A 2001 drive around the 48 states in 48 days

Day 10. MS/LA: slow, moist, easy decadence

Scudding rain awoke me. Even through the closed shutters, double-glazed windows and thick drapes I could hear it lashing down. I got out of bed and went out onto the sheltered balcony and breathed in the atmosphere. It was coming down in sheets. Below me in the compound, the occasional body made a run for it. Little chance of breakfast under the gazebo now. I got dressed and returned to the balcony to wait. With still half-an-hour to the appointed breakfast time, I just sat back and enjoyed the weather. The rain was warm and refreshing.

Around eight, I noticed a black man with a huge crucifix around his neck run across the courtyard. I could see that he was talking to someone, whom I presumed to be the old lady owner. He soon scurried back and began wrestling with a collapsible table below the balcony where I was stood. I went down to help and found him being scolded by an older, larger woman who also happened to be black and who was wearing a pristine starched white uniform of some kind.

As soon as they noticed me, they stopped their bickering and without missing a beat the woman smiled, greeted me good morning sir and asked if I was ready for breakfast. I said I was, but there followed some confusion about where the table should be set up. The young man ran off to check with the old lady and was sent back with his tail between his legs. He announced with a degree of urgency that breakfast should definitely be set up in the spare bedroom that I had not taken the night before.

Another black man appeared, also oozing deference. Between the three of them, I was soon installed in the bedroom behind the table that had been transformed by white linen. The whole meal was served in silence and with averted eyes. The only words were a profuse apology when I asked for the door to be left open rather than have it closed every time they came in or out. I looked at my watch to check that I was still in the right century.

It took me a while to locate the old lady after breakfast in order to settle the bill. Unlike the previous evening, she was now quite forthcoming about the town and the history of the house. She continued to move in slow motion and didn’t talk much faster. In the middle of one sentence, I found myself wondering whether I could run round the block and still be back in time for the end of it. Her family had been in Port Gibson since the late 1700s when it was part of British West Florida. She insisted on giving a number of leaflets to me but wasn’t able to fetch them all in one go. Each different leaflet required a separate amble back to her office. From handing over my credit card to getting into my car to leave, over an hour elapsed.

It didn’t really matter, as I had a short run down to New Orleans and would have time on my hands that day. I continued on the Parkway down to Natchez itself, the original capital of the Territory of Mississippi and still the venue for an annual antebellum pilgrimage. A cobbled street led down to Natchez-under-the-hill and afforded me my first proper sight of the Mississippi River. I visited the welcome centre and tried to buy a book. I waited at the cash register for ten minutes with no sign of life. I went to the T-shirt stall and asked if I could pay there, but was sent back to the bookshop. There were two others in the shop perusing the shelves and, after about five more minutes, one of them sloped round behind the till and took the book from me. It must have taken him another ten minutes to figure out how to process a credit card payment. It was evidently not possible to be in much of a hurry in Mississippi.

Although it had been among the richest of the states in the days of the cotton plantations, Mississippi was now among the poorest. I’d seen no great wealth in the parts of South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama that I had visited, but none of them seemed to have given up hope to quite the same extent that this place had. A resigned malaise permeated everywhere that I had been here, and that dynamic American punchiness that I had started to get used to elsewhere on my travels was nowhere to be found. I hadn’t even seen a single world superlative claim.

I motored south to Louisiana. The rain was falling hard as I pulled into St Francisville, the first town over the state line, so I just filled up with gas and drove through. The combination of the weather and the time that had just disappeared down the drain that morning, made me decide to push straight on to the Big Easy. The skyline of New Orleans from the Interstate presented a modern high-rise city like so many in America, but the French Quarter felt like a 19th Century village. The street where my guesthouse was to be found was inaccessible. For some reason a number of roads had been cordoned off. I had been fortunate to secure what I was told was one of the last free rooms in town for the night. For a hundred bucks, I was the lucky guest in a low-ceilinged room 8’ by 6’ with no bathroom and no air conditioning. As I sat on the single bed, I could feel the rotating fan on the ceiling struggling to slice through the thick dankness of Louisiana.

The size of the room didn’t matter because, for once, I was confident of not being a prisoner in my room. I went downstairs where a buxom black lady with tree-trunk legs sticking out of a skirt that was far too tight and far too short sat behind the desk. She was wearing a bright yellow wig (at least, I assumed it was a wig). I explained that I was only in town for the one night and asked if she could recommend the best places to go. She rather curiously asked me if I was here for decadence, so I shrugged my shoulders and told her that I supposed I was. It seemed a very unfussy way of putting it. She reached behind her and picked up a carrier bag from a pile and told me that I’d be wanting one of those as it contained all the information I could need.

I had replenished my beer supplies at the gas station in St Francisville, so I returned to my room to plan the evening over a leisurely drink. I pulled out the pack from the bag and the top sheet informed me where I could go to get my anus pierced. That sounded decadent all right, perhaps a bit too much so for my tastes. From the rest of the literature, it transpired that every Labor Day weekend New Orleans hosted a festival of Gay Pride and Liberation called “Southern Decadence” and I was here for it.

I went for a wander to see what was going on. I walked out into the street and further down realized why it had been cordoned off. It had been designated as the main meeting place, and what was going on would have been enough to make the most extreme liberal wince. From a distance, it just looked like a mass casting session for The Village People, but as you got up close and walked through it, things became decidedly more intense. Couples snogging was one thing, but openly masturbating each other in public did seem a bit impolite.

The gay concentration became more diluted as I turned into Bourbon Street. The atmosphere was still dissolute, but there were more women and more mixed couples. It was heaving with people who variously crowded to get into bars, restaurants and strip clubs along the way. I pushed my way through for two or three blocks and had reached the point where it was thinning out when a demonstration turned the corner just ahead of me and started marching my way.

It was the Jesus Army who had been shipped in from fundamentalist Alabama. This was no evangelism march though. It was a protest. They were carrying placards which ranged in malevolence from the fairly benign “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” through the confrontational “No you chose to be gay, you liar” to the slightly more controversial “Homosexuals kill your children”. Brotherly love was definitely off the agenda.

I wanted a souvenir and so went into a shop which advertised “Gifts and accessories” outside. It was a fine shop, if you wanted to buy a dildo or a strap-on, but no great shakes for the more traditional present. I found an alternative place, which seemed to stock more the fare I was after. I selected a lobster-claw-shaped oven glove with Louisiana printed on it. As I went to pay at the counter, a young lad came rushing into the store to announce that the gays were having a fight with the Christians outside. The guy who was serving me dropped everything leaving the till drawer half-open, and with a “Hey. I’m wi’ da Christians!” ran out on to the street to join the fray.

I went over to the door, still holding the oven glove. Outside a full-blooded battle was raging. This wasn’t a scuffle, it was a head on fist fight. On the far kerbside a bare-topped man wearing a leather G-string and what looked like a couple of studded dog collars around the tops of his thighs was crouched down shielding his head as someone hit him repeatedly on the back with a placard that read “Jesus hates gays”. I think he might have got the message. He might even have been enjoying it.

Some on both sides were appealing for calm and soon the movement of the crowd down the street made it impossible for the scrap to continue. On the street corner was parked a Louisiana State Police patrol car with a couple of state troopers leaning against its bonnet smoking cigarettes. You got the impression that they had seen it all before and didn’t judge it serious enough to interfere. Or perhaps they just couldn’t be arsed: “Hey bud, bollocks to Protect and Serve. Let’s have another Marlboro”.

After I finally managed to pay for the oven glove, I wandered down to the waterfront. I wanted to see the great old river at its greatest, at its exit to the sea. As I walked along the embankment, a couple of black guys on a nearby bench starting shouting and beckoning me over: “Hey! Them shoes. Wan’ me to tell you where you got them shoes? I’ll tell you where you got them shoes. I bet you twenty dollars I can tell you where you got them shoes.” I smiled and they came up continuing the banter. They asked where I was from and I told them it was London. I’d not agreed to the bet but was confident as I was wearing the trainers I’d bought in New York. “Well, I’ll tell you now where you got them shoes. You got them there on your feet. Am I right? Am I right? That’s twenty dollars. You owe me twenty dollars.”

They’d got me bang to rights. It wasn’t that they’d won any bet, they’d just out-psyched me. They knew I was white, by myself, in a strange town and down by the docks away from the safety of the nearby crowds and they’d accurately calculated that I would consider twenty dollars a price worth paying to avoid the possibility of things turning nasty. With a polite grumble I handed over the money, and they duly took out a Windex spray and gave my trainers a four-second wipe down. “Look it’s better than us robbing or mugging or pimping or selling drugs, ain’t it?” I’d been fleeced, but in about the nicest most roguishly acceptable way.

I returned to Bourbon Street and to a brightly lit corner shop akin to a 7-Eleven. Along the walls was a bank of vats turning over brightly colored drinks that looked like Slush Puppies. I ordered a red one and was given it in a waxed paper cup with a straw. I walked down the street and was surprised to find myself staggering after about three blocks. I had no idea what had gone into the Hurricane drink that I’d just bought, but it sure was having a swift effect. My next stop saw me buying something called a Hand Grenade, at the end of which I was having real difficulty focussing.

I was experiencing a keen need for ballast, so I tracked down what I thought looked like the most authentic local eatery. It had tables on a first floor balcony, and so I was able to have a bird’s-eye view of the street as I ate. The Christians were still marching, the gays were still canoodling and everyone else was still thronging. We had barely reached sundown and the noise from the bands and jukeboxes in the various establishments along the way was deafening.

The waiter was very friendly and obviously a lot more accustomed to foreign visitors than many people whom I’d met previously. The din meant that we had to shout at each other to be heard, but I was able to ask him about the fight. From him I gathered that there was little distinction drawn in the Bible Belt between homosexuals and paedophiles. He seemed unduly shocked when I told him about the police “standing around just smoking fags” but I think it was my choice of vocabulary. To the southern ear, it must have sounded like a surprisingly partisan stance.

After eating, I took to the streets once more and decided to venture into a couple of the strip joints. They were remarkably tame affairs, with a bit of topless dancing going on in the corner while an audience that was primarily middle-aged and of both sexes sat around drinking, largely oblivious to the girls. Despite explicit claims to the contrary outside, there was no full nudity on show but nobody seemed to mind. Some old folks were playing cards. It was one hell of a venue for a whist-drive.

Outside the mayhem had moved up a notch. I lurched from bar to bar, intermittently escaping to the street to nurse my bleeding eardrums and then running back into another to avoid the caresses of the throng outside. Around eleven, thoughts turned to home. The streets were now full of extremely pissed up people, and several were throwing up down side streets. I was glad that I wasn’t in the same predicament as them. I now had a much better conception of what the song House of the Rising Sun was all about. This was one poor boy who didn’t want to meet his ruin that evening. I had the biggest drive of the trip the next day, across Louisiana and half of Texas, and needed to get a good night’s rest.

Day 11. LA/TX: breasts, steins, canoodles, cowboys

The guesthouse claimed to offer “24-hour coffee”, but this evidently did not include the hours from 7 pm to 7 am. I was up early, and waited for it to come on-line. Some folks were still staggering in from their Saturday night out, now looking far from ecstatic. After I had paid the bill, I asked where I could find a mailbox and was told that they didn’t have much call for them in the Vieux Carré. People didn’t use them much because they kept on having drinks and stuff thrown into them and so mail rarely ever survived to the sorting office.

I drove around the French Quarter to have a look at the aftermath. The garbage trucks were out in force but, by the looks of things, had only just made a start. Several proprietors were hosing down the sidewalks in front of their premises. A girl with a face like a drag-queen but who was clearly all-woman underneath – she was wearing a loosely crocheted black top pulled down over her thighs, and not another stitch – was already touting on behalf of the hookers at the Casbah Bar. I got out of the car to take a photograph and a camp voice called out “Good morning South Carolina”. I turned and saw a middle-aged man in vest and shorts strutting along with his left hand on his hips and waving to me with his right.

“Actually, I’m not from South Carolina, I’m from London.”

“Oooooh. London. Even better. I love London.”

“Yes, it’s good isn’t it.”

“My favourite pub in the whole world is in London. Do you know it?”

“Possibly. What’s it called?”

The City of Quebec. You must know it.”

“Nope. Never heard of it.”

“It’s near Marble Arch, you must go there some time and say hello from me.”

I don’t like letting people down, but it did seem highly unlikely that I would ever get around to passing on his greeting.

By the time I reached Lake Charles, it was already lunchtime. I spotted Steamboat Bill’s, “The home of the best crawfish in Louisiana”, which sounded just the ticket. It was busy with families on their Sunday lunch outing. It turned out that they didn’t have any crawfish, so I had to settle for the pop shrimp instead. Either the best crawfish in Louisiana didn’t get past the base 1 requirement of actually existing, or the sign outside wasn’t being entirely honest. Remembering the “topless and bottomless girls inside” claim from New Orleans, I concluded it was the latter and that truthful signage was not a strong characteristic of Louisiana. I motored west glad in the knowledge that I had survived most of the Deep South without encountering any rustic banjo players wanting to find out whether I could squeal like a pig.

The first exit on the Texan side of the state line was no. 878. This didn’t mean that there were another 877 exits to go. It meant that the Interstate stretched almost 900 miles across the state. The exit number pertained to the number of miles from the western end of the state. Texas is huge, about the size of Turkey. Today would be just about wearing down the miles. I was relieved that my trip wasn’t taking in Alaska. You could fit Texas into Alaska twice and still have enough land left for an Alabama and a couple of Rhode Islands.

The driving was made easier by a couple of factors. The speed limit was 75 mph and the Texans were the best drivers that I had encountered so far.  Not only did they use their indicators, they also always pulled over to the inside lane whenever they weren’t overtaking. There were no slouches on the road, aimlessly drifting along at 45 mph in the outside lane. Everyone had the definite air of meaning business. The litter warnings on the side of the road summed up the mood: “Don’t mess with Texas”.

This in-your-face attitude was encapsulated by a story from Corpus Christi. In May 2001, fourteen sex offenders had been ordered to plant signs outside their homes announcing “Danger. Registered sex offender lives here.” They also had to fix stickers to their cars echoing the same sentiment. Don’t mess with Texas indeed.

Rather worryingly my air conditioning was failing. All day it had been sporadically pumping out white plumes of steam, but now it had more or less packed up altogether just as I was entering the hottest phase of the trip. After six hours of uninterrupted motoring, I stopped for gas at Johnson City, hometown of Lyndon B Johnson. It wasn’t clear to the passer-through at what stage he had lived there, but there could be no mistaking the fact that he had at some point in his life. It also wasn’t clear whether, by some remarkable coincidence, it had been called Johnson City before LBJ’s rise to fame or had been renamed in his honor. If Truth or Consequences NM (until 1950, known as plain Hot Springs NM) could vote to rename itself after a radio show, then it seemed plausible that this Texan outback could call itself after a President.

Fredericksburg, my destination for the night, positioned itself as a Bavarian village but whoever described it as such hadn’t spent much time in Germany recently. I went into a motel and enquired about rooms, and they offered me the choice between two queen-sized beds or one king-sized. I told them that I just wanted the smallest and cheapest room they had. They showed me one on the floorplans of the motel that looked like a box room and said that I could have it for 90 bucks. When I got to the room, I found that it was about the size of a tennis court. Very Texas.

I used the telephone to call the Old Texas Inn in Fort Davis, where I was going the next day. They had a room available, but told me that they wouldn’t be there after 4.30 pm. I would have to go up the staircase to the left of the building when I arrived, and my key would be waiting inside in an envelope marked with my name. I enquired about food and drink, and they said that guests at the Inn had complimentary membership of the saloon across the road and so I’d be able to drink and eat there when I arrived. It sounded splendid, a night in a genuine old west cowboy town.

Downstairs the receptionist directed me to Barron’s, the drinking club affiliated to that motel. There were three others in there, including the barman. He was a jolly soul and wanted to know about our music scene and whether there were any good English bands. I proffered the Beatles and Rolling Stones, which was met with a “But those guys are American man”. I was too gobsmacked to argue and instead asked him where I could get some food, and he suggested the motel restaurant which would be open for another half and hour. It gave me an excuse to leave.

At the restaurant I chose chicken fried steak, a very bad idea unless you’re a fan of spam fritters. Glancing around the room, none of my fellow diners looked like they were deriving much pleasure from the experience of going out for a meal. Most of them had the air of doing something because they felt they had to. Two teenage beauties arrived at the booth next to mine, and the young waiter was over before their backsides had hit the leather. He reminded me of the Scorpio character from Dirty Harry, and he had the additional disadvantage of a huge red spot right on the end of his nose. Judging from their body language, he didn’t make much of a more favorable impression on the girls. It took me a while to pay. It was one of those places where you take your bill up to the cash-till. I waited for a few minutes as the cashier finished off a phone call. She was chatting to her boyfriend, and was being disconcertingly intimate for an unsuspecting listener such as myself. She seemed irritated when she noticed me trying to shatter her reverie, and rang up my bill and took the money without breaking off the conversation.

Outside, Scorpio was puffing disconsolately on a cigarette. He’d already struck out with the two girls, who had only come in for a soda and left before me. He asked me how I was doing, and we started chatting about where would be a good place to go for the rest of the evening. He turned out to be a very friendly chap who didn’t want to murder me at all. He made a number of suggestions, before concluding that “if ya want somewhere lively where there’ll be some folks, then Barron’s Bar would prob’ly be ya best bet”.

I returned to the bar, which was now a little busier. All the stools at the bar were occupied, so I took a table. In the darkness at the far end were a couple of pool tables lit from above. Faces kept on popping down into the light to take a shot and then disappearing back into the darkness. A dodgy-looking glammed-up  cougar was getting seriously sloshed at the bar and kept on dragging different male drinking companions on to the floor to dance to the jukebox. Near me sat two haggard but young-looking women and a small boy. From their conversation, it became apparent that they were grandma, ma and son. I felt slightly out of place in shorts. All the blokes in the bar were wearing jeans and cowboy boots, and there was a fair smattering of Stetsons too. One lad came in wearing tracksuit bottoms and a baseball shirt. He went over to the jukebox where a girl was  selecting a record, put his arms around her, cupped her breasts, gave a quick jiggle, and told her that he’d see her later. The old romantic. Probably had some poetry to finish scribbling before bedtime.

There was plenty to watch, but again little chat to be had. I didn’t even get off my backside as the jovial barman kept bringing me refills whenever my glass fell empty. Realizing that this was about as good as it got in Fredericksburg, I bade the barman farewell and walked back to the motel. By the time that I had got across the room to clean my teeth and all the way back again to bed, I was exhausted. I tried to watch a bit of TV, but the commercial breaks were too long and too frequent so I kept losing the thread of what was going on. In the end, I gave up, closed my eyes and tried not to think of chicken fried steak.

Day 12. TX: caverns, ranches, hills, hicks

The flickering neon of the motel sign outside my window woke me around 6.30. When I got up two hours later, all was eerily quiet for a Monday. The six-lane highway that ran through the “village” was empty, but it was a public holiday I suppose. Across the road was a place called Grandma Daley’s and I could see shiny things glistening in the morning sun spread out on the forecourt. It was a craft shop of sorts, and had a host of bird boxes, plant stands and candleholders outside. Many incorporated an outline map of Texas or the Lone Star flag in their design.

On the door was a hand-written notice inviting customers to leave money and a description of what they had taken in the mailbox. It didn’t look like it ever opened. The sign emphasized that on no account should anyone enquire at the shop next door. I picked out a small bird-box with a Lone Star roof. It didn’t have a price on it but other similar ones were $13. I checked my pockets. I had one twenty, a five and two ones. I stuffed the five and two ones in the envelope, scribbled down “Texas Star” on a scrap of paper, and hurried back to the car. I had every intention of sending the other $6 later in the post, but I didn’t want the police to catch me before I got the opportunity.

Two sights were marked in red on my map along the next stretch of Interstate, the Caverns of Sonora and the Davy Crockett Monument. The caverns were a little way past the town of Sonora itself and up a country lane. I went in to the lobby-cum-gift shop. Some folks were milling  about, but nobody serving at the till. The choice appeared to be between a 90-minute and a 3-hour guided spelunking. I didn’t have the time for either tour, I just wanted a quick look and then be off so I spent a couple of minutes looking at the display of stalactite photos instead. The Davy Crockett Monument was far more suited to speed tourism. It was a statue on a green, right on the side of the road. You didn’t even have to get out of your car.

The sun was scorching outside, and my car felt like an oven. The situation was not helped by the malfunctioning air conditioning. Driving along with my window open was like putting my neck under a hand drier. At Sheffield, I turned off to Dryden where I could pick up a county road that would allow me to approach Fort Davis from the south. A few miles out of town, I stumbled upon TX 2400. I checked my map and found it. It was marked in gray. Gray for scary. It was a road into the middle of nowhere. I checked my gas and water supplies, steeled myself for the wilderness and took the turning. This was ranching country. There was nothing but land. No buildings, no gates, no crops, no cars. I drove for thirty miles and saw nothing. Not even a cow, let alone another person or car. The only clue to life was the barbed wire, one entrance to a ranch, and the telegraph poles. Here in the back of beyond, America’s infrastructure was astonishing. Forty miles of perfectly maintained paved road, the same in telegraph and electrical wiring and presumably the same in underground pipes, exclusively for the benefit of one homestead.

I had lost all radio on both AM and FM. It came back briefly, and I was able to hear the story of the Texan trucker who had just received an award from the state for completing 900,000 miles on the road without a single accident. Then it went again. The silence didn’t last as the rain came down, making me regret laughing at the flash flood warnings I’d seen earlier. Soon a river was flowing down the side of the road and lapping onto the tarmac. At Alpine, a small market town, everywhere was shut. It seemed like hours since I had come across anyone else as I took the scenic route up to my final destination of the day.

Just past an RV site on the way, amusingly called The Lost Alaskan, I did see some people. A car was parked at the side of the road, with someone crouching next to it. From a distance, it looked like they were changing a tyre, and I slowed down to see if they needed help. As I got near, the body uncoiled, sprang up, and came into focus just in time for me to see a woman yanking her drawers up. She had a pair of binoculars around her neck and, as I passed, pretended that she was surveying the countryside. I watched in my rear view mirror, as she lifted her skirts and whipped down her knicks again once I was safely down the road. Two cars passed in quick succession on the opposite side. She’d be in for a right old game of Jack-in-the-box if she didn’t hurry up and finish her doings.

Fort Davis lived up to its billing of being a one-road town, and that road was deserted too. It was 5 pm and, as promised, the Old Texas Inn had closed for business for the day. I found the staircase at the side and climbed it to find that the door was locked. I went back down and looked through the ground floor window and then tried the door at the top of the stairs once more. Nothing. As I was rummaging in the car for the phone number, a woman appeared behind me and asked if she could help me. I explained the situation and she asked me if my name was Kevin May because they’d been expecting me. She told me I was lucky because by rights she shouldn’t have been there as they usually closed at 4.30.

She showed me up to my room and I asked her about the saloon across the road. She strode across the living room area at the front of the inn and pointed out at it. She told me that it was there but that it was closed on Mondays. I queried this and told her that I had specifically asked the man with whom I’d booked the room about somewhere to go for a drink. She said she didn’t understand because he knew perfectly well that the saloon didn’t open on Mondays. I asked her if there was anywhere else to go and she told me that there wasn’t. Her final happy tidings were that the television wasn’t working at the moment after it had been blown up during a recent electrical storm.

I was more than a touch pissed off. I had been lured here under false pretences, notably the availability of food and booze, and now I was stuck. Against all hope, I went out to explore. I walked over to the saloon and it did look very definitely closed. A little down the street, I saw a souvenir shop and went in to buy some postcards from an Indian woman there. I asked her if there was anything to do in town. She told me about a burger diner that stayed open until 9.30 and gave me directions. She also suggested the scenic loop. I asked her what that was and she beckoned me behind the counter and out into a little garden at the side of the store where a man in his fifties who looked like an archetypal Native American was gazing at the horizon. He had bronzed skin, dark eyes and beneath his open necked shirt he was wearing myriad beads. His wrists were bangled and his silver mane was tied neatly back in a ponytail.

It came as a surprise when he opened his mouth to find that he spoke like a Rotarian, with perfect middle-class diction. He reconfirmed that there was nowhere to get a drink in town, but that the scenic loop was well worth seeing. He gave me labored directions and informed me that it was only 74 miles round and that it came right back to Fort Davis. Sat next to him was an old lady, whom I assumed to be the grandmother of the family and who had been staring at me with a fixed grin since I had stepped into the yard. She asked me where I came from. When I said London, she screamed and clasped her hands to her head. It wasn’t clear what this signified. Most probably, in the absence of knowing what to say, it was a random sample from her collection of miscellaneous reactions.

Next door was the town’s supermarket. I needed some booze for later, something to calm my excitement after the treat of another gratuitous 74 miles sitting in the car. The shop-girl asked if she could help as soon as I walked in. I said that I’d just come for beer and went to the fridges at the back. When I went to pay, she wanted to know where I was from cause she knew it sure wasn’t Texas. I explained myself and she expressed some surprise at my ending up in Fort Davis. Rather rudely, I concurred.

I set out on the scenic loop, which wound past the McDonald Observatory and round the back of Mount Livermore. In all fairness, there were some spectacular vistas. Approaching a bend, I could see a lay-by that appeared to jut out over the valley below and so I signalled to swing over. I don’t know why I bothered as I hadn’t seen another vehicle for over half an hour, which made me all the more surprised to see a station wagon already parked in the lay-by. The driver’s door was open and wistful country music could be heard as I got out of my car. Sat on the wall by the car was a woman in her thirties. She was wearing a small, leopard skin dress and dark glasses and got up to turn the music down as soon as she saw me. She went back to staring into the abyss below with that stricken air of someone who has just found out that her husband’s been screwing his secretary for the last year and a half. She’d come to the right place if she wanted to be alone, and I had no business disturbing her.

It was still not yet eight when I got back to Fort Davis. Although nobody had mentioned it, I’d noticed a Mexican restaurant in town that had a sign advertising live music that evening. Optimistically, I parked the car and walked the 200 yards down to it. I might be able to get a drink with my meal, I fancied, and I was right. I had the choice of Coke, homemade lemonade or coffee. With only five other people in the restaurant, I was served very quickly. By live music, they meant recorded music played on a stereo by musicians who were alive when they had committed it to vinyl. Even eating slowly, I wasn’t able to eke the food out beyond 9 pm.

Some kids and a couple of adults were larking about in the living area when I got back to the Inn. I’d been told that there was one more family staying the night. With the briefest of courtesies, I whisked myself through and into my room. By ten, the noise had gone and it looked as if the coast was clear for a cigarette. I ventured out of my door. The living area was in darkness but the balcony door was ajar. I looked around for something to wedge it open. I found a book and laid it carefully on the floor. As I was crouching to put it in position, a voice from the darkness made me jump out of my skin: “Can I help you?”

It was the mother of the family that were staying. When I’d gathered my composure, I explained that I had just stepped out for a smoke. She beckoned me towards the chairs at the front and introduced me to her husband. She was Karen, he was Jeff. I pulled up a seat and interfered with their peace. He was a large man, born and bred on a Texan ranch. She was about a third of his size with a voice like Ed McDonnough in Raising Arizona. Her pet phrase was something to the effect of “that sure is mighty purdy”. They never used each other’s names; he called her mama and she called him lover.

Despite describing themselves as quite well travelled – though they’d never been further east than Missouri – I think that I must have been the first non-American that they’d ever met. Karen perched eagerly on the edge of her chair, intent on every word that came from my mouth and it didn’t take long to flummox her. Talking about the differences of driving in the US and back home, Karen had no idea what I meant by roundabout. Jeff had heard of them; he thought that there’d once been one in Lubbock but “they closed it down after some college kids went and got stuck on it, going round and round for about three days”.

The night was still and quiet. Despite my earlier reservations, this new-found company was making me more disposed to Fort Davis. I explained how frustrating my trip had been to date. I’d hoped to find conversations easy to come by, but so far had had difficulty even tracking down somewhere that was still open for food and drink in the evenings. Jeff laughed and said that was what small town America was all about and one of the reasons why they loved it so. Although they’d been living in San Angelo, they now wanted to move back to Fort Davis and were staying in the inn while they looked for a home. It was where Jeff had grown up, and they wanted similar childhoods for their two kids where they could be taught not to cheat, steal and lie which they thought was all that you learnt if you were raised in the city.

Karen was pleased that I’d included the purdiest part of Texas on my itinerary, and wanted to tell me all about where else I should see in the hill country. I had to point out the limitations on my time and illustrated it by saying that only 48 hours before I had been almost 1000 miles away in New Orleans. Jeff shuddered at the mention of the name: “I don’t even want to hear about that place, let alone go there. The thought of all them cities makes me feel ill.”

He recounted that when he was a boy on the ranch, he had learnt to ride a horse and shoot a gun before he could walk and talk. When he was sent to school at the age of five, he was astonished to find himself in a class of 20: “I didn’t realize that there was any such thing as another 19 kids in the whole world.” His education later took him on to Alpine, which he clearly viewed as a teeming metropolis. And he  felt downright overwhelmed when he went off to college in Lubbock, recounting with horror a party that his room-mate took him to during Freshmen’s week where “there must’ve been 50 or 60 people all in one room.”

I didn’t want to upset him further by telling him about life in London. I’d already shocked them with two bits of information about home: the price of gas and an unarmed police force. Jeff said that there was no way that he’d go into an unfamiliar town or city unless he had his firearm with him. Sensing my discomfort at this, he reassured me that the most important thing was to respect guns. If you were brought up with them, you understood the damage they did. It worried him that people had guns who only knew about them from films. Bruce Willis might be able to take a bullet in the shoulder and be swinging a punch with that arm two minutes later, but that didn’t happen in real life. As long as the wrong people had guns, he wanted one too and valued his license to carry a concealed weapon as highly as I did my passport.

They didn’t like the state of modern America, with its drugs, its teenage pregnancies and its litigation culture. Everyone was now out for themselves and all sense of community had been lost. They were thankful to be retreating back to country life and explained that as soon as they’d found the right plot of land they were going to have an off-the-shelf house shipped in. I wasn’t sure whether I’d heard them correctly. An off-the-shelf house? Surely even Texan shelves weren’t that big. In a matter-of-fact way, as if he were talking about picking up Corn Flakes from the store, Jeff described how you could get a pre-made house constructed to your specifications and trucked to where you wanted it. They were only single storey but went up to 35’ by 90’ in size and came with all fittings and furniture inside. All you had to do was sink four concrete pillars on which to stand the legs and then they tied the building down with cables like guy ropes. You then plugged in your electricity, sewage and water and you were away. It took a good minute for my mouth to close again.

It was 1 am when Karen noticed the time and ushered Jeff off to bed. They had to be up at five to get the kids off to school. We’d built up such a rapport that I almost volunteered to be up in the morning to help them. Then again, perhaps not. I promised to meet them for breakfast at eight instead.

25% of the way there: cumulative mileage 4811

Day 13. TX/NM: God, aliens, nuclear bomb, hot-tub

The restaurant was already packed when I came down at 8.15, but there was a space at Jeff and Karen’s table. There was a very obvious cowboy in his sixties wandering from table to table chatting with folks. He came over to pour himself some coffee and Jeff called him over, saying that I had to meet Jim. “What part of England are you from, partner?” were his first words, followed by “London… mmm… London” after my reply. He said that he’d spent some time in “the north of Ireland, fraternizing with the Real IRA”. The alarm that I felt was slightly calmed when he reassured me that he didn’t necessarily agree with their point of view but had been impressed by the way they’d talked about issues.

Jeff and Karen were going down to San Angelo to pick up more stuff and went off to get ready. Jim sat down. He asked me if I knew why Jehovah was referred to as The Lord in the King James translation of the Bible. It seemed a remarkably long shot on his part but, as pure chance would have it, I’d done a degree in Theology and so did have a fair idea. I told him that I thought it was to do with the name being too holy to say out loud and that the precise pronunciation of the Tetragram had got lost over time because the Hebrew word Adhonai had been habitually used since. And we translate Adhonai as The Lord. He nodded, but said the problem was that The Lord was actually a term for Ba’al, an infidel deity.

I swallowed hard. This conversation had come in straight from left field. It was even more disconcerting because his tone wasn’t that of obsessive evangelist. He was speaking like an academic. He then set out his theory of translation and why dictionaries of foreign languages were no good. The problem was that words could not be taken piecemeal and always had to be considered in the context of the living culture from which they came. He then started giving me loads of Spanish examples.

It transpired that he had spent much of his life as a Professor of Historical Anthropology in South America, and had specialized in linguistics. He’d come back to Fort Davis, and now spent his time tinkering with airplanes out on his nearby ranch. In his time he’d made and lost several million dollars, and these days he chose not to encumber himself with owning anything. He had turned over the deeds of his property to his kids, and he just lived there. He also told me that he had imported from South America the first Porsche Carrera into the United States and that the customs folk in Miami had been so surprised that they’d waived the duty. He evoked a strange plausibility that made me believe most of what he said.

Jeff came over to say goodbye. By the time I had said my farewells and got to the till to settle my bill, I was told that Jim had already paid for my breakfast. I saw him outside and thanked him, and he made sure that my car was pointed in the right direction for the best route through Pecos to New Mexico.

I tuned in to the daily news review by Paul Harvey. This was a segment that was obviously syndicated across the country, as I’d heard him before earlier on the trip. It was a digest of all the day’s news from around the localities, delivered in avuncular mid-West tones. Among today’s offerings, I was given a warning about my propensity to listen to the radio at top volume. A man in Cambridge OH had been charged for playing his car stereo too loud. He had been found guilty and the judge had sentenced him to fourteen hours listening to Polka music.

My main objective for the morning was Roswell, famed for its “incident” in 1947 when a weather balloon/spaceship (depending upon whether you believe the government or the conspiracy theorists) fell out of the sky nearby. Since the crash Roswell had become a Mecca for kooks. A flavor of this was given on approach to the town, where a 48-sheet poster announced competitive rates for cremation and casket burial, with the tag-line “Have you ever met an honest mortician?” At the time, I didn’t realize that the whole Roswell story was fuelled by the account of an undertaker who claimed to have witnessed an autopsy of a space alien at the local military base and who then went on to found the UFO Museum and Research Center.

The UFO Museum in question was my first stop. It was one of two devoted to the subject of aliens and was apparently the more credible of the pair. A large space alien was painted on the side wall facing a parking lot. I went into the museum and was told that entrance was free, but that I was welcome to make a donation. I was given a badge, a leaflet entitled “The Truth is Here” and a bumper sticker. “You can put that on the back of your car” the lady said helpfully. “Or if you don’t want to do that, you can put it on the back of the judge’s car, or perhaps your doctor’s.” No doubt Dr. Langdon would really appreciate that back in Paddington.

The museum did have some interesting exhibits. There was a whole section on crop circles and another on the difference between a close encounter of the first, second and third kind. Basically, it’s the first kind if you just think you might have seen something, the second kind if the thing you saw was really close, and the third kind if they stop for tea and swap e-mail addresses with you. I looked around the plethora of photos of UFO sightings and the general paranormal, and was particularly impressed by the shot of the “invisible critter” which amounted to a picture of a piece of road in the darkness.

A fair proportion of the exhibition was dedicated to the events of July 1947, with contemporary records to back up the conspiracy theory. It showed how the official story given by the authorities had changed over a period of a few days. Framed on the wall were a series of quotations from various US Presidents after they had left office suggesting that all of them believed strongly in the existence of UFOs and alien life.

It was the first place that I felt relieved to be leaving. I climbed the mountain road through the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation, paying close attention to the signs with the Cartesian warning “Gusty Winds may exist”. By six I was in Cloudcroft, which looked like being everything that I had imagined Fort Davis to be but wasn’t. There was a wooden walkway with clapboard shop fronts and, critically, people. I went into the grocery store and was mesmerized by the smell. Inside was a bakery that had a constant run of fresh bread, cakes and savories in the oven. It was like something out of a film set for the end of the 19th Century.

The drive back down the mountain to Alamogordo was spectacular, with some of the best views in the whole of the USA. Alamogordo itself nestled on a flat plain and was surrounded on all sides by mountains. I was lucky enough to be passing through just before sunset. I can’t say whether the words exist to describe what I saw but, if they do, I don’t know them. Instead, I’ll have to make do with a pedestrian report. It began with a rainbow, the full arc of which spanned the reddening sky behind the mountains. As the distant rain abated, it gave way to a kaleidoscope of colors that looked more like a firework display than a sunset. Finally the mountains to the west became silhouetted against the sun, while the rest of the plain basked in an ember like glow that gave the landscape a distinctly Martian feel. I had to stop the car because it was dangerous driving along and only spending a quarter of the time looking at the road in front.

Most of the flat plains were now taken up by the White Sands military base. Among other activities, the area was used as a landing zone for the Space Shuttle. And sixty miles to the northwest of Alamogordo was the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested in July 1945. It seemed hardly surprising that the place felt other-worldly.

The radio reported that Ray Charles had yesterday played a Labor Day concert in Reno NV. It had been due to take place outside at a stadium that was located next to the railway line. One of the organizers had twigged that a train was due to blow through right in the middle of the gig and had given Union Pacific a call. The response had been a firm “so what?”, until it was revealed that the performance under threat was being given by Ray Charles. In deference to the “great man”, Union Pacific delayed the train until after the show had finished.

A smattering of twilight still blushed the tarmac as I reached the Interstate and stepped on the gas to make up time. I was expected at eight that evening, and it was already 7.30. It took an hour to reach my exit and another half an hour through the pitch black and bats of the treacherously winding mountain road to find my final destination, the tiny silver mining town of Kingston (present day population 128). The “town” itself, although the silver mining capital of the world in the 1880s with the largest population in the New Mexico territory, now comprised just one street, and so it took me several passes up and down the main highway before I spotted the turning. It took me almost as long again to find the Black Range Lodge into which I had booked myself. The modern era had not brought with it streetlights to Kingston.

I walked across the gravelled drive and under the huge tree that shaded the main building. It had an open porch with a couple of upholstered armchairs and I knocked on the door. No reply. I wasn’t sure whether to venture in or just sit in one of the chairs and wait. After a couple of minutes there was a movement of shadows from the darkness within and a nervous-looking woman appeared. I explained that I had telephoned earlier about a room. I had spoken to a very ebullient sounding chap, and must have told him about what I was doing. “Oh, you’re the one who’s doing the crazy journey” and she beckoned me into the lobby. She turned some lights on to show a large hall with wooden beams and stone floor. There were about a dozen doors leading off from the room and a large staircase. Around the edge were a number of sofas and in the middle a large dining table that looked like it was very old and had been made by hand from local timber.

She asked me what I wanted to know. I was a bit taken aback, as I hadn’t even signed in let alone brought my stuff in from the car or been shown to my room. I told her that I was interested in anything that she had to say about living where she did. She launched into a sermon about water being the crucial issue and that there wasn’t enough to support the number of people and the way they wanted to live. She was particularly vexed about the ranchers and my mind went back to something Jeff had mentioned in Fort Davis, about a ranching friend who had given up working the land because it had become more profitable for him to divert the rivers that ran across his patch to sell the water to El Paso. Even Jeff had conceded that this rather screwed everyone who lived downriver and who relied upon that water for their livelihoods. This lady was more concerned about the effects of such actions on the environment.

We were interrupted by the arrival of the bloke with whom I had obviously spoken before. He bounced down the stairs and held out his shovel-sized hand and introduced himself as Pete. He then introduced Catherine, anticipating that she wouldn’t have told me her name herself. He was “dying to find out about my trip” and what I’d been doing. Catherine went off to fetch some coffee and he ushered me to sit down by the dining table. It turned out that she used to be an assistant director in Hollywood and that he came from North Dakota and had lived all over. They were now non-militant eco-warriors, leading a life that was healthy and in line with nature.

Pete didn’t have a particularly high opinion of his home state. With relish, he amused himself telling me that it was the very last of the 50 to allot any public money to the promotion of tourism and that, when they finally had done so in the early 70s, the only thing invested in was a couple of posters at either end of the state on Interstate 94. The one at the Minnesota end read “Welcome to North Dakota. Custer was still alive when he left here” and the one at the Montana end read “Welcome to North Dakota. Mountain removal project now complete.”

They were enthusiastic about the place where they now lived, and bombarded me with stories about the town and its history. The rock was so hard around there that it was impossible to dig graves conventionally. When a body needed burying, they had to sandblast a hole out of the ground. They fetched a stream of books for me to look at, and were keen that I take a couple of volumes of Aldo Leopold up to bed with me.

Their way of life contrasted starkly with that of Jeff and Karen from the night before, and so did their values. They saw no humor when I unwisely recounted Jeff’s observation about shooting coyotes (“If every time any man saw a coyote he shot it dead, then there would still be too many coyotes left”). They were opposed to the ranching way of life, and the degradation to the environment (particularly the irreversible erosion of soil) caused by raising cattle in this part of the world. They were also appalled that the US had not signed up to the Kyoto Protocol “not even to stop pollution, but just to reduce the rate at which it is increasing”.

We didn’t move from the spot until gone midnight, as the conversation lurched from the environment to politics and then back to light frippery. Only after I had finished off the third pot of coffee did Catherine mention that they had a beer somewhere that they could have offered me. My ears perked up but the suggestion was almost immediately withdrawn on the basis that it wouldn’t be cold. Needing something to damage my health, I asked if I could step outside for a cigarette. Pete came with me, still talking in fervent overdrive. A monstrous looking spider was spinning its web in the eaves of the porch, which caught his attention and transformed him into an American David Attenborough. The depth of his knowledge about its species, habitat and lifestyle was astonishing.

Pete wanted to show me the outside hot-tub where they always took a dip for 10 or 20 minutes prior to bed. He told me that I was welcome to join them that evening, and I smiled hoping that the offer wouldn’t be repeated come that fateful hour. I was sure that I had explained that I was a Brit, but he evidently hadn’t grasped that point. I went to the car and picked up my bag and Pete took me up to my room.

It was approaching 1 am, but he didn’t want to go to bed yet. He offered to get his guitar out and play some music downstairs. He asked me if I wanted more coffee. He told me that I could take it with me to drink in the hot-tub. I needed an excuse quickly, and mumbled something about having to darn my suitcase and iron my shoes. When the English reserve card doesn’t work, then play the English eccentric. He seemed disappointed, but made a point of showing me how to get out on the balcony if I needed another cigarette, before disappearing off to join Catherine for a splosh.

Day 14. NM/AZ: straw houses, ghost towns, gun-fights, slabs of meat

Breakfast in the morning was a tidy affair and probably the first healthy meal that I’d had in the States. I was unfamiliar with much of what was set before me on the table: all manner of unrecognizable fruit, a vat of plain yoghurt and a sack of muesli that looked as if it had been made from twigs and berries collected from the garden. On offer to dilute it was translucent soya milk but this did little to take the sawdust sensation away from the mouth. I regretted opting for wheatgerm waffles, especially when I discovered that the maple syrup was sugar free and tasted like battery acid.

I had been awake since five when the dawn cacophony from the hen-house had started. My mood might have been improved by the sight of some chicken on the table, but they clearly didn’t eat enough of the stuff around here.

It was the beginning of a gloriously sunny day and Catherine was outside, chatting to a couple of visitors to whom she introduced me. One of them said that he’d passed a week in London once and had stayed in “Bel-grar-via”. He’d spent the whole time Christmas shopping in Harrod’s, which he’d found terribly expensive. His other memory was the darkness when he got up and the fact that the sun had gone down again by 4.30 in the afternoon. He’d been glad to get back to where the days weren’t so short.

Pete was already busy at work somewhere in the grounds and was soon gambolling into view, keen to take me on a tour. The summer-house up on the hill had been built using an eco-friendly method of straw bales packed both sides with mud, instead of bricks. They’d already talked about it and I was expecting some ramshackle old hut but, to all intents and purposes, it looked like any modern building. They had left one glass panel on the inside that looked through to the straw core of the wall; it was called a “truth window”, and was there for the doubting Thomases like me.

He then took me to the lodge, an outbuilding bigger than most B&Bs in its own right. It too was built along the same lines and also looked perfectly normal. It wasn’t just the basic building materials that were eco-friendly. These buildings had been painted with natural pigments and specially designed to maximize the benefit of sunlight and minimize the loss of heat. They ran workshops on how to live and build in the most environmentally friendly fashion. They used a lot of bamboo in their building work, and we had a look around the bamboo grove before putting our heads in to see my friends the chickens. They kept a few small farm animals and Pete was working on a device that could use the manure to generate electricity for the house. These people were a real life Tom and Barbara Good, only they did it successfully.

I needed to settle up and get going, but Pete wanted to call his sister in North Dakota before I left. He had mentioned her during the conversation on the subject of his state and told me that she was “crazy” on account of her travelling all over the country to visit craft fairs and the like. He thrust the phone into my hand and told me that she’d be delighted for me to stay with her when I passed through and that I should make arrangements with her now. He had suggested this the previous evening but I didn’t think he was serious. I spoke to her and agreed to call again from South Dakota the day before I was due to arrive.

Catherine wanted me to have some literature about what they were doing. She pressed the latest copies of Natural Building, the Builders without Borders Bulletin and the International Journal of Straw Bale and Natural Building into my hands. They all definitely belonged in my “read later” category. She was glad that I was going to Tucson and not Phoenix, because it was a lot more sympathetic to the environment. She explained that she edited these newsletters because 23% of Americans said that they cared enough about the environment to want to change the way they lived, but they were scattered across the country and there was no focus or organization to let their voice be heard. I was surprised. If her figures were correct, that amounted to a number that exceeded the entire population of the UK by several millions.

We had time for hugs and firm handshakes before I left. As a last delaying tactic, Pete asked me if I wanted to have a quick few throws of the Frisbee but I declined. It was 10.15 and I was keen to make Tuscon in good time, as I had friends there whom I’d not seen for a while and wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

In the southwest corner of New Mexico, the area known as the heel of the state, there were a number of ghost towns that I  wanted to see. Shakespeare could only be visited by appointment according to Pete, and Steins was more of a museum than a real town, so I decided to head straight for Rodeo right on the border with Arizona. By the time I got there it was very hot, and the place delivered what the book promised. It was deserted.

I wanted to have lunch in the Tavern, which was reportedly run by a woman “so eccentric that she doesn’t even print a menu, she just talks to you”. It seemed far more eccentric that the place only opened on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 4 pm. I wasn’t prepared to wait three days for lunch so I went back to the car. I noticed a thermometer in the shade on the side of one of the buildings. It showed 104°F. The sky was crystal blue and cloudless.

Two miles down the road, I was over the state line into Arizona and heading down towards the Mexican border. The road led past a monument to Geronimo, commemorating a spot close to where he had fallen but that was about all there was to see. The outside temperature was becoming unbearable and so I was thankful not to have reason to leave the air-conditioned sanctuary of the car. I was even more thankful that the air-conditioning appeared to have started working again.

I noticed a speck on the horizon and as I drew closer, it was clear that it was some maniac walking along the side of the road. A white vehicle reached the man shortly before I did and stopped. As I passed them, I saw Border Patrol written on the side of the vehicle and an officer inviting the man (who was evidently of Mexican descent) to get in. It seemed strange that the Mexican, having made it over the border, had been following the sun back south to whence he’d just escaped. You would have thought that he’d at least have walked north when he came to the highway.

It was 2 pm according to my watch as I arrived in Douglas and there was nowhere appealing to stop for lunch, so I had a burger at a gas station and rang Adam, an old friend from university who now lived in Tucson with his wife Rebecca. I commented that it was bloody hot and he asked me what I had “bloody expected coming to the bloody desert in the bloody summer”. I told him that I expected to be with him around six, and set off for Tombstone.

It was a fun town. They’d preserved the Wild-West look very well with the raised wooden walkways and slatted shop-fronts. I paid my money to go into the OK Corral and the site of the notorious gunfight. On the patch of ground where the fight took place, waxwork models of the main protagonists were drawn up in lines facing each other. The sound of playground caps being fired rang out sporadically from some nearby speakers. In front of each waxwork was a wooden stake with the character’s name. I have to say I’ve seen scarier episodes of Blue Peter.

I found the Boot Hill Cemetery just up the hill on the way out of town. The entrance was via a gift shop, where a notice reminded you that you were about to step onto hallowed ground and that you should behave appropriately. I’m sure that it was a genuine burial ground and that the remains of the bodies were down there somewhere, but the white wooden “headstones” were slightly too freshly painted for authenticity. Still, willing suspension of disbelief was happily conceded at the sight of an epitaph reading “He was right, we was wrong, so we strung him up, and now he’s gone.”

From Tombstone, it was an easy drive up to Benson and on to the Interstate for about an hour to Tucson. This was still Interstate 10, the road I had first picked up south of Okefenokee at Macclenny FL and which stretched all the way to Los Angeles. The clock read 5.30 as I pulled into Adam’s driveway. He looked surprised to see me and said that Rebecca was going to be annoyed with him now, as he’d not done the vacuuming before I’d arrived.

It didn’t matter. They had one of the most exquisite homes that I’d seen. The main living room was a whitewashed atrium with huge windows overlooking the mountains and outside was a sizeable yard that was graveled over and planted with all sorts of exotic flora, including some cacti in full bloom. Adam cracked open a couple of beers and welcomed me to the desert. Earlier in the day it had reached 115°F, but it had now settled down to a balmy hundred.

With degrees from Oxford and Harvard already under his belt, Adam was now back at college training to be a lawyer. He came originally from Connecticut, but was delighted to have escaped the “pretentious wank of the east coast”. We went out to take the dogs for a walk and toss them some tennis balls on the dried out riverbed of the Rillito. The heat was still oppressive for me and, by the looks of things, for the dogs as well. Within ten minutes they were pooped, much to my relief, and so we made our way back home. Rebecca was at a meeting until about seven and would join us later, but Adam thought that we should go to this place he knew where we could get a good drink and watch the sun set. It seemed a bit desperate not to wait the fifteen minutes for her to get back, but I was more than happy to fall in with the plan.

Back at the house, I had a quick shower and changed out of my sweat-drenched clothes. As I was getting dressed, I heard a time check on the radio. It was an hour earlier than I thought it was. I called out to Adam, who confirmed that it was about ten to six. Arizona never changed its time, he explained, and so was synched in with California and not New Mexico during the months of daylight saving. Evidently I had arrived at their place at 4.30 pm.

We drove out to a very posh restaurant and soon were sipping prickly pear margaritas on the terrace. They were bright purple, and slipped down effortlessly. They were so good that we had to have a second one each. We might well have had a third, but Rebecca arrived looking rather stressed from the day. The place that Adam had in mind for dinner was called L’il Abner’s and way out of town in the country, but he promised the best steaks that I’d ever had. They were cooked on an open pit barbecue fuelled by mesquite, a wood that gave the meat a unique flavor. And they never cleaned the grill over the fire, which was supposed to add a taste all of its own. We arrived at the place and as soon as we stepped out of the car, the aroma from the fire swept deliciously through our nostrils.

The menu ran to four items: a cowgirl steak (1lb), a cowboy steak (2lb), a 12 oz fillet or half a rib-cage. I like steak a lot and have eaten a fair amount of it in my time but, despite becoming inured to the omnipresent American claims of superlative, I had to admit that Adam’s promise wasn’t far wide of the mark. They were keen for me to visit the restrooms and look inside the restaurant. It wasn’t at all like I would have imagined. While middle-class punters basked outside in the gentle glow of the fire, inside it was like a roughneck bar that was a temple to graffiti. When I returned outside, they told me that the joint reputedly had mafia connections. The story went that it was once taken over by the mob and then given to some lawyers in lieu of astronomical bills that could not be paid. The rumor continued that some counterfeit printing plates were supposed to be concealed somewhere within.

We must have been some distance from Tucson because we came back via the Interstate and turned off down the Miracle Mile, the aptly named drag around which the red light district was centred. We were back in the house by 10.15 and I was slightly surprised when Adam said fifteen minutes later that he needed to go to bed because it “was about the latest I’ve ever stayed up”. I assumed that he was talking about since living in Arizona, or I knew him to be a barefaced liar at that point.

I had a last cigarette outside and took in the silence of the city. A couple of joggers bobbled past on the track the other side of the wall at the bottom of the yard. I crept upstairs and joined the cat whose room I was sharing for the night. It purred contentedly as I gently shoved it aside and climbed beneath the sheets.

Day 15. AZ: baking, blistering, baffling, bruising

I was effectively still on Mountain Time and so had little difficulty getting straight up when my wristwatch alarm sounded at 7.40 am. I went downstairs where the house was still silent, and sat down and read. Ten minutes later Adam and Rebecca appeared, not from their bedroom as I had expected, but bounding in through the back door. They had been for their morning run. They liked to do 7 or 8 miles at the beginning of each day explained Adam, in a way that suggested their daily exercise quota didn’t always stop there. The reason they went to bed no later than ten was because they liked to be up by five. His view on life was that the most productive hours of the day were between five and eleven in the morning. It was one philosophy I suppose, but more suited to the desert than it was to rain-swept Blighty.

Adam volunteered some friends of his in Jackson WY and Boston MA, with whom he was sure I could stay. I’d never met either of them, but it sounded great. I was learning that the biggest financial burden was accommodation and the biggest time burden was finding out where to go and how to meet people. Having somewhere already lined up to stay the night solved all these problems (witness the previous evening), and so the prospect of additional hosts had to be a bonus.

While Adam went to finish his preparations for a class he had at eleven, I reorganized all my baggage in the car. It was a mess and the newspapers in particular were starting to get all over the place. I borrowed (in a permanent kind of way) a cardboard box from the garage into which I stuck the papers, and cleared out another bag just for souvenirs. So far I had managed to get something distinctive from each state.

It was going to be another hot day. The gauge on the thermometer in the garden went up to 140°F and the mercury, albeit in direct sunlight, was already bursting out the top of it. Although the idea of wearing anything other than shorts seemed anathema at that point, I had come with only one pair of long trousers and wanted to get some jeans while I was still in cowboy country. Adam directed me to the Western Warehouse where I would be certain to be able to get hold of some ranching Wranglers, and I bade them farewell.

With my newly purchased jeans stowed safely in the back of my newly organized trunk, I was soon heading out of Tucson and west on the Ajo Way. The scenery was like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon. This was desert by terrain not just temperature. Everywhere was dirty yellow with very little sign of life beyond a few scrub bushes and a sea of cacti. These were not the same species as I’d seen elsewhere, they actually looked like the cacti of my childhood imaginings. They all had the central cylinder with arms that jutted out and turned upwards at right angles. They almost looked like an army of little green men flexing their biceps. Well, from a distance perhaps.

The wind was strong and was buffeting the car. It felt like there might be something wrong with the steering, as the car seemed to be pulling to the left. Although I didn’t know much about how cars worked, I did understand that such a pull could result in uneven tyre-wear, which in turn could result in blowouts. I didn’t much fancy this eventuality, especially out here in the desert, and just prayed that it was only the gale that was the source of the problem.

If the winds were causing me difficulties, the same couldn’t be said for the Native American I saw hitchhiking. With a nonchalance that could only be admired, he was standing on the side of the road thumbing a lift while simultaneously taking a piss. He wasn’t even being particularly discreet about it, and seemed to be relishing the play of his glistening yellow ticker-tape in the wind.

The most barren parts of the United States are good for little else than designation as Indian reservations, and so it came as little surprise when a sign told me that I was entering the Tohono O’Odham Nation a few miles before I reached Sells. I was intrigued about the next place on my itinerary, the curiously titled town of Why. Its name was substantially less of a mystery once I’d passed through it, a town of little point in the middle of nowhere.

The film-set experience continued when I arrived at Ajo and found an idyllic Mexican square with palm trees, all manner of shops and two restaurants. Unfortunately, one was closed for the summer – no reason given – and the other was being renovated. I pressed on to Gila Bend, which described itself as “home to 1700 friendly people and 5 old crabs”. The sun continued to blaze as I passed a sign instructing all cars to use headlights day and night. I soon appreciated the reason. It was so bright that the only way that you could spot oncoming traffic from any sort of distance was from the glimmer of the headlights. The rest of any car just got lost in the heat-haze.

The sunshine was also playing havoc with my hands. What had started as dryness had now developed into full-blown blisters, and it had reached the stage where I could barely bend any of my fingers. It had taken me a couple of days to figure out that the cause of this problem was the sun. I had been putting sun lotion on the exposed parts of my arms and legs, but it hadn’t occurred to me to put it on my fingers even though their position atop the steering wheel meant that they were exposed to a more constant stream of rays than any other part of me. The skin was now cracking and proving to be quite painful. I’d noticed that people I met had stopped offering to shake hands.

Around 6.30 pm, I reached the Californian state line and Parker. Well done. I wasn’t due to cross into the Golden State until the next day. Instead, I followed the Colorado River north. This was another rich part of the country and perched along the canyon edge – still evident at this stage of the river – were the weekend homes of the elite.

The scenery was more breathtaking stuff. My goal was Lake Havasu City, modern day home of the original London Bridge that was shipped over in the late 60s and reconstructed brick by brick. It had taken from 1968 until 1971 to complete the project. As suspected there was very little to the place apart from the bridge and the lake. The town itself was only founded in 1964.

Some cheap-looking motels lurked on the outskirts as I approached the bright lights of the town, but I wanted to venture in until I could see the bridge. I guessed it wouldn’t be difficult to find and it wasn’t. It ran from the mainland on to an island in the middle of the lake, and encrusted around the nearside end was a complex from Olde Englande with words on every sign suffixed by a gratuitously additional e or two.

I found a room at the Bridge View Motel and was soon checking in. As I walked from reception to my room, I noticed a couple cavorting in the outdoor pool. It looked as if they had no clothes on. Admittedly it was after dark, but it was only about 8.30 pm. I dumped my stuff, made a quick call to leave a message for my friend Bobby whom I was hoping to stay with in LA the next night, hid my wallet and passport, and decided to go and see the bridge.

On my way out, I went to check the pool. Yep. They were definitely naked, and it looked as if he was giving her some interesting swimming instruction. To get back to the complex, I had to walk across a dark and deserted stretch of unbuilt wasteland. The only light came from the fast food parking lot 400 yards yonder. It was the first time that I had felt consciously unsafe out on the streets, but I reached the other side after some pretty brisk walking.

The Visitors’ Center wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Tower of London. It was closed, but it led the way to the London Bridge Brewery. I went in and ordered a beer. It was a large place, with the capacity for certainly a couple of hundred people, but there were only about a dozen in that night and most of them were in the upstairs section. The barman was in his twenties and had a moustache and a mullet haircut. A thirty-something woman with the air of a failed country singer sat on a stool at the end of the bar. She looked as if she might be the barman’s girlfriend.

A plaque on the wall with the Arms of the City of London commemorated the opening of the bridge by the Lord Mayor, the alderman Sir Peter Studd, on 9th October 1971. It didn’t mention anything about him chortling to himself all the way back to Heathrow afterwards though. With a briefcase full of cash.

I tried to preoccupy myself with re-reading time and again the menu of the various beers brewed on site while I finished off my pint. Country woman asked me what I was drinking and I told her that I was on IPA. She said that she preferred the lager and promptly left to go to the bathroom. The barman asked where I was from and he looked neither surprised nor pleased when I told him. I got the impression that the folks of Lake Havasu get a bit pissed off with cocky Brits in general, and Londoners in particular, coming over and having a laugh at them and their bridge.

I wandered down to the lakeshore and under one of the arches of the bridge. I couldn’t figure out what it was but I had to admit there was something very English-feeling about this place. It wasn’t the number of curiosity shops or anything like that, but the architecture. For a place that was founded less than forty years ago, they had made a better stab at creating an authentic traditional English look than most towns of that era in England itself. I wanted to dislike the whole set up but instead I felt curiously warm towards it. Perhaps I was slowly becoming American.

To save myself the hike around by the main highway, I cut through a hotel and scrambled up a grassy bank to get to Slainee’s, a beer and food hostelry that I had passed earlier in the car. It was considerably more alive than the other joint, and was focused on serving the local population with a thick diet of sport. TV sets were everywhere, and pool tables and other games.

Near to me four blokes with bigger muscles in their arms than I had in my thighs were playing a kind of table football game, only it was based on ice hockey. It was intensely competitive and the upshot was that a fight broke out between two of them who were on the same (losing) side. In the general commotion the table itself got squashed and broken. Two employees came and carried the table away, very much looking as if they’d seen it all before. The muscle boys left, but not until after they’d finished their beers.

I was sat by the bar trying not to meet anyone’s eyeline and so focused on the TV. On one set in front of me was a game of baseball and on the other American football. I tried to follow what was going on, but with very little success. I nervously glanced around to see what else was happening and noticed a tennis match being played on a set just behind me. It was the men’s semi-final of the American Open. Glad to have found a sport that I understood, I craned my neck round and watched the closing moments of a very exciting match.

After a few minutes I had that uncomfortable sense that I was being stared at and saw that another table of beefcakes were gawping at me as if I were sick in the head. My aura of machismo would evidently have been better served if I’d been sitting there wearing make-up and women’s underwear, so I decided that it was time to leave. If I had to end up getting my head kicked in on this trip, I wanted it to be for doing something a touch more daring than “liking tennis”.

Back in my room, the light on my phone told me that I had a message, which I rang to retrieve. It wasn’t an automated voicemail system as I expected, but a live person who wanted to know what I wanted. I explained that I thought there was a message for me. “Oh yeah” he replied, “Bobby rang and said that he’d see you tomorrow”. There was something refreshing about the brevity, and it was a relief to know that I would have company and guidance for my night in America’s largest urban sprawl.

Day 16. AZ/CA: heat haze, Prozac, popes, fatties

Despite its name, it would be an exaggeration to say that there was much  of a view of the bridge from my motel unless you happened to have a large  periscope or had set up some other canny configuration of mirrors. I tried to  take a photo but ended up with the side of a building with a fluttering Union Flag just in view over its roof.

I took the road leading over the Parker Dam into California. Between me  and Los Angeles lay the small matter of the Mojave Desert, and this was to  outstrip in barrenness anything that I had seen in Arizona or New Mexico. The  next few hours were nothing but road, sand and searing heat. At points along  the way a railroad joined the highway and ran parallel to it. It was on a  raised embankment and bottles and colored stones spelled out messages in the  sand at its side. People with some serious drugs had passed by this way. To add  to the surrealism, I was listening to a debate on the radio that had been raging for about twenty minutes. The subject being discussed was whether taking  Prozac was consistent with being a Christian. One party felt that you had a problem if you couldn’t find adequate succor in the Gospel, while the other thought that perhaps it was God who had inspired the scientists to invent the drug, and so taking it was a way of fulfilling His will.

I was looking forward to seeing Bobby again. He was an Essex friend who  had given up his job in the City and come out to LA seven years previously to  pursue his dream of becoming a Hollywood scriptwriter. After struggling for  some time, he was now making progress and was chipper because Meg Ryan’s  production company were showing a lot of interest in one of his film scripts. I  had already decided that the only reason to visit California was because it was  one of the 48. It wasn’t that there was nothing of note to be found there  (quite the contrary), but that so much is known and has been written about the  state that I doubted whether 24 days, let alone 24 hours, would allow me to turn up anything new.

From my previous visits, I would say that LA was the only town  in the USA that I didn’t really like. OK, apart from Detroit. I had found the  combination of aggression and insincerity very unengaging. If Bobby hadn’t  lived there, I would have gone somewhere else in California but, as it was, he was the main point of my next few hours and for the first time I felt as if I were on vacation rather than on a mission.

The desert went on and on. Despite what my map suggested, there were no communities along the way. Unless Rice was a town made up of a couple of  trailers by the side of the road, it had been vaporized since the last time the cartographers swung by this way. After more than a hundred miles of heat-haze,  signs promised the approach of Twentynine Palms, a sort of high desert equivalent of Sevenoaks. Before I drew into town, I came to the entrance to the  Joshua Tree National Park and pulled off to have a look around. I satisfied myself with perusing the photographs of the trees in the Visitors’ Center. I certainly didn’t want to go traipsing cross-country in those temperatures just to look at some idiosyncratic plants. The wrong attitude perhaps, but it was still 110°F.

Bobby’s house was to be found above a curry house in the San Fernando valley, which fashion ordained to be the “wrong side of the hill” for those with aspirations of breaking on to the Hollywood scene. It was easy to find the apartment from his directions, but impossible to park. I slotted the car in to a space marked exclusively for customers of the curry house on pain of fines, clampings and general destruction of the vehicle. Bobby thought it would be all right when he answered the door and invited me up to where the predictable beers were waiting. My previous experience of nights out with Bobby rarely featured anything other than excess.

There was a choice of entertainment for the evening. We could go out to LAX and see if we had any luck picking up any incoming BA stewardesses, a pastime that had recently become one of Bobby’s favorites. Or we could join a group for dinner in Santa Monica. The latter option sounded preferable, but I pointed out that I had no decent clothes if it was going to be somewhere swanky. With a “since when did you ever have any decent clothes, Kev?”, he said that it would be fine provided I could at least put on some long trousers. It was time to debut the jeans from Arizona.

We drove to Santa Monica in Bobby’s open-top jeep. He’d recently gone to Kentucky to see the Derby in it with my cousin Greg and had been horrified to discover how adversely the air-conditioning had affected fuel consumption. They’d spent almost $1000 on gas. I made a mental note only to put the air-conditioning on when it was really necessary, and asked him if he knew that the Kentucky Derby was the fourth largest sporting event in the world. He said he didn’t and that he’d had a terrible time, culminating in being abducted and threatened with sodomy by a couple of hillbillies. I could see how that sort of thing might color your perception of an event.

Our first stop was at a bar that was even more glamorous than I’d feared, right in the heart of Santa Monica. It was fashionable beyond normal human comprehension. Its one saving grace from my perspective was that it was very dimly lit inside and was decked out with nothing but black tiles and smoked mirrors. There were some small waterfalls trickling down the walls and about a million dollars worth of cosmetic correction standing by the bars. We went in and ordered vodka.

The party began to assemble and was mostly comprised of Brits, one of whom, Gareth, I’d met before. Normally he lived and worked in Jefferson City MO, but had come to LA for an interview with the INS as one of the final stages of getting his Green Card. He was with a girl who was introduced to me as either BK or “Beaky”, who turned out to be very nice. She worked in Austin TX, had an apartment in Amarillo (over 500 miles to the north) and, as part of the terms of her employment, got a courtesy flight to anywhere in the US every weekend. She was fascinated by what I was doing and pointed out that most Americans had not even been to all 48 states. Not even the ones who got free flights anywhere each weekend. Nobody was smoking and so I checked the form with Bobby. He told me that if I wanted a cigarette, I’d have to go outside but that I couldn’t take my drink with me. Californian law dictated no alcoholic consumption outside and no nicotine consumption inside.

Out on the street, there were a couple of fellow puffers, some ashtrays and a smoking bench. There were also streetlights, which suddenly illuminated the crapness of my garb. In stark contrast to the designer-labels on legs that were strutting in and out of the bar, I was there in a crumpled shirt, scuffed shoes and stiff new jeans that were so flattened out in the leg that they caused a breeze as I walked. I looked like someone whose mum hadn’t dressed him particularly well that morning before sending him out of the house. I was easily the least cool person in the whole neighborhood.

My only choice was to face it down and make out that I was some kind of cutting edge next-generation-Oasis-grunge-dude from the UK (if such a thing exists). I really needed lanker hair, indeed any hair, to carry it off but I thought that as long as I smoked my cigarette with attitude that I might just get away with it. I’d just got into the James Dean swing of it when BK came out to join me. I flicked open my Zippo and span the wheel half a dozen times with no result. She pulled a lighter out of her bag, lit her cigarette and handed the lighter to me telling me that it was OK because she had a spare. She sat down on the bench and noticed something on the back of my trouser leg. My humiliation was complete when she pulled off a six-inch strip of colored tape that was announcing to the world my waist and inside leg measurements.

The restaurant was across the road and was supposed to be a family-run little Italian with no pretensions. We supped up our drinks and began to move over. One of our number was a guy called Richie who was American. His job was selling The Weakest Link to TV stations. His previous job had been selling the Jerry Springer Show. They were both far more taxing jobs than they sounded, apparently.

He was with a facially fluffy woman who looked like she was about fifteen months pregnant. Either that, or she genuinely did like her food. I decided against enquiring which it was. They both became excited when we got to the restaurant because we were going to get a table in the “Pope’s room”. I had no idea what this meant, but it was clear that this joint was in fact a very large and popular place with the fashionable set.

We were led through the kitchens to our table in an enclave at the back of the restaurant. Now I could see the source of Richie’s excitement. This wasn’t the Pope’s room, it was the Popes’ room. It was octagonal in shape, with a side open to form a door. The wall was decked out with Vatican memorabilia.  There were photos of various Popes, framed letters, a painting of some rosary beads, a 3-D postcard of the Madonna and a shot of some nuns doing the can-can. In the middle of the table in a glass box on a rotating lazy Susan was a 2’ plaster effigy of John Paul II. The head of the circular table was designated by a throne instead of a mere mortal’s chair, and the dome shaped ceiling offered poor mimicry of the Sistine Chapel.

The waitress assured us that we need order no more than seven, perhaps eight, dishes between the twelve of us because they were each very large and that would be plenty. I left the ordering to others and got on with drinking my wine. It was at this point that I noticed something very peculiar. It appeared that we had sat down clockwise in order of fatness so that the tubbiest (Richie)  was at 6 o’clock and the thinnest at 5 o’clock. I wasn’t sure whether it was deliberate or not, but it seemed far too blatant to be an accident. It said something about the general plumpness of the party that I found myself at 2 o’clock.

My theory gained momentum when the food started to arrive. Every dish  was a platter to be shared by all and the waitress always put it on to the table at 6 o’clock for it to pass clockwise around the lazy Susan. The fatties had got it sussed. By the time each dish reached me, there was generally about an eighth of the food left on it while those before me were gorging themselves on increasingly mountainous platefuls the further right you went. It almost went without saying that the four Americans who were not BK were positioned at 6 to 9 o’clock and each had a gob like a skip.

Despite this there was plenty to go around and nobody left hungry, although it did seem to me that we also stopped eating in anti-clockwise order starting at 5. I went to the restroom and was interested to see the walls bedecked by photos of various men and boys having a piss in a number of situations (though none of them featuring a lavatory). I commented on this when I got back to the table and was assured by one of the girls that it was the same in the female restroom (only with photos of women). It all seemed oddly out of place in California, but then its dichotomies was one of the things that most characterized it I guess.

Back at Bobby’s we had one last beer and I collapsed on to the sofa. We wanted to be up in time to see the Chelsea vs Arsenal match that was being screened the following morning in a bar that Bobby knew. It was approaching three when I felt a duvet being thrown over my body and the lights being turned out. Kick off at Stamford Bridge was at 7 am Pacific Time.

Day 17. CA/NV: smog, slog, aliens, beer

It was in a shocking state that I woke the following morning at 7.20. The booze fairy had definitely visited during the night, nicked all my money, thrown my clothes around the room and done something highly unpleasant in my mouth. As a matter of urgency, I went to clean my teeth and then wake Bobby. We were midway through the first half already.

Fortunately it was a short hike, a straight road and, with most of LA still sensibly tucked up in bed, we were at the Cock & Bull English Pub as the whistle blew for half-time. It was already 1-1. We settled down in the darkness and ordered coffee. I was going to take full advantage of the American tradition of that everlasting cup. It proved to be a fairly dull second half with no further goals and the bar cleared out on the final whistle.

The drive out of LA was as unpleasant as it was long. California has enough miles of road to circle the globe three times, and most of them seemed to converge here. Motorway status highways intersected at short regular intervals with the result that traffic was constantly cutting across lanes in both directions. The fact that all other road users around me saw me as some sort of confused hick from South Carolina and seemed to be making special efforts to make my life unpleasant didn’t help.

Soon the yellow smog that enveloped LA was in my rear view mirror and normal visibility had been regained. I motored steadily out into the central Mojave desert towards the Nevada state line. I awarded my first prize for absurd town names to Zzyzx along the way.

Bobby had laughed when I told him that I was only going to spend an hour in Las Vegas. It seemed no more risible than only spending an hour in a lot of the places that I’d skimped on so far, but I saw his point. If I’d not visited before, I probably would have planned to spend the night. On my previous tour, I had done the “lose $100 in ten minutes” routine (you really do lose $100 in ten minutes) and this time I had a very specific and, hopefully, more sensible plan. My book on things eccentric in America told of a café where a rollercoaster-type ride wound in and around the diners. This sounded like something worth seeing and so I set my sights on the Sahara Hotel.

Las Vegas is an assault on the senses. Driving down the main strip, I felt bombarded by sounds and colors and this was at four in the afternoon. People flocked everywhere, desperate to find another outlet in which to piss their hard earned cash out of the window. In the streets, complimentary buses vied with each other to whisk potential customers off to their lairs. Misshapen hotels loomed large over the street on both sides, each trying to outdo the next.

By the time that I had driven the length of the Strip, I felt drunk again from this sensory overload. Well, not so much drunk as nauseated. At the far end I found the Sahara Hotel and pulled into the car park. I looked at my watch and gave myself an hour.

I walked through the casino which was packed with gray-faced automata, feeding bucket-load after bucket-load of coins into the banks of fruit machines. Did they know that there was sunshine outside? Did they know what time it was, or even the day of the week? Bodies hunched over the card tables gave the impression that they weren’t so much early for Saturday night but still here trying to claw back some losses from Friday night. At the far end of the casino I saw the café and the signs to the ride. I paid my $8 and joined the queue. I put my valuables and loose change in a locker as directed and climbed aboard.

The guy next to me asked if I minded him screaming. I didn’t have time to reply. The carriage shot forward with a whiplash jolt and fell vertically for a few seconds. I could just take in that we were now outside. We climbed, fell, and loop-the-looped before being shot upwards and held there perpendicular to the earth. After a few moments, we tumbled backwards and it became clear that we were now going to do the ride backwards.

As we docked back at base, the screamer asked the attendant how many times we had to do it. He was told that you got one more ride for your money but that he could get out now if he wanted. He took that option and I took advantage of being released from the restrainers and hopped out too. I felt that I was going to throw up really rather badly.

I was back in my car an hour and ten minutes after I’d left it (which had proved to be about an hour and nine minutes too long). In my enthusiasm to speed away, I missed my turning and so took the long way round through the very desolate Moapa River Indian Reservation. Now that was one place where I did not want to break down.

It was pitch black by the time I reached the junction with the Extraterrestrial Highway to Rachel. I picked my way cautiously through the darkness of the open range until in the distance I saw the flashing red, blue and green lights of a spaceship.

Television programmes have been made about the Little Ale-e-inn. It’s the only place to stay in Rachel, the nearest town to Area 51. Depending upon your point of view, Area 51 is either part of the top secret military installation officially known as the Nellis Air Force Range, or it is where the remains of the spaceship that crashed at Roswell in 1947 were taken and has been conducting some sort of exchange programme with space aliens ever since.

I didn’t want to pre-judge the situation, but it seemed unlikely that the extremes of the space alien conspiracy theory were plausible. Ignoring the coincidence that the aliens happened to choose somewhere conveniently remote and in the USA (we have to assume it was their choice and not ours), two things still bothered me.

Firstly, these aliens must have come from way beyond our solar system. To have come that distance makes them pretty sophisticated. In evolutionary terms, it makes them superior to us. Being in such a position of superiority and having made all that effort, it seemed improbable that they would not destroy any primary rival species that they met on their travels (just as European explorers killed huge numbers of aboriginal peoples when they encountered them). They surely wouldn’t have become so advanced without being at least a little ruthless.

Secondly, on the unlikely assumption that their mission were peaceable, what had they been doing in Area 51 all this time? Having foot massages, eating doughnuts and watching HBO? You would have thought that by now they might at least have liked to be shown around the planet a bit.

All that aside, I was quite prepared to believe that there could be a lot more to the whole UFO thing than a couple of crazed anoraks in a bivouac with a pair of binoculars and a Kodak Instamatic. It seemed more than possible that a government agency might know more about what was going on than was generally made public. I was at least prepared to believe that UFOs could exist, although I was broadly uncommitted on the subject. My reasons for staying at Rachel were more to do with light-hearted inquisitiveness than with serious enquiry.

This was just as well, or I might have taken a degree of offense when I arrived at the Little Ale-e-inn. They had not done a lot to add gravity to the cause. Along with the flashing spaceship in the car park, there was an “Earthlings Welcome” sign with a cartoon of the Roswell alien. The site was a collection of pre-fab huts and inside the main one, the room had been divided into three parts: a restaurant area, a bar, and a shop selling some of the most unimaginable tat. Bright neon strip lighting throughout did not help the atmosphere.

With its lighting and clientele, the bar felt more like a truckers’ stop. I asked for a beer, and went for a look around the souvenir section. I overheard the barman giving a couple instructions how to get to Area 51. I had assumed that it was a walk to the fence at the end of the Inn’s compound, and that I’d be able to take a photograph of the warning signs and be off in the morning. I checked with the barman who got out a leaflet that explained it was a 20-mile drive back down the highway to the Black Mailbox and then a further 15 miles on unmade roads to the entrance to Area 51. The leaflet also made the point, in capital letters, that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you trespass beyond the perimeter or you will DEFINITELY be arrested. The fine for a first offense was cited as $600.

A woman in her fifties was sat down at the bar and had smiled at me a number of times whenever we had caught each other’s eyes. She took this opportunity to break the conversational ice. When she found out that I was from London and travelling around America by myself, she shuffled her stool up towards me enthusiastically.

She had come from a memorial service in Tonopah that day and was a bit squiffy. Her name was Jo Ann, and she had one of those kind maternal faces. She and her husband were staying the night before going home to Las Vegas the next day. She came from Illinois, but they had now lived in Nevada for thirty years and loved it.

I asked her if she knew how many people lived in Rachel and she reckoned it would be about 102. Another guy at the bar thought that it was more like 150. There was now a woman serving behind the bar who interrupted and said that there were 68. A small argument ensued and the woman behind the bar pulled a scrap of paper out of her apron pocket and started reciting the numbers in each individual family. “We counted ‘em up the other day. There’s definitely 68.” Game set and match. There was obviously not much to do to pass the time in Rachel, whatever the population.

An extraordinary looking man walked into the bar. He had a huge handlebar moustache and looked like he was going to a fancy dress party as a cowboy. He wore a large white Stetson, a techni-coloured waistcoat, a crisply ironed white linen shirt, tight jeans and pimply cowboy boots. He came over to us and Jo Ann introduced him as Jim, her husband. He’d clearly had a few drinks too.

“Oh Jim, this is Kevin. It’s wonderful. He’s going around all the 48 states in 48 days.”

“Oh you are, are you? Where’s your airplane partner?”

I explained that I was doing it by road. Jim asked if that were possible and wondered whether I had contacted the Guinness Book of Records. He said that he’d buy me a beer, but only if I promised him that I would keep a receipt from every state to prove to the folk at Guinness that I had achieved the feat in the specified time. It seemed an easy commitment to make, and my beer arrived.

Jim was in full swing and wanted to know what I did for a living. He thought it was fantastic that I had just given up my job and gone off and done this trip, and bought me another beer. I’d only had a couple of sips from the first one. He asked me how come I’d ended up in a place as small as Rachel and I told him that it was more interesting to go to small towns because large cities are so alike all over the western world. As he bought me yet another beer, I pointed out that I’d been in LA the night before and had spent the evening with a load of Brits.

“No sirree, you don’t want to be doing that. You want to meet real cowboys, with a real hat and a nice bib and a proper vest and linen shirt and jeans and no underwear and a gun in his pocket and real ostrich boots.” He was evidently talking about himself. I asked him what he meant by ostrich boots and he pointed to his feet and told me that real cowboys had boots made out of ostrich and that his pair had cost him $1500.

He wanted to know if I owned a gun. I said that I didn’t. He asked me if I liked going hunting and fishing. I said that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for either in central London. He seemed surprised and bought me another beer to go alongside the second and third that I hadn’t opened yet.

He told me that he wanted me to send him a Christmas card, “and a nice one too, mind you”. He said that if I gave him my address, he’d send one to me with a picture of a cowboy on it. He was willing to pay for it in advance and pushed a ten-dollar bill across the bar to me. I told him that he didn’t need to pay me and we exchanged addresses. He had two places, a ranch with a few acres in Alamo and a house in Las Vegas. He said he’d love it if I could come and see the ranch because it had a lot of history and the previous owners had left behind some old wagons that were mighty interesting. He knew that I didn’t have much time and probably couldn’t do it on this visit, but he hoped that I would come back and stay with him and Jo Ann one day.

There was another guy sitting at the bar next to Jo Ann, who had been listening in. Jo Ann brought him into the conversation and introduced him to me as Hank.

“Hier ist eine schöne Ecke. Essen Sie gern Erdbeere zum Frühstück?”

I looked at Hank plaintively.

“Sorry. Don’t you understand German? I was sure that you were German. You speak English with such a German accent.”

I assured him that I wasn’t German and that it was the first time that that particular mistake had been made. He went back to his beer in a bit of a sulk. Soon Jim and Jo Ann were wilting and ready to go to bed. Before they left, we agreed to meet up over breakfast. And Jim got me one more beer in. Once they were gone, I had to ask the barman for a box so that I could carry my haul back to the room. I’d save the rest for another evening – I needed to be up early for an unanticipated extra 70 miles in search of any aliens who might want to come out and play.

Day 18. NV: deadly force, lonely roads, deserted inns

Area 51 is not for tourists. A joke is a joke, but this is serious. It is a top-secret military base and visitors are not welcome. All references to it should either be removed from guidebooks, or it should be made clear what the place is about. The only possible reason for going there is if you’re a serious investigative journalist but even then it’s probably not a very good idea.

I was up and out by 7 am. I wanted to get to Area 51, take a couple of photographs and be back soon after eight for breakfast. As I came over Coyote Summit, I saw something in the road ahead of me. I drew closer and from about 50 yards I could see that it was a cow. I was by now used to roads that ran through open ranges and the subsequent wandering of cattle on to the highway, but this was strange. This cow was standing stock still in the middle of the carriageway and staring straight down the road at me. I slowed down and stopped about 20’ short of the beast.

It was standing over the body of another stricken cow that had been hit by a car. A busted wing mirror and some fragments of glass lay on the tarmac. It wasn’t clear whether the supine cow was yet dead or not, but the one on its feet looked mightily cheesed off. I tentatively drove off the road and onto the ranchland so that I could get by and give the creatures a comfortably wide berth. I could sense that this cow recognized the agent of its friend’s destruction and I wasn’t prepared to face the consequences.

As per my directions, the Black Mailbox (now painted white) was on the side of the highway precisely 19.8 miles down the road from Rachel. A dirt track led off into the fields and disappeared into nowhere. On the corner were a couple in a tent, who had just woken up. One was boiling water, the other surveying the skies with binoculars. They both stopped to throw admiring glances at me as I motored off down the track, dust billowing up behind me.

I followed the road for about 4 miles keeping an eye out for “a mound of dirt with a water tank on the right and a corral on the left”. These details amounted to the only landmarks around. The road split three ways and I needed to take the centre track for about another mile. This took me to another dirt road, along which it was another 8 ½ miles to the boundary of the base.

I had been in some lonely vulnerable spots before, but this was in another league altogether. It was 7.30 on a Sunday morning, I was miles from anywhere and the only people who knew where I was were the military folk in the base who were doubtless monitoring my approach. As promised by my leaflet, a turn in the road brought me to the entrance between two hills where a reception committee awaited.

There were no stallholders wanting to sell me alien ephemera or “I’ve been to Area 51” T-shirts. No restrooms or picnic tables. Not even a hot dog stand. All that greeted me were two tripod mounted surveillance cameras up on the hill to my left, and a champagne colored pick-up with two ominous-looking guards sat in the front, about 20 yards within the boundary. I could just make out their expressionless faces and the nozzles of some tasty looking automatic weapons resting on the dashboard.

I got out to have a look around, but there was nothing to see that couldn’t be viewed from the car. On both sides of the road were a series of warning signs. One of them read “Photography of this area is strictly prohibited. Use of deadly force authorized.” I went to the car to get my camera, waved it in the air at the guards and pointed to the sign. No response. They didn’t even move.

I had to weigh up in my mind how much I wanted that picture. It was the only reason why I had got up early and come all that way. I had seen other photographs of the signs, so some people clearly had taken shots here before. I didn’t want to photograph the area as such, just the sign, but I also reckoned that the guys in the pick-up would have little truck with a defense based on such semantics. I didn’t really feel like putting them to the test. After all, deadly force is deadly force, and it wasn’t something that I was used to being authorized in my presence.

I went and sat in the car and waited a couple of moments. This was an eerie spot to be in. This was the top-secret end of the military of the most powerful nation on earth, and I had no business being here. They had probably already traced my license plate back to Hertz, tracked down my home address in London and cross-referenced it with US Immigration to find out my age, height and bank balance.

Nobody in the world knew I was there except them. Not even the people at the Ale-e-inn, who would probably assume that I’d made an early start if I didn’t return. If there was anywhere that I could disappear without trace, it was here. It was just me and them, and nobody would ever know anything about it. They could simply blame it on the aliens.

It seemed wise to get out of there as soon as possible. Being careful not to place even the edge of a wheel inside the boundary, I turned around and drove off. I was annoyed to have nothing to show for my visit and so I stopped at the bend to take a photograph in the direction away from the base. As I turned to get back in the car I put the camera to my chest with the lens pointed at the pick-up and clicked the shutter.

It was the best I was going to get. I sped away feeling like Henry Hill in the closing sequences of Goodfellas. I kept looking out the windscreen up in the sky to find the helicopter that was following me. I hoped that nobody else was coming to have a look at the base because I was driving like a maniac to get away from the place. I covered the 14 miles of dirt tracks back to the mailbox in under ten minutes. I had no idea whether I was being followed, because I could see nothing for the dust in my rearview mirror. The bivouacers were just packing up their tent and looked even more surprised as I came screaming round the corner and back onto the pavemented road.

The cow was no longer in the middle of the road, but its companion had not been moved and was now very definitely dead. Instead of standing, the mourning beast was now knelt by the side of the carcass keeping a lonely vigil. If cattle could have expressions, this one’s would have changed from anger to confusion and bewilderment.

I felt strangely touched by a kind of sympathy with it. I had become accustomed to the extraordinary amount of roadkill that can be encountered on America’s highways and byways. I had noticed that, like the terrain, the type of stricken creatures often changed as soon as you crossed a state-line. My personal tally had been mainly restricted to insects and the like. Not just bugs and mosquitoes, but also some monstrous things that I had been relieved to find splattered across my windscreen and headlights rather than flying in through my open window. I had taken out one bird that had flown across my path, and a disturbing number of butterflies in Georgia. I had also seen all sorts of carnage from further up the food chain: armadillos, snakes, beavers, coyotes, even some cats and dogs. But a cow? There seemed something worse about the casual slaughter of a beast with a head larger than a human’s for a cause no more elevated than speed.

Neither Jim nor Jo Ann were in the dining room when I got back to the Little Ale-e-inn. I bought some tat from the shop and visited the UFO Research Center down the road, which turned out to be some guy’s front room. It took itself a touch more seriously than the Ale-I-inn, with quasi-academic conspiracy theory books and the like being sold by an earnest ponytail, and not a glow-in-the-dark rubber alien in sight. I picked up a leaflet on alien abductions. To date, 13528 American women have claimed to be kidnapped by UFOs, of whom 1501 reported that the aliens kept their underwear. Several of these pairs had since turned up in Nebraska.

I left the Extraterrestrial Highway and headed north. There was something here that didn’t add up. If, as I had concluded, gawping visitors were not welcome at Area 51 then why had the Nevada Tourist Commission decided to draw massive attention to it by officially designating NV 375 as the Extraterrestrial Highway?

Perhaps I had been a victim of a ruse and all of that mumbo jumbo was a deliberate ploy to suck in tourists and put the willies up them, ensuring they tell all the people they know who will then want to come and see for themselves. I thought about this a little and then dismissed it as unfeasible. It would be impossible for anything American to be that subtle. I couldn’t believe that the Nevada Tourism folk were that clever.

This suspicion was confirmed as I passed the Humboldt National Forest, which had been designated “Land of Many Uses”. As a descriptor, it lacked both imagination and accuracy. Land is generally a useful thing, but this inhospitable tract was probably among the least useful bits on the planet. Surely the same folk who named it thus could not have come up with something as fiendish as Area 51.

I reached Ely where I stopped to pick up my Loneliest Road Survival Kit. I was going to attempt to drive the length of US 50, or at least the length of it across Nevada that was designated the Loneliest Road. The AAA warns its members to stay off the road unless they are very sure of their survival skills. If you collected stamps from all five towns along the way, you got a certificate signed by the Governor of Nevada himself.

The Loneliest Road was in fact, by a distance, the busiest highway that I had driven in the whole of Nevada. I even got into a traffic jam at one point near some roadworks. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy I guess. If you try to draw tourists to an attraction, the axiom of which is its unpopularity, you’re going to end up losing one way or the other. Another strike for the Nevada Tourist Commission.

A sign along the roadside advised drivers to “Report Shooting from Highway”. I hadn’t appreciated that the survival challenge of US 50 included snipers, but I wouldn’t have needed such official encouragement – provided the shot didn’t prove fatal of course. I for one would be straight down the police station (possibly via the hospital).

Having stopped for lunch at Eureka (“the friendliest town on the loneliest road” – another blatant lie) and found nowhere open on a Sunday that could offer me a stamp on my passport, I abandoned the challenge. I’d had enough of Nevada and just wanted to get out of the state as quickly as possible. Surly youths really should be allowed to get over adolescence before they put themselves in the position of serving the public.

The road up to Battle Mountain actually was very lonely. In 88 miles, I saw three other vehicles, but at least this meant that I could put on some speed and I drove at a rather reckless 90 mph most of the way. The day was running short and I didn’t know where I was going to stay. If Battle Mountain had looked at all inviting, I would have stopped there but it didn’t.

The same could be said of Winnemucca, 50 miles to the west. At 7 pm, I turned north towards Oregon knowing that I was running out of options. There were only three towns for the next 220 miles, Orovada, McDermitt and Burns Junction, and I had no information about any of them. Orovada was a town of three or four buildings, one of which could have been a motel. Then again, it could have been a disused abattoir.

McDermitt was pretty rough, but slightly more promising. It even had two bars and a choice of motels. I opted for the one that was based in the gas station, but had to wait ten minutes as the cashier had locked up to go off on an errand. The motel comprised some cabins around the back, and soon I was safely installed and looking forward to a beer at the Desert Inn, on the recommendation of the cashier/receptionist.

It would have been better named the Deserted Inn. I was the only customer. An old man was playing the slots at the back, but left soon after I arrived. I tried to talk to the barmaid, but she was having none of it. All I could get from her was that it wasn’t bad for a Sunday. I presume she meant that at least nobody had died in there that night.

Across the road was the Say When Casino with 24-hour restaurant and bar. I walked through the casino to the bar. A portly woman with black tressy hair and a badge saying Rebecca came up to serve. I asked for a beer and she gave it to me with a “New Zealand or Australia?”. I explained that I came from England. “Oh. Ing-err-larnd. And what part of Ing-err-larnd do you come from?” When I said London, she made a similar mock-moronic pronunciation of Lon-don with both syllables rhyming with “Ron”.

It must have been her way of being welcoming. We got to chatting and in no time she had her road atlas out, suggesting places that I should go to in Idaho, her home state. She’d gotten divorced and had come down to Nevada on Christmas Day 1999 to be near her daughter, and was now putting her life back together.

The fourth beer was on the house, although Rebecca said she didn’t know how I could drink that flavorless American stuff. She’d been to some micro-breweries and commented that Budweiser must taste like dishwater after proper English beer. She then excused herself and went off to buy some candy for the barman “who was in a bad mood”.

I tried to chat to her colleague, but got nowhere. He was Mexican, and his English was about as good as my Polish. I asked him how long he had been here and he held up four fingers and said something that sounded like “twelve”. I remarked that it was a lot colder than Mexico and asked him how come he had ended up coming as far north as McDermitt. He shrugged his shoulders and said “twelve” again. Perhaps that was the number they’d featured on Sesame Street that morning.

Rebecca came back and the Mexican was pleased with his chocolate. She enthused more about Idaho and I had to point out that I was only planning to go across the tip of the panhandle, even though I knew that was a dodgy part of the world to go to. She looked at me puzzled, and then the penny dropped. “Oh, those white supremacists you mean. Na. Don’t worry. Bunch of kooks and weirdos. And yuppies. No one takes ‘em seriously.” At least she’d known what I was referring to without my having to tell her.

McDermitt was right on the state line according to my atlas and I wasn’t sure whether we were still in Nevada. I checked with Rebecca and found out we were, but only just. Oregon started 50 yards up the road. Another drinking joint straddled both states and was only allowed to have gambling in the half of the building inside Nevada.

Despite the fact that we’d been talking at length about my trip, Rebecca seemed surprised and impressed that the next day I was proposing to drive most all the way across Oregon.

It was then that she told me that I was the most interesting man she’d ever met. Nevada had now brought me a couple of comments about myself that I had never heard before. To keep it in perspective, I told myself that the Hank the German speaker probably didn’t get let out much and Rebecca was undoubtedly working off a fairly low base.

Day 19. OR: open roads, smashed windows, dick-heads, debates

For the sort of schedule that I was trying to keep to, skuzzy motels  were proving to be a boon. There was never any reason to hang around once I’d woken up and rarely any offer of breakfast to delay me. This motel was right down the bottom end of the skuzzy scale, and so I was up and out by 7.30 am.

It was a crisp morning and the dew was thick on the windows of the car. It was 55 miles to Burns Junction, which had been a candidate for my overnight stop the night before. When I got there, I was relieved not to have pushed on past McDermitt. The “town” comprised a meeting of two roads and a solitary gas station that didn’t even look open at ten in the morning (Mountain Time). That would definitely have meant a night shivering in the car. At Crane, I found the first accommodation available since crossing in from Nevada. It was 158 miles on from McDermitt.

Paul Harvey informed me that today was the 187th anniversary of the Star Spangled Banner. The other news was that somebody in Portland had stripped down his Honda Civic and put a rocket-engine in it. Unfortunately, this had brought him an unexpected problem. He could barely get between gas stations before he needed to refuel. I had become quite fond of these radio broadcasts. There was something soothing about the way Paul Harvey lackadaisically picked out a combination of serious and trivial news. It was like listening to your granddad reminiscing.

Lulled into this sense of security, I found myself being sucker-punched by the commercial clout of the segment. What started apparently as a news story about an exposé of unscrupulous garages that told you things were wrong with your car that were perfectly OK and then charged you for work that was never carried out (complete with a few statistics) soon metamorphosed into an audio-advertorial for Gemini. This culminated in “If you ring 1-877-GEMINI-1, they’ll give you a full lube check and service that you can trust. Tell them Paul Harvey sent you.”

His bulletin slipped seamlessly into the next article. A few minutes later he was covering a new report that showed how parents were failing to understand their kids increasingly these days. Once more some statistics were quoted. Some quacks had come up with a new theory that disruptive children were the result of an upbringing where music was absent from the house. It was important, especially at toddler age, to expose children to music if you didn’t want them to grow up to be criminals. Segue into 1-800 advertorial and promotional offer for Bose music systems.

Oregon was another empty state, albeit much greener than Nevada, but it did have Brothers and Sisters. Brothers was an agricultural outpost that offered little in the way of welcome. Silence greeted me as I popped by the roadside store for a coffee, leaving me with the distinct feeling that I’d done something wrong. I knew that in accordance with state law, dishes had to be allowed to drip dry in Oregon and I had been careful to pack away my tea-cloth when I’d crossed the state line. Perhaps I’d committed some other transgression, but nobody told me about it. They just stared.

Sisters was much more cordial. It was a joy to behold, a mess of old shops, wooden walkways and home cooking. No great conversations, but a friendly greeting met me wherever I wandered as I whiled away a couple of hours picking through the bric-a-brac and general curios that the town’s shops afforded.

Coming through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, the landscape was magnificent. As I approached one bend, I saw two interlocking hills with an ice blue river running between them. I veered off the road into a small lay-by to take a quick snap. It wasn’t an ideal place to stop so I left the engine running and jumped out of the car to frame the shot. Perfect.

Or not. My trusty Mazda had a central locking button on the inside of the driver’s door perilously close to the door handle, and in my excitement to scramble out of the car I must have hit this button. I was now locked out of the car with its engine running and in the middle of nowhere. What was more, my wallet, passport, phone cards and cigarettes were all inside the car.

Most options eliminated themselves once I’d come to the conclusion that I wasn’t prepared to leave the car. Somehow I had to find a way of getting back in (preferably before the engine ran out of petrol), but I had no previous experience of breaking into cars and no idea how to do it cleanly. What’s more, I only had my bare hands.

I figured that I had little choice but to break one of the windows and started to search the immediate vicinity for some sort of missile. I found a small rock and tapped it against the rear quarter-light. This succeeded in merely scratching the glass, and so I threw it from as far away as I dared given the need for accuracy. It just bounced off. I tried the rear quarter-light on the other side, with exactly the same result. I now had two scratched windows and the engine was still running.

A blue pick-up came trundling down the road and stopped nearby. It was driven by a guy in his thirties, who was wearing overalls and dark glasses. He looked like a cross between Elvis and Roseanne’s stage husband Dan. There were some mailboxes that I hadn’t noticed by the bushes, and he’d come to check his post.

I went over and explained my predicament. He said that he had no tools and so wasn’t able to help. My forlorn expression obviously proved to be the male equivalent of bursting into tears, and so he agreed to have a look. Shrugging his shoulders, he produced a pair of pliers from his pocket and told me that I needed to hit the corner of the window there as hard as I could but that he wasn’t prepared to take the responsibility himself.

I stabbed pathetically at the glass and the pliers just skidded off. After three or four attempts, he took them from me and stood with his back to the door. I exonerated him from any possible legal consequences and with one sharp downward thrust from his elbow, the window was shattered. I thanked him profusely and apologized for being such a girl’s blouse, a turn of phrase with which he didn’t seem familiar.

It was astonishing how much broken glass can come from such a small window. The inside of the car was awash with fragments, and the wind made my ears go funny as soon as I got above thirty. Fortunately, I only had about 60 miles to go to Hood River where I was due to stay the night but when I got there, it was clear that there was no chance of getting the window sorted that night. It was a small town and looked like it only had one car repair place, and that was decidedly shut. I drove up the steep hill of the main street where I found the Oak Street Hotel. It had vacancies.

The guy behind the counter was a grizzled old man with silver hair and a wrinkled face, and he was wearing dungarees. Another couple were checking in and he went into semi-meltdown at the pressure of having to cope with so many people at once. The other couple were also English, which seemed to amuse and relieve him. It meant that he could “do us both at once”. He pulled two maps out from under the desk and proceeded to draw all over them with a highlighter, explaining where to eat, drink and see in town and how to get to all the nearby attractions. His lecture lasted about ten minutes, and then he handed one map to the couple and one to me.

After all that, I thought that the least I could do was to stay there the night and so asked him if I could check in. He was slightly taken aback and it had clearly slipped his mind that I’d not yet been allocated a room. Those formalities completed, I asked him if there was anywhere to get my window fixed. He said there was no chance tonight and asked me where I was off to tomorrow. When I mentioned Portland, he said that I might as well wait until then because the repair shop in town would need to order the glass down from there in any case.

I was worried about my car, and asked him if he thought I should unload all my stuff. He told me not to bother. He explained that he kept all his guns in the back of his pick-up (I gathered that these were to be understood as exemplars of valuable and desirable property) and that he was always losing his keys. He once mislaid them for two weeks and only found them when he went to check the vehicle, which was parked out on the street. He had left them in the door and nobody had touched them or the guns. I figured that the newspapers in the back of my car might just be safe.

The room contained a warning that I would be fined $100 cleaning charge if I smoked in it. It seemed somewhat arbitrary, especially given that the nightly rate was only $54, but I took the point and got out as soon as I’d dropped my bags. One of the restaurants that had been recommended during the old man’s lecture was almost next door to the hotel. They had a table free outside. The food was good and they had beer on draft.

After I’d finished eating, I lit up a cigarette and immediately sensed a panicked awkwardness from the staff. The manageress came and informed me that there was no smoking allowed on the veranda, but that I would be welcome to finish my cigarette out on the street. This involved my standing up and taking one step off the patio and down on to the sidewalk, which I duly did and carried on with the cigarette approximately two yards from where I had started it.

I wandered into town to a bar called Savino’s. It also had an outside area, and soon I was perched on a stool looking out towards the river. The presence of ashtrays reassured me that it was OK to get out my cigarettes. It was a warm evening, and I felt very mellow relaxing in this quiet little town.

“Hi. I’m Rebecca,” said a voice to my right. I turned my head and saw a girl smiling and offering to shake hands. She was in her mid-twenties and had shoulder length straw hair and steel rimmed circular glasses. I told her my name and put my paper down.

Rebecca proved to be a born conversationalist of the broadly one-way-traffic variety, and was off and running as soon as she had my attention. She’d only been in Hood River for a week having moved up from Wyoming, and so had come out to make friends. She’d come to the bar with a guy, but he was inside watching pool. Her talk was a constant stream of soundbites, and she rarely held a subject for much more than a sentence and a half.

We had just got on to what I was doing in the States, when her friend came out to join us and introduced himself as Frontier Guy. I wasn’t able to ascertain whether Frontier Guy was a nickname, or a conventional forename/surname combo. They both wanted to know what I thought of Americans.

I was about to pre-load my answer with all the caveats about generalizations and the limitations of my trip, when Frontier Guy broke in. He said that he and his girlfriend (evidently not Rebecca) were thinking of denouncing [sic.] the USA and taking Canadian citizenship.

This was remarkable. I’d never heard anything like it from any American. His voice was comfortably broken, so he was clearly past the adolescent hormone surge. I asked him why. He reckoned that Canadians were much better people than the Americans, and it just struck him that Americans were really bad. His example was the preparedness to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness. It seemed fair enough to object to this, but surely it was barely reason to renounce your home country. Especially if you’re American.

This brought the conversation on to the question of American arrogance, and Rebecca was surprised to learn that this was something the USA had a reputation for. She was aware that lots of people around the world didn’t like Americans, but she was puzzled as to why.

I didn’t feel qualified to speak on behalf of the whole global community, but I suggested that it might be something to do with begrudging the fact that the USA was the biggest and best at so many things. Most people think that their country is the best, but in the case of America more often than not genuine pre-eminence lies behind the self-belief. In addition, it exerts a huge and fairly non-reciprocal influence over everyone else. I was flailing, but Rebecca summed up on my behalf: “You mean everybody’s jealous of us.”

It was a relief when Rebecca went to the bathroom and we could change the subject. We were starting to attract attention from the other smokers on the veranda and I didn’t really want to find myself hosting a debate on the pros and cons of the American people. When she came back we talked about Wyoming and Rebecca wanted me to promise that I would go and visit Laramie. I told her I thought it unlikely, as it would mean a 700-mile diversion and I really didn’t have the time.

She didn’t seem to get the point. She told me that if I couldn’t make Laramie, then I should go to Centennial and look up Dick-head George. She then sang me a song that she had written about him getting drunk and shooting his puppy for pissing on the floor, and that was how he got the name Dick-head George. He certainly sounded like the type of fellow I’d like to spend an evening with. Sadly Centennial was also in the south east corner of Wyoming, less than thirty miles from Laramie.

When I asked her what she did, she went into an awkward stall. “Oh fuck…er, what do I do, er… well… er, I, er, I… live”. When I pressed her further she revealed that she’d done all sorts. She’d mixed cement, ridden horses and was now going to be working as a quality controller, presumably in a field that required neither precision nor conciseness.

With conversation reaching slurring overload, it was time for Rebecca and Frontier to go home. We had accumulated a crowd, largely because each time Rebecca went to the bar or bathroom, she came out with two or three new people whom she’d met on the way. We swapped e-mail addresses and astonishingly – after a clear stagger across the parking lot – they got in their car to drive home.

It was a short walk back to the guesthouse, but enough time for me to reflect on two conversations that were unique in my experience of Americans to date. I’d never met anyone from the USA who wanted to discuss the unpopularity of Americans, and I certainly had never met one who actively thought Americans were bad. Little did I know how portentous a chat it would prove to be.