In 2002 we rented a beaten up Ford Mustang from US Rent-A-Wreck and drove it 9000 miles round America. From Boston to Montana, Utah, and Arizona to New Mexico and then back east to a wedding in New Jersey.
I kept a journal of this trip because I felt I ought to, and then discovered that the journey itself prompted me to rattle on about quite a lot of things. I made it into an audio journal because I thought my grown up children wouldn’t bother to read it, but might listen to it as a story, since I always read to them when they were young.
So now it is there, you have a choice. You can read below a slightly edited version below because it was easy to alter a few bits I didn’t like, or listen to it as I recorded it in 2002.
American Cricket audio version
American Cricket: Chapter 1
American Cricket: Chapter 2
American Cricket: Chapter 3
American Cricket: Chapter 4
American Cricket: Chapter 5
American Cricket: Chapter 6
American Cricket: Chapter 7
American Cricket: Chapter 8
American Cricket: Chapter 9
American Cricket: Chapter 10
American Cricket: Chapter 11
American Cricket: Chapter 12
I had a friend who wouldn’t go to America. This was, he said, because he’d seen the film and knew he wouldn’t like it. In his sixties he had a book published in the States and his American publishers insisted that he went. Reluctantly he did, and loved it. From then until he died he went as often as he could.
My impressions of America began early in my life. America was cowboys and Indians and the wild west, and sheriffs and six-guns. My grandparents made us red Indian suits with tassels and embroidery and feather headdresses and a wigwam which became a major part of all our childhood games. These, together with bows and arrows, which we made with saplings from the woods behind our house. It never occurred to me that bows and arrows had anything to do with Robin Hood or the yeomen of England. Red indians, bows and arrows, prairies, guns and horses were all American and therefore wonderful. This was a view of America probably not shared by my parents. They were only grudgingly coming to terms with the idea that without America we would not have won the war. They obviously resented the fact that, not only did the Americans seem to have the biggest, the best and the most of everything, they seemed to enjoy telling everyone about it. This was regarded by my parents as being ostentatious and unbritish; and by me as simply being true. In 1950 we emigrated to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. We arrived in Capetown after 3 weeks on a Union Castle boat and set out on the three day train journey north through South Africa to Harare, still called Salisbury in those days. You would have thought that a three week trip on a boat, stopping at exotic islands on the way, crossing the equator, arriving at the Cape of Good Hope and then following the course of the Great Trek north through Africa would be quite enough to swamp any small boy of 10. Not really. The great thing was that the train looked like an American train with a huge smokestack and a cow catcher on the front. And it sounded like an American train with a steam horn. And even better, the coaches had big windows and open balconies at each end. I think I spent most of the journey hanging on the balcony whilst we trundled gently across endless Africa. There were wide open spaces, patches of desert, prairie-like scrubland and no platforms at the stations, so you had to clamber down the carriage steps and jump on to the hot red earth. If it wasn’t for the deer and giraffe and the storks and the zebra, it could have been America – it was a dream come true.
My father met the train in Harare, and we drove the two hundred miles to Umtali. He had bought a big second-hand Ford V8 coup imp. It was a rusty brown coloured saloon with wings big enough to lie on, split windscreen, bench seat and column gear change. But the best thing about it was that where the boot should be it had a pickup truck box sticking out of the back and that is where we sat. We had that car for the whole time we were there and you could count on one hand the number of times we children travelled inside the car itself. We had rented an isolated wooden house in the mountains about 20 miles outside Umtali. It was on the side of a valley with a view for miles. It had a tin roof, a wood stove and flyscreens on the doors and windows. It was America. Sometimes in the early morning clouds filled the valley below our house, so that we seemed to be living in the sky. I hadn’t seen that before and haven’t seen it looking as beautiful as that since. It was magic. For a few months we didn’t go to school and went to town just once a week. Umtali was a small town and shared many features with what I imagined a typical mid-western town would be. The layout was in rectangular blocks and the streets imaginatively named Main Street, First Street and Second Street. Those intersecting were called 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue, 3rd Avenue etc. The main streets were wide because, when the roads were set out, there had to be room to turn an 8 team oxcart, on account of 8 team oxcarts not being very good at three point turns. These days the space was used for angle parking. The bays were full of Fords, Chevys, Pick-ups and massive wood-effect Ranch Wagons – all American. Just off Main Street was the Emco Milk Bar. Whilst England was still net curtains, Windsor chairs, and paper doilies, the Emco Milk Bar was all windows and chrome with spinning stools screwed to the floor, tall glasses and a soda fountain. In the Emco Milk Bar you could buy milk shakes and ice cream sodas in colours and combinations that would blow the socks off your grandmother. Our weekly visit to town was regular and sternly organised. Shopping, followed by orgasmic visit to Emco Milk Bar followed by a picnic lunch with my father. In the afternoon we went to the Bioscope which was the one slightly dishevelled cinema in town. Every week we saw whatever was on, whatever it was and I don’t remember any of them, except that most seemed to have either Danny Kaye or Shelly Winters in them. Not going to school couldn’t last forever and we moved down to town. Trevor and I went to the only school, and like lots of brothers, having spent all our waking hours together in the mountains, hardly spoke to one another once amongst our peers. I have absolutely no recollection of my academic performance, except that I was regarded as clever by my friends, and a boy who was too fond of his own voice by my teachers. What was really important about Chancellor House School was its inmates’ two major obsessions. One was collecting dinky cars and the other was comic swapping. Although there were English comics like Radio Fun, Beano and the Eagle, this was strictly American comic swapping. It was Superman, Marvel Man, Cowboy comics like Kit Carson and American Illustrated Classic comics. These reduced every piece of the great literature of the world to about 40 pages of 1950’s glorious comic graphics and bubble script. I must have read thousands of them. You somehow acquired a stock of about 10 and the primary object of each day at school, in between being educationally improved, was to acquire different ones to read that night. I never did discover where the originals came from, except there was a rumour that since we exported more to the USA than we could afford to buy, American pulp literature, including our beloved comics, came back on the ships as ballast. I didn’t care. If it was true it would account for all the other magazines we had. I fantasised uncritically about the American way of life portrayed by Norman Rockwell on the Saturday Evening Post covers: I was an avid admirer of all the advertisements in the Readers Digest. They were for impossibly powerful and luxurious cars and pick up trucks. You could have any gun you wanted, all of which were preferable to my measly air rifle. I couldn’t even imagine having a manicured lawn big enough for a ride-on mower, but obviously everyone in America had one. All of America drank Coca Cola, all the time. I knew that to be true not only because of the readers digest but because of the films. In any film every gas station in America had a Coke fridge. Trevor and I used to visit the Coke bottling plant in Umtali as often as it was polite to do so, partly because they seemed happy to show visitors round, even small boys, and you got free coke. Even National Geographic seemed to be full of Coke. Whilst each issue devoted the majority of its content to stunning pictorial essays of the world’s most exotic corners, a good chunk was always about some glory of America’s geography. So I’ve seen Death Valley and the giant Redwoods, and the Rockies and the desert and Colorado, and the Grand Canyon and the National Parks. And in the photographs that weren’t geysers or mountains or bears, the ones of American Indians or trading posts – there are the coke fridges. But in those days I hadn’t heard of marketing or product placement. But Americans didn’t only drink Coke. They also drank a lot of Zup. Well, they did according to the Saturday Evening Post and Readers Digest. At least that was how I had read it. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that it was called 7-Up. It just goes to show what isolated little planets children can inhabit.
Just before I was due to go to Secondary School we moved to East Africa. We lived in Uganda, but because there were no secondary schools there I went to a boarding school in Nairobi until after the equivalent of GCSE’s. During this time, apart from the cinema and coca cola, America might have gone away. In any case, Britain crowned a queen, climbed Mount Everest and Kenya had the Mau Mau to worry about. Britain had the first and only commercial jet airliner at the time and we, together with the French and Israel, had managed to make a complete pigs ear of Suez without any help from the Americans at all. So, for this period my romance with America and all that was American went into limbo. Except of course for the music. So, between 1954 and 1958 my time at the Prince of Wales School, Nairobi, saw the end of the Doris Days and the birth of Rock and Roll. It began with a wind-up gramophone and ended with a Dansette and a Garrard deck that would play 45s. We started listening to Eddie Calvert, Mario Lanza and Nat King Cole, passed through Bill Haley, Paul Anka and Lonny Donigan and left East Africa with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis. To us at 16 or 17 it was the great revolution of the 20th century and it was American.
We came back to England in 1958 and it was only then that my perception of the States as being all that was good, wonderful and benevolent began to change. Not that it was a sudden change or that it had any effect on our attitude to American music, culture or freedom, all of which seemed to be so much better than ours. This was despite the McCarthy inquisitions which I don’t remember at all. Also, by 1958 the cold war had been well under way for some time without me really noticing that either. I joined Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament because we all did and on the fringes of grown up society there began the murmurings that the USA was not quite the benign influence for world peace that we had been led to believe. And it was in 1958 that I hitchhiked to Austria to stay with some friends in Vienna. On the way I stopped for a couple of days with Jenny, my sister, who was staying with a school friend in the British Embassy in Paris. Her friend’s father was Consul to the Ambassador. He said that, because of my short hair I might look a bit American, so I should put a Union Jack on my rucksack because the Americans weren’t very popular in France at the time. He had Union Jack plates fixed to all the embassy cars because, if anyone thought they were American, they were inclined to be vandalized. I had no idea why. It was true that the loud, brash, overweight, over camered American tourist was crashing his way round the whole of Europe declaiming to all that everything we had was absolute crap compared to everything they had.
By the time I left school in 1960, the cold war had really taken off, America was seriously beginning to chuck its weight about all over the world and Dean Rusk was due to tell us that Mutually Assured Destruction was a good idea. British television, still in its infancy with only two channels, was, and for a long time remained, suffused with America – I Love Lucy, Bilko, Rawhide, M Squad. In twenty years the only traffic the other way was probably the Forsyte Saga. So I suppose it’s not surprising that we know so much more about America than it knows about us. And the sixties were also a bit of a golden blip for Britain. The Beatles moved the music capital of the world to Liverpool. London, Carnaby Street, and Mary Quant became the fashion HQ of the globe, and, together with the French, we built a Concorde. In the meantime, the Americans were sending black children to school in Little Rock under armed escort, plotting and scheming in South America, not quite invading Cuba, becoming increasingly involved in Vietnam, and going to the moon. Over the next twenty years America’s blind and almost childlike insistence on interfering in things it clearly didn’t understand increasingly undermined my own naïve and romantic view of the States. Even then, we all knew that America’s involvement in Vietnam was not going to end well. Why was the US so neurotic about tinpot Libya? Why did they insist on supporting so-called freedom fighters who so often turned out to be despots? How can they doggedly support Israel’s suppression of it’s Arab neighbours and imagine that the Palestinians were just going to go away?
Not that Britain would have done any better. We have more experience of being interfering devious cunning bastards on an international scale than the rest of the current world put together. But it doesn’t matter because we don’t count any more. Oh, we have a few pretensions to influence based on our former power and accrued wisdom, but that’s OK because no-one listens any more. And in the end America won. They beat the USSR. They are the world power. They are the greatest. They won the economic race, the arms race, the space race, the Olympics and they can win any other race they choose. Except for September 11th. I don’t remember exactly where I was when Kennedy was shot, but I do remember September 11th. I remember my first reaction to the news of a tragic accident, followed by the second aircraft and the sudden deadly chill dawning that this was no accident. I was shocked but not surprised by the principle of an attack by the disaffected on the object of their disaffection. In terms of instant victims, the effect was numbing. In the longer term the immediate death toll at the World Trade Centre is nothing compared with the number of innocent dead as a result of the misdirected US enterprise, that followed it. I believe that war and conflict are always organised and directed by politicians and the general population simply provides the corpses. I was not one of those who thought that the USA had it coming, though many in the world did. I don’t think that anyone deserves it. However, the extent of the hurt and outraged surprise that so many American people expressed was a shock. I really didn’t appreciate that the average American truly believed that the U.S. was a benign and philanthropic influence, spreading wealth and democracy wherever it went. I am not entirely convinced that Americans do believe that any more, but it was certainly the impression they managed to give at the time. So, the America of my rose-tinted youth is not shattered but is pretty well dented. If forced, I defend my own country on the basis that we don’t all read The Sun, we didn’t all vote for Margaret Thatcher, or Tony Blair, we aren’t all football hooligans and not all of us hate Johnny Foreigner, wear bowler hats and play cricket. I do, however, understand how the myths about both our countries persist. In some ways, I would like to reinstate my romantic and idealised vision of America more than half a century ago. I was happier with that. And sometimes I think that America feels thesame.
It is June 2002. I have now stopped work until August. It is the longest break I have ever taken. I am looking forward to this holiday with a childish enthusiasm that is slightly worrying. In the world this week, news has been the usual mix of the terrifying, the traumatic and the trivial. Israel, which owes its very existence to one of the most violent terrorist campaigns of the twentieth century, continues to be convinced that it can crush the aspirations of the Palestinians with brute force. America, whose material backing of Israel supports them, embarrassed and confused looks on, whilst the Arabs and Israelis continue to slaughter the innocents and children of each other. In Britain we are all very surprised to learn the shocking revelation that in Ireland the army intelligence service had been helping the Protestant terrorists to target the assassination of Catholic terrorists and making sure no-one was watching while they did it. The satirical magazine Private Eye insists that the only reason the U.S. hasn’t already invaded Iraq is that it’s a bit short of the right kind of bombs, so it’s been put on hold until they’ve got enough of them. England ground to a halt, with roads and work deserted nationwide, to watch England being knocked out of the World Cup by a better Brazil. America failed to grind to a halt or probably even notice that it had been eliminated by Germany. And it does seem slightly odd that America, whose influence either dominates or pervades the rest of the world in so many areas, should be so insular in the field of sport. The nation that appears to be almost obsessed with baseball has something called the world series in which only America takes part. Mark says it’s because American games require kit that costs money. Because most of the world hasn’t got any and because you can play football with four sticks and a ball, everyone can play, and does. Mark is the son of a friend, and has been labouring for me on a job we have just finished – building a garden in Bristol. He has recently been to LA for a week to check out a major video games convention for a website he helps to run. He tells me that the video games industry in the States at squillions of dollars is worth more that the entire movie and TV business put together and I believe him. And when Forbes magazine, a respected US business publication, announces that top if its list as one of the most influential people in the whole world is Britney Spears, I believe anything.
We are in America. We got here by starting off in the wrong direction which saved us money, and I had a problem with moral turpitude on the way. Claire’s son Sean dropped us at Terminal 3 Heathrow at ten to five in the morning. This was a time that we had been told to arrive but was not a time they had shared with the check-in staff who weren’t there. When they did arrive I discovered for the first time that you could hi-hack an aircraft with a nail file, a pair of scissors, a Swiss army knife or a small screwdriver, all of which would be permanently confiscated if found in your hand luggage. Each stage in the embarkation process was followed by another shopping opportunity. I am not the world’s greatest shopper, but apart from actual shopping malls, which you aren’t forced to go to, I have never seen as many shops full of so many things I didn’t want as they have in airports. We finally set off in the wrong direction to Copenhagen and were treated to a slimy breakfast. During the rest of the trip we had several plastic coated slimy meals. Whilst their gastronomic attraction was pretty limited, unwrapping each one was a merciful waste of time and confirmed one of the odd laws of physics when applied to airline meals. This states that when you have consumed the entire contents of an airline meal, the space taken up by the resultant debris will be greater than its original volume. At 34,000 feet we flew over Iceland without seeing any volcanoes, over Greenland, apparently devoid of icebergs or Eskimos and Labrador without seeing a single dog. We flew down the St. Lawrence Seaway until just before Quebec, when we turned left down the east coast. We flew past Boston and down the Hudson River on our approach to Newark. Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, the latter looking slightly lost and forlorn in a scrubby bit of estuary, were laid out like computer graphics. Touchdown was followed by queuing and herding. Herding is a pursuit organised by US Immigration. Unlike English queues this one seemed to lack any entertainment or humour. It was this lack of humour that made Claire refuse to allow me to fill in my own green visa waiver form on our last trip. She filled it in for me, told me to sign it, shut up and just answer any questions I was asked without any elaboration. She said that US Immigration officials weren’t known for their sense of frivolity and she wasn’t going to be pleased if we were sent home before having arrived. Having been allowed to have a cursory look at mine this time, she has a point. Apart from perfectly sensible questions about where you came from, why were you here, and when you were going to go away again, there were some stunners. Had you, for example, ever been involved in any acts of terrorism or genocide? And the form did actually demand an answer in a box. Also requiring an answer was whether I had ever been guilty of moral turpitude. I told Claire that I wasn’t sure I even knew what moral turpitude was. I was slightly worried that it might have something to do with my low moral fibre rating. She said that she wasn’t either, but under no circumstances was I to ask, so I didn’t and they let us in. Urk met us at Newark and we drove back to Charlemont, pausing only for serious nicotine fixes after 14 hours of no smoking. Urk and John live in an isolated timber clad house up a valley about half a mile out of the village with views over wooded hills and hardly a house in sight. Charlemont is a small Massachusetts village straddling the road, beside the Deerfield River. Its presence is proclaimed not by a nameplate accompanied by the number of people living in it at the last count, but by a large yellow road sign announcing that this piece of road is “Thickly settled”. It has the wonderful Charlemont Inn and a cavernous hardware and general store where you can buy everything from ice cream to plumbing. Partly because it is on the river, the village is a tourist area. Also it is on the Mohawk Trail. This means you can stay at Mohawk Trail motels, get Mohawk Trail pizzas, purchase Mohawk Trail maple syrup, listen to Mohawk Trail concerts and buy infinite quantities of Mohawk Trail niknaks and junk. I asked Urk if it would be insensitive to notice that I hadn’t yet seen a single Mohawk and she said it would.
Yesterday I fell in the river and today Ursula and Claire are going for a serious shopping opportunity in Greenfield. They are going to buy me a wedding shirt to go with my funeral suit, a pair of shoes and some hankies. This, however, turns out not to be the main shopping climax of the day. Ursula tells me that today is the grand opening of the Big Y supermarket, an event she has been looking forward to for some time and that Claire is to share in the excitement. I express the opinion that Big Y is an appropriate name for yet another supermarket. Urk tells me I am just being silly and that the ability to buy sushi and have 16 checkouts is an important event in a town the size of Greenfield.
The Deerfield River is apparently the most dammed in New England. The bit that passes through Charlemont is, however, returned to its natural state once a day for a few hours. This is in order that tourists like us can ride the rapids down it on small lumps of polystyrene shaped like surfboards with seat dents in them. These rapids are described as class 1 and therefore suitable for 12 year olds. It is nevertheless an experience not to be missed and we didn’t miss it last time we came. The trip takes all afternoon and you travel about 7 miles down river. As it happened, it turned out to be more eventful than I thought it would. Before being issued with our obligatory life jackets and helmets, we were treated to an endearingly badly made video about the safety rules and what to do if you fell out. We were driven upstream in a van and cheerily shoved off into the river. After a few minutes of not falling out I was enjoying it. Each little set of rapids was followed by a gentle section of being wafted down a 50 yard wide river in a beautiful wooded valley on a swift but benign current. About half an hour into the trip a family in an aluminium canoe did get rolled over, thought briefly they had lost one of the kids trapped under water by the current, were severely frightened but managed to scramble to the tree hung shore. Any thoughts of heroic rescues by the rest of us were dashed by the current which carried their boat, paddles and the rest of us more or less uncontrollably down the river. A couple of us made a futile attempt to rescue the boat, partly because it was the only bit of the whole drama that had come with us and was therefore within reach. Almost submerged, it was carried along lifeless and blindly bumping into things which briefly retarded its progress. We paddled over presumably thinking we might get it to the side or something. With about a ton of water in it, it was a silly idea and any attempt to manoeuvre it at all just meant we were likely to capsize ourselves. We abandoned it to be collected later by what I imagined might be a giant sieve somewhere downstream, designed specially to collect the day’s mistakes. About half way down we pulled into the shore for a prearranged break. Here we were given water, which I thought was a bit unnecessary since we had been sitting in it up to our middles for the previous two hours, and trail mix. Trail mix came in a paper cup and seemed to consist of a few nuts and raisins, quite a lot of smarties but mainly cocoa pops. Its nutritional value was probably slightly less than the cup it came in. We were reassured that the rescued family were shaken but fine and the thunderstorm began. Urk had been absolutely convinced we were due for a serious storm and she was right. Apparently being on a river is a dangerous place to be in a thunderstorm. Urk and Claire and the rest of the party decided to stop. Two of us reckoned our lives to be worth rather less than the remaining dollar value of the trip, so we carried on. And it was worth it. The valley was hung with soft wisps of mist and the rain pelted down while the thunder crashed round us. As the rain pummelled the surface of the water it threw up a million diamond droplets which seemed to dance and sparkle about 6 inches above the surface. It was something you could only see whilst in a really heavy storm with your eyeline so close to the water. As the rain began to subside, a low persistent thrumming of what seemed like a billion burping bullfrogs filled the gently steaming air. I loved it. Having not been struck by lightning, I was more than keen to do it again this time. The appropriate lump of water had earlier been let free to find its way to the sea for our benefit, and we were treated to exactly the same dreadful safety video, which in a less charming organisation would have consisted largely of outtakes. A concerned father wanted to make sure his family was suitably protected against dehydration and purchased what I call breast water all round. Breast water comes in soft plastic bottles with nipples on the end through which the sterilised liquid can be comfortingly sucked. Also worried about the amount of energy likely to be consumed whilst floating down the river, each member of the family was provided with a power bar. In my day these were called sweets. Having paid our money to Zoar Whitewater Rafting (visit our website) we then signed various bits of paper proclaiming our extreme fitness and assuring them that whatever happened to us wasn’t their fault. We were packed in the van and taken upriver. Once in the water I paddled a little upstream so as not to leave the others behind. I am not sure of the extent to which it is possible to strut whilst perched on top of a piece of polystyrene fridge packing, clutching a giant double ended plastic spatula, but I did my best. Claire’s experience of things on water is that they tend to go round and round rather a lot. We set off with me trying to look as if I knew what I was doing and Claire neatly and happily pirouetting. Without the novelty of fear, or the drama of a thunderstorm, I began to look for the good bits. In due course I spotted a large hump backed rock barely covered by the rushing current. I headed towards it with the intention of sliding neatly round it and into the foaming eddy behind. I hit it broadside on and it tipped me over upside down into the foaming eddy with the boat on top of me with one of my legs trapped in a strap specially designed not to trap your leg. Never mind, I’d seen the video so I knew exactly what to do. Number 1 – don’t lose the boat. That was easy since it had my leg in a firm grip. Number 2 – stay upstream of your craft so it doesn’t run you over – no problem there since it had me in tow. Number 3 – don’t stand up because if your foot gets trapped the current could hold you down under the water. Well, there was no danger for one of my feet and it then occurred to me that I was already under the water anyway. So I extricated my leg and stood up. The twelve year olds bobbed serenely by whilst I scrambled back on board with what remained of my dignity – which wasn’t much. At the half way recuperation stop Urk and Claire had three cups each of life giving trail mix and fought each other for the orange smarties. For me the disaster of the day was that my cigarettes got wet. That evening was scrabble night at the Charlemont Inn. Urk says that the Charlemont Inn is as close as New England gets to a pub. Whilst the others settle down to a serious evening of scrabble, I have a pint of draught steel rail beer, with which I become intimately acquainted as each succeeding pint slips pleasantly down. I meet Tod, who spends half the year on ski patrol in Montana and the summer painting a school near Charlemont. Whether this school actually needs painting every year I don’t ask because it doesn’t matter. As more people arrive I am introduced and included in the conversation once the local news and happenings have been exchanged. I am under strict instructions not to talk politics. No-one there that evening has been to Europe except Andy who was a first generation American from East Germany. He had recently returned to Germany for the first time since his childhood and is in no doubt that his parents’ emigration had been a good move. Bill volunteered the politics by switching the channel on the TV that no-one was watching because he couldn’t bear the talking heads. He launched into a sturdy and impressive diatribe on the importance of grassroots democracy in the States and his embarrassment at the behaviour of his government about many issues internationally. Knowing that we were about to head towards Montana he also pointed out that this concern was likely to be felt less strongly the further west we went. This was because surprisingly few Americans had passports or ever left the US, and the American midwest was mostly not interested in foreign affairs.
Yesterday we picked up the car, and today we went to the Norman Rockwell Museum, the home of the American image maker of my childhood. And tomorrow we are off. Urk had arranged a rental car for our trip and she and John drove us into Boston to collect it. Urk had found us a second hand Ford Mustang convertible from US RentAWreck. US RentAWreck was started in the 70s almost as a joke and has now become an institution. You don’t get a new car but it works and it’s cheaper. They don’t seem to mind a lot what you do with it while you’ve got it. They asked only for an approximate date of return, completed the formalities easily and quickly, shaved the prices all round to give us a good deal and filled it with gas because the glove box didn’t open. When I asked if we ought to take photos in case it got any scratches while we had it, he said that provided they recognised it when it came back that would be fine. It is bright green – Urk and Claire say it’s metallic turquoise, but as far as I’m concerned it is bright green with a white power top, automatic transmission and with a speedo that goes all the way to 85 mph. It is a 10 year old, slightly shabby, American, convertible, heap of junk and it’s exactly what we wanted. We drive the 100 miles home to Charlemont like a couple of kids with a new toy. And tomorrow after breakfast at the Inn we’re off.
I am sitting under a tree at a bench on a soft mound overlooking a vast tree-speckled field of young maize in Wisconsin. Since breakfast at the Charlemont Inn the day before yesterday we have travelled a thousand miles. It was part of the plan, but nonetheless a shame to miss so much. Once on a holiday in Europe we had started in Holland because Amsterdam is one of the great cities of Europe. We were anxious to get to North Eastern France, which meant passing through Belgium. Since Belgium had long since given up bothering with borders, the motorway went straight through Belgium into France without interruption. By the deserted buildings which had once marked the border there was a huge sign thanking us for visiting Belgium. Taking advantage of its motorway without having visited Belgium at all is a small guilt I have felt ever since. I now have to add most of Massachusetts and the whole of New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. I have however, already seen quite a lot of Interstate 90, and its associated attractions. As I sit here in Wisconsin the light is fading and the entire field of maize is glistening with fireflies. It is an astonishing sight. I remember fireflies from Africa and still find the sheer technology of it amazing. It also adds to my severe doubts about Darwin’s theory of evolution. This, as you will no doubt remember, was based on the observation that species of birds on the Galapagos Islands, or somewhere like that, had developed and evolved quite separately precisely because they were isolated. Nevertheless, it is quite impossible for me to imagine that isolated insects on continents thousands of miles apart should decide that a sexy way to evolve would be to have your bum light up. Not only that, you have to work out how to do it at all, and then arrange to do it by random mutation. And after all that, flashing bums have to be an instant hit with the opposite sex instead of just being a beacon saying “eat me” to any passing predator. It’s all much too complicated and probably accounts for my failure to convince the scientific world of my demolition of current thinking on genetic evolution.
However, flashing “eat me” signs brings me back to interstates. We have already grown quite fond of interstate 90. In America route numbers are even if they go east west and if they are odd they go north south. Hence interstate 90 is carrying us west, whilst when we went north to Maine last time, we used a road with an odd number. This is the kind of mind numbingly boring fact with which my brain can be easily filled despite the need to put much more important things into it. There is nothing I appear to be able to do about it and it may account for a chronic disease I suffer from which I have named OSS. This stands for Overload Stress Syndrome. I called it that because stress syndromes seem to be a trendy thing to have these days, and there is always the possibility that I might eventually find someone I could sue for having got it. I don’t suffer from it all the time. But it surfaced again when we visited the Norman Rockwell Museum. I had been looking forward to the visit, partly because it was nostalgic and partly because I wanted to reassure myself that he was, in reality, the consummate illustrator that I remembered. It was everything I had hoped for, although I actually recognised very few of them. A lot of it was very sentimental and showed an America that probably never was, but he showed us how we wanted it to be so we compounded the myth by believing it. Nevertheless, after an hour or so OSS struck. That was it. I was quite incapable of taking in any more. I was still looking but not seeing anything. Trying to pay attention but my brain had just run out of capacity because of knowing which way odd numbered interstates run. I just had to go outside, sit down quietly on a shady bit of grass and have a cigarette! Now that’s another thing I need to tell you about before we return to the joys of interstate driving. And that is smoking. New England is completely neurotic about smoking. As we move west it has become more and more relaxed. Perhaps if we go far enough it will become obligatory. In fact New England is neurotic about almost everything. Every gentle bend in the road is littered with a series of signs telling you a bend is coming, a good speed to approach it at, helpful information that roads may be slippery when wet, followed by yet another sign on the bend itself. The whole procedure is then repeated 300 yards later. A single hairpin bend on a road down a hill in Massachusetts was discussed at length by roadside signs from about two miles before we got to it. All this on roads you aren’t allowed to go more than 55 mph on anyway! And then there are the cell phone towers. In a country more cluttered with road signs, power cables, towers, poles, trains, roads and advertising than anywhere I have even seen, New England has decided to get all picky about cell phone towers. Anywhere they are likely to be seen by the discerning eye of a New Englander they must be disguised. As a fir tree. I have seen them, and nothing is more absurdly obvious than a cell phone tower disguised as a fir tree. It’s about as well camouflaged as a moose in a bowl of custard. It’s not that I don’t like New England. It’s beautiful. But much of it is a bit like driving through a posh leafy suburb that never ends. There are whole towns in New England where you can’t smoke in public at all. Not even out in the fresh air. Now, I know that smoking is a filthy habit. I know it’s not really a habit, it’s an addiction and therefore wholly reprehensible. I know that other people have to breathe your smoke if you blow it at them. I can survive quite long trips up tall buildings without needing a cigarette in the lift. I am quite happy not to smoke in offices, public buildings, restaurants, airplanes and taxis. But I like smoking. It gives me pleasure and since I am already too old to die tragically young of anything, I don’t care. And just remember America – and New England in particular. You put more carcinogenic petroleum and industrial emissions into the atmosphere that both you and we have to breathe, than the whole of the rest of the world put together, all with the enthusiastic support of your government. You are pumping poisons into yourselves in the form of chemicals, preservatives, additives, together with herbicidal and insecticidal residues in quantities that are frightening. You are stuffing yourselves and your children with such volumes of this crap that for a significant percentage of the population, a large pick-up truck will become the only way to heave your bodies around at all. If you really want to make a contribution to the state of the Nation’s health, then ban cars and fast food. If us smokers choose to pay huge taxes in order to cough ourselves to an early death and save enormous amounts of money on geriatric health care, then I think we should be allowed to do it with dignity, as our contribution to the future of the planet.
We are now in Custer State Park in South Dakota. Custer and neighbouring parks contain the Badlands, the Black Hills of Dakota and Mount Rushmore carved with the presidents’ heads. There are also a large number of ancillary attractions which have been added for the benefit of us tourists. And of course there is the wildlife. So far most of the wildlife we have seen in America has been neatly displayed for us, a bit squashed, on the side of interstate 90, well garnished with strips of truck tyre all of which seems to migrate magically to just off the main carriageway. Well most of it anyway. I have driven over a million miles in my life and I have yet to see a piece of truck tyre actually coming off a lorry – let alone manage to get itself to the side of the road so it doesn’t inconvenience us. Interstate 90 is both wonderful and quite awful. Nowhere on Interstate 90 can you go very far without a Travel Plaza. This, not surprisingly, consists of petrol, food and shopping. Not that there is anything wrong with these things. It’s just the bulk of the whole thing. In fact, there’s nothing at all wrong with the gas station side of it. It’s almost a pleasure. Since filling the car costs about £10 even doing it twice a day is pretty painless. Much jollity and apoplexy is to be had by conversations over the gas tank. These usually consist of me telling them I don’t want to hear any complaints about gas prices in the U.S. compared with what we pay. Today yet another charming and friendly American, with whom we were also discussing other things, worked out that since his unremarkable but large American car had a forty gallon gas tank , what he paid to fill it up would cost about $60 in the U.S. and about $200 in England. Though obviously a mild man, he felt those kinds of prices in America would be just cause for revolution.
Interstate 90 has two sorts of Travel Centres. Those on toll sections which are totally contained within the motorway itself, and those on non-toll sections. The non toll ones are at intersections and sprawl uncontrollably round each junction. In some ways like rain forest, each species of concession fights not for sunlight but for visibility. Each sends up giant poles, pylons or sticks with even larger and brighter flashing beacons on top to proclaim its existence. And everybody seems to want to be at all of them. So Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn, Days Inn and Super 8 are all there. McDonalds, KFC Burger King, Dennys, Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut are all there too. The variety of uniformly junk food and plastic wrapped sleeping accommodation is mind boggling. America is obviously in love with branded familiarity in a way which could be a bit frightening, but for which I can offer a possible but not necessarily correct explanation. I remember in England when Berni Inns first started popping up all over the country. At the time I was travelling a lot for reasons I don’t remember. I would arrive in a strange place and then have to find somewhere to stay and something to eat. A Berni Inn was a beacon of conformity and reassurance. I knew what you got to eat, I knew what the quality was going to be, I knew I liked it and I knew how much it was going to cost. It may not have been very adventurous but I wasn’t wherever I was to be adventurous about what I ate. So I understand the attraction and therefore can’t quibble with the principle. It just seems to have got rather out of hand. It means you can travel the length and breadth of America down Interstate vacuum tubes without seemingly ever leaving home. You can sleep in the very same bed all over the States and eat exactly the same meals as you have in your own home town. Not very adventurous but quite comforting. And it may be that Americans have more interesting things to be adventurous about that eating and sleeping. We decide, however, that we don’t want to eat or sleep in the interstate glitter palaces. This is because we fondly delude ourselves that we might find real America off the road, and partly because the flashing lollipop plazas are awful.
The motel we are staying in is the usual row of garages with windows, but this one has a tasteful façade of tongued and grooved log cabin-on-a-roll effect. Motels are an integral part of American travel and are absolutely wonderful. They are basically a row of lock-up garages with windows. They are almost always practically on the road with a large parking area in front, so you can drive right up to your own door. They all have a large sign outside on the road saying “Motel”. Underneath this is suspended a neon strip saying No Vacancy. However only one of those two words is ever lit. This makes life very easy. You sign in, pay, and they give you a key. That’s it, you don’t get fed, you don’t keep being told to have a nice day. Nobody keeps coming to find out how you are doing. You don’t have the embarrassment of saying you aren’t going to want their dinner and you don’t have to tell them what time you want breakfast because there isn’t any. You don’t have to make special arrangements if you want to come in late or go early. You paid, you’ve got your key and that’s it. I love them. They are all different and all exactly the same. You park your car right outside and take in what you need. If you forgot anything it doesn’t matter because it’s only the length of your car away. Your room will have one or two beds in it, usually doubles. It will have a television and probably an air conditioner. There will be a loo, basin and shower and sometimes a bath as well. There are always fluffy, spotless bath towels, hand towels and flannels. They are also universally equipped with the most appallingly naff furniture in the whole world. There is an important academic study to be done on how traditional motels manage to find such horrible coffee tables and chests of drawers. Motel furniture style could be a whole new fashion. It will, I fear, become a lost art as the chains take over. They boast saunas, hot tubs, lounges and continental breakfast and a better class of furniture. They don’t just want you to stay the night. They want you to have a rewarding sleeping experience. They miss the whole point. Long may the old fashioned, tatty, anarchic ones survive. But I fear they will be swallowed up by plastic coated, branded and comforting uniformity. Perhaps I should start a society for the Preservation of Independent Motels.
We had failed to stop and visit Chicago as we drive west down vacuum tube 90. We did however pass it in a hot afternoon sun on a 12 lane thruway. It was a magnificent sight, clumped into a huge, crouching, towering mass, like a giant 21st century Gormanghast. As a spectacle it was more impressive than Manhattan from over the river, which is saying something that Chicago keeps telling everyone, but without much effect. If it’s any consolation to Chicago, which has now tumbled into the missed box with Belgium, we’ve passed it and they’re right. By Monday night we are in Janesville, Wisconsin, which is where we saw the fireflies and on Tuesday morning found a good breakfast. Breakfast is the best meal of the day. It is a meal that America can’t mess up and in fact does very well. That is if you just want ordinary breakfast. You cannot imagine how many variations of pancake, ham and steak you can have if you want. Even getting an ordinary breakfast is a stern test of concentration first thing in the morning. Iced water comes anyway with all meals everywhere. Even if you just have a coke, iced water comes too. In England in a cheap cafe you ask for egg, bacon, sausage, toast and tea as you go in. Your tea is already being poured and if you are not careful, two sugars are flung in for you. You sit down and breakfast arrives. Not in America. You go into a cheap diner. You sit down and iced water arrives. Then coffee comes – regular or decaf. Once you have a coffee cup in front of you it is refilled as fast as you can drink it and for as long as you are there, all for less than the cost of one cup in England. Eggs – scrambled or fried, sunny side up, easy over, medium over or hard over. Sausage, patti or link, which is a sort of mini burger or a chipolata. Toast, white, wheat, rye or English muffin. Since in my opinion American bread is quite inedible, and good only as a packing material, I choose rye. English muffin appears to be a flattened burger bap allegedly made with buttermilk and mercifully not available in England. On this day I decide to add chicken livers as a tasty garnish to my breakfast. What looks like the entire liver content of a small hen factory arrives on a separate plate. Claire has ordered pancakes and a mini mountain of them is delivered with three bottles of syrup. One is artificial maple, one is blueberry and we don’t know what the other one is. Neither of us can make even a respectable dent on such a pile of food, but we do our best and drink too much coffee. In America, if you inadvertently catch someone’s eye in a diner they will talk to you, even at breakfast time. Having found out where we come from they us of the origins of the farmers in that part of Wisconsin. Many came from Scandinavia and from Poland amongst other places I forget. Each ethnic group tends to live close to each other and still retain the cultural identity of its origins, whilst being totally absorbed into the nation that is America. Whilst I didn’t confess it at the time, this conversation taught me a good lesson. I had always been very dismissive of the sentimentality of American patriotism. They seem to want to stand to attention with their hands on their hearts, tears in their eyes and sing the Star Spangled Banner every ten minutes if given half a chance. I have never been much in favour of whooping myself and regard it as rather undignified. The amount of whooping that attends the very mention of the United States at any time in any place is just irritating. You could probably cover the entire United Kingdom with the number of American flags displayed on any day of the year. On Interstate 90 the gift opportunities at the dreadful Travel Plazas often have a special “Patriotic Items” display. This consists of the most appallingly useless trivia, but if attached to a flag, says God Bless America or declares “United We Stand” the shopping opportunists will buy it. I have always regarded the whole thing as being childishly gooey. Worse, it displays a sort of arrogant chauvinism that could explain the insensitive and bullying way in which the U.S. sometimes treats the rest of us. Despite that danger, for which I think there are additional reasons, it suddenly dawned on me that I had probably completely missed the point. In a nation that, with a few dishonourable exceptions, has managed to mould itself into a cohesive unit from so many different elements, patriotism might be precisely the glue that binds it together. It is patriotism that allows America to retain all its myriad ethnic cultures, and beliefs that have the power to stay alive, because, when it comes to the crunch, being American comes first. After that you can be almost anything you like. By this time we are back on Interstate 90 and heading west across Wisconsin and Minnesota towards South Dakota. We cross the Mississippi which, though only a few hundred miles south of Canada, is already a quarter of a mile wide. As we pass the endless miles of farmland we see a lot of maize and wonder how much of it is genetically modified and how much anyone here cares anyway. Apparently American farmers and the public took to GM crops without a murmur of dissent until we, in Europe, started making such a fuss about it. I am quite prepared to be persuaded that GM crops are a good thing and are a genuine advance in agricultural science. I am also prepared to be persuaded that it may be possible to produce strains that will perform well on poor soils and be sufficiently resistant to drought and insect predation to help the third world feed itself. However, the big drug companies put the vast majority of their research into where the profit is, and I see no reason to believe that Monsanto would be any different. As we head towards South Dakota we find the farmers currently have a more pressing problem. It hasn’t rained since May. Worse than that, they had hardly any snow over the winter whose gentle melt would have watered the crops in the early spring. On Tuesday evening, the third day after we had left breakfast at the Charlemont Inn, we were in Mitchell South Dakota. We had in fact stopped at a very good information place when we got into South Dakota to find out interesting things to do, since this was the point at which we had planned to slow down on our hectic rush west. Mitchell’s claim to fame is that each year it builds a corn palace – a structure made of seven different strains of maize, each a different colour. In fact, not only was this an official major attraction of South Dakota but we were, from the moment we got into the state, extolled by a deluge of billboards on the verge of Interstate 90, not to miss this spectacle. So we found a motel and went to Mitchell. Mitchell is a small town and would be pretty unremarkable without the corn palace. Unfortunately it is pretty unremarkable with it. It turns out that it isn’t really a corn palace at all. A rather ugly building in the town’s main street with crude onion shaped minarets added each side has had its façade clad with plyboard. To this are attached thousands of corn cobs to depict western scenes surrounded by yet more corn cobs in elaborate patterns. From a distance it looks rather like a giant Indian bead pattern, but compared with real Indian bead work it is a poor thing. My overload stress syndrome cuts in after about two minutes and I am bored. Claire accuses me of being a miserable git and says that a lot of people put a lot of effort into doing it. This may be true but just because it took a lot of work doesn’t mean it’s any good. Since it has no artistic merit, no technical ingenuity and not a jot of structural integrity, I tell Claire, they wasted their time. I am already proving to be not a very good tourist and we have hardly started.
One of the less attractive features of Interstate 90, which, as I think I might have mentioned, doesn’t have a very high rating on the attractiveness scale to start with, is billboards. I am ambivalent about billboards because, whilst they are an ugly intrusion into what otherwise might be a view, they do tell you things. Any major intersection is heralded by up to five miles of billboards telling you about hotels, motels, eaters, diners, insurance, assurance, divorce lawyers and live bait. Claire remarks on the American predilection for attaching any product or service to either buffalo or Indians. This, she says, is odd since indians and buffalo are two specific things that America has managed to almost totally eliminate. I suggest that the nostalgia attached to them is preferable to the inconvenience of actually having them around. Indians almost certainly would have got in the way of Chicago and buffalo roaming over Interstate 90 would be a considerable impediment to SUVs. In fact America seems to have a need to attach almost everything to something else. Almost nothing seems to be able to exist in its own right. It’s as if everything has to be validated by attaching it to a recognisable icon. Hence, buffalo burgers made of cow and buffalo wings made of chicken. This is by no means a trait restricted to the United States. It’s just that they seem to need it and are particularly good at it. When we visited Maine last time, we went to Eastport, partly because John’s father had been an important engineer on a huge tidal hydroelectric scheme. Eastport’s main claim to fame, identity, and therefore validity, is that it is the easternmost city in the United States. This means that when the sun rises, it rises first on Eastport and that in turn calls for the dispatch of a special US marines band on the fourth of July. This is because in all America the Fourth of July happens first in Eastport. In Eastport can also be found the easternmost restaurant and the easternmost golf course. Further inland is mainly fir trees and an area that had never had to be cleared of Indians or buffalo since neither of them had bothered with it much. In an area of pine trees for I don’t know how many hundred miles in all directions is a gas station and a shop. Totally devoid of any readily available icons, geography comes to the rescue. This is the 48th parallel gas station and the 48th parallel convenience store. Even the States of America had to have a validating tag. So Massachusetts is “The Spirit of America”, Idaho is the “Potato State” and New York is “The Empire State”. Suddenly, after sixty odd years, discovering why the Empire State Building is called The Empire State Building comes into the same category as knowing which way the odd numbered roads run and simply adds to my OSS when it comes to taking in important things. On the billboards in South Dakota on interstate 90 everything that isn’t buffalo or Indian is either something to do with the Badlands or a thing called Wall Drug. Claire and I ignore Wall Drug since neither of us knows what it is, and we both want to see the Badlands. I don’t ask why Claire wants to see them but I want to because it is where people got lost forever, outlaws hid, and has lots of dry gulches, whatever they are. The Badlands are in the west of South Dakota and by the time we get near them I have been so billboarded I am beginning to go off them. At a coffee break Claire demands to know what I do want to do. I don’t want to sunbathe, I don’t want to go on long walks. I’ve moaned about the travel plazas and the food. I didn’t like the corn palace. And now I am having doubts about the Badlands because it sounds as if Disney and McDonalds already bought them. And I’m being unkind about Wall Drug without even knowing what it is. Fortunately I am rescued by a helicopter. On the way to the Badlands on a hill is a shack with a small sign saying “See the Badlands by helicopter”. For $30 each, we are taken up in a large plastic goldfish bowl with a whisk on top. There is just room for Claire and me and the pilot sitting very close to each other, with me next to a small sign which says do not open this window. Since it looks to me very much like the hole we clambered in through, I do as I am told. This is Claire’s first trip in a helicopter and my second, but in a slightly bigger one. As the Badlands open up beneath our feet this is not at all the same thing as a trip from Ashton Court to Bristol Airport. The soft land has been etched and eroded by wind and rain into a maze of valleys, ravines and gulches. The water, having nothing to hold it simply gouges its way through the rock and runs away to the White River which, in some places, is almost the colour of skimmed milk. The constant wind across the plains sandblasts what’s left. The helicopter flattens the perspective but it is still the best way to see the scale and aridness of the whole spectacle. We buzz back to earth in our little dragonfly, well chuffed. It turns out that the Badlands haven’t been taken over by Disney. The standard route is well organised and well trodden but it does show us the best bits. We give the visitor centre a miss and head off on a dirt road to see some more, keep off the main road and take a back route. The following day is the fourth of July. We have decided we should visit Mount Rushmore to see the heads of the presidents, partly because we are too close to decently miss it and partly because it seems the most appropriate day to visit such an august National Monument. We breakfast in Hill City and set off on a dirt road. At this point I should confess the abandonment of the Phillips School Atlas. Although it was a very highly principled idea, it was also a very stupid one so we had brought with us a Rand and McNally road atlas of all America. We have a good drive in utterly deserted countryside, travel to the Black Hills until, and on an apparently innocuous section of road, we catch a rock and knock a hole in the exhaust. Having had a look, and whilst noisy, nothing is going to fall off, we carry on, sounding like most of the pick-up trucks we encounter anywhere off the main roads. A few miles from Mount Rushmore we have rejoined the main road and stop at a scenic view overlook. There we encounter a couple of about our age who have abandoned their home, live in a van and spend the summer as Rushmore forest rangers. This seems to consist mainly of picking up cigarette ends and other detritus from scenic view overlooks. They are all obviously doing a brilliant job since, unlike the UK, we have hardly encountered any litter anywhere. At the scenic point itself we meet a younger man and his wife who invite us to use the rest of their quarter in the viewing binoculars. They have come the other way and have already been. They are visibly upset to have found their own National Monument surrounded by armed troops and very tight security. Seeing the troops made them feel threatened in a way that they hadn’t experienced before. It turned out that air space round the monument had been closed as well – all because of September 11th. When we arrived the security was all they had said, but because we were early the checks were relatively quick. The visitor area was designed and built with monolithic restraint and quality and reminded me of the American Memorial Cemeteries behind the beaches of Normandy, but without the heart numbing poignancy of those acres of crosses marking all that dead youth. We got closer than I thought we might but further away than I had hoped. We paid our respects and left. We now had to get the exhaust fixed, so we headed for the nearest big town which was Gillette, Wyoming. In doing so we missed out a small section of interstate 90 containing Wall Drug and by avoiding Rapid City we bypassed Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickock is shot three times daily for your entertainment. Wild Bill Hickock was shot in the back in Deadwood when he was about 40. He had already given up killing people a few years before, got married and settled down. He had stopped carrying a gun since he killed his deputy by mistake. His biographer records his resentment at being called Wild since he insisted he had killed only 36 people. Wall Drug turned out to be a shop and Wall proved to be a place. The original owners had bought the shop in 1931 and started giving away free glasses of iced water to anyone passing to entice them into the shop. It worked, and Wall Drug grew to be a big shop. A very big shop. A dining area seats 500. There is a play area, a travellers’ chapel and a life size Cowboy orchestra plays every fifteen minutes. However, our punishment for not listening to a lifesize Cowboy orchestra every fifteen minutes or seeing Wild Bill Hickock shot three times daily for our entertainment was Gillette. For lots of good reasons most American small towns are not things of beauty. Claire says that almost anywhere in the States if you were plonked down in one you wouldn’t be able to tell where you were. Gillette is not razor blades. It is, or rather was, an industrial and mining town. Not big by Birmingham standards but big for Wyoming. It is probably its gradual decay over the last fifty years which makes it quite as awful as it is. It does however have places to fix the exhaust, but not on the Fourth of July. It turns out there is a big fireworks display at the Sports Stadium outside town. This is a bonus since all the towns east of Gillette have had their fireworks cancelled because of the drought and forest fires. We go to a small supermarket to buy a picnic. We buy food, drink and plastic forks. For less than $5 they sell us a polystyrene cool box and a big bag of ice. Now we have a picnic we set off in plenty of time. Since the entire town is going, we follow the truck in front. As we get towards the stadium it turns off so we turn off. We find ourselves in a huge junk yard and realise we have made a mistake. However, there is plenty of room to park – the ground between us and the stadium is scrub grass. And we don’t have to fight our way into the car park and then pay. We can see perfectly so we stay. Having got over the initial feeling of definitely being in the wrong place we look around. It isn’t a junk yard at all. It’s a children’s play area and the rusty hulks of junk are for them to play on. There is an entire diesel electric train engine sitting on tracks. There is a giant earth moving truck the size of a small house. A tyre 12 foot high and 4 foot wide weighing a ton and a half. There is a complete nodding donkey oil pumping kit with filter and storage tanks made by Bethlehem Steel – one of the great engineering companies of the world. And a mobile drilling rig and a little log cabin and windmill water pump. Each with a plague explaining where they came from, what they did and how they worked. You can climb on to, under and over all of them. At a gargantuan ore carrier a small boy tells us that his grandad used to drive that very one and that we can climb up into the cab if we want to. The birds nest in it now, but Gillette has redeemed itself. We ate our picnic, watched the fireworks and went back to the motel. After fixing the car the next day we set off in the rough direction of Yellowstone, and get to Cody, Buffalo Bill’s town. We check into a small motel. The owner asks us if we have seen the gun fight at the Irma hotel, because it’s at 6 o’clock, we haven’t got long and we can walk. I say that I haven’t and that I am not at all sure I want to. She says we have to so we do. On the way to the gunfight at the Irma Hotel we find there is a rodeo just outside town that night. We book to go. It seems that in addition to being all the other things he was, Buffalo Bill founded the Irma Hotel. The street outside had been blocked off with tasteful, old western style red and white plastic bollards, and a fair crowd is sitting on the steps, the kerb and the grass. After the obligatory Stars and Stripes, we spend 20 minutes listening to a mock cowboy telling us how great the Irma Hotel was, followed by how great all the sponsors of the show were, who seemed to be almost everyone in town, each of whom deserved a kind word. After that we had to listen to the most mind achingly trite, patronising and slushy lecture about how dangerous guns were, the kids having to shout things like “never touch a gun”, and “if you see a gun tell your Dad or Mom”. This over, presumably the serious killing could begin. After half an hour of third rate slapstick pantomime, during which nobody got shot at all, we escaped, having bought a drink which was the object of the exercise so far as the Irma Hotel was concerned. Well, what did I expect? Exactly what I saw. It served me right for going. On the way back to the motel we saw a white water rafting trip and booked in for the following morning. In the evening we drove out to the stampede ground which is where you have rodeos. Having sung the Stars and Stripes, the show began with about 50 mares and their foals being launched into the arena to run around for a bit. As far as I am concerned a horse is something that is dangerous at all four corners and both ends, but these were so beautiful. I don’t know what breed they were but they were the colour of the best tan brogues you can buy and the foals like caramel Angel Delight with coffee manes and tails. We had been told when we bought our tickets that if we paid a bit more we would sit close to the cramps they let the animals and riders out of, so we did and there we were. Each event was accompanied by music and commentary. The music was mostly Country and Western, but suddenly we were listening to Queen playing “We will rock you” to which the entire audience stamped in time on the aluminium grandstands. At a rodeo in deep Wyoming it seemed a little odd. Professional competition which offers over $30 million a year in prizes is apparently the only competitive sport to come directly out of an industry. I am not sure that this is true but I can’t think of another. Over 90 percent of any rodeo audience, most of whom are American, have never seen a rodeo before. American horsemen are at ease on their animals in a way which the English have never seemed to be. I have never got to grips with all that bolt uprightness and bouncing up and down stuff the English do. This night was not a national competition event. It was a show, but pretty competitive for all that. It has an air of circus about it and the troupe children are included as soon as they can stand up. And so were the children of the audience. All of those of 12 and under were invited to assemble in the ring. A calf was brought in with a blue ribbon round its neck and there was a prize for the child who got the ribbon. The only rule was that if anyone smaller than you fell down you had to pick them up. The sight of 300 children charging round an arena the size of a football pitch whilst a hundredweight of bull calf dodged and ducked amongst them was both surprising and unsurprising. The unsurprising bit was that they hadn’t got a snowballs chance in hell of catching it until it was cornered by the grownups and somebody won. This is probably because all bovine species are genetically programmed from birth to be as unpredictable and contrary as possible and probably accounts for why sheep rodeos never really took off except in Wales. The surprising element was that American parents, who are almost pathologically neurotic about any perceived danger to either themselves or their offspring, should happily watch and cheer whilst their little ones are exposed to being severely trampled in a confined space. It just shows how important tradition is. The calf appeared to be utterly unphased by the event once relieved of its ribbon, and so were the children, who happily melted back into the crowd. The sheer physical power of the bareback bucking events is terrifying. Bulls are run into a series of cramps, each of which can be opened direct into the arena. The riders draw lots for their ride. The physical shape of a good bareback rider seems similar to that of a jockey, which is to be small and wiry. The result is that some of them look about 14. The rider is poised above his mount, constantly adjusting and readjusting his grip, sometimes visibly shaking with the brain numbing amount of adrenalin pumping through him. At the point of release a girth strap is tightened round the bull or horse just in front of its hind quarters to the point at which it is obviously severely uncomfortable. It is this that the animal is trying to rid itself of by bucking and twisting rather than the rider. In theory the event lasts eight seconds. In practise it is usually less. I cannot describe the body wrenching contortions those riders are put through in those brief moments before being flung to the ground like rag dolls. It is not surprising that many of them are wrecked before they are thirty and few see much of the $30 million that draws them to the sport. Claire and I have both seen bullfights in Europe and found them to be spectacles without a single redeeming or edifying feature. In a rodeo there is little doubt who is in charge and who is most likely to be mortally wounded or killed. So if you are going to pit your human wit against a dumb animal, a rodeo is an infinitely fairer way of doing it. The next morning was to be rafting. We turned up, paid our money, signed the usual forms saying that whatever happened to us wasn’t their fault, and sat outside in the sun and smoked whilst we waited. A family had cancelled and an Asian Indian family turned up late, neatly dressed, quite inappropriately for a rafting trip on which you were pretty certain to get wet. The van driver, who was to take us out to the start point up the canyon, said he didn’t know why they couldn’t have turned up in shorts and T-shirts like the rest of us. I offered the slightly lame suggestion that not everyone flung their clothes off with the gay abandon that we did. He returned ten minutes later to say that they wanted to be fitted with wet weather gear, that they were insisting that each item fitted properly and that he didn’t like Asians anyway. For the first time it raised the problem of racism that had been bubbling around since the start of our trip. In South Dakota we had gone round the back of a rest area building on interstate 90 to have a cigarette in the shade. There, we had bumped into the maintenance man, and chatted while we smoked. He was part time maintenance man and part time farmer. We discussed the lack of rain and the plight of farmers. I cannot remember how Laotions were partly responsible for the plight of farmers but to him they were. They were being given subsidies, handouts and good American produce. And then the almost universal cliché, that America wasn’t built on food stamps and handouts. His sentiments, together with that of the van driver, were coarse and crass. I would like to be able to say that this resentment was restricted to the ignorant and uneducated, but it wasn’t. The only difference was the level of sophistication with which the resentment was expressed. In the case of the van driver and maintenance man, none at all. We piled into the van and set off to the launch point with the Asian family modestly and uncomfortably almost totally obscured by wet weather gear and the rest of us relaxed in T-shirts and shorts. Some of us volunteered, or were given, plastic spatulas to paddle with. Marco told us that paddling was an important element of the ride and that we should paddle strictly according to instructions. After a couple of minutes, from the back of the boat, Marco yelled for us to paddle, and at the front of the raft I paddled. After a minute or so he shouted “That’s good.” So, I paddled harder. Okay he yelled, “That’s good for paddling”. I renewed my efforts. Claire told me to stop and that that’s what “That’s good” meant. However, by now I had sturdily steered the raft towards a large boulder which we hit three quarters on, did a neat Claire type pirouette and continued down the river. From then on I tried to remember that “that’s good” meant don’t do it any more and Marco tried to remember to say “stop” for my benefit. In the meantime the Asian father snorted loudly and incessantly. My mother would probably have offered him a hanky but she wasn’t with us, and mine certainly wouldn’t have borne public exposure. My worry was that he would block each nostril in turn with his finger and evacuate the other over the side of the boat. This would have further not endeared him to the rest of the trippers, even though I still do it if I think no one is looking. We sophisticated Europeans prefer to blow our noses into small pieces of cotton and then carry the damp and germ filled result around in our pockets all day. It transpired that the others had paid for a short trip and we for a longer one. The rest were duly bunged off and we were transferred to a smaller raft. Claire and I and Marco set off for the rest of the trip. Marco had been born and brought up on the river and knew it intimately, as well as being a fund of knowledge of the geology, wildlife and flora. We had noticed that many of the rivers in the rolling country were set with what looked like olive trees. Marco told us that in fact they were Russian Olive and not native to America at all. They were so rampant that they had severely threatened the native cottonwoods, but these now seemed to be making a bit of a comeback. Marco, a graduate of something or other, who chooses to work on the river, really wants to discuss how America is perceived by those of us outside. We bob gently down the river interspersed with little white water excitements whilst alternately discussing local fauna and international politics. After changing and packing we set off towards Yellowstone. We stopped halfway at a diner in the middle of nowhere and Claire has a burger which she orders only because she has had a good look at those the people at the next table are eating. Afterwards we retire to the bar for coffee and a smoke. We chat to Billy Parker, a Country and Western singer, song writer and part time guest star for the gun fight at the Irma Hotel. He has to be. He is tall and lean, with a cowboy hat, a heavy moustache, a fringed jacket and is already fairly well oiled by the time we arrive. His boyhood hero is Robin Hood. He has been to England and went straight to Nottingham where he was overwhelmingly disappointed to find that the Sheriff’s castle was not still intact. He says that Yellowstone is fine but if we are interested in scenery we need to go to Glacier Park. Yellowstone is good he says since it is after all the biggest zoo in the world, but it’s full of people and you have to watch for bear jams. Bear jams are caused by someone thinking they have seen something. They stop. Since the roads are narrow, pull off points are not places that wildlife has yet been trained to accumulate at, and nobody wants to miss whatever it is – so everyone stops. It almost invariably turns out not to be a bear and in the end the queue dissolves, the people at the back having missed whatever it was anyway. Billy Parker insists on writing down a couple of good places to stay en route to Yellowstone. We set off, and fail to find either of them. In the early evening we do find a small lodge with cabins and book in. It costs twice as much as a motel but it has somewhere to eat, we have a cabin in the shade of the trees, and we are now in serious tourist country. I sit outside the cabin to write and smoke while Claire goes for a walk. A young dog is idly playing with a ball, a bone and a trainer on the grass between the cabin and the car. Young dogs, like children, don’t want to play somewhere else. They want to play right in front of you so that you can watch them and be amused. A woman on her little veranda across the grass and I idly discuss whether the odd trainer might belong to someone. I doubt it, but nevertheless rescue it and stick it on a pole. The dog easily retrieves it and continues to play. In due course a mother turns up looking for a lost trainer and goes off complaining that it’s chewed and soggy. The woman and I, having not confessed our failure to rescue it, clearly regard this as a joint conspiracy in which we are both culpable. Claire returns. We introduce ourselves, drink a glass of their wine and go to eat together. Eric and Lynne are criminal defence lawyers in New York and have had their motorcycles flown out to Wyoming just for the holiday. At dinner and afterwards we discuss the entire world. When they discover that we are going to end up visiting New York they insist that we should drop the car, fly from Boston to New York and they will meet us and look after us. Claire regards these suggestions as being similar to figments of a drunken holiday romance and tells them so. Nevertheless we exchange details and agree to call them from the wedding in New Jersey to give them a sober chance to opt out. During the evening they have also pointed out that Yellowstone is fine if you want to queue for everything but if you want scenery you have to go to Glacier. Claire consults the map and points out that this is a 900 mile diversion so we decide to go anyway. By the morning our plan is to take a leisurely potter through Yellowstone because we ought to see it and then head north to Glacier Park in the top corner of Montana on the Canadian border. Yellowstone is beautiful, although over time has been considerably ravaged by forest fires. One thing in favour of forest fires is that they improve the view from what would otherwise be a forest road. By the time we leave Yellowstone our total wildlife count is lots of buffalo, a few deer, assorted critters and a rook. And one bear jam, caused by a buffalo. A small herd was slowly crossing the road. Except for one large bull in the middle of the road. Front legs slightly apart, huge shoulders slightly hunched and massive head slightly drooped, it balefully scrutinised the increasing line of cars now reverently parked up in front of it, whilst ignoring those piling up behind it. A Harley Davidson threaded its way very carefully through, rider and pillion crossing themselves as they passed us. Our queue began to edge its way towards the motionless bull – which was fine for them in their enormous four wheel drive wagons, secure behind triple glass and air conditioning. Not for us. I had already decided that bright green was a buffalo aggravating sort of colour and that being in a rattly car probably wasn’t going to help either. We also had the roof and windows down and realised that our exposed heads, and mine in particular, was at precisely the eye level of the cause of the bear jam. I knew that there were some animals that you looked resolutely in the eye to show you weren’t intimidated. And there were others where such a stern look was regarded as a severe challenge which in our case would have resulted in a very unequal contest. I could not remember, if I ever knew, which category a buffalo came into. I probably wouldn’t have worried so much if Yellowstone hadn’t been plastered with signs saying that buffalo were dangerous and on no account should be approached, which was precisely what we were doing now. If there is one photograph Claire regrets not taking, it is of me trying to look nonchalant in a picture frame full of buffalo head. We left the rest of them to sort themselves out. I expect after a while the bull wandered peaceably off and had a good laugh. The incident did however make me abandon a malicious plan I had been idly contemplating during our tour. This was to stop at random on the side of the road, get Claire to fix her binoculars on some point in the distance and then to point animatedly in the same direction myself. Then, once a satisfactory crowd had been accumulated, drive off. Very childish Claire said. The one thing that no-one had mentioned about Yellowstone was the flowers. It was mid-July and they were everywhere and wonderful. They covered every slope and invaded every wooded glade. They were more varied and abundant than any alpine meadow I have seen, even on a postcard. Claire recognised some of them as being things she has paid good money for in England. I knew none of them. I am surprised that America hasn’t got a name for unidentifiable wild flowers or ones that most of us can’t be bothered to know. Such is America’s obsession with its wildlife, if only to hunt it, hook it or shoot it, all animals smaller than a dog, usually with four legs and fur, are consigned to the category of critter. We left Yellowstone and headed north over the wide emptiness of Montana. The high grass plains opened endlessly, flanked by hills of gently folded and creased green velvet. Behind them the massive flat-topped up-crops of red layered rock and always in the distance and always on the left, the snow topped Rockies. On the long roads in this huge space I began to think about two aspects of the trip that bothered me. One was the race thing and the other was what we were doing on this trip, apart from a lot of miles, snatching a few conversations and briefly looking at some sights. I decided to put the first one in the too hard tray for the time being. Before we came, we had decided that almost all major cities would be confined to the Belgium bucket together with the entire West Coast, Disneyland and Las Vegas and a few other things on the top ten list of things I didn’t want to do. The vague plan from my Phillips School Atlas was to drive west to around Montana, turn left and head south to Denver where we were due to spend a weekend with David and Jill. After that we planned to head west over the Rockies again, turn left down to New Mexico and then left again and head east, missing out the deep South as being too far. Because of the huge distances involved, a leisurely potter was out of the question. Whilst I was unprepared for the total vacuum tube nature of the interstates, they were the only way to get anywhere. It was exactly where anywhere was that became more of a problem. Early on this was decided for us by where we were on the interstate when it was time to stop, find somewhere to sleep and something to eat. Since, out of habit neither of us was much concerned with a midday meal, this meant breakfast and dinner. It was these little random sorties off the interstate that gave me the snatched conversations that were going to provide me with any insight I was going to get about what people were doing and thinking whilst their Government was fighting the world or bombing it into their version of democracy. At each small town, we had intruded into a complete and largely self contained little microcosm of existence. Despite the fact that America is so large, that long distances mean little, its sheer size seemed to result in most people going nowhere much at all. Small diners were filled with locals, their walls plastered with photographs of people and events with which most of the diners were probably familiar. As we left each tiny pocket of history and culture after breakfast, we were due to miss another hundred before the evening. We were like grasshoppers, only experiencing what we could see and touch at the points we landed and nothing much in between. It was a poor attempt at looking for reality but it was all we had time to do. Since America doesn’t use the word grasshopper, I decided that if ever I had to find a title for my journal it should be American Cricket. We were also tourists. As welcome and unwelcome, and as needed and resented as tourists always are. Local inhabitants are proud of their attractions but possessive of them too. Chambers of Commerce understand marketing and the need for tourist dollars. Locals take our money but I suspect wouldn’t bother if there were decent jobs around. Major attractions are supplemented by transient students, unemployed graduates, and workers from all over the world whose scripted enthusiasm is both necessary and shallow. I am torn between wanting to see America’s treasures and the need to escape almost as soon as I arrive. On the way to Glacier Park we pass through huge Indian reservations. It may be just my bigotry but I sense poverty everywhere. Towns are even smaller and more meagre, where they exist at all. An Indian Trading Post selling curios and gifts, a gas station and a general store, outside which the coke machine is encased in welded steel in order to prevent its paltry contents being pillaged. The agriculture is sparse, run down and desultory, houses are even more ramshackle than usual, the only visible material possessions consisting of old tyres and rusty pickup trucks. I feel intensely depressed and embarrassed at such widespread poverty in the richest country on the planet. I don’t know why because it isn’t my fault but I do. I can’t bring myself even to go into a curio shop to pick through the dumbed down craft, now so meaningless and dead. I find it impossible to reconcile my admiration for so many new American things with the wholesale destruction of a longer deeper history. Perhaps it was no one’s fault and maybe I am merely transferring some of the shame I feel about British colonial exploitation and humiliation in Africa. I feel that even my shame is a vanity since I don’t propose to do anything about it, but it doesn’t go away.
The visit to Glacier Park wasn’t worth it, which was no-one’s fault either. Unless you want to get into serious walking and climbing it is basically a one road mountain pass – spectacular but no more so than one in the European Alps. Since I have never been a great one for gratuitous exercise or physical suffering of any kind we drove it. The great thing about American geography is that it is so huge and you can see most of it from a car, especially an open one, which suits me fine. Since it is raining and cold we head south again.
Having now driven across much of Wyoming and Montana we have been struck by how many taxidermy shops there are.
Even quite small towns have one of their own. In England I associate taxidermy with batty old ladies who want to have a favourite pet stuffed, but in America it means hunting trophies. Hunting in a modern world is a strange phenomenon and a particular enthusiasm in the States. I assume it is something to do with a commodity broker from New York needing to re-establish his connections with his genetic roots as a hunter gatherer. However since he is likely to be neither cold nor hungry, the validity of this reconnection is somewhat reduced. Add to this that there is only a high powered rifle with telescopic sight, range finder and night vision between him and all the risks of stone age life and the link becomes even more tenuous. And of course, these days, unlike Davy Crocket, you can’t go round shooting things willy-nilly just because you want a new hat. If, for example, you want to kill an elk you apply for a licence. The size of each year’s cull is determined by the Nature Conservancy people. Because of the number of call centre staff who need to reconnect with their genetic roots exceeds the number of elk volunteered for dying, your name gets put into a hat. And if you are successful you fly out, get in your air-conditioned SUV and are allowed to exterminate a dumb creature. As a lasting memento of the triumph of your contest with raw nature you presumably cut its head off and take it to the taxidermy shop. They will debone, preserve and stuff it, replacing its eyes with nice new plastic ones, so that when you nail it to the wall at home it almost looks as if you didn’t really kill it after all. And when they see it, your family, friends, and neighbours can feel proud of you because this is a symbol that at heart you are just a simple hunter gatherer armed only with some money, a licence and a lethal weapon.
In fact, my attitude to hunting is one of my less ignorant bigotries since I have a particularly inglorious history of guns and shooting things myself. When we first arrived in Africa my father presented Trevor and me with an air rifle each. We were treated to lengthy training in all the usual rules about guns in general and ours in particular. Much boring time was spent being taught how to hold them, carry them, load them, check them and clean them. And then how to aim them, fire them at safe targets and most of all, respect them. This valuable training was embedded in us and we never forgot it. We adhered rigidly to all the rules whenever there was even the remotest possibility that we could be seen. The rest of the time all rules were abandoned and we shot at everything that moved, including subsequently, each other. Since my father was in town at work all day and our garden in the mountains was the whole of Africa, the need to remember the rules was pretty rare. As small boys we were murderous little bastards and utterly without mercy, compassion or much sense of fair play when it came to killing small things. Flies, spiders, snakes, lizards, chameleons, birds. We came to Africa, were plonked in the middle of all the glory of some of the most fascinating fauna in the world and shot it. There were lots of deer, monkeys and guinea fowl, and even we quickly realised the limitations of our guns, and ignored them. I have no doubt that had we had more powerful weapons, we would have shot them with equal enthusiasm and for the same strange instant gratification that killing things seemed to provide. By the time we moved to Uganda we had also discovered the entertainment to be had by shooting each other. We had learned this amusement from endless westerns and were by now quite expert in the two main skills. That of doing the killing and the dramatic art of being killed with style. The scenes for our shoot-outs were building sites. Since my father was an architect we were used to climbing around half built structures. Building sites were left open and abandoned at the end of each day and health and safety had yet to be invented. They also provided the facilities required for a shoot-out in an American western town. These were low walls to dive behind, doorways and windows to leap in and out of and roofs to shoot and be shot from. Managing to die spectacularly when shot on a roof required quite a lot of rolling, sliding and falling and, done well, was a satisfying achievement. Since most houses in Uganda were bungalows, it wasn’t quite as suicidal as it sounds. The other element that made this diversion less lethal was that we didn’t use lead air gun ammunition on each other. We had discovered that passion fruit was ideal. Each wrinkly fruit about the size of an egg contained hard little black pips surrounded by jelly, which formed an excellent air-tight seal in the breach of an air rifle. You bit the top off the fruit, carried a slug of its pips in your mouth, and the rest securely held in the remaining fruit in your pocket. This gave you an almost inexhaustible supply of ammunition. If passion fruit was out of season, tomatoes or guavas would do. They weren’t as good and were messier to carry around an active battle site, but did well enough. If you were shot on a bare arm or leg you got a small red sting mark or a tell tale little yellow splat on your clothes. We had thus invented paint ball combat at least thirty years before someone made it a commercial proposition. It provided us with many happy hours of killing or being killed. Trevor did actually shoot someone once. He was apparently messing about in the garden at home with his airgun and a stranger was hanging around at the boundary fence. Trevor had told him to go away and he hadn’t so he shot at him and he left. A few days later at lunchtime, a truckload of armed police, together with the stranger, turned up to arrest Trevor and cart him off to jail. My father pointed out that at 9 and a half Trevor was too young to be handcuffed and put in jail, and even though he had wrung an instant and tearful confession from him, was very sceptical about the whole episode. So we all examined the wounded man. Trevor and I instantly recognised the sting mark on his leg as being exactly the same as that caused by a passion fruit pip at much closer range. So, although he wasn’t exactly wounded he had been hit. My father, in the meantime, had stomped off to fetch the offending air rifle. Still sceptical, and to our horror, he loaded it and fired it point blank into the palm of his hand, presumably to show that it was such a heap of junk it would incapable of doing any damage at all. The lead slug disappeared below the skin and I swear he didn’t flicker. At that time I was about 12 and a half, exactly three years older than Trevor, since by strange parental timing we shared the same birthday. Anything we owned which was capable of being dismantled into its component parts sooner or later was. This was either because it had gone wrong and needed fixing, or because it could be modified and improved in some way, or because it was no longer in vogue and part of it was required as a vital component for some new project. At some point we had dismantled Trevor’s air rifle and found that, by wedging washers behind the spring mechanism, we could considerably improve its performance which of course we had done. My father was totally unaware of this enhancement, and we never confessed. The gun was confiscated and allegedly destroyed. Trevor and I were never convinced about the destruction and judging by what subsequently happened to drugs and money confiscated by the CIA I think our suspicions were well founded. Trevor wasn’t arrested or jailed and I expect our parents were fined, but it all went away and Trevor didn’t do it again. Shooting and death began to take a more serious turn at boarding school in Nairobi. The casualties of the Mau Mau emergency were delivered by army helicopter to the school playing fields because it was an open space conveniently close to the hospital. The injured were transferred direct to an ambulance and rushed to hospital, but the dead were just left lying on the grass for the ambulance to pick up afterwards. Being the sensitive little flowers that fifteen year old schoolboys are, we would go and look at them. Even we didn’t go and prod them, partly because you didn’t have to. Dead people don’t look as if they are asleep. They look dead. Then one weekend Gary Holmes’ mother asked us to dispose of a litter of kittens because she couldn’t face it. Pete Hitchings, Gary and I were good friends, and since Gary’s mother lived close by and our parents were two days’ train journey away, we went to Gary’s house for the weekends when we were let out. We were anxious to dispose of the kittens properly and dispatch them as cleanly and decently as we could. We had dispensed with drowning as an option because I remembered my father saying how hard it had been to drown newborn rats they had found at our house in England before we emigrated. Since the kittens were so young we weren’t exactly sure where their hearts would be, so we decided to shoot them in the head. The problem was that, unlike the westerns and the war films where shot people just instantly died, and the casualty helicopter where they were definitely dead by the time we got to look at them we got to look at them, the kittens didn’t and weren’t. Instead of just giving a bit of a twitch and stopping, they kept moving. We didn’t know whether they were really dead but still moving, or moving because they weren’t dead and were in pain. There was no way to tell and by now it was too late to change our minds and think of a better way. We shot each several times and waited. Eventually all movement stopped, we buried them and without discussion announced to Gary’s mother that the job was done. To me it was the first glimmering of realising that killing things wasn’t quite the simplistic procedure I had so far assumed it to be. And on another weekend, when we had been let out, we went hunting. Gary’s mother had friends who had a farm about 50 miles outside Nairobi on the edge of the Rift Valley. This was not an organised hunt as you might have in Europe, but three fifteen year olds wandering around a largely uncultivated private farm the size of an English county, shooting things. Whilst Pete and I had air rifles, Gary had a serious gun. This was a single 12 bore with a double choke barrel. This meant that the end of the barrel tapered slightly to restrict the spread circle of the shot. This in turn meant that loaded with the heaviest shot it would probably have stopped a buffalo at 50 yards. We set off early and walked all day, taking the odd pot shot at harmless bits of wildlife, but mainly enjoying the isolation and freedom together as well as being able to smoke. This was not jungle country but neither was it grassy plain. It was steeply sloping, rocky and interspersed with thorn trees and general scrub. You picked your way through it rather than climbing, wandering or hacking, never quite sure what you might find round the next boulder. Half a mile below us the ground flattened out before plunging over the scarp of the Rift Valley itself. In the heat of the early afternoon, we spotted a lone buck and managed to get about 30 yards away without it spotting us. Gary fired and caught it high in the shoulder instead of just below and behind. It took off. We crashed after it, anxious not to lose sight of it since we knew we could not leave it injured. We finally caught up with it after a mile or so bogged down on the edge of a marshy pond. It was exhausted, petrified and dying. Its perfect skin glistened with sweat, silky ears flattened against the side of its head, mouth open desperately gasping for air with nowhere to go, and eyes white with the fear of knowing that its unasked for and uncomprehended life was about to end. We cut its throat and it died without further struggle. Lying dead in the swampy ground, it was so much smaller than it had seemed when it was quarry. It was also astonishingly beautiful and we had killed it. I resolved at that moment that never again would I kill anything for my small gratification and call it sport. We gutted it and carried it home to be eaten by our hosts in due course. I don’t know what the others felt but shortly afterwards two of our school friends were killed by the Mau Mau in the same area, only because they had guns which the Mau Mau needed. So we weren’t allowed to go again anyway. I wouldn’t ban hunting. I am not even sure that I am against it for those who survive and feed their families by hunting. I was just lucky enough to be able to learn that it was something I didn’t ever want to do again.
On the road into Missoula we see a sign for Garnett Ghost Town, decide to stop, and see it in the morning. After breakfast we head back out of town and take a dirt road to Garnett. Claire is beginning the murmurings of a desire to just stop somewhere. Or at least just potter for a bit instead of my relentless grasshopping in order to be somewhere else or see something new. I have become immune to distance and am surprised to find myself happily driving hundreds of miles in a day without any tiredness or tedium and still to chat away at dinner and breakfast. But Claire is quite right. My Rand & McNally 1997 road atlas of all America reveals enough dirt roads going roughly in the right direction to keep her happy all day. We get to Garnett Ghost Town by parking and walking to it. There is one car in the car park. It is populated only by two affable men in a visitor shack. Garnett was a gold town and when the gold ran out the town died. In fact most of it subsequently fell down and began gently composting back into the soil before anyone decided that what was left was worth keeping. That which remained had been restored, or at least its rot arrested, and carefully labelled. In general, America seems happy to restore old buildings using new materials so there was quite a lot of mastic and aluminium around. Nevertheless, it gave me the chance to see how genuinely old buildings had been made. By and large, whether log or clapboard or a combination of both, buildings were notched or hit together rather than ingeniously constructed. This was probably because most people who had to build buildings weren’t builders and anyone who did devise clever techniques didn’t pass them on to those who would pay money to have it done for them. One of the things that interested me was the clapboard facades on buildings on the main street since all the structures themselves had pitched roofs. As a builder, it seemed to me that joining the two was asking for trouble since a good overhang at the front would be easier to build and much simpler to keep the water out of. That this was true was clear from the amount of aluminium and mastic subsequently applied to stick the roof to the back of the façade. One of the Garnett’s population of two explained that it was to make a building look larger and more imposing than it was. The fact that it also provided a large billboard space to advertise the nature of the establishment was coincidental. This meant that every western town you have ever seen in any film you have ever watched was in fact trying to emulate the imposing elegance of a Georgian terrace, using trees instead of bricks as the only easily available raw resource they had. In basic log cabins the gaps between the logs were filled with a mixture of moss and mud. On a more sophisticated home, the outside curve of the logs would be adzed off to make them flatter. Tongued and grooved planks would then be applied horizontally to make it look a posher building altogether and impress the poorer neighbours. But Garnett also boasted a three storey hotel in which considerable heights of luxury and sophistication had been achieved. Instead of using logs, the hotel was constructed of a wooden frame, clad both inside and out. Outside was tongued and grooved board surrounding Georgian panelled doors and Georgian glazed sash windows. Inside there was no need for the effort of tongue and groove to run the rain off, so this was plain board. But plain board with wallpaper. Now cracked where the boards had shrunk and peeled by time but pretty luxurious. There were chandeliers, and carpets and sofas and elegant chairs, not touched since they were last used. For a miner with gold in his pocket it must have seemed like heaven after the cold and wet and mud of a period of prospecting in the hills. By now a few more of us had trickled in and I witnessed a new level of sightseeing. On the way upstairs to the attic where those without much gold in their pockets could sleep more cheaply, their bedspace marked out by 2×1 nailed to the floor, we encountered a woman with a sort of digital camera. She held it like a small tea tray to her stomach, and gazed intently at a 6×4 screen unfolded in front of her. Not looking where she was going, seeing only what might ultimately to stored on a chip, she toured the building, pausing every now and then to freeze the blinkered image of her visit. I wanted to stand just out of view and trip her up. We left Garnett and drove off down the dirt road. Claire much prefers dirt roads but since knocking the exhaust off in the Black Hills, has become more concerned about rocks on them. During the drive there have been a number of forks not shown on my map and by mid-afternoon it is obvious that we are completely lost. Well, not lost but we certainly don’t know where we are. Since mid-morning we have seen one house. It is a tumbledown timber and corrugated affair set in a little wooded glade beside a stream and a cattle grid. Nailed to a cottonwood tree is a hand painted wooden board reading “Dammit, don’t feed or pet my dog!” By early evening we emerge onto a tarmac road and find we are about twenty miles north east of where we started in the morning. But we had a nice peaceful potter on deserted roads and as instructed didn’t pet or feed someone’s dog. The following day we had decided to revisit Yellowstone because it was more or less on the way to Denver. We went via Virginia City because someone we met at a motel had told us that Virginia City was as old as Garnett, had lost its status as the main city in Montana but was still a working town. It turned out to be a working tourist trap carefully restored and maintained by an assiduous civic group anxious to retain its dollar value if not its County status. It was working sufficiently to be too busy to cut my hair before we left. On our first visit to Yellowstone we had taken a loop and left without visiting the southern half, which contained the geysers and the legendary Old Faithful. Yellowstone contains 60 percent of the world’s known active geysers, or geysers which is quite a lot. We made a day of it, walked a long way, got very burnt, saw Old Faithful do its stuff twice, saw a different one Claire thought was prettier and were suitably amazed. If you want to know what it looks like, buy postcards. If you want to know about its geology and mechanics, read a book. If you want to know what it smells and feels like you have to be there. Of the artefacts in the park the visitors centre and Lodge close to Old Faithful is pretty spectacular. It is a log constructed hotel the size of a small cathedral with a cavernous central hall the height and size of a major church nave. In the old days it was a very swanky hotel so that the rich and very famous could, in comfort, watch hot water being blown from the bowels of the earth with reliable regularity. These days the rest of the proletariat are allowed to visit and buy postcards, gifts and burgers and go to the loo just like rich people. It passed through my mind that lavatories are an odd thing in tourism. Going to the loo is one of those things that we peasants often cite as being an example of us being just the same as them and therefore somehow just as good, an idea to which neither group has ever seriously subscribed. However, until relatively recently, it was obviously believed by our betters, that only they ever needed to go to the loo since these facilities were seldom provided for the rest of us. Another small observation was what some Americans do to avoid dehydration if faced with a walk much further than from the car park to Dairy Queen. What I call breast water, in a squashy bottle, is of course universal, a large and comforting tit of it being firmly grasped by most walkers. Serious walking, which often consists of a fully prepared walkway which may go up or down just a bit, requires more serious survival techniques. This is placental water. A small cooler satchel is strapped to the back of the adventurer, filled with the isotonically balanced fluid. Leading from it is a soft clear plastic tube complete with nipple, clipped neatly to the belt, which can be plugged into the mouth whenever needed to suckle the intrepid walker. I already know from reading tales of survival that the most beneficial way of dealing with dehydration is to introduce water directly to the lower bowel. Which means I can see the future. A small tailoring adjustment in the seat of your adventure trousers will allow the essential liquid to be monitored, metered and squirted straight up your bottom. Thus keeping your hands free to hold your digital image keeper which by then will probably be telling you which way to point, and may even have pre-recorded the images as they should have been had you seen them in the best conditions. In this way you can feel at one with nature without actually having to look at anything or feel thirsty. By the time we left Yellowstone our wildlife count was somewhat less impressive than our first visit, although we did see twice as many rooks. We drove south towards Denver through Teton National Park. This is where the snow topped Rockies plunge straight into lakes, and where in nineteen fifty something an entire small mountain fell off the Rockies, completely blocking a valley, and creating Avalanche Lake behind it, providing an extra reflective surface for the Rockies to plunge into. It is all pretty impressive. By now it was Friday. We had arranged to stay with David and Jill for the weekend. Since they were to be out on Friday night we agreed to meet them at lunchtime on Saturday at a studio flat they had in a small ski resort in the Rockies outside Denver. We would stay the night somewhere between Laramie and Fort Collins which would give us plenty of time to potter up the mountains by lunchtime and save us the hassle of going into Denver, which is a large city and a thing we had got rather good at avoiding. We arrived at Laramie a bit early. Claire was less confident that I was about how long it would take us in the morning and felt, since it was early, we could get closer. So we pressed on. Past Fort Collins we didn’t like anywhere we saw but didn’t worry because there were plenty more. By the time we were beginning to take finding somewhere seriously we were obviously in the down at heel end of Denver. Any motel sign we did see seemed to be at the end of a long alleyway full of old fridges, rusty pickups and very dodgy looking blokes just hanging round. All thoughts of egalitarian liberal democracy instantly abandoned me. We were definitely in the wrong place and feeling severely vulnerable. We decided to head for their studio out of town and just have a lie-in in the morning. We got to Evergreen in the early evening. Evergreen is the posiest little town I have been to for a long time. The entire weekend population of trendy little Evergreen is wearing immaculate shorts, designer trainers and sunglasses on the tops of their heads. OSS sets in almost at once. Only two hours before I had been scuttling my way out of the arse end of Denver and here I was desperately wanting to find the crap end of Evergreen. There wasn’t one. Claire went in to the Seven to 11 back on the main road to see if they knew anywhere we could stay. A customer in the shop gave directions to a local hotel she thought might have something. Having failed to give Claire directions she understood we followed a woman in her car until she pointed at it. Unusually, the helpful girl said they had nothing at all. This was the weekend of the triple bypass bike race and Evergreen was full. She rang round for us until she found a place she didn’t know in a small town down the valley. It was twice as much as we had so far paid and four times our usual motel, but it was 8.30 on Friday night and we weren’t arguing. The cheerful girl told us to go straight there and not to bother with anywhere on the way because she had already called them. On the way down we saw a greater number of deer standing about eating people’s lawns than we had seen in the rest of America so far.
I cannot begin to describe the Cliff House Lodge Country Inn in Morrison, Colorado. It was up the hill behind the main street and had once been a small but substantial stone built villa in a low walled garden. The slightly squiffy metal arch over the front entrance was beside a large sheet of expanded weldmesh onto which had been applied, almost exactly not straight, the title of this accommodation of delight. We parked next to a vine-covered air raid shelter, one of several scrunched into the garden and picked our way to the office. Barely visible over the counter was the head of a large woman of about 50 who had obviously been poured into her seat sometime previously and had set. Only her arms moved to take my credit card. In the meantime her dog, a poodly thing with a jewelled collar and necklace, barked at us because we weren’t paying it enough attention she said. Surprisingly she eased herself out of the jellymould and waddled round to show us the cottages, each with its own hot tub and private patio. These turned out to be the bomb shelters I had spotted on the way in. There was a choice of three, each to my mind more repulsive than the one before. By this time Claire had decided that the whole situation was so ridiculous one might just as well enjoy it. She chose the luxurious little cottage with an outside hot tub and our own totally private patio, except for the slightly sparsely slatted wooden fence next to the street. Paper roses grew on strips round the gate and would we kindly keep the cover on the hot tub when we weren’t actually using it because dead things tended to fall in it, or just things generally that subsequently became dead when they fell in. A little round table was already laid on the patio with elaborately over-decorated plates and set with gold plated Georgian pattern cutlery made in China. There were also two slightly dusty champagne flutes. I suspect this table had been laid as recently as the Spring. To sit on were a couple of five dollar poly stacking chairs from Walmart. Every surface was filled with the most unbelievable naff nik-naks. “There is fruit if you want it” she said, but the girls hadn’t changed it today she noticed, gently lifting out a squishy apple, half of which remained behind, furrily rotted and stuck to the bottom of the bowl. And wine if you like, pointing to half a carafe of lukewarm something vaguely yellow coloured. She waddled off to get some candle bulbs because the tasteful little outside patio carriage lamp didn’t work. She managed to change them whilst Claire’s eyes bored into me not to offer to help. We were shown the toilet and coffee making facilities. The taps, soap dish, and other bits, all gold plated, were set in a mock marble basin. Two plastic tooth mugs were kindly provided by the Morrison 24 hour tow truck company. I had already agreed not to smoke inside, and declined a champagne breakfast at an extra $30. My overwhelming desire at that moment was not to smoke in it but set fire to it. After making various helpful but prurient suggestions about how we could bathe naked in the hot tub under the stars in our own private love nest, except for any curious passers-by on the street, she finally tottered off leaving two dead light bulbs in the soup plate on the patio table. Nothing could have been further from my mind than to think of this horrific tart’s boudoir as a love nest. I was a great disappointment to Claire, who by this time was enjoying the unbelievable awfulness of the whole thing. By the time we left she had used everything she could find at least twice for the hell of it. When we left on Saturday morning we went to fill up with gas and to check exactly where David and Jill’s address was. No one had ever heard of it. Claire showed the address to the girl in the shop who told us we were fifty miles away. She rang David on his mobile to say we would be late. In fact we wouldn’t because they were. Supplied with fresh directions we set off to Keystone which is where they actually had a studio. Where Evergreen came from is a mystery. David and Jill had got married somewhere near Evergreen but that was it. Claire couldn’t remember either but had said on our way that David’s directions were rubbish and didn’t seem to make sense but it didn’t matter. We spent a happy and relaxed weekend with David and Jill. Their cheerful irreverence towards almost everything that reminded me of Evergreen was a pleasure. On Sunday David unwittingly did me a great favour. We had gone out for breakfast. The two places that he had wanted to take us were queuing, so rather than wait a few minutes, which wouldn’t be in his nature, we went to Dennys. Dennys is a chain and I offer them one apology. Dennys didn’t volunteer to take on the sins of Chain America, but for the purposes of this journal they are going to. It may be that Dennys in Dillon Colorado is an aberration not repeated anywhere else in America, and that to make them an example of all that is wrong with Chain America is unfair. If it is I apologise. However, for the breakfast they gave us in Dillon Colorado, they get the badge and they deserve it. The service is slow, disinterested and sullen. If you want water you wait and then you ask and then you wait again. If you can catch the eye of a waitress, who is clearly trying to avoid it because if she comes, you will only want something, and when she does she is looking somewhere else so she can’t hear what you ask for anyway. By the time I had decided that whatever I think of American food they can’t mess up breakfast, Dennys can. The eggs were badly cooked, part raw, the bacon burnt to a frazzle and the hash browns greasy and tired. The bread must have been a few days old before it was toasted and coffee was hard to get. You got your check and went to the till to pay, where they took your money with a studied and bored indifference that made you grateful to get out in the fresh air and have a cigarette. If you think that all the chatty real meals we have had so far are just the sentimental ramblings of a deranged old fart who would like it to be like it was in the good old days, you are wrong. The good ones are there, and they are real, but you won’t find them in Chain America. You have to leave the safety of the vacuum tube and eat and sleep in places you haven’t heard of. I don’t know why I am saying this and I don’t know if it matters. But it matters to me. If you let it, Chain America will wrap itself round you and throttle you. The attraction of independent diners is that the food tends to be better, the atmosphere more gentle and the service less formulaic. On Sunday afternoon we followed David and Jill back to Denver and spent the night in their newly acquired excellent house in the leafy suburbs. Next morning we set off west, since we now needed to be on the other side of the Rockies again. As we neared Grand Junction we passed a large board telling us that we were about to leave colourful Colorado. As we entered Utah it was clear that the world had ended moments before we arrived. The trees had already gone. What bushes there were, were dry and parched. The grass was dead. The only things moving in a strange post-nuclear wind, were sand and plants that could no longer cling to the sad earth, and ourselves. And it went on forever. We were now on Interstate 70 Utah. There were no billboards, no travel plazas, Even junctions labelled Ranch exit were also labelled no services and, as far as we could see, no ranch. From the map we had decided to stop at Cisco, partly because it was roughly in the right place and we thought we might see the Kid. We had stopped at an information centre on the interstate earlier. They had said there wasn’t much at Cisco and the nearest civilisation was Moab, 60 miles away. As we passed Cisco it was a gas station. Moab was good enough. Our night in Evergreen had cost us over $200. Here we found a small motel with everything we needed and a patch of grass outside to sit on for $40 cash. It was owned by a man whose wife had died three months earlier of a brain tumour. Although he would miss the people he said, the real estate value of the site was worth more than the motel as a going concern, so he was going to sell up and go fishing. We discussed a likely place to eat and he said the Mexican place opposite was supposed to be good, but since his wife died he didn’t eat much and had kept meaning to try across the road but somehow never got round to it. I am not sure about Mexican food because America seems to have the same quirkiness about chilli as the English do about curry. If it’s hot enough to cauterise your taste buds and sear your throat it must be good. I am a rabbit when it comes to eating things that blow your head off and have never seen the fun in it. We sat outside and ate an excellent and gently spiced meal almost none of which came out of a can. After the surreal dream of the Cliff House Lodge at Morrison and the brush with Chain America at Dennys, my faith in reality is restored. And we were now in Utah’s Canyonland. Urk had said that whilst we ought to see the Grand Canyon it was the sort of thing that you went to, looked at, and left. Bryce Canyon was much better to actually visit. This was unless you wanted to take a week or two trip down through Grand Canyon on the Colorado River in a blow-up rubber thing which would be the proper way to do it. Before going to Bryce we went to the Arches National Park, which not surprisingly, had arches in it. It was a good decision for two reasons. One was that the biggest natural free arch in the USA was a symbol of Utah State and adorned all advertising and most car license plates. The other was a quite extraordinary biological mechanism that allowed any plants at all to grow in this arid wasteland. It is called the crypto-biotic crust. It seems there is a fungus which grows along the surface of the sand like the tendrils of dry-rot. When it rains the fungus swells, soaking up the moisture and becomes sticky and to which little grains of sand become attached. This eventually forms a thin matrix on the surface of the sand in which small nitrogen fixing plants can get a fragile grip. As they die and mulch, a thin crust develops which can support slightly larger scrub bushes. This may not be up to the evolutionary excitement level of having your bum light up but is pretty amazing. The universal phrase in all America’s nature parks is to take only photographs and leave only footprints. In Arches you don’t even step off the path. Even if the hole you made is not further eroded by the relentless wind, the area so easily crunched through by one foot could take 250 years to recover. Bryce Canyon turned out to be all that Urk had said and we took a good long walk down inside and amongst it. By now we had got more used to American definitions of trails at their tourist attractions. Easy probably means tarmac – Moderate would take an enthusiast in a wheelchair and arduous is still possible with a pushchair. We had also begun to get used to the extraordinary things that wind and water can do to rock, and the sheer scale on which they can do it. Claire and I have numerous discussions about geography, geology and rock strata and decide we don’t really understand any of it, and just give up happy to be ever more amazed by what we see. Now hooked on canyons we decide to go to Zion as well. You pay to go into National Parks and we had decided early on that we weren’t likely to visit enough of them to make it worth an annual pass to all of them. However, by now we had already paid often enough to have made it worth it, which we mentioned at the entrance. No problem they said. If we had the receipts they would credit all we had paid so far against the cost of an annual pass and then we wouldn’t pay anything for any National Park for a year. I handed over my receipts and they gave me a card – no fuss, no forms, no cash, brilliant. I do love America’s can do attitude to almost everything. As we drove in towards the canyon itself I thought we were lucky to still be able to drive because soon I felt it would be guided tours only by bus, and with commentary that would consist largely of which film and TV stars had visited recently and which rocky outcrops were named after them. As we approached the Visitor Center we were told to park, since the Canyon itself was served only by shuttle bus. There is only one road and it simply stops at the point several miles up where it can no longer nose its way up the canyon. The massively sculptured sides rise vertically a thousand feet either side with an ever narrowing flatish valley, at the bottom of which, at this time of year a small river tumbled through. It is wooded and grassed and full of deer and wild turkeys. The shuttles are free and at the height of the day run every five minutes. You can get on and off wherever you want, first bus 5am, last bus 11pm. About half way up is Zion Lodge. It has a café, the inevitable shop and a hotel. All made of dark stained timber it sits easily on the floor of the canyon, fronted by an acre or so of immaculate grass and shaded by good trees. We decide to stay, are lucky enough to get a cancellation, and a pass that will allow us to drive up the canyon only as for as the lodge itself. In the early evening the deer turn up and obligingly cut the grass, totally uninterested in the rest of us, unless anyone tried to get too close, at which they shied off, as all deer do, just far enough. Early in the morning the turkeys came and the cocks fought themselves at the reflective glass doors of the café. Claire walked and I wrote. We stayed two nights. On the first night we made the mistake of eating in the restaurant and had another small brush with the plastic America we were trying so hard to avoid. The Lodge is run by an operation with a licence from the National Parks people. They obviously catered for a posher clientele than Dennys but suffer the same fundamental problems. It is the same shallow disinterest of underpaid staff who are part of a scripted formula, outside which they are not paid to deliver or perform. But with pretensions. It’s not food, it’s cuisine. No it isn’t, it’s crap. My veal would have been hard to distinguish from a warm oatmeal biscuit in a blind test and Claire’s Utah trout had been cooked to roughly the consistency of a kipper. And all at four times the price of a small diner. Like good Brits we ate it, not wanting to make a fuss in public. On the way out I said that I was sorry to have to say it had been a pretty poor meal, especially at the price. No problem he said, there you go, and without a trace of remorse handed me a tick box card on which I could score the performance of my receptionist, my greeter, my seater, my server, and my beverage assistant. The next night we ate out. Claire is such a hypocrite. Part of the attraction of Zion was that, having dumped the car, we could walk or shuttle anywhere, including the small village just outside the part. When it came to dinner the following evening, Claire couldn’t be bothered to wait for the bus so we took the car. The next day, just outside the park, we stopped for breakfast. We were almost on our own so we chatted to the owner. He asked if we had been to Vegas. I had said it was on my top ten list of places not to visit. This could have been a mistake had he been listening because he said he went often to study how they did it. He was planning big changes to his roadside café. He had permission to develop the sixty seven acres he owned into a theme park. It was going to be very people friendly, very themed and mostly very clean. Not like now with all this dirt around. It was going to be all about Indians. There were going to be lots of Indians dressed up and the people could dress up too and be Indians and it was going to be very clean. I asked him whether there were going to be buffalo too and Claire kicked me under the table. He said it was to be mainly Indians. The National Park was in favour of it which was important because he wanted to be eco-friendly but mainly people friendly and very clean. He had also visited Disney and that had taught him a lot about how to organise people in a people friendly way. We only popped in for breakfast and had been treated to a vision of the future. 67 acres of clean, Indian themed, people organising. But I do understand the problem. If you really want people to visit the nature parks, you have to make it easy for those who wouldn’t otherwise go. Whilst I don’t much fancy a Lake District Disneyworld, it would get the numbers in and tempt some of its visitors to escape to the real world outside, and that would be a good thing. I’m just glad I saw it before it got completely convenience wrapped. We headed south, having decided to give the Grand Canyon a miss. Claire had seen it and said it was big. Because of the fires, all the view points except the main one on the North Rim had been closed. From the films I had seen, the area round the Grand Canyon was fairly flat, although we were still up in the hills. However, as we dropped down on to open plains we went through a small town which had an airfield. So we flew the Grand Canyon and it is an experience neither of us will ever forget. It was in a tiny plane with 3 seats and was a bit like sitting in a 1950s Morris Minor with wings. We flew for nearly two hours which was a bit longer than planned because we had to fly round a small thunderstorm on the way back. From a few hundred feet it was the most spectacular piece of geography I have ever seen. Claire says she might just as well not have seen it before and the pilot reckoned that from the ground you would never get to see what we saw. Other airports make flights in bigger planes, higher up, but if you want to see the Grand Canyon go to tinpot little Kanab in Utah and see it in a Morris Minor with wings. We landed and taxied over to the fuel pump. He told us to go ahead because he had to take care of his plane. He said it in the same tone as if it were his horse. On our way down to Flagstaff, Arizona, where we were to meet the Interstate 40, our route back east, we stopped at Lees Ferry so that Claire could dip her feet in the Colorado river. We had stopped on the way for a drink because we had seen a sign for cave dwellers, and Claire wanted to see some, or at least where they had been. It turned out that the small café and gas station was a town called Cave Dwellers and there weren’t any. The man who set up the original trading post had cut some holes in the rocks behind and made it up just to add interest and help to bring in trade – and a hundred years later it was still working! The road from Zion to Flagstaff was predominantly Navaho reservation and the roadway in front of each rather depressing little settlement of cabins, caravans and rusty pickups was beset by ramshackle stalls, permanently declaring themselves open even if no one was there. We stayed the night at a motel and old Trading Post at Cameron, about 30 miles north of Flagstaff. Well, we had been told it was an old Trading Post, but now it was a very new and large shop, restaurant and mega motel. The size of a small aircraft hanger, it was stuffed full of now meaningless Indian life and culture. There were bows and arrows that were never going to provide a hunter with a meal for anyone, now neatly tied in a display and provided with a hook so they could be hung on a wall. There were necklaces to ward off evil spirits that no one now knew or cared about and pottery that was never going to contain anything more nourishing than dried flowers or candles. It seemed to me that the sheer volume of these things, even those made traditionally by Indians, must far exceed those needed at the height of their popularity. The selling of one’s culture in the form of useless, if sometimes beautiful, niknaks is not a practice unique to America. I can understand the selling of a skill such as metal working or rug making or tanning or weaving. That has been practised worldwide ever since skills developed beyond the simple need to survive. But it seems to me there is a difference between selling something useful or beautiful in a world in which you are a full member and selling a largely defunct culture as nostalgic trivia. I suppose it must be done, but I wish there was a more dignified way of surviving than to prostitute your culture and your soul on the rack of Chain America. Before consigning most of the States on our return trip to the Belgium bin, Claire particularly wanted to see Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our introduction to New Mexico was not an encouraging one. Having travelled thousands of miles in the clean open spaces of the American West we stopped for gas. The gas station complex was run down and tired. The wind stacked rubbish against every vertical surface and the whole place had an air of resigned and useless poverty about it. The gas was prepay, not unique but I had, so far, never been actually required to prepay. I went in and offered my card because I wanted to fill up and had to produce I.D. as well. The place seemed to be full of people with nothing better to do than hang around and look forlorn. I was glad to fill up and get out. I sensed Claire’s disappointment that this brief encounter meant that New Mexico had lived precisely down to my expectations and I am afraid Santa Fe managed to do the same. Once the capital of New Mexico, Santa Fe is now consigned to being a vast museum in aspic and a giant shopping experience. There is no denying that the coral pink mud and timber buildings of the old town sit warm and comfortably round the tree dappled squares, or at least those that haven’t been made into arid car parks. Even the new buildings made to look like old ones are good enough to keep the soft and gently rounded feel of the town. Santa Fe is a centre of turquoise and silver jewellery making and must contain tons of it. It has also attracted artists of every kind from everywhere and has a greater volume of classy art for sale than I have ever seen. Of course there is tat, but if I was looking for beautiful things to put in a house, where money was no object, I would come to shop in Santa Fe. Needless to say, my overload syndrome had set in by the time we had walked from the car park to a large square. I sat on a park bench in the shade and wrote whilst Claire wandered around. Claire returned every now and then to check that I hadn’t turned into a pillar of salt or been bought by someone as an objet d’art. Eventually, stung by guilt, I went with her to look at the cathedral, which turned out to be a large but not very extraordinary church. It happened that we had arrived at the very moment of an organ concert to celebrate the brand new electronic organ that had been installed, and an organist of international repute was about to give its inaugural performance. I promise that I was really looking forward to it, partly because I knew Claire would like it and it would give me a chance to share this cultural experience with her while just sitting there quietly in the cool. After a suspiciously squidgy introduction by the organist, the opening piece was a chest vibratingly gymnastic rendition of All People That On Early Do Dwell. By half way through the next piece I was incredibly impressed with how many different things it could do and how clever the organist was to make it do them and had had enough. I retreated to the relatively tranquillity of the shady square and felt grateful that such technology had not been available to Liberachi at the height of his powers. Even Claire abandoned it before the end. That night after leaving we stayed in a small town at a cheap motel next to the Santa Fe railway line. This little place had also seen better days and had just gradually decayed with most people still living in it, but with less and less work and money to hold it together. A ghost town like Garnett had simply been abandoned when the gold and therefore its purpose ran out. Virginia City, Montana, had managed to hang on until it reinvented itself as a live tourist attraction in much the same way as Santa Fe. But Santa Rosa, where we stayed, was just slowly dying of terminal and incurable atrophy and seemed to be a sad, lonely and forgotten place. If we had stayed longer and talked to people we might have discovered I was wrong and that I was just being patronisingly sorry for it when it didn’t need my superior liberal sympathy, but somehow I doubt it. As we began to seriously head east along Interstate 40 it became apparent that we were travelling along part of the old Route 66. Route 66 went from Chicago to Los Angeles. Apart from the song, and that it became a sort of hippy pilgrim trail, I know very little about it. Perhaps because it went diagonally across America, and therefore messed up the East West North South road numbering system, or just because it got overtaken by interstate highways and demographic changes, it has largely disappeared into other road numbers. However, having now been destroyed as a reality, rather like buffalo and Indians, it has taken on a nostalgic importance, probably greater than ever its use as an important road. Even Interstate 40 displays little plaques declaring this bit or that as being part of Historic Route 66. Every town along the way from Flagstaff Arizona, through Texas to Oklahoma City insists its major attraction is being part of historic Route 66. There are therefore almost infinite opportunities to buy Route 66 memorabilia, eat in Route 66 diners and stay at Route 66 motels. Unfortunately we had to miss most of these opportunities since we had breakfast in New Mexico, a pee in Texas, a coffee in Oklahoma and had reached Arkansas by bedtime. But driving and going somewhere are things I am good at. If America is in love with the car, then so am I. And so is Claire. When, for reasons of economy, ecology or senility, I am no longer allowed one, I will have to be dragged, railing against that dark day, from the driving seat. For me the car rivals votes for women, the pill and television as the greatest advance in the 20th century and makes Henry Ford one of its most important contributors. I got a provisional licence on my seventeenth birthday and passed my test seven months and four days later. Within a couple of years I had my own car and have seldom been without one for more than a few minutes since. The freedom and anarchy of being able to go wherever I want, whenever I want has been a joy from that day to this. Neither of us has ever tired of the pleasure of driving. Nor do we seem to have lost the strange anticipation to be derived from just getting in a car and going. Although I have fantasized about speed and racing, I know I lack the talent to do it well enough. I have never owned a genuinely fast car but have often driven too fast in the ones I have had. Whilst I am fairly competent with tools, I have not got great pleasure from taking cars to bits or fixing them when they go wrong. In any case, as they have become more sophisticated I have lost any understanding I may once have had about how they work. I have seldom washed my car and almost never polished one. Since I have never been able to afford to indulge in whatever the car of my dreams might be, I have retreated into insisting that I don’t care, but in my heart I probably do. We, and America, also share an enthusiasm for much more power than we actually need. Driving the family to the shopping mall does not require four wheel drive, eight cylinders and 300 brake horse power. I don’t understand it and, like America, I don’t care. I know I should, I know that it’s guzzling finite resources and filling the air with poisons. I don’t even pretend that if there was a decent public transport system, I would use it, because I wouldn’t. Despite all my self-righteous liberalism, my love for the car is a blind love, so for the car, and for the planes that take me somewhere I can drive, I make no apology. In general we found American motorists to be careful, considerate, very tolerant and not terribly good at driving. But not trucks. In the UK most cars go faster than most trucks. In America the opposite is true. And, while American cars are bigger than ours, so are the trucks. They seemed to have little regard for speed limits generally and were surprisingly often caught. It surprised us because we thought they all chatted incessantly on the radio in CB speak and would warn each other of crouching cops. It turned out that they didn’t. Whilst they were seldom actually aggressive, they were inclined to tailgate the car in front with the absolute certainty of driving straight over it if anything surprising happened. And there is something of a pecking order when 50 or 60 tons of shiny trans-American truck begins to loom in your mirror with absolutely no intention whatsoever of slowing down behind you and sulking. You move politely out of the way and you hear the turbo wind up as it steams past you. Trucks, like everything else, are becoming more uniform, anodyne and therefore more boring. The new ones are probably easier to drive and more comfortable but seem to have lost what made them one of the icons of the American way. There are, however, still plenty of the older tractor units around, all chrome and stainless steel, meticulously maintained, cleaned and decorated. There is a feel of the fairground and gypsy about them. In Europe gypsies decorated their caravans because their transport was their home. So their art and culture had to go with them. There is a direct connection with Romany culture in canal barge decoration because the boat was home and the itinerant nature of canal transport suited the gypsy way of life. In the twentieth century, as lorries began to take over, the thread was maintained and has lasted longest in livestock and horse haulage, where the last vestiges of coachline decoration and elaborate lettering are still there. Travelling fairs have similar roots and traditions. As far as I know, American trucking doesn’t share a similar evolution so it may be that the travelling itself provides the common link. If you spend most of your life away from home, then most of the people you meet will never see you in the context of your home. This could make you feel that they wouldn’t be able to see who you really were, so homestead pride gets translated to the truck. On the other hand modern truck decoration could just be showing off, and nothing to do with gypsies or a need to establish your identity.
Because it was summer and we were in open country, there were lots of RVs. Recreational Vehicles are the hippos of the road. Many the size of a touring coach, they lumber round the country full of nature loving families and technology. More often than not they will be towing a fully grown four wheel drive something or other as well as assorted bikes. At night they coagulate in herds, in RV parks, each sustainingly plugged into a mechanical umbilicus, which pipes in the water, electricity and television required by a pioneer on vacation. In fact, so packed are they with technology and comfort they often have a completely separate engine just to run the air conditioning and icemaker. I met a Texas rancher in Santa Fe who had come to RVs late in life, but was now on his fourth in as many years. It boasted seven TVs and satellite navigation. He would have been delighted to show us round but it had to be left outside town somewhere, knowing exactly where it was on the surface of the globe within a metre. Unlike other vehicles there is little ambivalence about RVs. They are either welcomed or banned. In reality they hardly ever got in the way, are great for family holidays and must be a complete nightmare to drive. Roadworks in America seem to be more often announced than happening. They are signed so far in advance that by the time you get there you forgot they were coming. There are always the signs saying “give them a break”, as friendly pun to encourage us to slow down, and which adds a jolly note to the fact that in most road work areas speeding fines are doubled. However, most of the road works we encountered on Interstate 40 consisted of lots of signs and bollards, but the lads had already been given a break before we arrived. There was one section that was closed so we took a diversion. If we had taken that long a detour off the M4 we would probably have gone via France. On my first visit I had been amazed to find New England’s roads lined with signs every two or three miles exhorting us to “adopt a highway”. Since I had always felt a bit iffy about adopting anything especially things like elephants or Ethiopians, it seemed to me that this was a touch of “only in America”. I know we are in love with the car but the idea of taking a caring and paternal interest in a stretch of tarmac was a bit over the top. It turned out, as often seems to happen to me, that I was quite wrong. This strange practice was not restricted to New England and its explanation was wholly commendable and benign. Any organisation or individual could volunteer to keep a section of highway clean and tidy. So all over America bits of road were being kept litter free by a community group, a family, a local store or a lesbian commune. The contribution of each was acknowledged on its appropriate sign so you could see who you had to thank for that bit of America’s roads being so clean and neat. Any initial cynical thoughts evaporated into huge admiration for a simple community involvement which works so well almost nationwide. In fact, I think the UK should abandon its honours system altogether. Instead of giving someone an OBE because he is a brigadier or has worked in a totally safe government job with a good pension for forty years, he should get a small sign on the roadside thanking him for doing something genuinely useful like keeping a bit of pavement clean and tidy. So, driving in America was an unqualified pleasure. America and the car were made for each other, even if it is a union blessed only by the oil companies. The unfettered freedom to travel at will in some of the biggest and most beautiful spaces I have ever been in was a joy. And all the time knowing that a gas station, diner and motel would not be too far away. May it last for so long as we both shall drive, at which point it should be banned as being ecologically unsound, immoral and totally unjustifiable.
I do realise that seeing Texas and Oklahoma from the right had side of Interstate 40 is not doing them justice but we couldn’t do everything and by now, for the first time for over a month, we had a schedule to be in New Jersey for the wedding. We did make a small compromise in Memphis Tennessee. Whilst Graceland came well into our top ten places not to visit, Memphis is on the Mississippi, which we had not seen since we crossed it almost at its source in Wisconsin. We decided to relinquish Interstate 40 and have a cool drink on the banks of the Mississippi before resuming our flight east. We crossed the river and took the first exit, encouragingly called Riverside Drive. There was the river on our right, but the left hand side seemed to consist almost entirely of posh apartment blocks and not much sign of a cool drink. Now committed, we pressed on until a sign to Presidents Island, which sounded nice so we took it. Presidents Island turned out to be an enormous industrial port complex and we didn’t see the river again. We went to the Port convenience store, post office and bar, bought two bottles of pink lemonade and drank them in the car park. Interstate 40 had finally lost its status as historic Route 66 but was now the melody highway from Memphis to Nashville. We drove through Nashville on the interstate and Claire thought she might have spotted the Grand Ol’ Oprey from a multiple interchange we went through. By the evening we were in Virginia and the foothills of the Appellations. Claire’s enthusiasm for the schedule had got us across the States rather quicker than we needed. This meant that we arrived near Williamsburg a day earlier than we had originally intended. This in turn meant that Claire’s friend Anna was not ready for us when Claire phoned her to check if it was okay to turn up a day early. However, Claire said that this would save her the bother of not being ready the following day either. They had been friends since school and we don’t change much, so she was probably right. Williamsburg is a very posh place, full of history, Yorktown, scene of the decisive battle in the War of Independence, settlers before the Pilgrim Fathers in the Mayflower, Norfolk the home of some of the very poshest people in all America and the Wren building designed by Christopher Wren. Well, not actually designed by Wren. Apparently the chaps took their drawings over to Wren, who at the time was pretty busy with St. Paul’s Cathedral. He looked at them and said it looked okay to him so they built it. Williamsburg, Jamestown and Norfolk are part of an historically themed triangle of vacation experience which 5 million people a year come to see and learn from. It is not at all like Disneyland and therefore good for you. The day after our premature arrival, Claire went off with Anna to be historically improved and I went into Williamsburg to have a haircut and get some photos developed. Whilst waiting for the photos, I had coffee outside and watched Williamsburg walking by, most of whom probably didn’t come from Williamsburg at all but were there to be historically themed. Not all, but many American men do have a particular way of walking. I used to call it the Popeye but now tend to refer to it as the George W walk. It involves raising your elbows and swinging your shoulders from the waist. It is often accompanied by managing to walk with your knees apart as well. When Claire and I discussed the phenomenon in Montana she said she thought it must have originated when you didn’t want to keep catching your elbows on your sixguns and now it was genetically inbred. She also said that when she was at school women who walked with their knees apart were called pleasure bent, but she hadn’t known why. I collected the photos and went back to Anna and Jim’s. In the evening we went out to eat at a Pub. In America pubs are few and far between but where they do exist they are very similar to our own. But, not to do things by halves, this one boasted 36 different cask conditioned draught beers, which I felt was pretty excessive even by American standards. In Britain the large breweries probably did more to help the campaign for real ale by the uniform mediocrity of their beer, than any actual campaigning by CAMRA. In America, Budweiser has managed the same thing all on its own. Bud appears to be universally consumed and universally despised. However, it does probably explain the age old general complaint by Americans that the British drink warm beer. If your beer tastes like subtly tainted soda water its only remaining virtue would be to be cold, so you can’t taste it anyway. In this pub the beer was served suitably warm but much of the rest of America has still to catch up. Whilst a gratifyingly large number of small breweries are emerging everywhere we went, they still tend to serve it ice cold in glasses stored in the freezer. This makes it a perfectly good cold drink but indistinguishable from Bud until it warms up a bit. We were now about to set off for New Jersey and the wedding. We had to be there well in time for a scheduled rehearsal dinner. We were now faced with a serious deadline and Claire had begun to get twitchy about being late. For a month we had worried little about days, let alone hours. Although we had bought a cheap watch on Interstate 90 we had crossed and recrossed time zones so often we didn’t care. Motels allow you to get up and go when you want to and we stopped in the evenings when we felt like it. The car had a clock but I never found how to change it. It was about two hours out in Boston, nearly right in Wyoming, Utah and Arizona and had gone wrong again several times by the time we got to Virginia. Neither had we worried much about where we were except in general terms. Grand Canyon didn’t seem to mind much when we turned up to look at it and nor did Virginia City, Montana. However, we now had to be somewhere specific at half past something. Having taken advice from everyone about when to set out and which way to go, we set off earlier just to make sure. We went via the Chesapeake Sea Bridge and tunnels up the East coast which is an amazing engineering achievement and slightly unnerving driving across open Sea. Claire wanted to know why, where the bridges disappeared under the sea, they didn’t just fill up with water. I told her to hold her breath and not worry about it, and she hit me. Due to road works that were happening, we actually arrived just in time to satisfy everyone that we weren’t at all late and Claire had time to change into a posh frock that Urk had been looking after, and had brought down from Boston. At some point in the evening David had filched my wallet. I knew he had got it and didn’t worry because I didn’t need it. We had the rest of the next day free until the wedding at six. By the time we decided to get some lunch there was no sign of David, Jill or my wallet. Claire had her credit card so we went to eat. Lambertville is a small down on the Delaware River, and I suspect, a weekend retreat for the trendy, well off of New York. It was full of Mystic books, designer trousers, and bagels. It reminded me a bit of Evergreen. We found a small restaurant, had a drink and had decided what to order before Claire read on the menu that they didn’t accept credit cards, only cash, which we hadn’t got. The waitress said neither did most of Lambertville, but it was no problem, the drinks were on the house, and we declined a kind offer from the couple at the next table to buy us lunch. The wedding and reception were to be up the road at a very swanky Inn set in its own grounds and gardens, on the edge of the river. When we arrived, suitably togged in suits, ties and posh frocks, a quartet was already playing on the lawn near the seated area where the ceremony was to be. Had we not all be sweltering inside our formal attire it would have been idyllic. We wandered round the garden, with glasses of cold drink, nodding politely to those we didn’t know, all of us wishing we could fling off our clothes and jump in the pond. I don’t know what it is about quartets. They always remind me of English blockbuster period television series in which a quartet playing is always an introduction to a stultifyingly inane conversation between unbelievably irritating women created by Jane Austen. However, the ceremony itself was well worth all the rehearsal and Steve and Beth both looked very happy, as they should. The ceremony was followed by champagne and more polite walking before a very good dinner. Fortunately the dinner seating plan had been preordained, otherwise I fear that a few of us would have formed a badly behaved clique in a corner and drunk too much. By now I had retrieved my wallet, enjoyed making Jill feel suitably contrite, and having no effect on David at all. We went to bed at around two o’clock, having be to up at 6 for the final leg of our drive to return the car to US Rent-A-Wreck in Boston. Parting with the mustang was a wrench I hadn’t expected. It had become so much a part of the whole trip that we were now rather possessive about it. Whilst the horn had never worked, the doors hadn’t always shut, and we had mended the rear light clusters with duck tape, it had been wonderful. It occasionally played dead when we tried to start it, I couldn’t adjust the clock and Claire insisted the air conditioning didn’t work, but it had taken us 9000 miles round America and I didn’t want to give it back. Actually 9000 miles could have been a bit of a problem since we had to pay a mileage charge on half of it. We did a good deal at half what it would have been. I didn’t care. It could have been twice as much and I would have paid because it was worth it. We got a cab to the station and took the train to New York. We had called Eric and Lynne from New Jersey to give them a sober chance to opt out of meeting and finding us somewhere to stay. They had booked us into a hotel. We should call them when we got there and we would go out to eat. Having driven through New York on the way to drop the car, we were now retracing our steps for the first time since we started our journey.
With nothing better to do than sit for a few hours I began to think about a couple of things I had been unable to unravel. It had come as no surprise that people west of Vermont were no more stupid than those in New England. however, each regarded the other with suspicion, New England seeing the west of America as being full of red necks and hicks, and the rest seeing the East coast, and for that matter the West Coast, as being full of over liberal pretentious do-gooders with little sense of reality. This is a conflict repeated in almost every nation worldwide, between those close to the seats of power and influence, and the rest of us. Having become rather attached to the idea that patriotism was the unifying glue that held such a diverse nation together when faced with any crisis, I wondered if it might help to explain a couple of my other problems. The first was that, whilst America had been cut to the heart by September 11th, almost no one we talked to felt that unilateral belligerence was going to be the right answer. This was hardly a Gallup poll, and I began from a pretty biased position myself. However, our novelty as foreigners had made people more interested to discuss some things with us than they might have been with each other. We had recently caught a news item on television in which the White House was admitting that it hadn’t been doing a very good PR job recently. This may well turn out to be one of the great understatements of the century and also contains the elephant trap that all power seems relentlessly determined to fall into. That is that rather than re-examine what you are doing, what is required is to explain it better. The concern of the White House was directed towards the rest of the world, Europe and the Middle East in particular. What they don’t appear to have to worry about is America. If they wave the flag America will rally. I wonder if it is this patriotism that allows its government to lead the country by the nose simply by hoisting the Stars and Stripes. It would account for American involvement in Korea and Vietnam, their clandestine interference in South and Central America, and their heavy handed and inappropriate escapades in Libya, the Middle East and Africa. Not to mention 50 years of farce over Cuba. All of these being episodes for which the American public seemed to show little enthusiasm at the time, especially by those directly involved. Subsequent disillusion seems to have left many embittered and marginalized in a society which now sees these crusades as not quite the glorious struggles for world freedom they were led to believe. And yet the American people are about to follow the flag again into Iraq, Afghanistan, and God knows where else because their government believes that brute strength will solve the problem. You would have thought that a thousand years of history, America’s own struggle for independence and the 20th century, would have shown them that in the end it doesn’t work. Martina Navratilova has recently alienated all America by complaining that having come, endeared herself to the public and made millions of dollars by playing very good tennis, she has simply swapped one tyranny for another. America is outraged that someone should so cruelly bite the hand that has so generously fed her. Whilst America does have a point, since it is a bit churlish to make your fortune by using all the facilities before complaining about them, so does Martina. All government is tyranny of a sort. She was fortunately enough to be able to choose the tyranny she preferred, unlike most of the world. However, to make any criticism of the Stars and Stripes seems to be America’s great taboo. It is part of the “with us or against us” syndrome. It is what permits the U.S. to be led by someone generally regarded as thick as bricks so long as he holds the flag. There is a touch of the emperors clothes about it all, except that the American people are neither blind to reality nor stupid. It could be that to discard the shield of the flag may risk the entire fabric unravelling, a risk that America chooses not to take, as opposed to not being able to see. It is possible that the unifying strength of patriotism also contains the seeds of the other enigma that has bothered me. Racism. It has come up in various forms throughout our travels. Afro-Americans have taken over American Indian reservations in the east and are using them to trade cheap cigarettes and drugs. Afro-Americans in turn, feeling taken over and pushed out by Latinos, are getting nostalgic about the good old days when they had the ghettos to themselves. White Americans are fearfully hawking the conviction that in a few years time English will be a minority language in the USA. Traditionalists of all factions resenting the introduction of so much public information in both Spanish and English, and in some areas finding that job descriptions require Spanish as obligatory and English as optional. Powerful Liberal urban intellectuals in the East and West Coast cities trying to enforce a kind of artificial multi-culturalism which those out of town see as neither tenable nor desirable. Since these are not problems restricted to America, I am not for a moment pointing an accusing finger at anyone’s inability to deal with them. But I came to America to look and listen and these are things I saw and heard. What has welded this disparate collection of the oppressed, the disaffected and the opportunistic into a great power has been this sense of nationhood which has made being American an allegiance over all others. Strangely, Afro-Americans, having had such a struggle to share the dream, seem to be finding themselves increasingly in bed with White America, faced with a common alien threat. Black America in general, despite its exclusion, and to a certain extent its self imposed isolation in the big cities, is nevertheless still firstly American, and only secondly resentful of its status. If this were to be even partly true, it would also help to explain a problem with more than language. Is there a feeling that this group doesn’t want to be American? It just wants to be in America. It wants to bring its language and culture and simply live in America and use it without subscribing to a sense of American National identity at all. If so, and if it also applies to smaller groups, then it presents a real and worrying threat to the majority of Americans. The fact that this was the way that most immigrant groups began has been lost in America’s growing up. So could it be that the flag is at the heart of it all. Could it be that you are welcome to America provided that you want to be American first and anything you like second. It is a glib but satisfying part explanation and the first American I suggested it to said it was complete rubbish. He also said that America’s diversity was a myth. It was never really diverse at all. It was basically white, European, Judao Christian and apart from the American Indians, who had been mostly eliminated, and the Afro-Americans who they were now forced to tolerate, all immigrant groups who were not white were treated with straight racial fear and resentment. This was a bit of a set back and rather depressing, since in my liberal way I was quite keen to find some explanation that didn’t involve raw racist bigotry. Others were less dismissive but maybe I had watered it down by then in order not to be further depressed.
We arrived over an hour late at Penn Central Station and got a cab to the hotel just off Central Park West. We had a good meal with Eric and Lynne at a small Italian restaurant on Columbus Avenue near the hotel and continued our discussion of the world at large. We had to be at Newark Airport the following evening so the next day was ours in New York. I must offer an apology to Chain America and to the Comfort Inn of Central Park West in particular. I realise that I have been unstintingly rude about Chain America. Not because it was dirty or inadequate or too expensive but because of its plastic wrapped and utterly predictable uniform mediocrity. However, the Comfort Inn in New York was just what we needed. It was in a stunning location right on the posh side of Central Park. It was no more expensive than a log cabin near Yellowstone and it was courteous and efficient. Since 911 Newark airport, together with most others, would no longer store any baggage for anyone, in case it exploded, so instead of dropping our baggage off on the way to return the car, we had had to hump it down from Boston to the hotel and then get it out to Newark. The hotel would kindly keep it for us the whole of the next day at no charge and in the evening arrange a taxi to take us to the airport. Coming to New York was the only part of the entire trip I had not been looking forward to. The thought of arriving in the biggest of what we had been studiously avoiding for over a month with a load of junk and nowhere to stay, was my idea of hell. Lynne and Eric had solved the problem of where to stay and the Comfort Inn had dealt with the rest. So we now had a day in New York with no more restrictions and no more junk than the clothes we stood up in. I would not insult New York by apologising to it, but that day involved a considerable amount of eating humble pie on my part. Since, like much of America, most of New York was going to finish up in the Belgium bin, it was a question of what to do in such a short time. Like airline meals, our luggage had mysteriously grown until it would no longer fit in the suitcases we had brought with us. I nipped out to find something in which to stuff our excess bits and pieces. Within a couple of blocks and asking a couple of people, I found a shop on Broadway that sold everything from balloons to baggage and got a suitcase with handle and wheels for 15 dollars. We walked up Columbus to a bank where they gave us money on the way to the National History Museum which we had been told was a good place to go. Faced with probably an hour’s queue to get in and deciding we didn’t mind not seeing a lot of dead things, we admired the entrance hall and left. We ambled across Central Park to the Metropolitan Art Gallery. On that sunny day, the streets were not jammed with smelly traffic, the pavements not full of jostling rude people, and the park was immaculate and relaxed. We had passed Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial bit of the park and seen the Imagine mosaic, unattended by long haired weirdoes singing Beatles songs. We had passed a couple of ponds where you could hire a boat and paddle about for a bit and arrived at the Metropolitan Art Gallery, almost the only building in the Park itself. They were specially doing Impressionists and Gauguin. What they weren’t advertising specially was more Rodin than Claire and I had ever seen in one place. We had done impressionists and Gauguin and Rodin and Warhol and Jackson Pollack before we realised it was 4 o’clock and we hadn’t seen most of it. I wanted to go up the Empire State building just because. So we got a cab down 5th Avenue and went up. For a few dollars we were herded like cattle to the viewing gallery, which was fair enough since we were only tourists going to gawp from the top of someone’s office, and there were obviously a lot of us, all the time. After having gawped at where the twin towers used to be, been suitably impressed by a New York Skyline that was all we knew it was going to be, we went down again. We walked back along 5th Avenue and up beside Madison Square Gardens to 9th Avenue where we headed North again towards Central Park. It was fairly seedy but busy and full of local shops to buy useful things in like food and toothpaste. On our way it dawned on me that we were about to cross 42nd Street. Not only did I recognise the name but as we crossed it New York changed from being a bit run down to being altogether better kept and more gentle. We stopped to eat at the Yum Yum Bangkok and had a very delicate very un-American meal. It was so good we even told the newly arrived tourist at the next table. She lived in New York and often ate at the Yum Yum but she did tell us how to get back to the hotel on the subway. We walked back to 42nd Street and bought tickets. We knew we wanted a C train uptown. We had paused only for a few seconds before someone asked us where we were going and pointed us. We got off at 72nd Street and walked to the hotel. Whilst we waited for the cab to take us to Newark we sat outside on the steps of a brownstone and smoked. And we didn’t want to go home. What we had seen of New York had surprised and delighted me. It seems to have a kindly tolerance towards the millions of tourists that flock to it, but also has a life to get on with which it does. New York has a feeling of being lived in which London doesn’t. Perhaps it’s because Central Park, the Empire State Building and Fifth Avenue are more use than the Tower of London or Buckingham Palace. Perhaps it’s because we are looking at what New York does as opposed to London, where you are looking at what it used to be. Whatever it is, it is very different to what I expected. And I want to go back.
© Robin Howell 2002 re-edited October 2013 and September 2021