Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Letter from America

North to South American road trip: New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina,  Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, Florida.

The motto that adorns the side of Key West’s police cars reads Protecting and Serving Paradise. I’d like to think that God’s business card has the same motto, perhaps with an asterisk appended and some small print that reads *no, this isn’t the place with all the virgins, that’s the other place, but  before you try to scuttle off there read the entry criteria carefully.  Fortunately for us, reaching this version of paradise had simple enough entry criteria, lying as it did at the southernmost tip of the continental US, the tail end of the Florida Keys.  Driving down the overseas highway that connects the different keys by bridges I was struck not by the aquamarine colour of the sea (for it was pouring with rain), nor by the triumph of bridge engineering (triumphant though they undoubtedly are), but by a nagging desire to pinpoint exactly where it was that Arnie blew up a section of the bridge with a rocket launched from a recently hijacked fighter jet in the magnificent spy satire True Lies.  Certain we were passing the spot I mumbled to Helen ‘this is it I think, Arnie, fighter jet, True Lies’, receiving the response ‘oh, really? What’s True Lies’?  And yet in spite of this distinctly underwhelmed response, and Key West’s claims to the contrary, if paradise isn’t a kitsch action movie with Arnie that includes a striptease from Jamie Lee Curtis then, hell, I just don’t know what is.

With a storm closing in on the Keys our camping plans began to look more foolhardy than a swarthy terrorist taking on the Governator. Hunkering down in a series of cheap but shady motels, the rain pounding a relentless drum beat on the roof, cabin fever slowly began to set in.  It was when the maddening and near constant intrusion of commercial breaks on American TV started to become less maddening, and I found my hand poised over the phone to order a space-saving spice rack (but they give you another one completely free!) that I realised it was time to move on.  The plan to flog our camping gear on to other campers in order to recoup at least a fraction of our costs was jettisoned to the incontrovertible logic of if there ain’t any campers there ain’t anyone to flog it to.   Instead, and somewhat reluctantly, we handed over our complete stash to a surprised but thankful lady we met in the parking lot of a of a kitten rescue thrift store, the unverified agreement being that she made a donation to the kitty shelter in exchange for the hundreds of dollars of kit.  To be unencumbered by stuff for the first time in a long time was liberating – we were back to a couple of rucksacks, and as we checked into a condo in Key Largo to sit out the storm in relative comfort, it was a good time to reflect back on our jaunt down the States.

The odometer read over 4,000 miles, and we’d visited eighteen out of the fifty states, albeit some of them very briefly. This served as a lesson that ‘united’ though these states may be, their unison is less pronounced than their differences.  This, I think, is one of the many joys of taking a road trip through America; it’s not dissimilar to visiting a series of different countries, but with the inconveniences of border crossings removed.  Though the major corporations, not least the fast food ones, are doing their darnedest to remove these differences by decorating the highways and byways with an identikit vista of urban sprawl, it’s easy to look past, or maybe through, this blight and instead settle one’s gaze on something more fundamental and visceral.  The accents, as an example, gave us a changing audio soundtrack as we snaked our way down from north to south, the clipped and precise tones of New England slowly morphing into the syrupy and enticing drawl of the Deep South.  The southern phrase y’all marked, for me, this transition neatly, a multi-purpose piece of dialect that was a neat substitute for ‘are you’ or ‘you two’ or ‘have you’.  So, ‘are you ready to order?’ becomes ‘y’all ready to order?’, ‘you two enjoy your evening’ becomes ‘y’all enjoy your evening now’ and ‘have you noticed the sign?’ becomes ‘y’all seen that sign, now get off my land before I open a can of double-barreled shotgun on your pommie ass’.  The last one may be a touch of dramatic license for nobody, to my knowledge, either threatened or actually did open a can of anything on my ass.  That type of activity is a strictly private one between me and my betrothed or, in extreme circumstances, between me and my doctor.    

The smells too marked our gradual journey south, and it is no surprise to me that smell is held to be the most evocative of the senses, the one most closely linked to memory.  The smells of the north were of wood burning and slowly decomposing vegetation as summer turned to autumn and the leaves began their return to the forest floor, going out in a blaze of glory.  The smells of the south were the newly damp dust of Texas as the long and worrying drought came to an end as we left Austin, and the tropical tang of humidity in Florida that reminded me of lazy days in Thailand.  The scents in our car also changed as the cooler weather gradually turned warmer which, in turn, caused the car to morph from a tepid refrigerator to a food spoiling greenhouse. ‘Um, I think I’ve figured out what the smell was’ Helen said, pulling what I think was a decomposing corn cob from the depths of the boot, but could equally have been a stray squirrel trying to cadge a ride south who prematurely ran out of nuts and water in its little handkerchief tied to a stick.    

If dead squirrels aren’t dark enough for you then I do have another observation. It touches at the grey (dark is perhaps overstating it) at the heart of a road trip; the price of freedom.  It would be remiss not to reflect a little on the concept of freedom when discussing a trip through America, for the word is emblazoned everywhere, often on bumper stickers that read ‘freedom isn’t free’.  Quite what this phrase really means I’m yet to figure out, and reluctant to expand on (because, frankly, we’d be here all day, it would only be fun for me, and I do try to keep my literary onanism to myself.  Well, all types of onanism in fact).  However, the implication that freedom has costs attached is a fair, if clich├ęd, observation and one that struck me in a very parochial way as we enjoyed the freedoms that having your own car affords.  We could go anywhere, we were captains of our own ship, and we were bound only by a self-imposed date on which we’d promised to return the car.  Wonderful as all this is there is a cost attached; the cost of insulation.  Insulation from the outside world is easily overcome by parking up and getting out, but insulation from other people is a cost that I hadn’t thought about, or expected to pay.

I’ve written on numerous times in the past about how the people we’ve met - the good, the bad, and the just plain weird – have added the crucial colour to our round the world movie.  What struck me about driving ourselves around is that this colour is, if not lost, then washed out a little.  Sharing a journey with a stranger can be a profound and joyous event, and the profundity and joy can take on an almost infinite number of forms; from learning something new, to making a friend, to just the solace a piece of unexpected human contact provides.  Driving yourself limits these interactions and although we did, on occasion, share our movie with a stray extra who bought colour and warmth to the narrative, it was all too rare.   So there’s an irony that comes with driving yourself around; it’s the things you don’t, and can’t, control that tend to have the most profound impact on your life, and yet the more control you have over your life the freer you are considered to be. The freedom of having our own car gave us a lot, but it took away a little too. 

Would I give up the car next time and jump on a Greyhound bus? Probably not. In a land where the car is king the bus is the jester, a preserve of characters you’d love to meet, but also a few you’d really not want to.  What our car-induced relative isolation meant, however, was that when the opportunity presented itself to spend some time with people we knew we jumped at it.  It was time to get out of the car, and dust off those social skills (remember what we talked about, Helen said, you can’t just pee in the bushes when we’re in company).  First it was to Austin, in Texas, a last minute decision to spend some time with our friends Sarah and Bradley.  Regular readers will remember Sarah from a previous post, the brains behind a charity that’s bringing water to isolated areas of Kenya.  As Bradley pulled into our motel in his suave black SUV we all agreed that this was, you know, a bit different from our last meeting in the Kenyan bush where we’d pushed jerry can laden wheelbarrows up hills and shared raised eyebrows as we politely tried to finish our heavy bowls of ugali.  A happy evening was spent noshing down on tex-mex this time, catching up, and Helen and I drinking the pregnant Sarah’s and supportive Bradley’s allocation of booze.  Austin is famed for being a liberal enclave in conservative Texas and as we merrily threw about our shared left-of-centre views I was simultaneously both happy to be in such great company, and slightly concerned that too many words out of place would cause the other diners to enact a can, open, ass scenario.  Didn’t happen of course, and as we said our goodbyes in the sultry heat of the Texan night it was not just the spice and booze in our stomachs that had left us enriched.

Invigorated by meeting Sarah and Bradley we took the decision to get some miles behind us, and set off on a two day drive across Texas, Louisiana and Alabama to reach Sarasota in what was to be our final state; Florida.   Interstate driving in America has none of the appeal of driving the quieter and more scenic roads but in such a vast land it’s sometimes necessary, and we had a goal in mind that justified it; meeting two old friends, Maria and Kelvin.  Maria and Kelvin are the parents of one of my school and later university friends, Alex, and a serendipitous piece of timing meant that their holiday in Florida coincided with us passing through. 

Sarasota is one of the wealthier areas of Florida, the uniformly manicured gardens of the housing complex Maria and Kelvin were staying in attesting to the controversial development of a state that was once nothing more than a big swamp.  I’ve always loved spending time with Maria and Kelvin, even when I was a schoolboy and other friends parents were supposed to be just that; parents but nothing more.  Their wit, good nature and intelligence makes conversation flow as freely as the waves that lap against the shores of Sarasota’s incredible beaches, beaches that we wandered along discussing this beguiling country we were all visitors to.  Maria told us of an incident during their last visit to the States, just before Obama won the election, and when the talk of not just this town, but every town around the world was if America would get its first black President.  A member of staff in Wal-Mart had referred to Obama by the ‘n’ word and this not only tells you a little about why the United States can be defined as much by its division as by its union, but also a lot about why Maria is so great.  Instead of taking the meek and relativistic stance of ‘I’m just a tourist here’ Maria fronted up to this bigot and in icy tones informed him that in the UK he’d be arrested for that kind of disgusting language before turning on her heel and walking out.  I’ve never really understood the dictum that you should never discuss religion, politics or sex, especially with strangers, and this post would be a whole lot shorter if I’d stuck with that advice.  I far prefer the dictum that evil triumphs when good people do nothing.

Saying goodbye to Kelvin and Maria, and also to the sun as it transpired, we headed to Key West, and then on to Miami to conclude our US road trip.  We’d scrambled and hiked the hills of Vermont and the wilds of Acadia National Park in Maine.  We’d moved from the European feeling Boston to the American heartland of the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  The colours of the leaves on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina had given way to the sounds of country music in Nashville.   The desert of Texas slowly changed to the lushness of tropical Florida.   

A country of contradictions was behind us; the beauty of the landscape set against the glow of the golden arches, a soaring freedom as we sailed from state to state against an insularity of a box on wheels, the crisp air of an autumn day against the muggy humidity of just another day in paradise.  Contradictions maybe, but one thing was very clear.  I love this country, it can be a paradise sometimes, and I’ll be back.  Provided that the can stays closed, of course.

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