Before leaving Kentucky, I wanted to see some Bluegrass to see if it was really blue. It wasn’t. There was a clump of it in the backyard which David took me to look at, and which I dutifully photographed. Caught in the right light, perhaps during the Bailey’s Beads phase of a solar eclipse, and after a couple of nights with very little sleep, it might have looked vaguely silvery I guess, but never what you could call properly blue.
David had put together a survival box of goodies for me: several bottles of water and Coke, some peanuts and some packets of Crackerjacks (a mixture of toffee-coated peanuts and popcorn of which, I later discovered, it was impossible to eat more than half a bag in one 24-hour period without being violently sick). David had noticed a problem with my exhaust pipe and also a tear in the tire wall of my nearside front wheel. His advice was adamant: I should take the car back to Hertz at the first opportunity and insist on an exchange on the basis of emergency.
I didn’t know whether this would work, but was inclined to listen. A crucial weakness as far this trip was concerned was the fact that I had no more than a very rudimentary idea of how cars worked. I could drive, top up the water in the radiator, and – thanks to the lesson learnt in Maryland – put gas in the tank. I could probably even change a wheel, provided there was a jack to hand, but beyond that I would be struggling. Anything that could reduce the chance of breaking down I was solidly in favor of.
They waved me off with three last bits of advice: stick to the Interstates and major highways; stay in the hotel chains like Holiday Inn and tell them that I worked for Ford UK in order to benefit from their corporate rate; eat in Cracker Barrel restaurants, which were also good places to pick up souvenirs. It didn’t seem that they really had much of a grasp of the sort of stories that I was trying to accumulate.
Fort Knox lay a few miles to the south of Louisville. Around the streets of military homes that adjoined the complex, I was pleased to see signs informing me that I was in the vicinity of the “Fort Knox Neighborhood Watch”, which sounded like a scheme that any burglar would be wise not to try to mess with. I couldn’t get close enough to check whether the Gold Reserve itself had one of the stickers in its front window, as it was perched up on a hill some distance back from the road. There were signs warning against stopping and photography, so I took a quick snap through the windshield and sped off. Thankfully no bullets rained down from the watchtowers.
I called Hertz to find out how amenable they would be to my changing vehicle if I were to take it in to one of their depots. I called the wrong number, and got someone who could extend my contract but who wasn’t authorized to answer my question. When I told her the problem, she informed me that I should stay with the vehicle and call the roadside-assistance number. When I explained that I didn’t want roadside-assistance, she became adamant that that was the recommendation that Hertz was giving to me. She clearly didn’t want to be responsible for any lawsuit that I might bring if I went on to break my own stupid neck, though the focus of her concern appeared to be very much the lawsuit rather than my neck. I ignored the official advice and pressed on. Less than a week in the US seemed to have rendered me rather bullish.
The only time that I had been to Tennessee before had been to visit Memphis. I had travelled with an old school friend in search of The King, and we’d checked into the Elvis Motel opposite Graceland. The guidebook had promised a guitar-shaped pool, piped Elvis music in the corridors and a 24-hour shop offering all sorts of paraphernalia sold by Presley impersonators. In this respect we weren’t disappointed – in fact, as far as we could see everyone in the motel looked like a Presley impersonator – but what the guide book hadn’t pointed out was that Graceland was three miles outside Memphis with nothing on offer after dark apart from sitting in the corridors listening to The Wonder of You or gazing out the window at the pool. In the end, we returned to reception and asked to check out. We explained that there had been a terrible mistake and that we’d just remembered we were classical music fans who didn’t in fact like Elvis, and promptly scooted off down the road for a night on the tiles in Beale Street instead.
This time I wanted to see the hill country in the north and make my way down to the Great Smoky Mountains. I picked my way through the poorer rustic towns of southern Kentucky and exited the state at Static. It was the first day back at school after the summer vacation, which meant that all the 10 or 15 mph speed restrictions in school vicinities were in force. The radio was full of distraught parents who couldn’t bear the pain of losing their children back to school. The host of one show offered soothing words: “The Lord instituted school so that we could all learn how to pray”. And there was I thinking that it was for kids to learn stuff.
My next stop was a small town called Rugby, which had been founded by Thomas Hughes the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. When I got there, I found an idyll seemingly frozen in time. Probably true to the vision of its founder, it was like a whole village operating on the basis of a 19th Century English Public School. The roads, sidewalks, buildings and lawns were all immaculately clean and in good repair. All the townspeople appeared to be wearing the same uniform of clothes from another era. I knocked on the door of the Visitors’ Center. It felt like waiting to see the headmaster. The reception was firm but polite and I have to say I was jolly grateful to escape without six of the best.
I stopped for a bite at the Harrow Road Café, a non-profit establishment that existed for the benefit of the maintenance of historic Rugby. The waitress was intrigued by my accent and wanted to know if I was from Canada. She seemed relieved when I told her I wasn’t, and launched into an invective about what a strange place that was. “You know, some of them speak French up there. How weird is that? I mean, it’s just so far from France.” I suppose England is 22 miles nearer to North America.
I hurried away on the scenic run that continued through the trees of the hill country. I had in mind a fast clip down to Knoxville so that I could make time for the airport. Airports are where you find car rental outlets and I wanted to see a man from Hertz about my tire wall. Having steeled myself for an argument for the previous hour, I realized that I was not going to achieve satisfaction that afternoon. I had come to Powell Stolport which had only one thing in common with the sort of airport I was after: it was indicated on a map by the symbol of a small aeroplane. It was a municipal airport with a grass runway, mainly used by private planes but not much by any representatives of Hertz.
The proper airport was way off to the southeast of Knoxville, and I didn’t now have the time to go there with what was left of the day. My only route out of Tennessee and into North Carolina was through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I was concerned about it closing for the evening and the prospect of not being able to get in if I were to arrive too close to dusk. It was about five, and so I was going to have to brave rush-hour in downtown Knoxville as I needed to pass directly through the city to find the road through the park.
I stopped for gas and was greeted by a Woody Harrelson lookalike in overalls. He filled the tank and checked the oil, concluding on the latter count that “someone’s sold you a quart too much there”. I told him that nobody had sold me any oil and that it was like that when I had picked the car up from Hertz. He shrugged his shoulders and told me it didn’t matter anyways. Reminded of my tire plight, I asked him to have a look. I became worried when he scratched his head, tsked, and pulled at the tear with his fingernail seemingly increasing the gape. He fetched some water to spray on it and confirmed that no air was escaping so I should be fine for the meantime.
As he ran my credit card through the machine and waited for it to process, he asked me if I was from England. “We sure was mighty sad to hear about that there Princess Diana of yours, she was a good woman”. I wasn’t sure whether the news had taken four years to reach Knoxville, but replied that lots of people had been upset back home when she had died and that it was interesting to hear it had had an effect out here. “Oh yeah, it sure did. We were so sad. She did a lot for your country. Really put it on the map with all her good works an’ all.” Obviously nobody had heard of Britain before 1981.
Pigeon Forge was dreadful, a place only to be visited in the most dire emergency. Many American towns put all their shit out on the main highway so you’re left with a drag full of cheap motels, superstores and fast food joints. Pigeon Forge seemed to consist of nothing but this drag, and it went on for miles. Its pièce de résistance was Dollywood, a jamboree of exploitation and crassness at the far end that had been established in order to provide a pension fund for Dolly Parton. It all stood in stark contrast to the beauty of the countryside that surrounded it.
Thankfully the park hadn’t closed yet and I embarked upon the 30-mile mountain trail across the state line. Unlike the bluegrass of Kentucky, the Great Smoky Mountains fully merited their name. They were swathed in mist and cloud but it was of such a patchwork that I had to keep stopping to check for fires and campsites. Finding none, I was left to assume that long thin vertical plumes of cloud were a meteorological possibility although I had never before seen anything like them. On the other side of the mountains I came out in Cherokee, which positioned itself as an authentic Native American settlement but which in fact was little more than an Indian equivalent of Pigeon Forge. I had no idea what the demand for Moccasins was like in that part of the world, but it must have been quite substantial to keep the twenty or more stores selling them there in business.
The surface of the road was clean and fresh, stretching out before me like a strand of liquorice. It felt like I was the first person ever to have driven along it and, with no other vehicle in sight, I glided along effortlessly. As the gradient steepened, the day ebbed away into nighttime and soon I was motoring through pitch mountain blackness. I rounded a lake and pulled into Highlands. Even in late August, it felt like Christmas. There were only two sets of traffic lights and no cars on the road. The place was illuminated by fairy lights and the warm glow of traditional shops selling Dickensian goods.
I had toyed with staying in Highlands but my telephone enquiries earlier in the day had led me to conclude that it probably wouldn’t be worth the budget haemorrhage that this would entail. I didn’t fancy having to sleep in the car from here until New Mexico just for the benefit of one night in a swanky hotel. Now I was here, I was sure I’d made the right decision. This town was rich, leafy and gentrified to an extreme. It looked like the kind of place where the closest that its inhabitants got to “manual” was reading the instructions for their DVD players. It certainly didn’t look the kind of place where scruffy travellers would find conversations easy to come by.
I motored on to Flat Rock, a southern outpost of Hendersonville, hopeful that it would be better suited to my purposes. I’d been able to call ahead from Highlands to make a reservation at an inn there. The guy had been excessively friendly and had made big emphasis of how much he liked the English. When I arrived less than half an hour later, he seemed a little less effusive: “Who’s there? What do you want?” he hissed from the darkness behind the door screen. It seemed an odd way to run a Bed & Breakfast business. I said that I’d come about the room. “You the English guy?” His voice was challenging and aggressive. “What’s your name then?” I was beginning to wonder whether I’d come to the right place. It was pitch black and the wind blew eerily through the canopy of trees that enveloped the inn.
Suddenly the lights went on and out came Dennis, as jovial as any game-show host. He threw out a fist and shook my hand heartily, dismissing his caution at my arrival with the most casual of apologies: “Well, you never can be too sure. Ha ha.” He grabbed my bag and beckoned me in, marched me down the hall and threw open the door to a large fridge. “This is our guest fridge. There’s wine, beer, cheesecake, Coke, pear juice… hey, do you like pear juice?” I didn’t really have a view one way or the other. “Well, you can help yourself from here whenever you feel like it.” Presumably only until I left the following morning.
Dennis informed me that he’d booked me into dinner at a restaurant in town as I’d requested. It was a very fine place to eat, but there was a slight problem: “It’s run by a very nice couple. He’s Lebanese and she’s… I don’t know quite how to say this… she’s lovely but… the problem is, er… I’m sorry, but she’s… French.” I looked quizzically at him, waiting for the bad news before it dawned on me that that was it.
More curious apologies came when I was shown up to the room. “Shucks, I meant to take that down when I knew you was coming. I’m really sorry. Do you mind sleeping with George or do you want me to get rid of him?” I looked around the room, keen to ascertain who or what George was. Dennis pointed to a portrait of Washington that was hanging on the wall. “I wouldn’t want you to take offense, what with you being English and everything and what George did to your countrymen…” Dennis seemed to be a little taken aback when I told him that I really didn’t give a fuck, but it might have been my choice of language. I think he’d expected a proper Englishman to be a bit more Cornwallis and perhaps a bit less Peter Potty-mouth.
I don’t think cusswords formed a regular part of everyday language in this neck of the woods. Just before I had left England, I had read in the paper that North Carolina had passed a law making it a criminal offence to swear in the presence of a corpse. I’d found this not only bizarre, but also worrying. I was pretty certain that if I ended up being unlucky enough to stumble across a dead body during my visit, my first utterances would most probably be profane. I quickly checked around the room for dead people and was thankful to be in the clear on that score at least. Dennis looked as if he was about to burst into tears.
While not quite in the league of Highlands, Hendersonville was another lush, middle-class retreat. The streets were empty and quiet, as was Sinbad’s, the restaurant that Dennis had booked me in to. I managed to make my way through the delicious Bouillabaisse without overly taking umbrage at my very charming French hostess. The other two diners had left by the time I’d settled my bill, but it was still not yet ten.
Not much was doing out on the streets. I walked up and down Main Street and not a single place appeared to be open. I sat on a bench and contemplated the empty streets. At one point, a pick-up drove past with music blaring so loudly that the flower-box on a nearby balcony railing rattled. I decided to call it a day and go back to the car. Just as I was about to slam the door I heard voices turning the corner. Four girls, all aged around 17 or 18 and all dressed up to the nines, click-clacked past. I had no idea where they’d been, but it didn’t sound as if it had been too successful an evening. Now all that was left to them was an early bath and a strum on the cello. It seemed the business of being both young and living in Hendersonville could be a frustrating combination.