I was astonished when I went down for breakfast to discover other guests had spent the night in the hotel. Perhaps they’d all been in bed by nine.
Ron was in a white apron in the kitchen, doing the cooking and serving it himself. He made a point of coming over to me to apologize for the fact that he was the president of the local Republican Party.
This seemed an odd confession to make, but he went on to explain that this meant he had to leave at 8.30 because of a meeting some miles away.
Before departing, he made a joke. He told me that they had had someone from London stay in the hotel before. He then scampered off to fetch an old cracked frame with a yellowed leaf from the 1919 registration book in it. Clearly scrawled on the page was the name T S Eliot. How I smiled. Never mind that Eliot had been born in nearby St Louis and hadn’t become a British subject until 1927.
My accent alerted a couple at the next table heard and they asked me if I was the Englishman that they had heard was staying. I guessed I must be. They said they had something that might interest me and passed over a flier for an auction that morning in Donnellson. I thanked them for their consideration and hurriedly finished off my coffee.
Out in the car I checked where Donnellson was. Unfortunately it was in the opposite direction to where I was going and so I had to deny myself the opportunity of bidding for furniture and farm machinery on that occasion. Otherwise it would obviously have been right up my street.
I was now doubling back once more on myself, heading away from the east coast. My first port of call was Pella. I had read quite a lot about this Dutch community and was intrigued to see what it was really like. A sign at the city limits bade me “Welkom”.
It wasn’t the season for the tulip festival, but the windmills were still there. The Visitors’ Center was located in one, and I went to get some information about the town. The woman in there was wearing Dutch National dress. She told me that the Fall Festival was being held that day at the historical village near the new windmill two blocks away.
Fall had fallen officially that morning at 6.04 am. Despite her precise directions, the nearest I got was the Bibliotheek but I did end up walking along the canal-side. The canal itself was only about a foot deep and was there to evoke Amsterdam I supposed. The local shops did their best to add to the effect. If I’d wanted to buy some Delft pottery or lace souvenirs, I could have filled my boots.
Next stop was Winterset, birthplace of John Wayne and the capital of Madison County, as in the bridges of Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep fame. I was surprised to find out that there were six covered bridges and that they weren’t exactly close to one another. Cedar Bridge was pretty, but I couldn’t figure out what it was for as it had a perfectly good road that led around it. Hogback was even more pointless than Cedar. It was on a grass verge at the side of the road spanning a small ditch.
These bridges were proving a waste of time but, having started, I wanted to see the Roseman Bridge. I’d learnt from the Visitors’ Center that this was the one that had been used for all the shooting of the film.
It was down more unmade roads to get there, and its setting was certainly very sylvan. I walked through the bridge, the inside of which was covered in romantic graffiti. Nearby was a cottage that doubled as a gift shop. Outside a sign said “Gift shop open”, and underneath another read “Yes. We really are open”.
Inside TV sets were playing The Bridges of Madison County on a continual loop. Among the treats that could be purchased were small squares of wood that had been cast off from the bridge when it was renovated in the early nineties. They cost eight bucks apiece and two hungry punters were handing over their cash as I was in there. You could also buy colored stones inscribed with sickly romanticized love heart messages. These were being flogged on the basis that they had been painted by Meryl Streep’s stand-in. The film had proved to be good business for these people.
Back on the highway, the corn spread for miles. The road was flat with no bends in sight. Things couldn’t get much duller. At one point, I stopped and scrambled up a bank at the side of the road. In all directions, corn stretched to the horizon.
All day I’d been on the lookout for a payphone so I could book a room in Nebraska. In Pella, I had found one but it transpired that it was only operative during summer months. The woman in the Visitors’ Center couldn’t explain why they went to the effort of disconnecting it for the winter months. Initially, I thought that this might just have been some sort of Dutch quirk, but no gas stations in Iowa had call boxes either.
As I turned south, the cornfields continued to abound and approaching Red Oak, my stomach rumbled. If I’d had a camping stove and a pot of water, I could’ve eaten corn on the cob until I popped but as it was, I had to stop at McDonald’s.
The kid who served me wasn’t as eager as Keosauqua Eric, but he was still fairly enthusiastic. He was a big fat guy, like a mentally errant version of John Candy. With a labored and polite excuse me sir, he asked if I was Australian. I told him I was English, from London, which he thought was a fantastic place. I asked him if he’d ever been there which he seemed to take as a highly amusing question. Muffling his laughter, he said that he hadn’t. I think that I may as well have asked him if he’d been to Jupiter.
The most eventful thing in the news was an announcement from Washington DC that today would be the last day that flags would be flown at half-staff following September 11th. Another step along the return to “normalcy”.
As I drove towards Sidney, on a stretch of highway sponsored by the local lodge of the Freemasons, I passed a house with a huge placard leant against the front of it. On the placard was painted the profile of an eagle with a tear falling from its eye against a background of the stars and stripes. The following words were written underneath: “This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail. God bless America.”
Saturday nights had not been too successful so far on the trip. I’d had the porch of West Virginia, the debauchery of New Orleans, the isolation of Nevada, and the drunkenness of Utah. Every small town that I had visited seemed to be on the wrong night, but the one time that was supposed to be fun everywhere was Saturday and I was determined that mine were going to pick up.
My intended haunt for that evening was Nebraska City. According to my guidebook, Nebraska City was an old Missouri River town, set among apple and cherry orchards and heir to over 300 properties on the National Register of Historic Places. It was supposed to have a downtown that demonstrated nicely how the old and new could work together. It sounded promising.
No sooner had I crossed the bridge over the Missouri than I was in town. I drove into the centre and found the main street. I’d been expecting something like the Royal Docks in Liverpool but this was more like the dodgy end of Whitechapel Road.
A check of the atlas showed that Lincoln was about an hour’s drive away. It was the state capital, and so I figured that there must be some cosmopolitan life to be found there. I decided to shelve grim Nebraska City and hit the freeway.
Lincoln was dark as I approached. I had been told that Nebraska was so flat that you could see Lincoln from about 16 miles away. Rubbish. Like most towns, you see it when you get to it.
Not much was happening around the supposed hub of O Street. There was a Holiday Inn, but not a bar or restaurant in sight. I turned left and found myself on a flyover on a route out of town. I couldn’t pull over and I couldn’t turn around.
Truthfully, I had no desire to do either. I was resigned to another Saturday of disappointment and decided that I would motor until I saw a cheap motel and crash the night there. A few miles down the road, I noticed a bar that looked inviting, and opposite it a motel that said it also had a restaurant. Ideal. Well, adequate at least. I checked in and went to look for my room. It was nowhere obvious to be found.
Back in reception, the woman explained that I needed to go around the corner. The building was built in a horseshoe wrapped around a swimming pool and car park at the front. My room was on the outside.
I drove round and was perplexed to find that mine was the last room on the far corner, on the ground floor, on a side of the motel that looked out onto an unlit street. It looked dicey to say the least.
My concerns weren’t abated when I went into the room and found that it had no lock as such, only a hole in the door where the barrel of a lock used to be. Inside I moved the wardrobe against the door to stop it falling ajar, cracked open a beer and flicked through the TV stations. It was a classy joint. The adult channels came gratis.
Storm clouds had been gathering over Lincoln as I’d approached, and these were now letting rip in the skies. I levered the wardrobe out of the way, and looked outside. I had never seen orange lightning before, nor rain quite like this. The bar across the road was no longer visible and the only thing to be seen on the road was the glow of moving headlights. On the ground in front of me, shafts of water bounced up about two feet.
I watched and waited for ten minutes, then made a dash for the restaurant. At the end of the meal, I had a quick look in the adjacent bar. I’d seen a car of lads arrive when I’d first checked in who had the same inane grins that I’d encountered at the Mason’s Bar in Lambertville NJ. They were the only people in there, and two of them were squaring up to each other. It didn’t feel like it was my kind of place.
The rain had eased off, but was still heavy. I was now less than sure that I wanted to venture out to the bar across the road. I didn’t want to take my valuables out with me, nor did I want to leave them in the car, and I obviously couldn’t leave them in my room.
There wasn’t much on TV, so I surfed around and drank some more beer. I lay on the bed and popped a quarter in the slot marked “electronic massage” that was on the bedside table. The mattress vibrated violently for about ninety seconds.
I was just about to turn in for the night when I heard a car pull up outside. It was parked right outside my door. I shunted the wardrobe enough to have a peak. It was a large white Dodge with rusty paintwork, only one headlight and seven bullet holes in the windshield. It was not a calming sight.
I reinforced the door with a chest of drawers behind the wardrobe. Then I put a chair between the drawers and the wall. It wouldn’t withstand a battering ram, but it at least made it difficult to get in. I had just completed the operation when I heard a car door slam outside, an engine revving and then a wheel-spinning screech away. The Dodge had gone.
Ten minutes later it was back. I peeked through the blinds to see them unloading what looked like lighting equipment. They were taking it up the outside stairs. I could hear furniture being moved around in the room immediately above me. Then the Dodge took off again.
Something odd was going on, but I didn’t much fancy going out to ask questions. I couldn’t help but notice that one of the men had a pistol tucked in the back of his jeans.
I’ve only twice had a loaded gun pointed at me. The first time had been at the Hungarian-Romanian border in 1984 during a spat with a Soviet customs official over my about-to-be-confiscated passport. The second time had been in the basement sitting room of a naked sixty-year old transvestite who was telling me how he’d fought in the Rhodesian bush alongside Joshua Nkomo and who was unimpressed by my refusal to join him in his bedroom for a scotch. It was one of the unluckier calls during my time as a door-to-door salesman.
I hadn’t enjoyed either of those experiences too much and I knew that the current situation called for a degree of bravery that was out of my league. I couldn’t run, but I could certainly hide.
The Dodge returned, and so had the rain. There was a commotion outside and the sound of distressed female voices. I took another peek. Two girls were scrambling out of the car and running for cover. They were big breasted and scantily clad, and wearing enough make-up for it to have run in the rain.
A guy was manhandling some camera equipment out of the trunk and cursing the weather. They obviously hadn’t told him about this bit when he’d applied for the position of skin-flick roadie.
At some point I must have drifted off to sleep, because I was woken with a start at just after four. A raunchy soundtrack was being played at full volume upstairs. Perhaps it had been playing all night and had only disturbed me at that moment. Perhaps they’d come to a particular scene that required synch-sound shooting. Perhaps it was just to help the “actresses” get in the mood.
Whatever it was, I didn’t get back to sleep again. As the sun began to rise, I decided it was time to leave. It was 5.45 am.