Grinning off the page was a photograph of ten guys in baseball caps sitting around a large circular table with the caption “Rednecks enjoy breakfast at the Main Street Café”. I had shaken off the impression that a gang of rednecks equated to a lynch mob at rest, but I still made a mental note to be careful when I went in.
The circular table was towards the rear of the restaurant, so I shimmied over to a booth near the window and sat facing the street. My intention was to avoid catching anyone’s eye, but I still found myself confronted by an awkward situation. At the table in front of me was a couple from clear redneck stock. He was wearing a cap with “Pulchrina Chow” on it and had a complexion that was half coal miner, half geriatric. She looked like she’d just popped out but needed to get back soon to continue stripping down the engine block that was dangling from a chain at her garage.
It wasn’t their appearance that I found awkward. It wasn’t even the fact that they were spending all their breakfast time snogging. It was more the fact that they were eating grits for breakfast while continuing to snog. Grits are every bit as unpleasant as they sound. It’s like a bag of gravel in a soup of white wallpaper paste. A waste of a clean plate indeed. I found that I didn’t have much of an appetite by the time my sausage and egg finally arrived.
A map in the centre of one of the freesheets outlined a circuit that could be driven around town to see the sights. It was all very nice and cutesy, but I was beginning to sense something very fabricated about this place.
The drive back out along the highway confirmed this view. The previous night it may have seemed like Yuletide, but by daylight it became another assault on the senses. In the same way that Las Vegas could overpower you with lights and sounds, Eureka Springs delivered a sugary overload that ended up feeling quite sterile. All along the road were an assortment of gingerbread gift shops and churches. This didn’t last for a few hundred yards, but for about eight miles. It got to the point where I never thought I was going to see the end of them.
Along this stretch was Christ of the Ozarks, an Arkansan equivalent of the Redeemer statue on Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio. It was very white and slightly flakey. It looked like it had been made by pouring a large amount of plaster mixture into an equally large rubber mold. It was tall and imposing and probably came from a remarkable feat of engineering, but you wouldn’t describe it a classically artistic.
It was on the same site where each night the Ozark Passion Play is performed. They had also secured a four-foot section of the Berlin Wall, complete with original graffiti of Psalm 23 in German. Coaches ferried hoards of photographing gawpers in and out. There was something both anodyne and self-congratulatory about the experience.
Along the highway, the gift shops finally started to thin out but the churches kept coming thick and fast. I was back in the heart of the Bible Belt, but things had changed since I was last in this neck of the woods. The notice-boards outside these churches no longer had signs calling to prayer or threatening damnation, they had taken on a far more base and patriotic tone post September 11th. “Pray for our military” seemed fine enough, but “Our God is best” was possibly going a bit far.
Once into Missouri, I picked up MO 19 up to Winona. It undulated beautifully through the Mark Twain National Forest, and stretched effortlessly into the distance. If there were a more enjoyable stretch of road to ride in the whole of the US, I didn’t find it during these 48 days.
I’m unsure what expectations I’d had of Missouri but I found myself strangely seduced by it. I’d imagined it being bland, a continuation of the nothing terrain of the plains of the Midwest. It wasn’t as stunning, in the bizarre sense, as the southwestern states but it was just as beautiful.
I felt almost homesick, but not for England. I had been out west for almost three weeks and had a curious yearning to see the Mississippi again. It represented a part of America that seemed like home. I picked my way through the forest and the delightful towns of Centerville (population 200, 2 shops, 3 churches), Pilot Knob, Caledonia and Bismarck.
I took a slight diversion south on an unfruitful search for a postcard from one of the tougher addresses in the English-speaking world – the tiny town of Knob Lick – before heading east to my overnight stop on the river itself.
Ste Genevieve was the first settlement west of the Mississippi. Thanks to the perpetual threat of flooding, the town had moved itself back from the riverbank but still retained many of the original buildings. The streets were empty and I followed the signs down to the ferry that led over to Illinois. It certainly felt more Huck Finn than Natchez-under-the-Hill MS had done.
Back in town all was quiet. There were some hotels near the centre, all in the shadow of the huge church steeple that dominated the town. I tried my luck at one, but it was closed. It had a blackboard outside advertising room rates, but no sign of life behind the locked door.
Round the corner from it was a more grandiose looking place called the Southern Hotel. This too was locked, but at least it had a doorbell marked “Hotel” which I pushed.
A jovial middle-aged bloke came bounding into view and we agreed a price. He introduced himself as Mike, and said that I could have an $85 room at a special businessman’s rate of $69, without really explaining the basis of the discount.
He enthusiastically showed me around the public areas, all of which were furnished with pieces from before the civil war. There was even a 19th Century pool table, which he invited me to have a game on later if I wished. He also pointed out the guest quilt that I would be welcome to sign as had become the custom for folks staying there.
The wooden stairs were painted in an ornate pattern of reds, yellows and greens. My room was at the top of the building and had all sorts of stuff in it: masses of books and toys and ornaments, a collection of dolls, and an old four-poster bed. In an alcove to the side, separated by a pull-across screen, was a basin, lavatory and one of those old-fashioned western bathtubs. The whole mess was delicious.
Mike went to great lengths to explain where was good for what type of food and what time they stayed open until. I asked him where he would recommend eating above all else and he nominated a place called The Brick on the nearest corner “provided you like fried chicken”. They did the best fried chicken in the state apparently.
The only place to get a drink in town was at the restaurants, so I’d need to choose carefully. It may have done the best chicken this side of Venus, but The Brick was empty which never boded well for conversation. I checked that there was a TV and decided to come back to eat. I wanted to be able to see the presidential address that was scheduled for 8.30 Central Time that evening.
The next place, The Anvil, was more full and so I went in and asked whether I could just sit at the bar and order a drink. The woman said that would be fine and I was promptly given a menu and left there for fifteen minutes. Eventually, I went up to one of the waitresses and asked if I had to order a drink through her. She attracted the attention of one of the barmaids and finally I got my beer. It was lively and I would have stayed, but I had to gulp the drink down in order to be back at The Brick before it closed.
By the time I got back, things had picked up slightly and four or five locals had now congregated at the bar. I had to imagine they were here for the presidential address too as they were all intently staring at the TV. I ordered the chicken and positioned myself so that I had a good view of the box. I was the only one eating and so the food arrived quickly. Loads of it. And the hotelier was right. It sure was mighty fine chicken.
Unfortunately the people in the bar didn’t seem as intent on listening to the address as I’d hoped. It was difficult hearing what the President had to say above the commotion and raucous laughter coming from the counter.
It surprised me. I’d imagined that every American would want to listen carefully to this speech, but perhaps they too were becoming overloaded with media analysis and just wanted to get back to normality. Or “normalcy”, as the Americans put it.
I eked out my beer and food until the end of the speech, by which time I was the last one left and the bar was closing. It looked like that was that for my evening in Missouri. Back at the hotel, I took advantage of my sobriety and the hour to sort out my once-again catastrophic trunk.
It took a good fifteen minutes of transferring bits of paper I had collected along the way from the passenger footwell to the right boxes and bags in the back. Then I had to organize my souvenirs, some of which were rattling around on the back seat, and get together the paperwork that I needed to update. Finally, it came to my clothes. It had been a while since I had done any laundry and I needed to segregate the most noxiously dirty from the passably clean. I bundled together what I needed for the evening and walked across the street to the hotel door.
Unseen by me, a fellow guest was sitting in a rocking chair on the porch chortling to himself and sipping a bourbon. He had been watching me fannying around all this time and seemed amazed that I’d had so much moving about to do. He said that he’d started by wondering what I was doing and ended up thinking that I was never going to finish.
His name was Dick and he was a lawyer from St Louis. I was still weighed down by the armfuls that I was taking inside, so I asked if he would still be there in five minutes after I had dropped it all up in my room. I ran upstairs and was back again in two. To his enormous amusement, I then returned to the car to grab a couple of cans of beer from the back.
Dick proved to be both pleasant and entertaining company and we stayed out the front until almost midnight. He occasionally went inside for a refill of Bourbon, a bottle of which was with his wife, although she never ventured outside herself.
He described Eureka Springs as a “flim-flam” town. This meant that it was a non-settlement but had been fabricated for the benefit of tourists. He laughed about the Oklahomans and liked my observation that it should perhaps re-coin its nickname the “Get out of it sooner State”.
I mentioned that I had come across little casual drinking culture but Dick reckoned that this was a new development in American life. The old boozing culture had been busted apart by the much more stringent recent laws on DWI (driving while intoxicated). There was now a statutory thirty-day license suspension that was impossible for most Americans to contemplate.
In a country the size of the US with little public transport, losing your license was more than just a pain in the arse. It meant that you couldn’t get to work or even to the shops. And with most people west of the Mississippi living tens of miles from the population centres, very few remained prepared to risk it.
He said that nowadays, any more than six or seven beers and you would be sailing close to the wind. When I pointed out that the guideline limit in England was more like one and a half beers, he was astonished. He said that he’d always thought that the US had the toughest drink-drive regime in the world.
It was all jovial stuff until the subject of September 11th came up. Just the mention of the date had a transforming effect upon the calm, thoughtful and intelligent man that I had been getting to know. Perhaps it was the Bourbon, but he began manically advocating the widespread bombing of every Arab country on the planet.
When I dared to point out the flaw in this strategy, he became angrier still. He thought that a few dead Arabs, even if they were innocent civilians, would be no great loss to the world. It exercised him greatly that there had yet to be any military response and that the US was even bothering with all this pussyfooting around talking to other nations.
It came almost as a relief when Dick announced that it was time for bed because he liked to get up at dawn for a walk. I bade him goodnight and finished my drink. When I felt the coast was clear, I crept into the hotel and pulled the covers off the pool table. Even the balls looked like they were antique as I chinked them around the table for a couple of frames before bedtime.
Before retiring, I sat in one of the leather armchairs and looked at the guest quilt. I had noticed that a number of these were hanging on the walls, and that all the writing had been embroidered up. A fine felt pen was on the table for additional autographs, and I duly added mine.
I wasn’t the first Englishman to have passed by this way, judging by the “Hereford Boot Boys kick to kill” slogan that was scrawled on one of the patches. I couldn’t decide which was more moronic: the gratuitous defacing of a gentle memento or the choice of a guest quilt in Missouri as the canvass for an aggro graffito. Either way, perhaps if they had kicked to score instead, the twats would still be in the Football League.