Breakfast in the morning was a high-class affair, attended by some high-class fatties. I had the unusual experience of being the slenderest in the room.
It was no mystery seeing where the weight came from when you watched these people putting away their food. If volume-noshing ever became an Olympic sport, the Americans would be certain of a gold medal every time. The meal was served by a delightful woman called Monica, who was also in charge of the front desk.
An especially absurd couple was roosting on the next table. After farting their way through a gallon of fruit salad, they proceeded to demand tea. The woman wanted to know what teas they had available. Being a fairly swanky joint, they did have a choice. There was Earl Grey, Darjeeling, English Afternoon Tea, and regular Lipton’s. “Don’t you have any English Breakfast Tea? I want English Breakfast Tea.” She then opted for Earl Grey, but wanted to check the brand. It wasn’t one she’d heard of. In the end, she produced her own teabag, and dispatched Monica to brew.
On her return, she regaled Monica with a story of how they had had some friends to stay recently who grew up on a plantation, and even they had had to admit that she really knew her tea. As her coup de grace, she then asked for another four sachets of sugar to shovel into her cup. Very Queen Mother.
I had to interrupt Monica from dishing up the fifth helping of pancakes to one pair of lardbuckets in order to pay my bill. While we were waiting for the payment to process, she commented on how she didn’t find the people from New Hampshire very friendly. She was originally from Connecticut, and had only been up there working for a couple of weeks. She said that they were all a bit to stand-off-ish. She reckoned that she’d need to serve a 5- or 10- year apprenticeship before she got to the stage of being truly welcomed and accepted.
I figured that I had plenty of time for the Mount Washington ascent, an eight-mile road straight up the mountain to the summit at 6288’. It was the highest point in New England. A sign warned that it was a steep treacherous drive up a road with no guardrails and that those with a fear of heights might not enjoy this driving experience.
I paid my money and had to pull over to read the information pack before I could set out. It instructed drivers to select their lowest gear for the entirety of both ascent and descent, never to exceed 20 mph and to give priority to uphill traffic. You were only allowed to stop at specified lay-bys, and it was suggested that you stop frequently on the way down to allow your brakes to cool.
For the $16 admission charge, I was also given a CD to play as I drove. This told me the history of the road, which had been constructed in 1850 and was originally used by horse-drawn carriages. It was a remarkable feat of engineering, especially considering when it had been built.
The concentration required to drive it safely meant that I didn’t see much on the way up. As John had suggested, I had checked with the men at the bottom about conditions and they had promised a clear day. By the time I reached the top, the cloud had come in below us and shrouded the view. There was a fair wind whipping up, but nothing like the world record speed of 231 mph recorded on this summit in 1934.
Another of John’s suggestions had been to enter Maine via Conway so that I could go to the Fryeburg Fair. As I crossed the state line into Maine, the traffic ground to a halt. A sign by the side of the road announced “Welcome to Maine. The way life should be.” I took that to be a general reference, and not specifically to do with the fact that bestiality was legal in Maine, where a guy called Philip Buble had recently married his dog.
The fair had attracted a bumper crowd, and every front yard was hiring itself out for parking at $5 a day. It appeared to be the American equivalent of a County Show, with funfairs, stalls and livestock. Some people were dressed up (or at least I think they were), or had decorated their cars. One pick-up had a scarecrow with an Uncle Sam mask bending over and mooning its pumpkin buttocks, on which was pinned a piece of card with “Happy Hallowe’en Osama. We’re coming to get you.”
It looked one step up from the affair I had attended in Maryland, but still wasn’t interesting enough to merit the hassle of finding somewhere to park and walking for miles. I’d had my fill of demonstrations of bits of John Deere equipment.
My afternoon’s radio entertainment came once more in the form of the Michael Savage show, which was just as reactionary as it had been back when I was approaching Idaho on September 12th. His head was close to exploding, as he railed against the mollification of response to the terrorist attack. “Week 1 it was a war. Week 2 it was a crime. Week 3 it was a tragedy. Now it’s being described as just an incident.” He was bemoaning the absence of war-hawk politicians and the notion that the leftists were winning the debate in America. “Where’s General Patton when you need him?” I would have thought the answer was obvious.
He was clearly pleased with himself: “Nobody on radio anywhere comes up with as many new and good ideas as I do. They have ideas, but not new and profound ones like mine.” He then went on to suggest that the authorities make an offer to illegal immigrants. If they were prepared to sign up to the forces and go off to fight for the USA, and managed to come back alive, then they should be offered citizenship. His idea was to form a special aliens’ brigade.
One caller rang in to make a case for Colin Powell, and the good job that he thought he was doing. After giving him about ten seconds of airtime, Savage cut across him and enquired whether he lived in a mental hospital and was let out once a month to make a phone call or something. As the caller spoke, Savage began singing: “Hey, Mr Taliban, tally me banana. Daylight come and I wan’ me go home” (repeat).
As he sang, he returned to the hapless caller intermittently before losing patience. “I’ve had enough of you now. You’re boring me. Get yourself down the pharmacy and buy some more medicine.”
It was just gone five by the time I reached Camden and found the Whitehall Inn, an imposing old building, with a white wooden frontage and myriad American flags bedecking its numerous porches. It was dauntingly posh, and I almost felt thankful that my room was over the road in an annex.
The room itself was the most basic that I had lodged in. It was a box room with a single bed and no basin. The shared bathroom was down the corridor. I contemplated a quick wash and brush up, and was delighted to discover that the face towel that had been laid out for my use was actually a bathmat.
The welcome leaflet said that jacket and tie were not expected at dinner but that guests should be dressed appropriately. The manager looked me up and down and said that he thought I would be fine dressed as I was. Jeans obviously passed the mark, but it was far too stuffy for my purposes, not to mention pricey. New England in the Fall was not well suited to the budget-traveller.
It was more like a mile into town and still light. I walked around the various shops and down to the harbor area and found the Bay View Lobster Restaurant. It was more like a café but, as its name suggested, it was serving lobster (and was also on the waterfront). A big tank of the things was by the door, and there were three pots into which they were being put after weighing.
I gave my name to the bloke with the list and waited my turn for a table. I sat on a bench on the dockside and smoked a cigarette. An old schooner was moored close by, with three people working on deck. One was a woman who was covered from head to toe (and she was bare-footed) with a sort of silvery gunk. It looked like she’d taken a dip in a bath of industrial lubricant. As the three of them beavered away, I could see another two through a porthole drinking beer below decks.
After dinner, I was keen to stay out in town rather than return to my stuffy hotel but there weren’t many places to go. Most of the things that looked like bars were restaurants, and the one pub I found, a seedy looking joint called Gilbert’s, had an entry charge of eight bucks. Pardon?
Back at the hotel, people were lounging in the lobby with drinks but I couldn’t figure out where they had got them. I could find no bar as such, just a room with leather furniture called the Spirits Room. Presumably finest cognac was available at fifty bucks a balloon.
I didn’t feel comfortable reclining with the grown-ups, and so I went outside and sat in a chair on one of the porches with my notebook and worked out my finances. I was far enough round to deduce quite how far over budget I now was. I would have fetched a beer from the car, but a notice explicitly warned against taking one’s own drinks onto the veranda.
Presently, I was joined by a middle-aged woman who sat two chairs away and starting reading her paper. Just as I had reached a crucial stage in my mental arithmetic, a booming voice hollered at me that I couldn’t be reading in that light. A man had come out onto the porch and was lighting a cigarette.
I assumed he was the woman’s husband, when he sat himself down next to her and exchanged a small familiar pleasantry. It only became clear that they weren’t together when he said that he needed to get back inside after he’d finished smoking, or else his wife would start to wonder what had happened to him. In the meantime though, we’d managed to squeeze a normal hour’s conversation into about ten minutes.
He’d opened by asking me where I was from and then skipped immediately over my answer to declare Maine to be the finest state in the Union. He looked at me with a glare, daring me to contradict him. He was from Kansas City MO, and he’d been to every one of the states, except Vermont “and only because you don’t go through it to get anywhere”. Presumably Interstate 91 up to Canada didn’t count.
I wondered where he thought Maine led to. For once I was able to bring up the subject of my trip without sounding like I was trying to show off. This seemed to irk him, and he reiterated his challenge about Maine. I told him that my two favorite states so far had been New Mexico and Missouri. He sneered and said that I must have gone to a different part of New Mexico to the places he’d seen.
Mischievously, I added that Vermont would probably run those two a close third, but that I thought it was a silly subject to discuss. I made the point that every state had its pros and cons, and that they were all very different in many ways and difficult to compare meaningfully. This sent him back to his wife with a harrumph.
Meanwhile, the woman reading her paper had put it down and had been listening to our conversation. She politely checked with me that she’d heard me right. Had I said that I was driving around all 48 states in 48 days? To write a book?
Her name was Kathy and she now lived in New Jersey, but came originally from Connecticut. She was waiting for her sister and brother-in-law to arrive from Boston MA. The conversation that ensued was most earnest. She couldn’t understand why I had only given myself 48 days in which to do the trip. I agreed that I probably hadn’t come close to doing any individual state justice, but that I had been able to glean a good overall impression of the country and its people.
She thought that I should be looking at the economic consequences of September 11th. She cited the way people’s attitudes to money and the future had changed. Instead of worrying about where to invest most prudently, people were now cashing in all their savings and going out and buying 37 different types of gas mask.
Despite my reservations about such an approach, she wouldn’t let it rest. The debate was only broken by the appearance of her sister and brother-in-law about an hour and a half after Kansas City man had retired to his wife. They introduced themselves as Jon and Eileen, and went off to drop their bags. They were soon back with a couple of bottles of wine and an extra glass. They offered me a glass, which I gratefully accepted even though I knew it was against the law.
I apologized for continuing to hijack their conversation, and then apologized again for the insensitivity of my terminology. After four glasses of Chardonnay, Kathy was becoming feisty and Eileen had to keep asking her to be quiet and let others have their say.
The subject turned to east coast conservatism, and I agreed that my experiences since arriving had led me to conclude that New England was well named. The people and atmosphere were far more akin to the British reserve with which I was so familiar, but strangely made me feel not the least bit at home.
Kathy was adamant that people in the east were different; they didn’t carry guns, and were calmer and more circumspect. They were pleased that the response to the attack had been measured and not knee-jerk. Jon and Eileen felt that Kathy was overstating her case with silly generalizations. They knew plenty of radicals from Boston and Connecticut.
Much of the focus of the commentaries after the attack had been on liberty. I’d been surprised to learn the extent to which the USA considered itself to be the exclusive refuge of liberty. What’s more, many folk seemed to think that the freedom enshrined in the constitution was supposed to be absolute.
Some of the measures that had been discussed were causing concern because they threatened to confine this liberty. I made the point that Americans had no problem with being expected to carry driver’s licenses with them whenever they took to the road. The three of them were surprised to learn that such a requirement was not in force in the UK, and that photographs on licenses had only recently been introduced.
They all agreed that September 11th had had a profound effect on the psyche of the country as a whole, and that the best evidence for this was the amount of flags on display. The hotel we were in proved a good example. I said that I had seen lots of flags prior to the attack, but they were convinced that the number had increased to levels usually reserved only for July 4th.
Whatever the truth, it was fairly clear that the terrorists would have struggled to find a more patriotic target and that they had succeeded in bringing all that latent feeling to the fore.
It was a relief to be indulged by Jon and Eileen’s listening ears, and they seemed genuinely interested in my recounting non-September 11th stories from my trip. With poor judgement, I mentioned the ubiquitous fatties and they smiled appreciatively.
Encouraged, I followed this up with a derisory comment about the clothes the fatties wore, and quickly felt ashamed for the cheapness of the observation. Eileen pointed out that, while she didn’t want “to exchange barbs”, she’d been to England and not everyone there exactly dressed like Princess Diana.
It was time for me to get my coat.