

I listened to as much as Damian was prepared to volunteer but he seemed too upset about it for me to probe any further. I don’t think he really wanted to talk about it.

The bar was bustling and outside New York could be seen in full swing. In ephemeral terms, it had recovered well. After Damian returned to work, I went for a walk. I thought about calling another friend, Matt, who I knew wasn’t at work at the moment but decided that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea. Matt was no small drinker, and it would be likely to evolve into a full-blooded session.

This would have passed the time, but would probably have been a waste of it too. I also had to think about my flight the next morning. I had originally been due to take off at 10.30am but, thanks to all that had happened in the aftermath of the attacks, this had been rescheduled to 8.30am with a three hour check-in. Given that I also had to return the car to Hertz first, this meant leaving Neal’s house by 4.30am latest the following morning. An afternoon on the sauce with Matt wouldn’t have been ideal preparation.

Instead I walked south along the Avenue of the Americas. As I approached the depths of Manhattan, the missing portraits came thick and fast. They weren’t just on lampposts. Whole corners of blocks were dedicated to them, like macabre galleries. They were a testament to hoping against all hope.

I walked into a stationer’s, and found a whole stand of postcards with pictures of the World Trade Center still upright. A shop nearby was selling T-shirts. One had a photograph of bin Laden with “Wanted. Dead not alive.” Another had a picture of the Statue of Liberty with torch discarded and middle finger raised. Its legend read “We’re coming, motherfuckers.”

A little further down the road was a fire station, decked out with flowers and flags, and letters of gratitude from all around the country. Photographs of all the firemen from the station who had been lost on September 11th were displayed in the windows. A small gathering of onlookers stood by, silently paying their respects.

I crossed Houston Street and continued my path southward. After zigzagging through Chinatown, I encountered the first of the roadblocks. An acrid stench filled the air, the smell of the foundry and burning metal, but with a putrid twist. It made my stomach turn.

By following the crowds, I reached one of the few vantage points that offered a limited sightline to Ground Zero. As might have been expected, there wasn’t much to see. Some were rabidly trying to get snaps, but most were just staring on dumbstruck.

I had my camera with me, but didn’t have the heart to take any photos. I was content to let the official journals commit the sight to the record books for future reflection. From a personal point of view, they were seared onto my memory and I would need no camera-captured version of them.

As I wandered back north, I came to a crossroads. The familiar sound of sirens came blaring down the street towards me. As the fire engine lurched across the camber of the avenue when it hit the junction, the crowd of pedestrians around me burst into a spontaneous round of applause.

I was left with the impression that it wasn’t merely their heroics on the day of September 11th that had cemented this esteem from the general public. The firemen had become beacons for getting on with life as normal.

There was a PATH station at Christopher Street that took me back to Hoboken. I arrived at the apartment just in time to hear the telephone ring. It was Neal. He’d knocked off a little early and fancied a drink. We had a couple of hours before Lisa would get back. I felt like I needed one, and agreed to be ready to go straight out the moment he walked through the door.

We went to a bar in nearby Court Street. It was a quiet time of the day for the barman, and we chatted with him as he cleaned the glasses. He knew Neal as a regular, and they were enthusing about Joe Strummer and the concert that Neal and Lisa were going to later that evening. Neal introduced me to him and mentioned the trip that I had just been on.

The guy nodded and commented that it must have been an interesting time to be travelling around the States. I agreed, and said that everyone whom I’d met had been deeply affected by September 11th but it was obviously even more acute here where everyone knew someone – or at least knew someone who knew someone – who had been caught up in it all.

The barman nodded sagely. His fiancée had worked on the 32nd floor of the second tower, and when the first plane hit he’d phoned her to tell her to get out. He had been watching it on TV at home. She had reassured him that everything was all right. The internal Tannoy had announced that everything was under control, that people should remain calm and stay where they were.

Moments after coming off the phone, the second plane hit her tower. He tried to call her back but he couldn’t get through. He continued trying both her work number and her cell phone throughout the next couple of hours as he watched live coverage of first one then the other tower collapse. He was beside himself with distress and convinced that she must have perished.

It was nearly 2pm before he heard from her, by which stage her dad had turned up at his apartment to share in the tears. She had just made it out in time, and had run down the street pursued by a cloud of dust as the building collapsed. She had then walked and walked, not knowing where she was going but just that she had to get away.

She had reached the George Washington Bridge before she knew what was happening or where she was. She had no memory of the time in between. She had tried calling but couldn’t get through. He said that he had never known a moment of such sheer happiness before and, while the rest of the city and possibly western civilization mourned, he found himself popping Champagne and celebrating. He felt terribly guilty and sad, but couldn’t contain his own delight and relief.

It was time to go back home and meet up with Lisa. It was approaching midnight back in London, and I had promised to call Christine. I got through to be confronted by tears. Her purse, containing all her dollars, travellers’ checks and credit cards, had been stolen from under the table while she’d been out for a farewell drink with some friends in the pub. She didn’t even have a card for the ATM, but the others had had a whip round to furnish her with forty quid for the journey.

At least she still had her passport and plane ticket, and enough money to get herself out to Heathrow. We just had to hope that nothing would go awry as she travelled via Chicago to New Mexico and I went via St Louis. It would only be a problem if one of us failed to show in Albuquerque.

It seemed ironic that the worse thing to have happened on a personal note on the whole trip had occurred five hours short of the end of day 48, and a hundred yards from my home back in London.

I decided to go Arabic for the last meal of the 48 days and ventured out to Ali Baba’s on Washington. It had about twelve tables, but only one of them was occupied by what looked like a party of four students. It didn’t look like business was good, but I didn’t want to ask whether things had changed since September 11th. The establishment was unlicensed, and so I ordered a Turkish coffee when I had finished eating and supped the last of my Coke.

It suddenly struck me that the absence of customers might not just be down to a backlash against Americans of Arabic origin. A place like this would be very vulnerable to sudden attack from extremists. With such melodrama washing around my imagination, I hurried through the coffee and paid the bill. Every car that drove by now looked like it might be harboring potential petrol bomb throwers and I just wanted to get out. At least I had the choice.

I returned to Court Street for one last drink. It was 10.30, and there were only five or six people in there. From my barstool, I could see at least twice that number giving their bodies a workout at the gym immediately across the road. I stopped just for the one and then went back to the apartment to fetch my camera. Before I went to bed, I wanted to take a photograph from a respectable distance of the sight I had witnessed from the previous evening with Johnny.

I walked down to the riverfront and tried to focus. The camera clicked and whirred, but it didn’t matter whether any recognizable picture would come out. My odyssey was such a small endeavor compared to the magnitude of what had happened over the water, and what was continuing to happen as I gazed on.

I had been in America at a more momentous time than I could ever have hoped for, and I wished that it hadn’t been the case.

Day 47. RI/CT/home: gales, crowds, idylls, reflection

After breakfast, I had another chat with Becky as she pottered at her morning chores. She claimed to have lived in over forty of the states during her upbringing and adult life (she was single and her father had been in the military).

Becky asked me whether the emergency telephone number in the Middle East was 119. She was aware that America was unusual in the way that it wrote its dates, with month followed by day followed by year. It was a connection that I had not made up until that point. September 11th was, of course, in numerical terms 9.11 and the American equivalent of the British 999 telephone number was 911.

I drove for about half an hour until I reached the turn off for Watch Hill. At the very least, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. From the map I could see that it stuck out in the ocean on a small peninsula, but I might have guessed that from the wind when I got out of the car. I was almost blown over. Presumably those playing on the nearby golf course had to contend with a significant degree of fade.

This was a town that lived for the summer, and there was something sad about seeing it deserted now that the season had passed. The roller security blinds on many of the shops had been battened down for the winter. I fought my way against the gale across the parking lot to where the beach lay, but found my path barred by a wire mesh fence. There was just enough space to stick my camera lens through one of the holes and take a photo of the Atlantic.

I found the Inn at Watch Hill up on the hill overlooking the promontory. It was an old Victorian house with Gothic touches and more than a touch of the Addams Family about it. A sign warned non-residents of the hotel not even to think about using the parking lot. I had no desire to meet Cerberus, or whatever it was that they used to greet unwelcome visitors, and so turned around at the end of the lane and was on my way.

Within ten minutes, I had completed my mission and had crossed the state line into Connecticut. This was my 46th day on the road and I had now set wheels in all 48 contiguous states. I was pleased, but not exactly elated. My mind was now focused on getting home, or at least reaching the familiar faces of New York and not living out of a car trunk any longer.

Adam from Arizona had been born and brought up in Connecticut, and had made a number of insistent recommendations. Some of these had been negative: “Believe me, you do NOT want to go to Bridgeport”. My plan was to continue along the coast road without diverting inland, so I was going to have to pass through Bridgeport even if I didn’t stop.

On the positive side, he had circled the town of Mystic in black ink on my atlas. I couldn’t remember why I was supposed to go there, or what I was supposed to see, but I decided to make it my first stop in the Constitution State.

It was a pretty town that boasted a seaport. I followed the signs and found my way to a sheltered stretch of inland water where old sailboats and schooners were moored. I was put off visiting the maritime museum by the crowds. In the short time that I had been there, I had been bustled by confused and disorientated octogenarians and had my ears assaulted by screaming schoolkids. I got the impression that most were there out of a sense of obligation to a public holiday’s day out and would all have sooner been some place else.

It was almost lunchtime, and I wanted my final stop of the journey to be in nearby Essex. Kathy and Eileen, whom I’d met in Maine but who came from Connecticut, had enthused about the Griswold as a splendid place to eat. Essex was another place that bore very little resemblance to its English namesake, or at least to the bit of Essex that runs along the Thames from Southend to the East End of London. It was a tree-lined rural idyll, with one main street that sloped down to the Connecticut River.

I stopped at the General Store to buy some final postcards. When I came out, a car had pulled up in the car park. The window was wound down and the two female occupants hollered at me as I returned my car. They wanted to know directions to somewhere.

I explained that I was over from England and didn’t know the area at all. They forgot about their problem, and immediately wanted to know where I was from and what I’d been doing. When I told them that I was on the final day of a trip that had seen me drive around all 48 lower states in as many days, they almost wet their pants.

They introduced themselves as Karen and Yvonne, and hurriedly scribbled down their e-mail addresses. They were from Rhode Island and were desperate to find out which of the states I would most like to come and live in. Mindful of my solemn declaration on my visa waiver application at immigration, I assured them that I had no intention of settling in any of them.

The Griswold was like an upmarket old English Tavern. A sign warned that although a coat and tie were not compulsory, diners were expected to be appropriately dressed and groomed. No tank tops were allowed, which I took as a good sign.

There were several dining rooms in the complex, and I was taken to one of the more empty ones. The food was very tasty, although the people on the table next to me didn’t seem to think so. It was a couple who had developed being gratuitously rude to waiters into a fine art. It was almost as if the thing that they had come out to enjoy wasn’t a meal, but the chance to pick on a young kid who wasn’t allowed to answer back.

It wasn’t that this couple were just discourteous, they nearly disappeared right up their own arseholes. He wanted a gin and tonic, and then sent it back because it wasn’t Bombay Sapphire. She wanted to be given a list of the brands they used for the ingredients for her chosen dish. At the end of the meal, he wanted a double decaff cappuccino and she just needed shooting.

Or perhaps I’d been in America too long. It wasn’t the first time that I had seen manners like this in New England. Perhaps it was a wealth and arrogance thing, but most other places people seemed to understand that basic courtesy was very easy.

Back on the freeway, it was stop-start traffic all the way, presumably because of the public holiday and people returning to town after a long  weekend away. There were only about a hundred miles between me and New York, but it looked like it could take anything from three to four hours to cover them.

Things were still not looking bright by the time I reached the dreaded Bridgeport. From the looks of things – admittedly from the vantage point of a crawl across an Interstate flyover – Adam had probably been right.

It was almost six by the time I reached the state line and the toll road of the New England Thruway. The traffic was now flowing, but remained very heavy. After the debacle of my late arrival on the first day at Neal and Lisa’s, I didn’t want a repeat performance. I glanced at my watch nervously. It was 6.30, the time I was supposed to be there, and I had only just reached Pelham Parkway West.

It was no longer holiday traffic – just the conventional NYC type – that hampered me as I struggled through the Bronx. I kept looking around expecting to see indicators of fundamental change post-9.11.

It was strange to be back under the circumstances, but the place looked and felt much the same to me. There was little evidence of any new-found gentleness of manner that the rest of the country had been speculating about. The horn and the finger remained central tools in the NYC driver’s armory.

I had no idea where I was going when I arrived the other side of the George Washington Bridge. Now everything was moving at speed and I got sucked from one lane to another in my uncertainty. Chance led me to the New Jersey Turnpike, where gloriously I spotted a sign to the Lincoln Tunnel. This led me to the Hess Gas Station at the end of Willow Avenue. I was outside Neal and Lisa’s ten minutes later. It was 7.30 on the nose, which made me only an hour late.

I made a careful note of the mileage. Including the drive to La Guardia still to come, I would be returning the car to Hertz with 23,424 miles on the clock. It had read 7,703 when I had picked it up in Savannah GA. Even without the 2,252 miles that I had covered in the first car, the total would still be 15,721 miles. Well, the deal had been for unlimited mileage.

I rang on the bell and Neal came bounding down to throw the door open and greeted me with a “Whay-hey. Welcome back warrior”. It felt as if I had only been gone a couple of days.

Up in the apartment, Lisa was preparing dinner and they had invited another old friend, Johnny, round. Johnny had worked with Neal and me back in London, and had also come out to work in the New York office with Neal when our boss had transferred out here. It was good to be home.

After dinner, I got out my array of souvenirs and explained that I had bought something distinctive from each state. My much better half, Christine, was flying out on Wednesday to meet me in New Mexico for a week’s holiday. It was her birthday on Friday and these 48 souvenirs were going to constitute her presents.

The assembled party asked whether I had bought her anything decent as well. The looks on their faces when I said I hadn’t suggested that I might have made a mistake.

The others wanted to know what had been my most memorable experience, or the most spectacular highlight. It was a hard one to answer. The street-fight in New Orleans? The porno shoot in Nebraska? Use of authorized deadly force at Area 51? Maryland Pat and his France/England confusion? The toilet paper question from Indianapolis man? New York Sabrina and her luminous animatronic models? Trying to escape from Oklahoma? It had been less a trip of amazing and cataclysmic events, more a patchwork of small happenings and conversations that had added up to a remarkable whole. As I made this point, I was aware that I sounded like a politician.

I thought back to my first day and my gazing across the river at the Empire State and the World Trade Center. I’d seen a million shots of the tower-less skyline in the four weeks since the attacks, but I couldn’t help wondering what that view looked like from outside the camera lens. It was time now for Johnny to go home, and he suggested that I take the same walk with him back to the station that I’d taken with Neal back in August, and have a look at what could be seen now.

Down by the river, the water glistened with the reflected lights from Manhattan. The Empire State was lit up in red, white and blue. Turning to the right, bright white lights illuminated a spot where there was now a break in the skyscrapers. Smoke was  still rising like dry ice, billowing up into the atmosphere.

Somewhere over there, an army of punch-drunk, hapless souls was continuing the grizzly task  that had been going on 24-hours a day solidly for almost a month. Even with the  gargantuan effort that had been made, still little progress had been made.

Johnny said that the water people had only got to test the mains that ran under  Ground Zero that weekend and had found water heated to 180°F.

This was not a  sight to be taken casually. I stood gawping in silence and was only shaken from my stupor by Johnny saying goodnight and being on his way.

Day 46. MA/RI: war, rock, muck, fishwives, potato head

Jon was looking bright and breezy, in that sickening way that I was beginning to associate with American students on a dawn call.

After coffee and bagels for me and pink health sludge for Jon, we left the house to find the streetlights still twinkling outside. I followed Jon in his car as far as the Interstate where I headed north for a few miles.

As Jon had predicted, I was in Concord within twenty minutes. It was a pretty little town in its own right, and everything that Salem hadn’t been. I found a map next to a Visitor’s Bureau that was still closed. Although the Minutemen Monument itself wasn’t designated, there was a house up the road that had taken an early bullet in the battle.

When I went to look for the house, I found everything that I wanted. There was the Monument, there was the bridge on either side of which the opposing forces had gathered, and there was the spot where the first British soldier had fallen. It was awesome in the true sense of the word, and all the better for my being one of only half a dozen other people there at the same time.

An inscription beneath the Monument read:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world

I followed the Independence Trail through the 7 miles to Lexington and easily found the Green where the first gunshots of the Revolutionary War had been fired.

A monument from the 19th Century told the tale. It was surrounded by a wrought iron fence, and the ground around it was littered with pennies. Around me the people of Lexington were quietly going about their business. I could almost believe that I’d come to the wrong place. One of the most important historical sites in the whole country, and not a flicker of razzmatazz about it. It looked like any village green.

The road from Lexington to Boston took me through Cambridge, home to Harvard University. It felt scholarly and sylvan but was also beset by traffic; I had fifteen minutes of being nigh-on stationary to take in the views.

From Cambridge, it was a short hop across the Charles River into Boston itself. Not because of priority, but because it was near to where I crossed the river, I went to have a look at the Cheers bar. It did look identical to the thing seen on the credits of the TV programme, but was actually named the Bullfinch Pub. A doorman on the steps of the Hampshire House Hotel above it invited me in to look around the souvenir shop. There were endless items emblazoned with the Cheers TM logo, but nothing showing any distinctive imagination. I bought a lighter.

I was near the center of town, and it was short drive to see the Interstate 93 highway construction project. Or, at least it would have been, if there had been anything to see. Perhaps I was looking from the wrong vantage point, but it appeared to be like any other major piece of road construction with diversions, cones and heavy plant but nothing worth a photograph.

I drove towards the waterfront so that I could at least pretend that I’d seen where the Boston Tea Party had taken place. I took a turning that wasn’t guarded by any no entry sign, and found myself driving across a pedestrian precinct in front of some hotels that looked out to sea. I jumped out to take a quick photograph before turning back and rejoining the main highway.

Although I had been advised that it wasn’t worth a special trip, it was no huge diversion to head down to see Plymouth Rock. Plymouth was less than an hour south and it was still only eleven. The rock itself – if indeed it was the rock, or if indeed Plymouth was the place where the Pilgrim Fathers had in fact landed – was protected by a kind of portico with Doric columns. Somebody had carved “1620” into the rock, which seemed unnecessarily crass.

I wanted to loop north and enter Rhode Island at Woonsocket. It was a place I wanted to visit for no better reason than it sounded like an anatomical reference to something discovered in the supposed autopsy at Roswell in 1947. It was 1.30pm as I found myself on the Interstate heading northwest, and tuned into a country station that was playing the ubiquitous Where I come from by Alan Jackson. This track must have been the only one that I had heard in all 46 states that I had visited so far.

As the music faded out, the twangy voice of the DJ came over the airwaves in as sombre a tone as he was capable of mustering. “Well folks, in case you haven’t heard yet, it’s started.” The first American strikes in Afghanistan were underway. I tuned out of country and into news. I was about an hour behind the start of events.

In the end, I was so absorbed by news of these events that I barely noticed Woonsocket. It certainly had nothing so intriguing about it that could have grabbed my attention away from what I was listening to on the radio. Just past Bristol, I noticed that the lines in the middle of the road were no longer comprised of two yellow stripes. Instead there was one continuous red and one continuous blue one, and in the middle where the tarmac of the highway usually showed through, a third white one had been painted. Go USA.

It was still only 3.30 and I was already crossing back to the mainland at Plum Point. I had booked into a place called the Haddie Pierce near Wickford, and I was there less than seven minutes later. I hadn’t fared well at adjusting to these smaller states back east.

The woman running the place was an aunt-like soul who offered a warm welcome. It was one of those B&Bs that was more like a private home. It was especially good if you liked dolls. About fifty of the things lived in my room alone. The woman’s name was Becky and she listened intently as I explained that this would be my last night on the road after a tour of all the 48 contiguous states and I wanted to go out with a bang.

She assured me that I’d come to the right place for fun and that there was plenty of choice for evening entertainment in town. She thought my best bet would be the Seaport Tavern, which stayed open late for food and drinking.

It was still early so I took the car the mile into town to have a quick look round. The place was dead. The dozen or so shops were all closed or just about to. I found the tavern and thought it best to check it out, before going to the lengths of driving back and walking in.

A Portuguese woman greeted me at the door and warned me that they didn’t sell liquor, but were serving food for the next hour. They closed at seven. Containing my excitement, I sloped in. It looked like my only option for the night, and it transpired that they did at least have beer available. As she poured out the bottle, the woman explained that no liquor was allowed anywhere in Wickford but that I could venture to the Irish Pub just beyond the city limits later if I wanted.

On the next table were an elderly couple down from Canada, who had emigrated from the UK thirty years previously and were keen to talk about the old country. I was feeling nostalgic about it myself having been gone all of seven weeks. They could never go back because they had become too used to the pace and the space of Canada.

It kind of showed in their line of conversation. The thing that seemed most to preoccupy them was finding out what good detective dramas were currently being screened back home. They tended to get our programs a few years down the line.

When I mentioned the trip and the book, they insisted that I write my name down for them. I then had to spend the next five minutes convincing them that I wasn’t the bloke who had written A Year in Provence. I still don’t think they believed me, as they winked that it was understandable for me to prefer travelling incognito.

I left it as long as I could before ordering food. I still wasn’t hungry, but I thought I should have something. I can’t remember what it was I ordered, but I remember it tasting like muck when it arrived. It was like a frozen ready-meal that someone had shoved in the microwave.

By the time I had finished forcing it down, I was the only one left inside. I still had some beer left in my glass, which I had to take outside if I wanted to smoke. I stood on the deck in the freezing cold and choked down some nicotine. I stared over the railing into the creek, and wondered quite how I was going to while away this momentous final night. It didn’t look promising.

I went back in to pay, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. The rest of the staff were all Turkish and one of them was behind the bar. I asked him if he knew where the Irish Pub could be found. His answer suggested that he wasn’t entirely at home with the English language. “Yes. Very different. I’m Turkish. American, all very different.”

Thankfully the woman appeared again before we could continue the conversation, and gave me directions. It was less than a mile away, but in the opposite direction to the Haddie Pierce. I would have to take the car. She also suggested that I try another bar in that direction called Duffy’s, just across the crossroads from it.

A party of sorts was in full swing in the Irish Pub. Most people in there seemed to know one another, and I was very conscious of being an outsider. I ordered draft beer and got given a bottle. I didn’t want to argue.

I retired from the edge of the counter, and tried to find some space where I wouldn’t bother anyone. It was only when I had planted myself at one end that I noticed the men were all in one half of the pub, gathered round watching sport and hollering at each other and the TV set. And the women were all in the other half where the TV sets were playing various films without sound. A roaring juke-box filled the air.

As luck would have it, I had chosen a spot down the women’s end. I was beginning to attract questioning looks from the men’s end. What was I playing at with their womenfolk? In truth, the prospect of getting my head kicked in was only marginally more alarming than the notion that I might have been even remotely interested in these women in terms of sexual adventure. To describe them as fishwives would be to do a terrible injustice to fishwives.

I’d only just arrived and so somehow I had to brazen it out. I turned my back on the room and concentrated on a TV set that was showing There’s Something about Mary. I’d have to take a chance on getting a bottle round the back of my head. If I’d carried on looking at any of the people in there it would have become a certainty.

I was reasonably familiar with the film and could follow most of it even without the soundtrack. It had just got to the bit where the Ben Stiller character has arrived at Mary’s house, to pick her up for the prom, and gone to the bathroom. I knew what was going to happen next, and a scream from behind me suggested that at least one of the women did too.

“Oh, you’ve got to see this… this bit is fucking… ha ha ha” she screeched. “Look he gets his cock and his balls caught in his zipper. Hee haw, hee haw.”

I glanced round to see eight or nine women intently concentrating on my screen, with a running commentary being provided by the screamer. When it got to the bit where the father breaks into the bathroom and finds out what has been going on, the woman descended into some sort of hysterical meltdown.

“This…this…this…fucking haw haw haw…this…this..he says… ‘Is it the frank or the beans?’ Frank or beans! Ha ha hawhaaaaw howl!”

It had a remarkable effect. With the men cheering the sport at the other end of the bar, I found myself surrounded by a group of sizzled women chanting “Frank or beans! Frank or beans! Frank or beans!” repeatedly at the top of their voices, even when the action of the film had got past the point in question.

That was enough for me. I’d only had a few sips of my beer, but I didn’t need to stick around any longer. They didn’t seem to grasp that it was a movie, or that at least it wasn’t the Rocky Horror Show. This was audience participation in the sense of the Jerry Springer Show or Gladiators.

As I was leaving, the ringleader was shouting outraged expletives because the bit where you saw a close up of the damage done to the poor boy’s delectabilia had been edited out. Perhaps there’d been a different cut released onto the US market. I left before a riot started and the TV got smashed in protest.

I could only afford to have one more drink and still feel safe with myself to drive. If it hadn’t been my last night, I would have called it a day. As it was, I went to investigate Duffy’s. After all, it couldn’t be much worse.

It took a little bit of finding, but proved to be well worth the effort. The only annoying thing about the place was that I hadn’t discovered it at the beginning of the evening. It was more of a restaurant than a bar, but the atmosphere was comfortably informal. In the main body of the room there was waitress service for diners sat at the tables, and along one long side was a bar with stools for drinkers. They had a variety of beers on draft, and a chiller cabinet at one end of the bar with a glass front displaying a scrumptious looking array of fruits de mer.

It would have made a lavish last night, but it was too late. I resigned myself to settling for limp. I was reluctant to get involved in conversation with anyone in case I was tempted to drink more than my one last measure. Once I’d reached that conclusion, I didn’t even bother finishing the glass I had and sulkily returned to the car. It wasn’t even nine o’clock.

Back at Haddie Pierce, Becky was in the lounge talking to another guest called Carol and watching the first TV pictures of the day’s action in Afghanistan. They both turned out to be Rhode Island enthusiasts, and soon the leaflets, maps and pictures were coming out.

The smallest state in the Union, it transpired, officially had the longest name: The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Its claims to fame on the world stage were a trifle thin. Apart from being the home to the America’s Cup for 53 years, and the place where Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier, there wasn’t much. It was where the first gas-lit street in America could be found and the state where the first jail sentence for speeding had been imposed. And it was the birthplace of Mr Potato Head, the first toy to be advertised on television.

It had not proved to be quite the triumphal climax that I had been looking forward to for weeks. But if you’re looking to go out with a bang, then Rhode Island is probably not the best place to plan to do it.

Day 45. ME/MA: witches, intrusion, examination, exercise

When I called Jon in Massachusetts to ask for directions to his house, he asked what time I expected to arrive. I reckoned I’d be there around 6.30 – 7.00pm.

He said that it would be better if I could either get there an hour earlier or an hour later. They needed to go to a dinner with some colleagues of his wife’s, and would be leaving around 5.30. They reckoned they’d be back by eight. I told him that I’d be there by five.

I hit the road south towards Rockland. It was a grim gray day with the wind and rain lashing in from the Atlantic. The route through Brunswick afforded far fewer direct sightings of the ocean than the map suggested I might get. The wind was vicious though, as I discovered when I wound down the window for a cigarette and had my face sandblasted by the crosswind whipping off the distant beaches.

I continued on the Maine Turnpike, bracing myself for the only scheduled re-entering of a state on my itinerary. With Maine landlocked by New Hampshire, I had no choice but to skip across the southern tip of the Granite State where it touched the Atlantic. It only lasted twelve minutes, during which time I closed my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and sang “la la la” continuously at the top of my voice. Fortunately, I wasn’t seen by the Highway Patrol. Live free or die.

Once into Massachusetts, I motored on to the Peabody exit. Given the brevity of time I had spent outside the car that morning because of the inclement weather, I reckoned I had plenty left for a visit to Salem. I knew about Salem from the notorious witch trials of 1692, and I had studied The Crucible for my English Lit ‘O’ Level back in the depths of the last century.

According to the guidebooks, Salem had had enough of people going on about the trials and wanted the outside world to know about all the other things it had to offer. You could have fooled me.

Despite the genuine history surrounding this long-established community, it came across as even more “flim-flam” than Eureka Springs AR. It was one big tourist ride. It took forty minutes of the hour I had allocated just to find somewhere to park. The Salem Witch Museum looked about as serious as the Waxworks on Southend seafront, but had queues stretching around the block.

The site of the burnings had been consumed by a building site, and was nowhere easy to be seen. The streets were teeming with adults dressed up as spooks and looking like a troupe of over-eager method actors sent out on a trick or treat spree. And the shops sold nothing but occult tat and joke souvenirs.

I bought a pack of cards with a silhouette of a witch on a broomstick on them, and wondered whether similar souvenirs from the Inquisition were available in Spain. Perhaps folks in the 25th Century will look back on some of the horrors of our last hundred years as just a bit of fun to be made light of.

Passing up the opportunity of a tour of the city in a black stretch limo that was being touted by a guy in a Dracula outfit, I hurried back to my car. I could see little value hanging around here any longer.

Getting out of Salem was no easy matter. It was not quite as hard as leaving Oklahoma, but it came close. Although I had been back behind the wheel by four, it was gone five by the time I eventually managed to find the Interstate. The signs just kept running out. The choice at each junction became a matter of trial and plenty of error.

I wanged round the Interstate at about eighty and reached the Wellesley exit just after 5.25pm. Jon’s house, at the end of a leafy and cul-de-sac, was easily found and I pulled up outside about a minute after the deadline. It was a huge house, with a big oak door and wide driveway. With no lights on and no car in the drive, it didn’t look good.

A note to me was taped to the inside of the window, saying that they had had to leave, that the key was with the neighbor, and that they’d be back by 8.30. I was to go in and make myself at home.

The easy bit was getting the key and letting myself in. From that point, I found myself almost paralysed in the hallway. It was not only a very grand home, but it was also utterly pristine. The sterilized atmosphere would have put many an operating theater to shame.

There wasn’t even dust in the air, let alone on any surfaces, and none of the usual ephemera evidencing human habitation. No shoes. No coats. No bits of paper. No boxes of stuff. No cups or jars on the sideboard. I tiptoed across the plush white pile through the hall into what turned out to be the kitchen. About 500 square feet of living room lay off to its side. There wasn’t even a kettle or TV set in sight, and the furniture didn’t look like it had ever been sat on.

Once more I froze, uncertain of what to do next. I wasn’t sure what would be the best policy regarding my feet. Thankfully my boots had clean soles, but it didn’t seem like the sort of house where outdoor footwear was tolerated. I would have taken them off, but I was vaguely aware of the state of my socks and thought that they would be even more likely to pollute the carpets and tiles if they were allowed to come into contact.

The situation wasn’t great. I had never met Jon before, and had only gathered by inference that he was even married. At least Wyoming John and North Dakota Kathleen had been there to show me into their houses. Here I was in someone’s extremely well-kept and luxurious home, and the only thing about him that I knew was his name.

That was it. If a burglar had pitched up there and then and introduced himself as Jon, explaining that he just needed to take some stuff down the road, I would probably have helped him load up the car.

With the widest strides that I could manage – so as to minimize the number of times that my feet had to come into contact with the carpet – I returned to the sanctuary of the mat by the front door. A very fat, blue-grey cat came down the stairs to investigate but seemed unimpressed and waddled off into the kitchen.

With my back to the door, I noticed a glow from the room off to my left. In the twilight, I could see the outline of a computer that had been left on. I reached around the wall to find a light-switch, and then had to check that I’d not left any grubby paw prints. I touched the mouse and some sort of medical website sprang up in place of the screen saver.

Judging by the volumes that filled the shelves, this was the study of someone who was a doctor, quite possibly a paediatrician. Judging by the certificate of graduation from Harvard that was framed on the wall with the name Elizabeth on it, that person was Jon’s wife.

Nervously I sat at the desk, and clicked through to check my e-mail. With a fair amount in my box, I spent half an hour of reading and replying. It was still not even seven when I tried to return the computer to the site on which I had found it and ended up closing down the Internet connection altogether. Wincing, I at least remembered to put the mouse back to its left-hand position.

I went out to the car to get some books, and to have a cigarette. It was obviously out of the question to smoke in the house, but I wouldn’t have even felt right drinking a beer in there. I cracked open a can out on the street and started to sup. After a couple of swigs, it occurred to me that my behavior was somewhat lowering the tone of a very pleasant neighborhood and I migrated up the driveway and into the back yard.

I finished my beer, put the cigarette butt in the can, and returned it to the car. My boots were now muddy from walking across the lawn. If I wanted to return to the house, I would have to do something. I rummaged in my trunk and found some shoes and a passably clean pair of socks. I sat on my rear bumper and put them on. My suspicions about the state of the socks I had been wearing were vindicated, as small animals in the undergrowth could be heard running for cover when I peeled them off.

Back in the house, I began to read. Around 9.15pm, the phone rang. It was Jon, calling to apologize but to say that they were just leaving. It would take half an hour for them to get home.

It was only now that it dawned on me what a mistake this arrangement had been. I had initially told Adam that I would be in town on Sunday, because I had assumed that I would have used up my contingency day by now. Jon and his wife had clearly arranged to go out to dinner this evening, but had felt obliged to honor their offer of putting me up when I’d called in the week.

Due to this courtesy, both our evenings had been compromised. They had had to cut short their dinner, and I had spent my last Saturday night sat in a chair alone in somebody else’s study.

I waited twenty minutes and went outside for a last cigarette. I didn’t really want them to catch me smoking, and would have felt more comfortable being outside when they arrived. I waited until the cold began to bite and went back in. The door of the downstairs bathroom had been left open, presumably so that I could find it easily. As part of my general policy of touching as little as possible in their house, I went for a quick leak and left it open.

In mid-flow, voices from the kitchen told me that someone was home. Alarmed, I carried on as I heard my name being called out. This really was not going to create a good first impression. I finished up as quickly as I could and went to introduce myself with the flush audibly wheshing in the background.

Abashed, I was at least relieved that it was two people called Jon and Elizabeth who seemed to know their way around the house. I took it as confirmation that they were indeed who they pretended to be.

Jon was disproportionately friendly, behaving as if he owed me some great debt from a former life. He listened with enthusiasm to what I had been doing, opened up a bottle of red wine to share, and put pizzas in the oven for me to eat.

Elizabeth seemed a little less impressed by the situation. She had probably wanted to stay at the party and was irritated that they had to leave early to come back for some English guy who had foisted himself on them and whom neither of them had ever even met. And who didn’t bother closing the restroom door when he urinated.

She sat away from Jon and me as we chatted, and read a book. I felt a mixture of guilt and awkwardness, and found myself slipping into apology overdrive. It turned out that Elizabeth was a doctor and that Jon was a student and teacher at Harvard, but with the emphasis on the former.

As with Adam in Tucson AZ, I marvelled at the standard of living they had. Perhaps their wives made inordinate amounts of money, but both their lifestyles certainly outstripped anything I knew from the world of British studenthood.

As was to be expected, Jon was fiercely academic and I had difficulty following a lot of his discussion and arguments, particularly when it came to September 11th. I was unable to counter anything he said. None of his points was just opinion, they were all backed up by a wealth of facts drawn from his far more comprehensive knowledge of world history and politics. I don’t know if he sensed this, but he mentioned that he and Adam had written an article in the week following September 11th, which they had unsuccessfully touted to the New York Times and the Boston Globe.

He showed it to me and I found it easier to follow than some of his conversation. It made its points in comparatively everyman language, but no doubt would have been dismissed by Michael Savage as another example of “left wing intellectual liberalism from those who hate America”. It was certainly more rational than it was emotional.

I asked Jon whether he thought that the east coast had been affected qualitatively more than the rest of the country. He agreed that the immediacy of the disaster had obviously been felt more acutely by those directly involved, but that this wasn’t the real legacy. He cited a statistic that 80 people a day in the US suffer spinal injuries that result in a permanent quadriplegic condition. His point was that bad things had continued to happen every day since September 11th, and caused profound distress wherever they occurred. Those mourning the deaths of loved ones from the terrorist attacks weren’t more sad or bereaved than these others who were also suffering.

The real legacy, in his view, was what the attack represented and in this respect, everyone in America (and arguably the western world) had been affected equally. The reason why the British were upset wasn’t because there had been two or three hundred of their citizens in the towers. They would have been upset if not a single Brit had died.

The deaths were tragic and rightly angered people, but the harsh truth was that it wasn’t the deaths themselves that were exceptional. The exceptional thing was an unexpected and random terrorist attack on the US mainland on such a scale and by such a method. In turn, the exceptional response wasn’t the grief (this was to be expected) but the reappraisal of so many things previously taken for granted.

I tried to wrestle things onto a different subject, and asked where he thought I should go the next day in Boston. Beyond the usual sights, he thought it would be good to go and see where they were sinking Interstate 93 below the ground in the center of town. It was currently an unsightly flyover that blighted the skyline of the now fashionable business district, but was being rebuilt as an underground tunnel.

It was, naturally, the world’s most expensive highway construction project ever. Ashamedly, I said that I’d also like to go and see the Cheers bar. Jon laughed and drew me a map showing where to find it, but pointed out that it was only the outside that was used in the opening credits of the show. The episodes were all shot in LA, and the inside of the bar in Boston didn’t look anything like the set for TV. Jon also gave me directions for getting to Concord and Lexington, both of which were nearby.

I had been picking at pizza but had made little headway. Jon had cooked two and neither of them wanted any. He probably assumed that a man of my girth must have an American appetite. The wine had been finished some time, when Jon started to make noises about bedtime. He had to go for a run the next morning and so couldn’t have a late night as he had to leave by 7.30am.

He clearly shared the passion for early morning jogs that Adam and Rebecca back in Arizona had. I asked him how long he thought he would be, and whether Elizabeth would be going with him. He smiled and said that the run was taking place across town and he’d be gone most of the morning. It was a 24-mile race, a warm up for his next marathon.

No wonder he didn’t want more wine.

Day 44. NH/ME: fart salad, windy peaks, whistling lobsters, gas masks

Breakfast in the morning was a high-class affair, attended by some high-class fatties. I had the unusual experience of being the slenderest in the room.

It was no mystery seeing where the weight came from when you watched these people putting away their food. If volume-noshing ever became an Olympic sport, the Americans would be certain of a gold medal every time. The meal was served by a delightful woman called Monica, who was also in charge of the front desk.

An especially absurd couple was roosting on the next table. After farting their way through a gallon of fruit salad, they proceeded to demand tea. The woman wanted to know what teas they had available. Being a fairly swanky joint, they did have a choice. There was Earl Grey, Darjeeling, English Afternoon Tea, and regular Lipton’s. “Don’t you have any English Breakfast Tea? I want English Breakfast Tea.” She then opted for Earl Grey, but wanted to check the brand. It wasn’t one she’d heard of. In the end, she produced her own teabag, and dispatched Monica to brew.

On her return, she regaled Monica with a story of how they had had some friends to stay recently who grew up on a plantation, and even they had had to admit that she really knew her tea. As her coup de grace, she then asked for another four sachets of sugar to shovel into her cup. Very Queen Mother.

I had to interrupt Monica from dishing up the fifth helping of pancakes to one pair of lardbuckets in order to pay my bill. While we were waiting for the payment to process, she commented on how she didn’t find the people from New Hampshire very friendly. She was originally from Connecticut, and had only been up there working for a couple of weeks. She said that they were all a bit to stand-off-ish. She reckoned that she’d need to serve a 5- or 10- year apprenticeship before she got to the stage of being truly welcomed and accepted.

I figured that I had plenty of time for the Mount Washington ascent, an eight-mile road straight up the mountain to the summit at 6288’. It was the highest point in New England. A sign warned that it was a steep treacherous drive up a road with no guardrails and that those with a fear of heights might not enjoy this driving  experience.

I paid my money and had to pull over to read the information pack before I could set out. It instructed drivers to select their lowest gear for the entirety of both ascent and descent, never to exceed 20 mph and to give priority to uphill traffic. You were only allowed to stop at specified lay-bys, and it was suggested that you stop frequently on the way down to allow your brakes to cool.

For the $16 admission charge, I was also given a CD to play as I drove. This told me the history of the road, which had been constructed in 1850 and was originally used by horse-drawn carriages. It was a remarkable feat of engineering, especially considering when it had been built.

The concentration required to drive it safely meant that I didn’t see much on the way up. As John had suggested, I had checked with the men at the bottom about conditions and they had promised a clear day. By the time I reached the top, the cloud had come in below us and shrouded the view. There was a fair wind whipping up, but nothing like the world record speed of 231 mph recorded on this summit in 1934.

Another of John’s suggestions had been to enter Maine via Conway so that I could go to the Fryeburg Fair. As I crossed the state line into Maine, the traffic ground to a halt. A sign by the side of the road announced “Welcome to Maine. The way life should be.” I took that to be a general reference, and not specifically to do with the fact that bestiality was legal in Maine, where a guy called Philip Buble had recently married his dog.

The fair had attracted a bumper crowd, and every front yard was hiring itself out for parking at $5 a day. It appeared to be the American equivalent of a County Show, with funfairs, stalls and livestock. Some people were dressed up (or at least I think they were), or had decorated their cars. One pick-up had a scarecrow with an Uncle Sam mask bending over and mooning its pumpkin buttocks, on which was pinned a piece of card with “Happy Hallowe’en Osama. We’re coming to get you.”

It looked one step up from the affair I had attended in Maryland, but still wasn’t interesting enough to merit the hassle of finding somewhere to park and walking for miles. I’d had my fill of demonstrations of bits of John Deere equipment.

My afternoon’s radio entertainment came once more in the form of the Michael Savage show, which was just as reactionary as it had been back when I was approaching Idaho on September 12th. His head was close to exploding, as he railed against the mollification of response to the terrorist attack. “Week 1 it was a war. Week 2 it was a crime. Week 3 it was a tragedy. Now it’s being described as just an incident.” He was bemoaning the absence of war-hawk politicians and the notion that the leftists were winning the debate in America. “Where’s General Patton when you need him?” I would have thought the answer was obvious.

He was clearly pleased with himself: “Nobody on radio anywhere comes up with as many new and good ideas as I do. They have ideas, but not new and profound ones like mine.” He then went on to suggest that the authorities make an offer to illegal immigrants. If they were prepared to sign up to the forces and go off to fight for the USA, and managed to come back alive, then they should be offered citizenship. His idea was to form a special aliens’ brigade.

One caller rang in to make a case for Colin Powell, and the good job that he thought he was doing. After giving him about ten seconds of airtime, Savage cut across him and enquired whether he lived in a mental hospital and was let out once a month to make a phone call or something. As the caller spoke, Savage began singing: “Hey, Mr Taliban, tally me banana. Daylight come and I wan’ me go home” (repeat).

As he sang, he returned to the hapless caller intermittently before losing patience. “I’ve had enough of you now. You’re boring me. Get yourself down the pharmacy and buy some more medicine.”

It was just gone five by the time I reached Camden and found the Whitehall Inn, an imposing old building, with a white wooden frontage and myriad American flags bedecking its numerous porches. It was dauntingly posh, and I almost felt thankful that my room was over the road in an annex.

The room itself was the most basic that I had lodged in. It was a box room with a single bed and no basin. The shared bathroom was down the corridor. I contemplated a quick wash and brush up, and was delighted to discover that the face towel that had been laid out for my use was actually a bathmat.

The welcome leaflet said that jacket and tie were not expected at dinner but that guests should be dressed appropriately. The manager looked me up and down and said that he thought I would be fine dressed as I was. Jeans obviously passed the mark, but it was far too stuffy for my purposes, not to mention pricey. New England in the Fall was not well suited to the budget-traveller.

It was more like a mile into town and still light. I walked around the various shops and down to the harbor area and found the Bay View Lobster Restaurant. It was more like a café but, as its name suggested, it was serving lobster (and was also on the waterfront). A big tank of the things was by the door, and there were three pots into which they were being put after weighing.

I gave my name to the bloke with the list and waited my turn for a table. I sat on a bench on the dockside and smoked a cigarette. An old schooner was moored close by, with three people working on deck. One was a woman who was covered from head to toe (and she was bare-footed) with a sort of silvery gunk. It looked like she’d taken a dip in a bath of industrial lubricant. As the three of them beavered away, I could see another two through a porthole drinking beer below decks.

After dinner, I was keen to stay out in town rather than return to my stuffy hotel but there weren’t many places to go. Most of the things that looked like bars were restaurants, and the one pub I found, a seedy looking joint called Gilbert’s, had an entry charge of eight bucks. Pardon?

Back at the hotel, people were lounging in the lobby with drinks but I couldn’t figure out where they had got them. I could find no bar as such, just a room with leather furniture called the Spirits Room. Presumably finest cognac was available at fifty bucks a balloon.

I didn’t feel comfortable reclining with the grown-ups, and so I went outside and sat in a chair on one of the porches with my notebook and worked out my finances. I was far enough round to deduce quite how far over budget I now was. I would have fetched a beer from the car, but a notice explicitly warned against taking one’s own drinks onto the veranda.

Presently, I was joined by a middle-aged woman who sat two chairs away and starting reading her paper. Just as I had reached a crucial stage in my mental arithmetic, a booming voice hollered at me that I couldn’t be reading in that light. A man had come out onto the porch and was lighting a cigarette.

I assumed he was the woman’s husband, when he sat himself down next to her and exchanged a small familiar pleasantry. It only became clear that they weren’t together when he said that he needed to get back inside after he’d finished smoking, or else his wife would start to wonder what had happened to him. In the meantime though, we’d managed to squeeze a normal hour’s conversation into about ten minutes.

He’d opened by asking me where I was from and then skipped immediately over my answer to declare Maine to be the finest state in the Union. He looked at me with a glare, daring me to contradict him. He was from Kansas City MO, and he’d been to every one of the states, except Vermont “and only because you don’t go through it to get anywhere”. Presumably Interstate 91 up to Canada didn’t count.

I wondered where he thought Maine led to. For once I was able to bring up the subject of my trip without sounding like I was trying to show off. This seemed to irk him, and he reiterated his challenge about Maine. I told him that my two favorite states so far had been New Mexico and Missouri. He sneered and said that I must have gone to a different part of New Mexico to the places he’d seen.

Mischievously, I added that Vermont would probably run those two a close third, but that I thought it was a silly subject to discuss. I made the point that every state had its pros and cons, and that they were all very different in many ways and difficult to compare meaningfully. This sent him back to his wife with a harrumph.

Meanwhile, the woman reading her paper had put it down and had been listening to our conversation. She politely checked with me that she’d heard me right. Had I said that I was driving around all 48 states in 48 days? To write a book?

Her name was Kathy and she now lived in New Jersey, but came originally from Connecticut. She was waiting for her sister and brother-in-law to arrive from Boston MA. The conversation that ensued was most earnest. She couldn’t understand why I had only given myself 48 days in which to do the trip. I agreed that I probably hadn’t come close to doing any individual state justice, but that I had been able to glean a good overall impression of the country and its people.

She thought that I should be looking at the economic consequences of September 11th. She cited the way people’s attitudes to money and the future had changed. Instead of worrying about where to invest most prudently, people were now cashing in all their savings and going out and buying 37 different types of gas mask.

Despite my reservations about such an approach, she wouldn’t let it rest. The debate was only broken by the appearance of her sister and brother-in-law about an hour and a half after Kansas City man had retired to his wife. They introduced themselves as Jon and Eileen, and went off to drop their bags. They were soon back with a couple of bottles of wine and an extra glass. They offered me a glass, which I gratefully accepted even though I knew it was against the law.

I apologized for continuing to hijack their conversation, and then apologized again for the insensitivity of my terminology. After four glasses of Chardonnay, Kathy was becoming feisty and Eileen had to keep asking her to be quiet and let others have their say.

The subject turned to east coast conservatism, and I agreed that my experiences since arriving had led me to conclude that New England was well named. The people and atmosphere were far more akin to the British reserve with which I was so familiar, but strangely made me feel not the least bit at home.

Kathy was adamant that people in the east were different; they didn’t carry guns, and were calmer and more circumspect. They were pleased that the response to the attack had been measured and not knee-jerk. Jon and Eileen felt that Kathy was overstating her case with silly generalizations. They knew plenty of radicals from Boston and Connecticut.

Much of the focus of the commentaries after the attack had been on liberty. I’d been surprised to learn the extent to which the USA considered itself to be the exclusive refuge of liberty. What’s more, many folk seemed to think that the freedom enshrined in the constitution was supposed to be absolute.

Some of the measures that had been discussed were causing concern because they threatened to confine this liberty. I made the point that Americans had no problem with being expected to carry driver’s licenses with them whenever they took to the road. The three of them were surprised to learn that such a requirement was not in force in the UK, and that photographs on licenses had only recently been introduced.

They all agreed that September 11th had had a profound effect on the psyche of the country as a whole, and that the best evidence for this was the amount of flags on display. The hotel we were in proved a good example. I said that I had seen lots of flags prior to the attack, but they were convinced that the number had increased to levels usually reserved only for July 4th.

Whatever the truth, it was fairly clear that the terrorists would have struggled to find a more patriotic target and that they had succeeded in bringing all that latent feeling to the fore.

It was a relief to be indulged by Jon and Eileen’s listening ears, and they seemed genuinely interested in my recounting non-September 11th stories from my trip. With poor judgement, I mentioned the ubiquitous fatties and they smiled appreciatively.

Encouraged, I followed this up with a derisory comment about the clothes the fatties wore, and quickly felt ashamed for the cheapness of the observation. Eileen pointed out that, while she didn’t want “to exchange barbs”, she’d been to England and not everyone there exactly dressed like Princess Diana.

It was time for me to get my coat.

Day 43. VT/NH: leaves, old man, willey house, ski guides

I had been lying on the bed for nine and a half hours when I woke up, and had little inclination to spend another moment there. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had spent that long in bed.

Downstairs there was no sign of life, but a pot of fresh coffee was steaming on the sideboard in the room where the tables were laid for breakfast. I helped myself to a cup and sat deferentially in the corner, so as not to upset the more illustrious guests. A cheery Bob soon appeared and ran through the breakfast options with me.

My food had arrived by the time the other guests appeared. They were a middle-aged couple, who were undoubtedly moneyed but not famous outside their own home. Although he was very courteous to them, Bob didn’t offer them any special treatment. They were German, and in fact were only offered the choice between pancakes and scrambled egg. I’d been given the choice of French toast as well.

It was 9.30 by the time I drove away into to the green yonder. I’d read about a couple of small villages that I wished to see before I headed off for New Hampshire. I had originally intended staying in one of them, but had decided that they would be too quiet. I wanted to see if they could have outdone the roller-coaster experience of staying at the Foxfire.

The first was Craftsbury Common, and the sort of place that I’d only seen before in tourism brochures and picture postcards. Twee as an adjective doesn’t get near expressing the full extent of tweeness that was to be found there. I didn’t think that places like this were for real. The common itself was surrounded by trees in the full flush of Fall. A gravel lane ran round its perimeter, giving access to a number of large white houses all painted identically with dark green shutters.

Nobody was around. The only person I saw was a teenage girl who visited the post office before sloping back to a building that I assumed was the local school. I drove off in the direction of Craftsbury village, where I found a pay phone.

It was time to call Watch Hill once more. It was 11.05, but the bookings person wasn’t in yet. Ring back in half an hour. The village of Greensboro was a few miles further down the lane, and was in similar vein to Craftsbury.

I went into Willey’s General Store, which was as old fashioned as they come. It felt like something from the Norfolk Broads back in the fifties or sixties. There was no obvious system to the layout, just numerous aisles with shelves full of random everything. I bought a paper and some more Scotch tape.

The road out of Vermont towards St Johnsbury was glorious. The trees were a kaleidoscope of reds and yellows, and small brooks ran hither and thither.

The weather that day was due to be mild with the possibility of showers later. There might even be snow flurries this weekend. I knew this because I had listened attentively to the forecast given by Star 92.9 radio’s implausibly named weatherman, Randy Mann. No doubt he’d had fun introducing himself to prospective dates as a teenager (not to mention their parents).

New Hampshire was distinctive, certainly for an east coast state. Not only did it have a speed limit of 65 mph on main highways, it was the only state in the Union in which seat belts were not compulsory (although occasional signs did urge under 18s to buckle up on the basis that “you know it makes sense”). It was also one of only four states in which auto liability insurance was not mandatory. The whole attitude was summed up in the state’s official motto, “Live free or die”, which they happily emblazoned on their license plates.

I also spotted some signs with the warning “Brake for Moose, it could save your life.” Apparently, somewhere in the region of 200 people a year are killed by hitting moose with their cars. The beasts weigh up to 1600 pounds each. You wouldn’t want one careering through your windscreen at 50 mph.

The emblem on the state license plates was the Old Man of the Mountains, and my guidebook told me that this rock formation was visible from the highway on which I now found myself. Directions to a viewing point led to a car park where there were eight or nine other vehicles.

Everyone was walking out on to a bridge and taking photographs to their right, and so I followed. I looked up at a magnificent mountain bedecked with all the colors of fall. I stared and stared, but couldn’t see anything of note.

The guidebook had warned that it looked quite small from the ground, so I thought I might be looking at the wrong spot. I asked the person next to me where the Old Man of the Mountain was, and he told me that I needed to go down to the next exit on the Interstate. I was thankful that I had phrased the question in such a way that my idiocy of being in completely the wrong place had not become public. I was also quite thankful that the person I had asked knew what was meant by “the Old Man of the Mountain”.

A couple of miles down the road, I found the right car park and walked the 600 yards to the foot of the monument. The guidebook wasn’t understating the fact when it described the stone face as looking small from the ground. Even standing in the right spot, it was barely noticeable. If it hadn’t been for the legion of camera lenses trained up at a ridge, I still wouldn’t have known where to look.

Way up high 1200 feet above me, formed from the weathered rocks, I finally saw the Old Man. It just about looked like a face, in the same way as the constellations in the sky look like crabs and rams.

The time was right, so I stopped to call my friends at Watch Hill once more. Finally, I got through to someone who could answer my enquiry, and who told me that they did have a room on Sunday for $108. They also told me that the minimum stay was three nights. I explained that I would only be in town for the one night, which met with a firm reply. The minimum stay was three nights. Well thanks a bloody million.

New Hampshire was a state that took its scenic routes seriously. The Kancamagus Pass was delicious. By the time I had reached Conway, I had already used up more than half a roll of film. The only other place where I had taken so many shots in such a short space had been Yellowstone National Park. It was rudely beautiful.

Just beyond Crawford Notch, I stopped at Willey House. The place was named after a house built back in the 19th Century by the Willey family, much to the derision of the locals at the time. It was below a cliff that was renowned for falling boulders and the like. One day there was a massive landslide that wiped out everything in its path, but miraculously split as it reached the house leaving it untouched. Sadly, the whole family had perished when they scampered out the house and tried to make a run for it.

I had no idea where to go next. Ironically, given that it was the mythical Fall, I felt that I’d arrived at the wrong time. These were tourist places, but the only folk on vacation in October in America were pensioners.

The skiing season had yet to start, and everywhere decent cost a fortune and had been booked a year in advance. Thanks to sticking to the tourist areas, I still hadn’t seen any of the real New Hampshire where the normal people lived.

I was quite close to Berlin, which looked like a large town and so I decided to go and have a look. It didn’t take me long to conclude that it wouldn’t be the best place to stay for the night. Juxtaposed against the wealth of the nearby ski areas, it was pretty run down and grubby. Even the main street felt more like an urban back street.

I circled around and came back south to Gorham. I looked at my map. I was only a few miles from where I had entered the state from Vermont, and at the top of the road that led south back to Conway.

On the way down the road, I passed a couple of attractions that were closed for the night but looked interesting possibilities for the next morning: the Mount Washington Auto Road (seemingly a route for driving at least part of the way up the mountain), and some gondolas that stretched up into the mountains with the intriguing name of Wild Cat.

A worrying number of “no vacancy” signs greeted me as I passed various motels and B&Bs along the road. Only the dodgiest looking places seemed to have any space. It was getting dark, and I started to set my sights lower. I didn’t want to end up sleeping in the car that night.

Up ahead I noticed a glow from a building. It was an Irish pub called Shannon Door and looked perfect, apart from the fact that it didn’t offer accommodation. This was the place that I wanted to come this evening.

I resolved to find the nearest motel, however grubby. I pulled out of the car park and found myself opposite the Ellis River Hotel, complete with a “vacancies” sign. I slunk up the long driveway and parked. It was a cosy place with a swimming pool outside that, judging by the vapor coming off it, was heated.

I went in and rang the bell. A young chap appeared, full of smiles and welcome. They had a room for $110. I winced, in the way that had worked so effectively in Eureka Springs AR. It didn’t work at all here. He explained that this was their busiest week and so they had to charge that amount. I told him that I’d go and see if I could find something more in my price bracket, and traipsed back out across the parking lot.

I wasn’t half way back to my car when I owned up to myself that this was still my best bet. After all, who was I kidding? Did I want to save myself perhaps twenty bucks in order to have another miserable evening staring at the wall? I went back in and told him that I’d take the room after all.

He laughed and showed me up to it. I asked about the bar across the road and he said that the food was basic but good and they had a live band playing there that evening. Two people were in the pool as I left for the pub. Either it must have been heated or they were clinically insane. It was not a warm evening.

The pub was more spit and sawdust than it had looked from the outside, and I’d arrived at family meal-time. All the tables were packed with legion juveniles stuffing pizza into their faces. I took the one empty stool at the bar and ordered a beer.

Like many of the places that I had been to, this was full of locals who were keeping themselves to themselves. I looked around, but there weren’t many conversations that I was likely to be able to break in to. All I got were a couple of filthy looks from a guy who thought I was eyeing up his food and another from a guy who thought I was eyeing up his woman.

Regardless of the potential welcome or absence of it, I wasn’t best placed. I was on the corner of the bar with a pillar in front of me and so I couldn’t catch anyone’s eye naturally without craning round like an over-eager moron.

A couple of girls came up to the bar and ordered drinks. One of the guys to my left started chatting them up. He knew a colleague of theirs, and had given him lessons on how to ski. After a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries, the two girls bade their leave and went back outside.

The two guys joked about how much easier it was talking to women when you’ve got a girlfriend. The barman joined in. They all agreed that women had the uncanny knack of smelling desperation from miles away. It seemed an odd conversation for three guys in their forties to be having so publicly, but it at least suggested they were approachable.

I took my chance and leant over to ask if they could tell me about skiing in New Hampshire. I think I asked how much a day would cost, but it didn’t really matter. I just wanted to have a chat with someone. Fortunately, men aren’t quite as good at smelling desperation from miles away.

Whatever it was I asked, they were off and running. Homer and John were both technical directors of nearby resorts. Homer worked at Wild Cat and John at Cranmore. They got into such detail that they couldn’t help me any more, and gave me some numbers to ring to find out more information before returning to their conversation. My ploy had had no lasting effect, and I was back to lurking behind my pillar.

Within a few minutes, Homer stood up and gulped down the last of his beer. He was off, but John appeared to be staying and was now in the same boat as me. We both looked into space for a short while and then John turned and continued the conversation about skiing.

Within five minutes, he had pulled his stool up to my corner. Within an hour, we were buying each other beers. Within two and a half hours we were both rolling drunk and arranging a tentative house swap for a week.

John had been to London and really liked it, and wanted to go over again with his girlfriend. He thought that the skiing in New Hampshire couldn’t touch that in the Alps, but it was still good stuff if you knew where to go and were a decent intermediate.

He came from New Hampshire, and I told him where I had been and the difficulty that I’d had finding the real people from the state. He agreed and said that it was mainly folks “up from Mass” who frequented those parts. Apparently those from New York state ski in Vermont, and those from Massachusetts ski in New Hampshire. The locals knew them as Massholes. John was kind enough to point out the phonetic similarity to “assholes” for me.

I hadn’t seen enough of the state to come up with any searching questions, so I asked him why the New Hampshire primary was always the first to declare. He didn’t know the answer, but reckoned it was something to do with being a small state and a keenness to retain some degree of national prominence. He advised me to do the Washington Auto Road the next day if it was a clear day. It would give me a much better view than the Wild Cat gondola, which was just a standard ski lift serving Homer’s resort.

Just as the kitchen was closing, a couple presented themselves at the bar begging for pizza. The barman reluctantly agreed to take their order, and they fell in with our conversation. Their names were Rana and Vicky and they were over from London. The previous night they’d spent in Bar Harbor ME and had found it amazing. They’d also been to Camden, but told me that Bar Harbor was much better.

I asked them if they had been at all worried flying in the current situation. They had been totally unfazed by it, and glad of the discounts that had made their vacation a possibility. They reckoned that now was the safest time to fly ever.

John agreed and asserted that no American plane was ever going to be hijacked again. He reckoned that Americans would never again believe assurances from the cockpit if a plane were hijacked and would rush any terrorists and overpower them. They might as well, if they were going to die in any case. And, he pointed out, any aspiring hijacker knew that and would never risk it again.

I went to the restroom, and when I got back there was another pint waiting for me. John had got them in on our behalf. After all, we were good mates now and were going to be exchanging houses for a week in February.

By the time we all rolled out of the bar, the driveway back to the hotel seemed much longer than I had remembered it being on the way out.

Day 42. NY/VT: fall rush, full bladder, cold shoulders, fancy grub

As I had been travelling around and people had enquired about my schedule, I had attracted many envious comments about arriving in New England in the Fall.

It was the perfect time said everybody with a sigh, almost as if I were proposing to do something mythical. As I had got nearer, others had been surprised to learn that I hadn’t booked anywhere given the time of year that I was going.

Pennsylvania Chip had told me that I’d been lucky to arrive in Wellsboro on a Monday, and that folks had booked up to a year in advance for later in the week. He warned me that it would be even tighter in New England proper.

I had been able to reach Adam’s friend Jon in Massachusetts, so I knew that I was sorted for Saturday evening but I thought that I should try and get booked in somewhere for Friday in Maine. I had tried the previous evening with no joy (unless I was prepared to pay $400 for a suite for the night), but one place had asked me to call back in the morning.

I telephoned them again when I woke up and found myself agreeing to pay $95 plus tax for a single room with a shared bathroom at the Whitehall Inn in Camden. I had tried every number I had for places in Camden and Kennebunkport with no success, and was prepared to believe the implication that I had secured the last available room in Maine for that Friday.

The woman on the phone assured me that it was friendly little hotel, and only a quarter of a mile from the harbor “so I could almost walk in to the town” if I wanted.

I should bloody well think so. A quarter of a mile? The Americans clearly had a strange aspect on the lot of the pedestrian. The woman at the Inn at Roscoe Village had been scandalized when I’d declared my intention to walk the 250 yards up the road to the Warehouse restaurant.

I also needed to arrange my final night on the road in Rhode Island. I wanted to stay at Watch Hill and so I had also tried calling the Inn at Watch Hill the previous evening, but there had been no reply. I gave them another go. Eventually the phone was answered, but the woman was unable to say whether they had any vacancies for Sunday. The person who looked after reservations wasn’t in yet. She suggested I call back again after ten.

I was enjoying not being in the rush first thing that I had previously been accustomed to. Thanks to getting as far as Cooperstown the night before, I only had just over a hundred miles to go before my lunchtime stop in Vermont. I had a leisurely read of the paper and then strolled into town to get some supplies.

The town was now bustling and looked very different by day. I took some photographs of the bistro and the Pratt, which was next door to a Chinese restaurant that really was called the Foo Kin.

I went to look at the Baseball Museum and the shop commemorating the start of the game and which went under the name “Where it all began…” I didn’t go in though. I had been subjected to quite enough sport that I couldn’t follow without voluntarily seeking out more stuff.

It was 10.30 by the time I got back to the hotel, and I had to be out by eleven. The management regarded staying any later as on a par with the misdemeanor of allowing an outsider to use the lavatory, and imposed a similar penalty.

I had just enough time to give Watch Hill another go. This time the woman got quite shirty with me and pointed out that I had to call after eleven. Now it wasn’t so busy, the bookings person didn’t get in until then, and they tended to leave by one. Hey, all I wanted to do was give them my business.

I drove out of town along the lakeside, which was another playground for the rich and indolent. Various folk who looked like they didn’t have to work were gearing up for a day’s sailing or jet-skiing or fishing along its banks. At the Otsego golf course, I passed a sign inviting me to “play one of America’s ten oldest golf courses”.

It didn’t take long to reach Albany and from there it was a fast run up to the state line. The moment I crossed over into Vermont, everything seemed to get greener. Even the vehicle license plates. There were trees for as far as you could see.

I drove through Bennington and up to Manchester, which couldn’t have been more unlike its English namesake. It was like a village-sized country club. But it did have a roundabout, the first that I had encountered on the whole trip.

I went for lunch at the Marsh Tavern, part of the historic Equinox Hotel, which had been at the heart of Vermont’s mobilization against the British in the War of Independence.

After I had eaten, I tried the Inn at Watch Hill once more. The same woman answered the phone and, with no apology, informed me that the bookings person had now gone home for the day. It wasn’t very busy at that time of year, you see. It was 1.25 pm.

I suggested that they might find themselves a little more busy if they instituted a system that actually let people make bookings, and promised to call back the following day between eleven and one.

I followed the scenic route up to Middlebury. Vermont was like one big forest, with occasional clearings where the odd building would stand. The road had been cut carefully through it, not in the usual straight through anything that laid in the way American style.

It felt like the place that Robin Hood would hang out if he were alive and in the USA. The problem with such a natural environment was that it lacked any of the infrastructure that I had got used to, and so I arrived at Middlebury with a bladder inflated well beyond my comfort zone.

I parked the car and spent the next twenty minutes dashing around town as fast as I dared move my legs looking for a restroom. Perhaps folk round there had been living among the trees so long that they’d learnt to photosynthesize.

There was no lavatory to be found, and too many people walking their dogs along the riverbank for me to sneak behind a tree. My increasingly frantic behavior was starting to attract attention and so, with my legs locked together above the knee, I tottered back to the car.

I left Middlebury behind, disappointed not to have formed any opinion of it. My eyes had been temporarily blinded by my urgent need for natural relief and had seen only blurs. Salvation suddenly loomed in the shape of a gas station.

I burst into the store promising to buy fuel as soon as I had gone to the bathroom. The contortion on my face must have told the attendant not to argue, as he passed me a key and pointed outside. With the job done, I duly filled up with gas and bought another phone card. I don’t think that they’d had a more grateful customer that year.

One of my guidebooks had a number for the Foxfire, and it looked as if they did accommodation too. I gave them a call. The man who answered seemed surprised to be getting a booking so late in the day. He had to check that I meant this evening three or four times.

He also emphasized that they only had vacancies for this evening and were booked out for the rest of the week. He warned me that the price didn’t include breakfast, but there would be coffee in the morning.

I warned him that I wouldn’t be there until about seven. In the end, I didn’t stop again as I made my way up to Stowe and arrived in the town around 6.30. I hadn’t got used to being in a smaller part of the world and was still looking at my road atlas with the eyes of New Mexico and Wyoming.

I felt disappointed that I’d not made very good use of the additional time that I’d had on my hands that day, but New England generally seemed to be a lot colder and reserved than the rest of the states. It was more like England in terms of temperament, and I’d forgotten how unwelcoming my homeland could be to outsiders.

The Foxfire was a high-class joint, and I again felt a little out of place with my scruffiness. I was greeted by a man called Bob, who turned out to be the owner. He showed me up to my room, which was homely.

He told me that breakfast was included and would be at eight in the morning, which was more than slightly inconsistent with what he’d said on the phone. I asked about dinner, and he said that he could fit me in if I could wait until eight.

I thought that I’d best shave and put on my least creased shirt before going down. The room had no TV, so I was soon downstairs parked on a barstool looking for company.

The barman was a taciturn chap who never told me his name. As he busied himself preparing the drinks orders that the waitresses kept bringing, I managed to squeeze something approaching a conversation out of him. He came originally from Vermont, had worked “all over the US” (although the only place he mentioned specifically was San Francisco) but had recently come back because it was “more calm and relaxed, and the folks more friendly and sincere in these parts”.

He’d never been abroad and was saving that for when he retired as he wanted to see the rest of America while he was still young enough to enjoy it. His next vacation was going to be 45 minutes up the road near Craftsbury in Vermont, where his brother had a cabin. That was about all I managed to get in the hour that we enjoyed together.

I fancied some wine when I was shown into the restaurant. I knew that I could comfortably sink three or four glasses, and thought about ordering a whole bottle. I decided against it in case they called the police. It didn’t look like the done thing in Vermont. It was the sort of place where even farting in the bathroom was probably frowned upon.

The food was unbelievable, not just by the standards of this trip but by any standards that I’d come across anywhere. Although it wasn’t an ideal environment for my purposes, it was a real pleasure to indulge in such culinary luxury. It was unlikely that I was going to meet anyone or have any interesting conversations but, for once, it had almost been worth it.

I went through to the bar for a last glass of wine. The furore of clearing up and cashing in meant that barman couldn’t stop to chat further, so I stepped outside for a cigarette. No smoking is allowed in any place that serves food in Vermont.

By the time I’d finished smoking, there was only one car apart from mine left in the lot. It was 9.25. This other car was an expensive model, and I could only assume that the change of heart about breakfast provision was because some big guns had swung into town and if they were making the effort for them, then I might as well be included.

The lights had all been turned off in the restaurant and, when I went to go back, the front door had been locked. Thankfully, I saw someone inside who had come through to the bathroom and managed to get their attention by tapping on the window. I felt like a naughty schoolboy who had been caught playing truant.

The bar was now closed and I had no choice but to go to my room. It seemed a rum situation to find myself in as I was nowhere near tired enough to go to sleep. The place was now closed and I didn’t even have a TV in my room to gawp at.

If I’d not been drinking and could still drive, I still wouldn’t have been able to go into town because I had no key to let myself back in. The cage was gilded, but I was definitely locked in. I lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

I tried reading, but I was counting every page and checking the clock after each paragraph. I had given up by ten, and turned off the light.

The time didn’t pass any faster in the dark, but I eventually fell asleep after what felt like a fortnight.

Day 41. PA/NY: waterfall, antiques, panto, and just surreal

I had hoped to see Chip at breakfast the following morning, as that would have meant that he had crashed the night on the floor somewhere rather than into a bridge on the way back to Troy.

He was nowhere in sight, although he might have been upstairs still nursing a hangover. He worked all night, so perhaps he slept all day. Allen was on the table next to me, making up for lost time from the previous evening and talking wood big-time with a couple of other delegates.

My schedule reckoned on 467 miles to Cooperstown NY, via Niagara Falls. At least after today, I would be in the small-scale world of New England and only have a couple of hundred to do each day.

I still had over a week to go, but I now knew that it would take something catastrophic to prevent me from completing my mission on time. The six New England states occupied an area smaller than shitty Oklahoma and I’d been in, through and out that in about seven hours. In a strange way, this realization left me more deflated than elated. The feeling was much closer to anticlimax than triumph.

The fog was thick in the air and, once out of town, it was like driving through a cloud. The radio auto-searched a remarkable breakfast show where the host invited listeners to ring in with their stories or problems.

Most of the stories were to do with sex, usually the over-indulgence of it or the deprivation of it. All of the answers and advice offered by the host also had something to do with sex. It had never dawned on me that the best way to deal with bankruptcy and the imminent repossession of your house was to “do more screwing”.

It was a fast run through to Buffalo, where I picked up signs for Niagara Falls. I missed my turning when I came over the bridge into Niagara City. This at least gave me the chance to see a bit of the town. I drove down one residential street and saw a bizarre looking house. Not only were there about fifty pumpkins outside, but there was a ghoulish effigy placed in all of the ten windows at the front crowned by the grim reaper hanging out of the top window.

It was early October and still almost a full month until Hallowe’en. There were also various placards painted with messages to bin Laden informing him that the spooks were going to get him. Presumably someone actually lived there. I bet the neighbors really loved him.

It was easy to find my way back on to the right road and within five minutes I was paying my five bucks at the car park. I walked across the grass towards the audible rush of the river where the white water was leaping around the rocks at formidable speed. I followed the river to the precipice where it flowed over and down, apparently dropping 65-75,000 gallons a second to feed Lake Ontario.

The spray gave it a natural soft focus appearance. I made the obligatory visit to the gift shop. I had heard that the Falls was a horrible, teeming tourist circus, but it had been genuinely quite awe-inspiring.

Inside the shop though, the commercialism swung into full stride. There was very little on sale that could not be described as pap, and extremely overpriced at that. I thought about getting a sandwich from the café, but I only had thirty dollars on me.

I spent the afternoon exploring the moneyed highways and byways of upstate New York. Seneca Falls was posh and Skaneateles posher still, but neither offered much to the speed tourist unless I wanted to recline on the grass by the edge of the Finger Lakes with a slushy novel. Much the same deal was to be had thirty miles up the road at Cazenovia.

From what I’d seen of it, the upstate had about as much in common with NYC as Hampshire had with Manchester back in England. There was very little edge, but plenty of big houses and self-satisfaction.

Cooperstown was another hour and a half away, along a stretch of US20 that was the road with the most antique shops in the world: for once that wasn’t a claim, it was my observation. I had no idea where all those antiques could come from, but I must have passed over fifty different outlets along the way.

The sun was setting as I pulled into Cooperstown, another pretty retreat but somehow it seemed to have more character. It had a number of claims to fame. It was supposedly where Baseball began, although this was disputed by Hoboken NJ where my trip had started. It definitely was home to both the National Baseball and Soccer Halls of Fame. There was also the Cardiff Giant, a fraudulent fossil that had been sculpted in the late 19th Century, buried and then “discovered”. And to top it all, the town boasted the highest number of museums and B&Bs per capita in all of America.

Most of these B&Bs were located an uncomfortable distance’s walk away from the town centre, and none of the hotels that were centrally located looked vaguely within reach of my budget. I followed some signs down to the shores of Lake Otsego where I found the Lakeview Motel, offering discounted rates for single occupancy of rooms. I signed the agreement that I would pay double if I were discovered to have taken anyone else into my room – “this includes to use bathroom” – and I was sorted.

I wandered up and down the main street and eventually settled for the Hoffman Lane Bistro down a side alley with tables outside. It was quite busy, and I waited for about ten minutes before being shown to a table and given a menu.

The place was run by a bloke called Dave and my waitress was Sherri. It was all very friendly, and they started to refer to me by each other’s names as if we were three long established mates: “Has Sherri been to take you to your table yet?”; “Didn’t Dave give you a menu?”; “Has Dave brought you that beer yet?”; “Hasn’t Sherri taken your order yet?”; etc.

This panto continued for about fifteen minutes before Sherri came back with a beer and took my order. The food was OK eventually, and when I had finished it, I waited again to attract someone’s attention to check whether I could go and sit at the bar for a cigarette.

It seemed like Sherri was the only waitress in the whole joint. I had my tape recorder on me and made a big show of talking into it “surreptitiously”. I hoped that they might notice it and think that I was from Michelin or Egon Ronay or something, and start paying me some attention.

It then dawned on me that no high-powered restaurant critic would have been likely to order meatloaf and a pint of Bass, and so I abandoned the ruse and went down to the bar regardless. I ordered a beer and explained to Dave that I had come down without paying my bill, so that he could get a message to Outer Mongolia or wherever Sherri had disappeared to.

I lit up a cigarette and looked into space. On the barstool next to me was a twenty-something girl who was yabbering away to the barman. She became distracted when she saw me light up and I thought that she was going to ask me not to smoke near her.

Instead, she turned to me and asked for a light. I can’t remember what I said, but it must have been something, because she picked up on the accent, which she thought was “cool”.

We went through the usual rigmarole of where I came from, what I was doing and where I was going. She pulled out her mobile phone and tried to call her friend Rita who was writing a book. She thought that we should meet, but she couldn’t get any answer on the phone.

She introduced herself as Sabrina and, so as to establish exactly where we stood, contrived to mention her husband three or four times in the next couple of sentences. It came as a relief to me also.

She clarified the situation by saying that he wasn’t really her husband, more her fiancé but she hated that word. They lived together and he was away for the evening on business in Brooklyn. She was an artist and Internet entrepreneur, but also worked in the bar here. Tonight was her night off.

We chatted for a bit about America, and what it meant to be free. Sabrina’s view was that you should be able to think anything and to say anything but not to do anything, because that impacted on other people.

I suggested that perhaps bin Laden was to blame less for his actions than for his words. He’d not got aboard the planes himself, but his talk had clearly inspired others to do so. George Washington may have physically led his troops into battle, but the main implement of the modern day leader is his tongue more than his deeds. She still thought that people should be able to say what they liked.

Sabrina felt that September 11th was down to “two things, God and religion”. The way she saw it, the attack was motivated by a desire to impose the Muslim way of doing things on the whole world, starting with America. She then bizarrely changed tack, and concluded that if it wasn’t down to that then it was down to money “because money lies behind all action.”

Apparently, the fact that marijuana wasn’t legal was also “down to money”. She wanted to know if other countries had civil liberties, or whether it was just the USA. She liked going off at tangents.

Sabrina was annoyed about Rita, and tried calling her again. Rita was working as a journalist while she wrote her book, which she was due to finish in the near future. I asked Sabrina what it was about, and she replied that it was based on Cooperstown. I asked whether it was fact or fiction, and she replied that it was unlike any other book that had ever been written. She explained that it was factual, but based on fiction. It sounded worth looking out for.

Suddenly she asked me whether I had been to Walmart yet. I had to confess that I hadn’t. She told me about a 24-hour Walmart that was only twenty miles away, and was ready to lead me to it there and then. It was what American life was all about. You could “go see the optometrist any time, night or day, and while your glasses were being made you could go buy some groceries”.

It was very sweet, but I had no immediate need for any provisions or spectacles, and pointed out that neither of us was fit to drive. The disappointment made her physically slump. She obviously felt that I was missing out on some quintessential American experience.

We drank there until about ten-thirty, during which time Sabrina tried to introduce me to some of the other regulars. None of them were that interested, although one called Bob, who was a builder, did say hello. When he heard that I was going to Vermont the next day, he told me that I should go to the Foxfire in Stowe to eat. I wouldn’t find better food anywhere in the entire state.

I saw Sabrina having a word with the owner at one point and when my bill arrived, I found that I had only been charged for my food. It was explained that Sabrina wanted to pay for all my beer and I watched as she handed over six dollars. She explained that she always got her drinks at “bar staff rates”. She turned and asked me if I was ready for the next place yet.

It was hard to say no, not that I particularly wanted to. She was a boxful of random thought and made very entertaining company. We wandered over to the Pratt, another bar on the ground floor of a hotel, and this time I bought the beer. I came back to the table and Sabrina asked me if I smoked weed. The answer was technically yes, although the last time I had done so I’d ended up telephoning my mum and asking her why the ivy outside my house was fucked.

I shrugged my shoulders and nodded. She asked if I fancied smoking some later, and I said I supposed I would. I assumed that I couldn’t be sent to jail provided that I didn’t inhale.

I went to the restroom and when I came back, Sabrina was looking worried. She told me that it would be a problem going back to her apartment because Andrew, her husband/fiancé, would be cross if he found out that she’d taken me back there. I agreed that that was understandable, but she then came up with a solution. I could stand in the corridor outside the door.

Two lads came sauntering over to chat with Sabrina. One of them, who went by the remarkable name of Jynj, was some sort of parody of a young person at the turn of the millennium. The waistline of his multi-pocketed combats was hanging a couple of inches below his buttocks, and he had six or seven layers thrown over his top half. His shock of red hair was combed over Bobby Charlton style under his baseball cap, so it stuck out in a ponytail perpendicular to the side of his head.

Jynj was wasted but knew that Andrew was out of town. He wanted a shot at getting in Sabrina’s underpants, and was irritated that my presence was hindering his prospects. He said that they were going off for a drive and tried to persuade her to go with them. She wasn’t interested, and the more he begged the more resolute she became. When he eventually gave up and left, Sabrina turned and told me to hurry up so we could go back for that smoke.

Sabrina and Andrew’s apartment was just across the main street. We went up and I stayed behind in the corridor when she let herself in through the door. She came back out and asked me what I was doing.

When I reminded her of the plan, she dismissed it and said that I might as well come in now we were here. She stopped me as I got to the threshold and pointed out that they had a light-colored carpet and so they didn’t allow anyone in with their shoes on. I knelt down to untie my laces, and she changed her mind again. She said that I didn’t have to take my shoes off though, unless I really wanted to. I was fairly neutral on the subject, and so I wandered in still fully shod.

It was a small apartment and full of stuff. I sat on a leather sofa that would have been an imposing piece of furniture in a room twice the size, and Sabrina handed me a china pipe, which she thought was shaped like a penis. Insofar as it was long with a bulbous bit on the end, I guess that she was right.

Any reservations I had had about inhaling were allayed by my inability to make anything come out of the mouthpiece. Sabrina showed me repeatedly the system of holes that had to be covered/uncovered at strategic moments, but I couldn’t the hang of it.

She had a bad case of ants in her knickers, and couldn’t sit still for a moment. She wanted to play music, but changed the track each time I said that I recognized it and most times that I didn’t. She thought I needed to listen to new stuff, but kept no single piece on for more than 30 seconds.

She told me that she didn’t believe in God, but that she did believe in Energy. She believed that when someone died, their energy had to go somewhere. She passed me a couple of books, one on reincarnation the other on hypnotherapy.

I wasn’t sure if she was lending them to me, or whether I was supposed to read them there and then. She jumped up and ran through to the kitchen, imploring me to look round through the adjoining breakfast bar. She turned all the lights off and I could hear her talking as she scrabbled around in the darkness. She said she had something amazing to show me.

What did follow I have difficulty describing. There were electronic whirring sounds, and then some flashing lights. I could make out movement of an outline of something with that glow-in-the-dark paint. In fact I could make out several, and the sound was now building to a cacophony. The show lasted for about a minute before the lights went up and I could see what had been happening.

Ranged in two rows on top of the kitchen cabinets were fourteen boxes, each emblazoned with Star Wars logos. Inside these were a number of different animatronic characters that wiggled and made noises in response to hand movements, and some glowed in the dark. Even without narcotic stimulation, it had been most surreal and left me genuinely speechless.

Sabrina explained that Andrew collected things, any things, and that these were now worth over $200 each. She showed me some of his baseball stuff, that “nobody had ever seen before”, and some photos of herself, her family, and friends.

One of them was of an English ex-boyfriend of hers from Redhill in Surrey. He had the letters B-A-S-H tattooed across his chest in Gothic script. She proudly announced that it stood for “Bay area soccer hooligans”. He had another tattoo on his arm of a heart split in two, which he’d had done following the demise of their relationship, because “his heart would be broken for ever”. He was now back in England, playing American football for one of the London teams. I hoped I never met him.

The phone rang. It was Andrew calling to say goodnight. Sabrina took the phone into the bedroom and emerged a few minutes later, saying that Andrew didn’t believe her when she told him that a writer from England was in the apartment with her. She claimed that it was the first time they’d ever let anyone else into their home, and so Andrew had just assumed that she’d been imagining things.

I was beginning to feel the same way. I was keen to return to the comparative sanity and sanctity of the bar, but Sabrina wanted to show me some of her work as an artist. She led me into the bathroom and swept back the shower curtain. The wall was painted blue, and there were some green stems with red cups at the top that I took to represent tulips. I found myself hoping that her Internet endeavors worked out for her.

We returned to the Pratt for one last drink. It was approaching 1 am, and Sabrina looked like she could keep going all night. I looked at my watch and mumbled something about having to get to Vermont the next day.

Sabrina walked out with me and skipped across the road back to her apartment, waving gaily as if we’d see each other again soon. I tromped back to the motel and had a last cigarette on the edge of the lake.

It was beautifully peaceful, and the stars were out in force. It chilled me enough for the warmth of the room to be like a welcoming embrace.

I checked around for spare people. I was fairly convinced that I’d not brought anyone back, but I thought it best to make absolutely sure.

Day 40. OH/PA: gobbler’s knob, lumber boys, formula 1, more beer

Needless to say, I set out early for Pennsylvania. The first major town over the state line was Butler, where I was delighted to see comparatively few private cars on the road, but plenty of people on the buses.

Another phone-in show on the radio had one caller who was very concerned what the folk of New York were going to make of all this food aid that was being sent to Afghanistan. He couldn’t make sense of it at all. The only rationale that he had been able to come up with was that the US was going to drop the food out in open areas and when the Afghans ran out to get it, it would be easier to bomb them to smithereens.

The driving was getting tricky. I wasn’t following a major route and had to change roads several times during the course of the morning, before finally reaching Punxsutawney at around lunchtime. It was only a few miles but it took hours, and constituted the slowest progress that I had made yet.

Given my previous experiences at places like the Roseman Bridge in Madison County, I had expected to see references to the film everywhere. The initial signs were promising, with the Punxsy Phil Brasserie on the road into town, but once in the center there was nothing. There were no photos of Bill Murray or Andie McDowell and no signs indicating where the main bits of the film had been shot.

That’s not to say that Groundhog Day wasn’t important to Punxsatawney, more that their celebration of it had nothing to do with the movie. I pulled in and parked at the Groundhog Plaza and went to buy some supplies. There was a gift shop there with loads of Groundhog memorabilia and postcards celebrating Punxsatawney’s status as the Weather Capital of the World.

I asked the woman behind the counter where I could find the Groundhog Day stuff in town. It depended upon whether I wanted to go to Gobbler’s Knob or to see Punxsatawney Phil. She explained that the former was up a hill outside the town, and the latter was now kept in a library next to the Town Hall. It transpired that Phil didn’t live at Gobbler’s Knob, he just got taken there each year on February 2nd to be given the chance to spot his own shadow.

I should have left my car at the plaza and walked to the Town Hall, but I took the “shoppers only” sign seriously and tried to drive around the corner. I had already noticed the Town Hall, but I couldn’t figure out which building might be Phil’s library home. After driving back and forth a couple of times, I realized that I wasn’t going to find it, but it was no great sacrifice. Presumably it was just a caged woodchuck whose turn it was to be called Phil for this lifetime.

A turning up a hill had paw-prints painted on the road. I followed these for a mile and a half, until they suddenly scampered off the road and left into a field. It was just as I remembered it from the film, hardly surprising given it was shot there. It was a large park with trees and slopes and in pride of position was a small hut with the word “Phil” written over the door. There were crash barriers – like those that used to be on the terraces at football grounds – on the slope facing Phil’s hut. The only thing that was different was that there were no crowds. I was the only person there. October 1st was obviously not as popular a date.

Once I had got beyond Shaffer, the scenery returned to the astonishing. The road followed the river along the edge of the Moshannon State Forest, and was a glorious sight. I’d not yet reached New England, but the colors of Fall were appearing on these trees too.

It was slow going though, as the road petered out into little more than a country lane at times. By the time I reached Westport, I knew that I’d be struggling to make Wellsboro before sundown.

An NPR broadcast on the need to provide the public with proof of bin Laden’s guilt segued into the Paul Harvey review of the news (and promotional bonanza). In the midst of today’s bulletin of serious subjects, he informed the listeners that in his household he always made sure to give Interferon Alpha to any of his guests who suffered from Hepatitis B. Apparently, he found that it cured most of them.

The much faster US 6 took me the final 26 miles in about half an hour. Surprisingly perhaps for a Monday night, most of the accommodation in town was showing “no vacancy” signs.

After trying a couple of numbers, I managed to secure the last available room in the Penn Wells Hotel. It was an old building, and had a dining room that you needed to walk through to get to the reception. I asked if there was a bar, and the receptionist pointed to a door across the lobby.

The bar was in keeping with the age of the hotel. It was dark and wooden, with alcoves and nooks. I sat on a stool and ordered a beer. I had just taken a sip when a hail-fellow-well-met appeared at the counter beside me and called for a drink.

I looked at him and he introduced himself as Chip. He handed me his business card, which was printed on wood. He explained that his business was lumber, and that he was here for a lumber conference. Most of the delegates were staying in the hotel.

He seemed OK and was very friendly, wanting to know all about my travels. He told me that he already had a collection of 1500 books in his library, and would love to add mine to it if I could send him a signed copy. I didn’t tell him that I was yet to secure a publishing deal.

After about half an hour, he excused himself because he wanted to get back to hear the main speaker’s speech. He bought me a drink and promised to return. To my right was another drinker who appeared to be on his own. I’d seen enough to believe that this meant he had to be dangerous, deranged or alcoholic – or possibly all three – and I made a point of avoiding his gaze.

I’d left my Zippo in the car and was trying to get the barman’s attention to see if he had any matches. To my alarm, the fellow loner reached over and lit my cigarette for me. I thanked him and he said that I could keep the lighter as he always carried a spare. I decided to take a chance on making conversation, safe in the knowledge that Chip would be back to rescue me if things went horribly wrong.

I was glad that I did. He turned out to be safe, mentally stable and only slightly boozed up, and also very engaging company. He was a construction worker who laid roads and now lived in Cocoa Beach FL. He’d lived and worked all over the US in fifteen different states to date. Where he was now was his favorite, but he’d also liked Salt Lake City UT. The worst place that he’d been was Atlanta GA and he’d not been too wild about Flagstaff AZ either.

He had been born in Wellsboro and had come back to help his mother prepare the home for winter before she left until the spring. She’d already gone down to Florida, and he was staying around to finish things off for her and to catch up with some old buddies. What was more, his name was Kevin, the only other one I’d come across to date.

Chip returned from the speeches along with a load of his lumber chums. I was engrossed listening in on the conversations. One of his mates had a load of 8-foot clear white oak, but was upset because he couldn’t use it for facan butter. Or something like that. It was riveting stuff.

Chip tried to introduce me to a number of the other delegates, but each in succession quickly lost interest in me when they realized that I wasn’t up to serious timber talk. Chip was in his element and was working the room a treat.

Chip explained that his family had been in lumber for generations. He didn’t believe in advertising in a commodity market. His best advertisement was his product, and he got a better return on his money by investing in taking potential customers out for a day’s golf. He said that he’d like to take me to play golf if I was ever back in that neck of the woods. I explained that we would probably need more than a day if we were to get round a complete 18 holes. He seemed to think I was joking.

I said that football was more my sport. Chip said that he didn’t get soccer. His sister played it, and he just didn’t get it. He understood the rules, but said that he couldn’t see the point. There was so little to the game. If American Football was chess, then soccer was checkers. He said that his sport was Formula 1, which he was mad about.

As usual, the subject of September 11th came up. Chip was the first American I had heard voice the view that it was less comparable to Pearl Harbor than it was to Hiroshima. It was an event that had redefined the rules, and things could never be the same again as a result of it.

Presumably those who had named the site Ground Zero had also spotted this similarity (it had been the codename for the atomic target in 1945). We agreed on a number of aspects, notably that this wasn’t some macro-political event that ordinary people could do nothing about.

Beyond the terrible destruction and loss of life, there were emerging three striking legacies of the event. Firstly, the American people were in a state of feeling terrorized and were all taking conscious steps to go about their daily lives differently. Secondly, it had caused social divisions to erupt with outright hostility being suffered by totally innocent Americans of Asian or Middle Eastern extraction, which in turn was destabilizing entire communities. Thirdly, as a consequence of the shock and panic people felt, they were not going out and spending their money and this was in danger of turning a mild recession into a severe one.

In these three ways, the terrorists had won and they were all things that ordinary people could and should do something about. Otherwise, the “war on terror” was likely to develop into the political leitmotif for a generation, an ongoing disruption to the “normalcy” for which all decent folks yearned. With plenty of nodding and yessing, we congratulated each other on our consensus and insightful analysis of the situation.

I noticed that our chat was being listened in on by a balding fifty-something who was sitting to my right. Chip caught my eye as it flicked over. He turned and recognized the bloke and introduced him to me as Allen.

Chip returned to circulating and left me in Allen’s hands, who gave me his business card (which was only made of card but did have a picture of a tree on it). He was a bit more gnarled and cynical than the fresh-faced enthusiastic Chip.

Although he had been genial with Chip, he commented that things weren’t like they used to be. Allen had been in the game for over thirty years and had got to know all the other guys, but now they were sending along their sons to do business: “college boys who know diddly squat about the lumber world”.

He bought me another beer and seemed glad that I gave him an excuse not to have to tour the room. Allen made the point that America’s great strength and weakness was that it was built on diversity. What had happened on September 11th had only been possible because of America’s tolerance of diversity and he felt that it might be time to rethink things. After all, the constitution had been drawn up for and at a very different time and place, and was now in need of updating.

Chip came back with a worried look on his face. He explained earnestly that he was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and he didn’t want me to misrepresent what he’d said about Hiroshima. He wanted to make clear to me that that had been a justifiable military strike, but that nothing could ever excuse what had happened on September 11th. He implored me to make a note of that difference when I wrote my book.

I assured him that I understood his point and we agreed that there wasn’t any proper analogy to be drawn because this had been an utterly unprecedented event. He seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

I made the point that there was greater degree of delicacy in my subject matter as a result of September 11th, and that I would have to operate with a large amount of sensitivity when it came to putting the story into words. This seemed to anger Chip, who told me to “fuck sensitivity”.

He said that too many things were said and written with sensitivity nowadays, and that I should just go for what I thought. He quoted back the three ways in which we had agreed the terrorists had won. “If you hold back on your story, then they would have won in a fourth way too.”

The three of us started talking about Europe. Chip liked the sound of England, but had only been on a lads’ holiday to Copenhagen when he was 19. Allen wanted to know about Amsterdam, and whether it was true about cannabis cafés and prostitutes in the windows.

Sensing that they were showing signs of being a bit cosmopolitan, I told them the story of Pat in Maryland with his pigs called Napoleon. They looked uncomfortable. They got it when I came to the point about France and England being the same place, it was just that they clearly had no idea who Napoleon was. Perhaps they thought that their forebears had made the Louisiana Purchase at Walmart.

I was flagging, but I’d had about six beers since I last bought one myself so I offered to get Allen and Chip a drink. Allen was off to bed himself, and Chip said that he needed to go home soon. He had to drive thirty odd miles back to Troy, and the police were super alert to drunk drivers around this area. He’d already had six or seven himself, and just didn’t want to risk it.

I asked Chip whether the state police scampered around really quickly and threw custard pies at each other. He obviously didn’t get the Keystone reference, and just gave me a derisory look. I made a mental note to shelve gag-telling until after this trip was over.

We were just about to get up and leave when Chip came back to the bar, and asked if the offer of a drink was still on the table. He’d decided to stay for just one more. I felt uncomfortable about buying him another now that I knew he was intending getting into a car. I didn’t know him well enough to tell him not to drink any more for his own sake, and the barman was already pouring two more beers before I could construct a delicate enough line of objection.

As we waited for them to be served, Chip grasped my shoulder and said that he had one question to ask me as an Englishman. I invited him to go ahead. “I’m going to say two names. You know who I mean, don’t you? You do, don’t you?”

I hadn’t even the slightest idea, and had to admit it. Chip glanced around the room, as if he was worried about being overheard. He moved his face closer and, in almost a whisper, let me in on what I assumed would be a secret: “DC and Eddie. Your boys. What do you think?”

I was still none the wiser, until he followed it up with wanting to know why Jordan had fired Heinz-Harald Frentzen. He was blathering about Formula 1 again. But not for long. He swept up his beer as soon as it hit the counter, and was off across the room again.

The bar had thinned out now to the last few lumber diehards, and Chip was on a mission to squeeze out one more deal. I looked around in search of someone vaguely sober, but with little success as it was almost midnight.

I struggled my way half way down the glass, and saw Chip return to the other end of the bar. He was buying a round for three people sat at a table at the far end. The barman delivered the drinks and came over and put a token in front of me. Chip had got one in for me too.