Sharing a bathroom is not a hardship but does involve a certain potential awkwardness, starting with the knickered jaunt across the landing first thing in the morning. It’s not a great situation in which to greet a stranger, particularly if they’re in their underwear too. I was up and in and out of the bathroom by 7 am.
Downstairs the couple who owned the place were ready for the day. Audrey greeted me excitedly and introduced me to her husband, James, who looked generally unimpressed with life. He was like Victor Meldrew, but lacked the charm and gaiety. What appeared to be melon was on the table. More detailed taxonomy was offered by the old man as he sat down: “Pass that there chilli-sauce and pepper, son. I like to put it on my cantaloupe.” Eager to fall in with local custom, I followed suit but it didn’t prove a combination that was much to my liking.
Shortly we were joined by the other couple, Pat and Kathy, who were in their early thirties and also from Maryland. He worked for a mobile telephone company and asked me what cell phone I was using on my travels. I told him that I didn’t have one. “Gee, you definitely need a phone on you. It’s not always safe traveling in this country by yourself. You don’t know what scrapes you’re going to get yourself into and you’d want one in an emergency. Hell, I’d give you one of ours if I knew you better and thought I could trust you.” This was a man who clearly had no internal monologue.
Pat couldn’t understand why we didn’t have the death penalty in the UK. James and Audrey chipped in with agreement. Audrey commented that she believed that anyone caught looting during riots should be shot on the spot. Given that it was such a biblically-orientated household, I thought about asking her whether the authorities should have killed Jesus when he started overturning the market stalls in the Temple. But I was wary of appearing blasphemous, and didn’t much fancy being taken outside to be stoned.
Thankfully, conversation turned to my trip. After the rigmarole of explaining broadly what I was doing, I made the innocuous point that you need to be careful travelling from state to state because laws change and you might do something illegal inadvertently that was perfectly OK where you had just come from. Pat seemed to read this as a slight on the USA and pointed out that we had some pretty weird laws in England too. As he wound himself up for a story, I braced myself for the one about insulting Chelsea Pensioners on Blackfriars’ Bridge or similar fare.
Unexpectedly he started talking about pigs and how it was perfectly legal to keep them in England. In fact, it was also legal to give any individual pig you owned a name. What was still illegal though, and apparently punishable by death, was to give a pig the name Napoleon. He finished the story with one of those “so what do you say to that” looks. Very politely I told him that I had never heard that story before but that I would be surprised if such a thing existed under English law. It sounded more like something that might pertain in France rather than England. He looked puzzled: “Well that’s the same place isn’t it?” Very calmly, I informed him that they were two very separate sovereign countries that just happened to be near each other in Europe. He seemed genuinely grateful to be enlightened.
I felt that I might have embarrassed him, so to compensate I thought I’d say something overtly complimentary about my experiences so far. The first thing that came into my head was to comment on how good the roads were and how cheap the gas was. Pat looked me sternly in the face and, with a wag of his finger, warned me not to be fooled. The gas only seemed cheap because it was sold in US gallons, which were four quarts. He told me that this was less than our Imperial gallons, which were supposedly made up of five quarts. It looked like I had learned something too, in principle if not precision.
The conversation had prolonged the meal and it was now approaching 10 am. I needed to get going. All that was left to do was to get a postcard from Maryland and I could head off for Virginia. This proved far from easy. I spent most of the morning touring around the dozen or so small towns up to the state line and then back into central Maryland to no avail. Everywhere was either shut or hadn’t heard of postcards. I was beginning to resign myself to failing at only the third hurdle on what I had expected to be one of the easier of my tasks for each state.
I was struggling with quite why I thought procuring postcards would facilitate my coming into contact with local life. All it was doing was holding me up, so I pointed the car in the direction of Virginia and hit the gas. I’d have to lie when I got home and pretend that it had got lost in the mail. About a mile short of the state line there was the Maryland Visitors’ Center. As a final roll of the dice, I stopped by only to be told that they didn’t sell postcards. However, they did have some that they could let me have for free and there was even a mailbox on site and so I was saved. I’m sure the level of elation I felt was barely justified, but postcards had taken on a disproportionate importance in my mind at that moment in my life.
Annoyed at the unnecessary time that I had lost, but relieved all the same, I motored over the toll bridge into Virginia. If I headed straight for Richmond, I could still be there for lunch. For the second time since I had set out, “Ferry ‘cross the Mersey” came on the radio. To the uninitiated American ear, it probably sounded like a romantic little boat ride, rather than a windswept chug across the grey maw from the Wirral to the Liver Building. But that’s songs for you. I’d be prepared to bet that Galveston is nowhere near as poly-orgasmic as Glen Campbell makes it sound.
George W Bush is the 43rd President of the United States. You don’t have to be John Nash to work out that, with a union of fifty states, not all of them have had a turn a providing a man for the top job. Virginia isn’t one of them. Eight of those forty-three have hailed from the Old Dominion State, including the original, George Washington. Virginia was also the northernmost of the eleven southern states to secede from the union at the time of the American Civil War. And they seemed to be still fighting the same battle almost a hundred years later, if Prince Edward County was anything to go by. Its reaction to the US Supreme Court’s order to desegregate public educational facilities was to close all its schools from 1959-64. Human rights had never been much of a big deal in Virginia: between 1924 and 1979, 8000 people had been condemned to sterilization for being feeble-minded, a program for which the state took until the 21st Century to apologize. Land of the free and home of the brave.
With the lesson fresh in my mind from Maryland, my first stop in Richmond was at the Visitors’ Center where I was able to pick up postcard and a Virginia version of one of those shaky snow things. The woman was extremely helpful and made several suggestions where I could go for lunch, and carefully showed me how to get there on a detailed street map of the town. She also offered me another handy tip for survival in the US. I was still getting used to a currency where all the notes were the same size and color. She saw me carefully examining the bills in my change and pointed out that the best way to check the denomination was to look for the numbers in the corners. Gee, I’d never thought of that. It certainly beat trying to remember which President appeared on which note.
Within a couple of turns of leaving the Visitors’ Centre, I was driving down a broad tree-lined avenue of colonial mansions. This was certainly not an impoverished neighbourhood. A side road, with slightly more modest homes, led me to the Strawberry Street Café, which was packed with the beautiful people. I come from Essex and so have always felt slightly fazed when confronted by style. The most I know about good taste is that I don’t have much of it. I felt slightly out of place as I waited in the porch but I was already picking up the American habit of brazening it out. When the waitress noticed I was by myself, she suggested that if I were happy to sit at the bar then I would definitely be served more quickly.
I took my seat on the stool and took in the sight of well-to-do America out to family lunch. The finery of clothes, as well as of hair, teeth and skin complexion, was almost overwhelming. There were no fatties in here, let alone people with false limbs or terminal eczema. The barman turned to me and casually asked me whether I came from north or south London. My reply was unnecessarily complicated for him. I explained that I lived in Paddington, which was central London, but actually came from a place to the east of London called Southend. I think he wished he hadn’t asked.
This brief exchange had attracted the attention of a pristine couple just along the bar from me. His was a wholesomely weathered face and hers had a rubbery Barbie-doll look to it. He was a good twenty years her senior and had a twinkle to his eye and a strut to his conversation. She was beautifully manicured, a glossy brunette with straight hair down to her waist, but her eyes were vacant and her voice a monotone.
They introduced themselves as Hubert and Anita and wanted to know what brought an Englishman to these parts. They were both from Virginia but lived out in the countryside where, from what I could deduce, they both appeared to do not much more than just ride around on horses for a living. Nice work if you can get it. They liked to come into Richmond of a weekend to get Anita’s favourite brunch. It looked like a huge dollop of summer pudding with some sausage on the side, but they explained that it was actually blueberry French toast with cream. They were keen to know whether it was really true that we sometimes had baked beans and tomatoes for breakfast in England. They seemed genuinely disgusted by the thought.
I made a comment about how genteel Richmond seemed to be compared to where I’d stayed the night before in Maryland. Hubert wasn’t so sure. He figured that Virginia was every bit as rough as any place else that he’d seen in America: “I tell you, if you looked ‘trailer-trash’ up in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of my neighbors”. He then went on to tell me a rather disturbing tale of how three men from this family had turned up at his ranch one day proffering a hundred dollar bill and making overtures about his “pretty little wife”. It transpired that Anita herself came out of the house and chased them away with her gun: “I told that Chilli Bean to go back where he came from”. I hoped that Chilli Bean was some sort of nickname for one of the neighbors.
In a curious non-sequitur, Hubert started talking about Vietnam and how to behave in a combat situation. He’d been eighteen at the start of that war and had served his time in the army. The most important thing for a soldier was honor, but every army had men “who behave dishonorably”. He then told a story about one of his commanding officers who had shot a woman through her baby and killed them both. I wasn’t sure where this conversation was taking us and it was proving to be rather rich meat given that I’d only made the couple’s acquaintance ten minutes previously. I decided to pay up and be on my way.
It was 2.15 by the time I had made my way out of Richmond and so I found myself chasing the clock once more. There was more character to the highway than the Interstate and soon I was rolling through wooded glades and past ramshackle houses. It was a very relaxing drive – thanks to the combination of being virtually the only car on the road and my discovery/use of the cruise control for the first time – and I didn’t need to stop until I reached Amherst where I filled up with gas and phoned ahead to book a room in West Virginia.
I nipped in to the restroom where there was a condom machine with printed caution that use of condoms helped reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, but that the “only 100% guarantee was to abstain from all sexual activity before marriage and then to maintain a monogamous relationship once married”. Presumably the manufacturers were obliged to put this on their machines to warn of the evils of their product, in much the same way as UK cigarette packs have to tell you that smoking can shrivel your genitals, damage your offspring and then kill you.
Pleased that I had got myself organized, I decided I could afford the time to visit the nearby natural bridge. I swung off the highway and made my way down to Glasgow. It was small, quiet and green and nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Places were evidently not named for any reasons of similarity. From Glasgow, I followed the road to the town called Natural Bridge and, shortly before I reached it, stumbled upon the geological feature after which it was named. The commercial instinct had taken hold with a complex featuring a waxwork museum, a souvenir megastore and even a miniature golf course built around the bridge itself, which unfortunately was out of sight from the car park and the road. Instead I had to pay my ten bucks for the privilege of walking down 137 steps to view the landmark that Thomas Jefferson had described as “the most sublime of nature’s works”.
There was a cluster of very portly people webbling around the burger stand at the bottom. They weren’t just fat, they were super-fat. They were the full Michelin Man and were unable to move their arms or legs without swinging the whole of that side of their bodies. Each had the approximate turning-circle of a Winnebago. At a guess, I’d have put them in the 500-600 lbs category and none of them was taller than 5’8’’. After I had taken some photos (of the bridge), I got to the bottom of the staircase and was horrified to see the fatties had started the ascent ahead of me. Thankfully, they were pausing for breath once every five or six steps and so I was able to squeeze by. I had once run the London Marathon, and not since the end of that race have I seen people looking so red-faced and painfully short of breath. One of them was shovelling chips from a refuse-sack-sized bag into her mouth between gasps for air. I suppose she had to work hard to keep in that condition.
The sun was low in the sky as I rejoined the mountain pass over to West Virginia. An atmospheric mist hung in the air as I crossed the state line and the hills gave way to a mountain skyline. I was delighted to see my first 70 mph limit sign. I was through White Sulphur Springs and drawing into Lewisburg just as dusk was upon the town. The General Lewis was a marvellous old colonial hotel with antiques throughout, ornate gardens and a traditional front porch. My room was decked out with an old writing desk and a four-poster bed. The wall lights had those bulbs that mimic flickering candles. It was all very grand.
The hotel had no bar as such, but you could order beer from an attendant while you lazed on the leather chairs in the lounge. For all its luxury, this was another place not best suited to my purposes. It attracted a middle-aged clientele who wanted to get away from it all and largely keep themselves to themselves, and it offered employees for whom servility and deference were the cornerstones of their training. I wanted to find someone to talk with but I was unlikely to have any luck here. The closest that I came to joining in was when I was able to listen in on the conversation of the table next to me in the restaurant, but they were discussing children and it wasn’t very interesting. The highlight was “You don’t get rid of your kids until they’re 65”. (See what I mean?)
After dinner, I had a glass of wine and a cigarette out on the porch where I was joined by a couple who immediately hid themselves behind newspapers. The only other sign of life came from three characters – a middle-aged man, a post-adolescent teenager, and a ten-year old boy decked out in full baseball gear – who seemed to be prowling around the grounds and who made occasional forays onto the porch area without ever stopping to sit or speaking to anyone. I expect that I could have gone to reception, made a formal request and they probably would have sent one of the waiting staff out with the instruction to chat, but that hardly seemed the point. I picked up a local paper myself and found myself turning to the “What’s happening in your community” page. The Milton Senior Center was having its monthly luncheon on Sep 12th: “The event will start at 10.30 am with free blood pressure readings.” The Burger Grade School Reunion was scheduled for Sep 15th: it promised to feature “a talent show, games and horseshoes”. I had no idea what “horseshoes” might mean in this context, and the appended warning that “No alcohol would be allowed” seemed especially cruel. And at Barboursville, there was going to be a seminar on Sep 12th entitled “Smart women finish rich” hosted by one Scott Bumgardner of Edward Jones Investments.
It struck me that most smart women I knew would make a point of steering clear of anyone who called themselves Mr Bumgardner. I was going to check with my porch-side companions to see what they thought, but they looked like they’d been sucking lemons for the last hour or so. The Mason-Dixon line, nowadays a delineator for where palpable friendliness begins, obviously turned south and dog-legged round West Virginia.