A slightly bewildered old man was pacing the lobby when I came down in the morning. He was furtively examining the faces of everyone passing through and so I soon came under close examination. I had already decided, on principle, not to bother with breakfast as it cost extra on top of the room. An urn of free coffee bubbled on the sideboard for me and the other cheapskates. After a brief exchange of banalities, I learnt that the old man was the proprietor who was evidently just bedazzled by the amounts of cash he was sucking out of his clientele with every passing minute. I took polite leave and stepped out on to the porch with my coffee.
The prowling trio from the previous evening were still in the grounds. They may have gone to bed but, for all I knew, they’d been stalking the area all night. They were all still wearing exactly the same clothes. They came up to the main door and peered through the glass. The boy saw me staring at them and started walking over to where I had parked myself in a rocking chair. I tried to look away but I’d been rumbled. “You staying in this hotel?” he asked. I nodded. “It’s a bit pricey isn’t it?” I laughed and nodded again. The middle-aged man came over to see who the boy was pestering. It transpired that the three were father, son and younger son. Father and younger son had come down from Billings MT as older son (who lived in Florida, presumably with a divorced mother) was about to start medical school in Lewisburg.
They offered no explanation for what they’d been up to in the grounds, but the young boy was eager to question me about England. He was disappointed to learn that we didn’t have much baseball but fascinated by the notion of cricket. I did lay it on a bit thick – as it’s easy enough to do when explaining cricket to a foreigner – but his eyes bulged as I recounted some of the more curious idiosyncrasies of a game that can last five days with no eventual winner. I needed to get going and the boy insisted that he help carry my bags to the car. The three of them came on to the drive to wave me off, chirruping thanks for my time and for “teaching them all about cricket”. If they were really a band of villainous rogues, they were certainly friendly and polite with it.
West Virginia is known as the Switzerland of America. Surprisingly enough, this isn’t anything to do with watch-making, dodgy banking, holey cheese, being rubbish at Jeux sans Frontiers, or blowing into ten-foot long horns. It’s because of the landscape, and you could see why. It was gloriously mountainous with dramatic rock faces, and soon I was driving away through low hanging cloud. The road dropped down to follow the Kanawha River and the scenery became breathtaking.
Approaching Gauley Bridge, I started to feel peckish so I swung off the road when I saw Thelma’s Cafe. A fuggle of old men were congregating inside and growling incomprehensibly at each other. I strained to listen in on what they were making noise about but could only recognize every twentieth word as having any relationship with what I would call English. The bestial cacophony seemed to increase in pitch as the old woman shuffled over to take my order and the company was alerted to the presence of a pre-septuagenarian outsider. The service was XXX-slow. When my coffee and pancakes finally arrived forty minutes later, both were very black and very cold. I went up to the counter in search of milk and maple syrup to enhance palatability, where a sign on the door to the kitchen read: “Federal offence for non-employees to cross into employee area”. I waited for some minutes but nobody came out. Finally, almost an hour after arriving, I put some money on the table and took my leave to the sound of a low grumble. From the other diners and from my own stomach.
Back on the road to Charleston, the local radio had a show on that was being hosted by a couple of very chirpy rednecks. They had been inundated by requests (so they claimed) to play a cover of It’s Hip to be Square (originally by Huey Lewis and the News). The song had been cleverly rewritten to include the refrain “It’s hip to be queer” and basically amounted to a homophobic diatribe. I stayed tuned in, eagerly waiting to see if they played any other similarly hilarious adapted covers. Chubby Checker’s Lets do a Piss perhaps, or Fartbreaker by Dionne Warwick.
I was about to learn an important lesson. It was best to avoid stopping at places that have no windows. I had seen nowhere that even looked like it could cure my growing hunger pangs for the past 50 miles and so I pulled in at a café near Hurricane. What used to be windows were now boarded up and painted green. There were three pick-ups in the lot, so it appeared to be in business. I creaked the door open and was hit by the smell of decay, a mix of hospital and compost heap. Inside it was dingy and a couple of Goliaths were at the counter watching TV through the gloom. With menacing deliberation, both turned and stared at me, tracking my movement as I edged towards a barstool. The television was silent, but the crackle of a radio could be heard out the back. One of the men scratched his beard and slowly ran his eyes up and then down me. He looked like he was figuring out what part of me would be tastiest to start eating first.
The other came over and asked what I wanted. In truth, I wanted to leave immediately but appreciated that it might have seemed a little odd so I asked if I could have a coffee. All thought of food had slipped from my brain. Ever since the age of twelve, when I resigned from the Sea Scouts on the grounds that the uniform was too itchy, I’ve known myself to be some measure short of a real tough guy. I rarely have to think much about the options when confronted by a fight or flee situation, and tend to be off down the road at the first sign of trouble. I don’t think of it as cowardice necessarily, just a sensible, rational appreciation that I’m no good at punching and even worse at being punched.
As my thoughts turned to running shoes, I was once more presented with black coffee, this time in a chipped mug that clearly hadn’t seen the washing up bowl for a couple of weeks. Nervously I asked if they had any milk and without a word was presented with a catering-tub of powdered dairy creamer. The guy who had served me went back to watching the TV, but his companion’s neck remained locked in a stare in my direction.
I drank up quickly and, in an uncharacteristic show of bravado, left my book and tape recorder on the counter while I went to the restroom, which was teeming with insect-life. On my return, I was relieved to see my things were still there but horrified to see that my coffee mug had been refilled. I felt obliged to swallow it down and then asked for the bill. “You want more coffee”, said the man with a scowl that suggested he’d blow my head off if I gave the wrong answer. I went for “no”, suffixed by a squeeked “thank you very much”. I almost needed to visit the restroom again.
Once out of the door, I think I may have run back to my car. I had been successfully disabused of the notion that it would be desirable to chat with real West Virginians. I was still hungry, but at least I was still alive and free. I checked my rear-view mirror to see if either of them were following me. I held my breath until I was round the next bend and out of sight. It suddenly became a priority to get up on to the Interstate and out into Kentucky as quickly as I could manage.
My stopover that evening was with Martha and David in Louisville. They were friends of the family dating back to the war, but I’d only met them once. They both owned guns and still referred to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay. The most direct route would have been to stay on the Interstate through Lexington, but I wanted to visit Maysville if only for the sake of my surname. Even if it was dull, there was another place called Mays Lick just down the road. Unfortunately, they proved even more disappointing than Cape May NJ. Maysville seemed largely shut due to it being Sunday morning, and Mays Lick was devoid of all shops.
I landed upon Old Washington, which was a delight. It was another cobbled town with narrow streets and cabins dating back to the 18th Century. By now I was very hungry so was pleased to find that the Old Town Tavern was still serving lunch. There was a small dispute with the waitress when I ordered the daily special. It was “Golden Chilli” and she assured me that it could only be eaten by those with a high constituent of asbestos in their tongues. She was on the point of refusing to let me even try it. After lengthy insistence, I was finally brought a gloopy bowl of baked beans and mince which offered about the same zing quotient as a couple of sticks of celery.
Still it was good ballast and allowed me to entertain myself with thoughts of the rectal havoc that a couple of gallons of Praed Street’s finest vindaloo could cause the folks around here. Three others came in during these musings, and once again I was able to listen in on pedestrian conversation. They were discussing keys at some length. The man said that he’d once lost his car keys in a field and had got ten of his men to spend all afternoon looking for them without success. To ensure that it never happened again, he now kept his car keys on the same key ring as his house keys. He didn’t explain quite how this sure-fire guarantee worked, but he was firmly convinced that it did.
The route down to Lexington took me through proper Bible Belt country. The main clue was the aggressive evangelism depicted on the notice boards of churches. One in particular caught my eye: “Our business is feeding sheep, not entertaining goats.” It wasn’t very C of E. As a corollary to this, there was a profusion of dry counties in these parts including Bourbon. This meant that if you went on the tour of the Jim Beam distillery, you wouldn’t be allowed to sample the goods afterwards because it would be against the law. Despite this puritanical background, it wasn’t just booze that they grew in Kentucky but smokes as well. According to a postcard that I picked up with a picture of a “baccy plantation” on it, tobacco appeared to be the state’s chief cash crop and accounted for over 50% of agricultural receipts.
When I got to Louisville, I called David from a gas station and he came out to meet me. I followed him back to their home, which was truly American-sized. There was a huge drive with land falling off to both sides and a series of summerhouses around the swimming pool and barbeque complex at the back of the house. David informed me that the inside of the house stretched to about 5000 square feet, which seemed quite a lot for two people. Martha was inside with a warm welcome and I was quickly installed in an armchair with an iced Coke in my hand. I was told to relax and take my time, although this turned out to be a lie. After a few moments of languorous sipping, David casually informed me that we had to leave the house in seven minutes.
We went for a drive around their very pleasant neighbourhood and I was given a running commentary on things of local interest. We went past the Goshen Store which had been continuously in business since 1750 and was, according to Martha, the “oldest store west of the Mississippi”, which is quite some achievement for a shop in Kentucky. We drove through Harrod’s Creek, supposedly the richest zip code in the US, even including Beverly Hills. We saw the marina and drove along the Ohio River from which I could see the southern side of Indiana. The water was more or less at eye level from our vantage point in the car, and I thought that it looked like an impressive stretch. David was more dismissive. He came from Memphis, where the Mississippi flowed thick and fast. “The folks down there would think of this as just a creek.”
We went into Louisville where I was shown the home of the Louisville Slugger, which was commemorated by an eight-storey bat up against the building. David and Martha had taken the notion that I was looking for stories about America to heart, and made sure I was fed with all the details. I didn’t take in a lot of what I was told about the architecture, but apparently it was quite strange. I do remember David saying that the Kentucky Derby was now the world’s fourth largest sporting event after the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and one other Nascar race that I’d never heard of. I assumed that the Olympics must have been the fifth.
The idea was to eat at a place on the river but it was packed out with a TV crew. It was hosting an audience with one of the coaches from the University of Kentucky, which had an impending American Football match. Most of the audience were pretty basic beer swilling men. College sport clearly enjoyed much greater mass appeal in the US than events like the Boat Race did back home. David informed me that they didn’t have the same trouble with sports’ spectators that we had in England. Perhaps after an important basketball match, there might occasionally be a bit of a riot in the streets and a couple of cars might get turned over and set alight, but “nothing like the problems you have with those soccer hooligans over there”.
We went to another bistro where I ordered a beer. David joined me and Martha had a glass of wine, but that would be it for the evening as far as booze was concerned. They have no casual drinking culture in many parts of the US. If you drink, you have a problem. When David was told by his doctor that it would be a good for his heart to drink a glass of red wine a day, he bought some at $7 a gallon and took his dose down in one go each evening from a tall tumbler while pinching his nose. Over dinner, the conversation turned to the religious broadcasts of the Bible belt. I doubted whether the combination of emotional and financial exploitation would be allowed on air in the UK. Martha said that she once heard one station offering signed portraits of Jesus to its listeners in exchange for a donation. And some people had sent money in.
We returned to the house and David cleaned his guns. His arsenal wasn’t simply kept from love of the Second Amendment, but for a practical purpose. They had a raccoon problem in those parts and he would shoot any that came near the house. He’d already bagged about twenty-five this year and didn’t think he was finished yet. I asked him what he did with the carcasses and he said that he had offered to skin one and make a hat for Martha but that generally he just tossed them over the fence. The buzzards reduced them to a small pile of bones within a day or so.
We chatted about speed limits and David warned me about the prospect of being sent straight to jail if I were caught exceeding any by more than 20 mph anywhere in America. He was keen to note that at least there were none of “them speeding cameras that you have in England”. He didn’t reckon that they would survive a day round these parts “before the good ol’ boys would go shoot ‘em down”. Martha was watching the TV and I commented with admiration on the size of the screen. David informed me that it wasn’t a big screen but that if I wanted to see a really big screen, he could show me. We went down into the basement to a large room that had been newly renovated and in pride of place was a TV that must have had a 50’’ screen. I had to concede he had a point.
The den also sported soft leather sofas and a top of the range sound system, with tweeters, woofers and eight different speakers arranged strategically around the room. The sound from the TV was channelled through this system, but you could play CDs on it too. David played me a CD of aircraft engines from World War II, which was good if you liked continuous vrooming noises. There’s nothing quite like the drone of a Lancaster just before bedtime. Anyone who likes to lie in bed unable to sleep because the same noise is going round and round inside their head should try it some time.