Wednesday 4th May 2011
We weren't quite done with Tennessee. After taking reluctant leave of the farm, we headed west, to Memphis. There, in the Cooper Young area of town we found a very cheap, but good, hostel. It's run by a church and its affordability is offset only slightly by the requirement to undertake a chore before you check out. Mine was to refill a couple of ice trays in the communal fridge. George had to polish the hostel's doorknobs. I desperately wanted to take a photo of this, but on completing my chore I found her, jacket and rucksack on, claiming she had already done it. I have my doubts, but ultimately it was God she was hoodwinking, not me.
Although I've been before, I was stupidly excited about visiting Graceland, and it didn't disappoint. We got there quite early, missing the masses and consequently could admire the King's interior decor at some leisure. The gift shops outside the mansion are full of all sorts of Elvisabilia, even "All Shook Up" hot sauce. I did notice one gap in the market and shall be pitching my idea for Elvis pork scractchings, Suspicious Rinds, to his estate shortly. I think George was converted to the way of Elvis - to be honest, given the hagiography on display at Graceland, it's hard not to be.
We drove downtown to the much less grand, but no less thrilling, Sun Studio, which, apart from the tourists, gift shop and enthusiastic tour guide ("I go by the name Eldorado") remains unchanged from when Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins et al messed around there.
Having shot our musical bolt, we drove north, to Illinois. As we'd just been in Shelbyville, it seemed fitting to stop in Springfield. Here we stayed in a motel, ate corn dogs on a stick (Cozy Dogs) in a classic Route 66 diner and wandered around Abraham Lincoln's grand tomb. It also started raining.
It continued raining into our first day in Chicago which probably exacerbated the travel fatigue we experienced. We couldn't be bothered to try too hard and were very happy browsing the Institute of Art, mooching around Lincoln Park zoo (a busman's holiday for George) and admiring the spectacular architecture. Walking through the business district is like hiking along the bottom of a canyon, with mammoth walls stretching up to the clouds either side. To take in a bird's eye view of the city we ascended to the skydeck on the 103rd floor of the Willis (aka Sears) tower. In that lift I realised what punishment is waiting for me in hell: standing in a small metal box with 20 people all energetically chewing gum, smacking and slurping and sucking. If the lift had broken down I may have flipped.
It seems to have become traditional for us to drink heavily on our last night in a big city. And so, we went to Kingston Mines, a blues club in Lincoln Park I'd visited 13 years ago. It remains unchanged. We sat at the bar drinking wine watching a band called Vance Kelly and the Back Street Candy Lickers. A bottle of wine later and we had somehow joined in with a 30th birthday party making friends in the same way we've done throughout our travels i.e. for life but who we'll never see again. I remember nothing after this: not the dancing that my camera says we did, nor the 2 quarter-pounders that George says she forced me to eat, kindly confirmed the next morning by my acid reflux. Once again we drove out of a city vowing never to drink again.
Tuesday 3rd May 2011
We drove north, through Louisiana, through Mississppi and Alabama. We were very fortunate to miss by a few days the terrible storms that have ripped through the south-east.
Just over the Alabama border and into Tennessee, we arrived at Eastfield Farm, a pureblood Angus Cattle farm, outside the town of Shelbyville. I was a bit nervous as we drove up the long drive. After all, we had invited ourselves, at only a couple of weeks' notice - and to cap it off, over Easter Sunday, something I only realised shortly before our arrival. But Gardiner and Claudia warmly weclomed us, and treated us far better than we deserved over the following three days. We had the run of a lovely private home, were fed truly delicious homecooked food, including beef from the farm and were taken on an outing to Nashville and on a farm safari (in respect of both, more later). We also liberally loaded up the washing machine and pestered the resident domestic animals. There was Minnie, the ginger house cat, who veered from very wary to very affectionate and back again from hour to hour. There was Cindy, the elderly barn dog, possibly the happiest dog I've encountered. I once spied her, standing alone outside gazing across the herb garden, simply wagging her tail at nothing in particular. There were the three farm cats, all of whom leapt out of the same stable as we inspected the show barn, tumbling over each other, batting paws, purring and running after affection. And there was Faust, a stocky Rottweiler who bounds about excitedly, throwing his bulk around like a bull in a china shop, yet breaking nothing. To get attention, he simply barrels towards you, head down, until he butts you. When you pet him, he growls with satisfaction.
About 15 minutes away from the farm, in the town of Lynchburg, is the Jack Daniel distillery. I have often stood on tube platforms in London, and gazed vacantly over the rails at sepia advertisements for Jack Daniel's, which go on about the distillery and the good ole boys who work there. I didn't think I'd ever end up visiting, particularly as I don't drink the stuff. But we went, and took an excellent free tour around the place, guided by one of those good ole boys, Billy, complete with huge beard, baseball cap and dungarees. The tour is mainly about smells (some of which are excpetionally potent), as Lynchburg is in a dry county, and alcohol can neither be served nor sold (although the distillery's gift shop has found a loophole if you want to take a bottle away with you).
That afternoon, G & C took us to Nashville, where we ate a fine meal in the lobby of the Opryland Hotel, a huge maze of conservatories, featuring fountains, mock streets and plenty of foliage. Bar the absence of slot machines, it wouldn't be out of place in Vegas. Following the meal, we attended the legendary Grand Ole Opry. This Country (there was no Western) extravaganza is split into 4 sections, each of which is hosted by a different Country star and contains acts by a huge number of musicians. In London a big gig with numerous acts happens so rarely as to be a notable occasion, normally taking place to commemorate something or someone. But in Music City this happens every week and has done for decades. The evening started with 90 year old Little Jimmy Dickens, studded in rhinestone from his socks to his Stetson, and ended 2 hours later with big country star Martina McBride (me neither), via, amongst others, some great bluegrass (fiddles, banjo, harmonica), some balls-aching gospel (it was Easter) and some amazing square/clog dancing. It was great entertainment.
The Grand Ole Oprey, along with our distillery trip earlier gave me a very brief feel for what the South is about - that and the publication I picked up for a dollar at a gas station on the way back to the farm. This was a newspaper called "Just Busted", 12 pages of mugshots, locals who have been arrested for all sorts of misdemeanours - public drunkenness, domestic assault, all sorts of driving offences, theft, trespass, leaving the scene of an accident, attempted murder. Some of the brief descriptions below the mug tell a whole story. Beneath one gentleman: "public drunk trespass bribery". Every now and again "Just Busted" reminds you that these people have merely been detained and are all innocent until proven guilty. However section headings such as "Weekly Traffick" (drug related arrests), "Sticky Fingers" (theft arrests) and "Ready 2 Rumble" (Assault & Battery arrests) suggest that the paper may not practice what it preaches.
On Easter Sunday we went on a farm safari. Gardener drove us the length and breadth of the farm, past curious cattle (photographed by us through the window of the car), some of whom were munching on the lush grass while others wallowed in pools or the creeks that trickle through the farm under elm and sycamore. We observed the terrifying tenaciousness of the South American fire ants, that have reached Tennessee and terrified wild turkeys scurrying for cover. The tour also took us out of the farm into Shelbyville, with its semi-abandoned downtown (most of the businesses have moved out to cluster around the Wal-Mart) built down the road, pretty town square (typical of Southern towns) and, as Claudie informed us, scene of public lynching in living memory. A happier location is the huge complex set up for "The Celebration", a Walking Horse festival that takes place every year in the town.
The above doesn't do justice to the warmth and kindness of our hosts and the lovely time we had on the farm, benefitting from all the peace and comfort of a pastoral idyll and doing absolutely none of the hard work required to run a cattle farm.
Wednesday 27th April 2011
Inevitably New Orleans satisfied the live music needs that weren't quite met in that Austin bar. We stayed in the Faubourg Marigny area, and having spotted Frenchman's Street during one of those protracted drives necessitated by American cities' extensive one-way systems, we visited it that night. "No Cover" said the sign above the door of the Spotted Cat, while swing music assaulted us through the windows. So we went in, and listened to the Smokin' Time Jazz Club, an ensemble of around ten musicians crammed into the corner, singing, blowing, sawing, thumping away, to great effect. Subequently, we heard a lot of music in New Orleans, but I enjoyed this the most. When the hat came around for tips, George and I both produced enough that combined would have got us one of the band's CDs, so we did that instead.
Over in the French Quarter there are even more musicians, and kids bumble along the street carrying trumpets and French Horns. I don't think you'd see that anywhere else. There are also a number of young tramps pretending to be musicians, making dreadful sounds at street corners with banjos or guitars. At least, I think they're tramps. It is possible that my transition to grumpy old man is complete, and this is how the musical youth of today choose to dress. And smell.
Talking of smell, flowers spill between the buildings and over balconies. Consequently, over the traffic and air conditioning and cigarettes, you catch their scent in the air, especially around the Marigny area, particularly the heavily treed Esplanade Avenue that forms the border with the French Quarter. This is a pleasant antedote to the stink of Bourbon Street, which is a garish bastardisation of drink, sex and voodoo. At night it is smelly and seedy, and not in a good way. Of course this meant that, after dark, we trawled the whole length of it, watching dozens of trumpeters parp up a storm at one end before sampling several bars, plastic cup of beer in hand as we watched band after band. One bar had karaoke - an utterly cliched nerd took to the stage, pudding bowl hair, thick thick specs, too small green t-shirt, dreadful skin, to the announcement that he was a karaoke virgin. His look was so like that of a sterotyped Hollywood loser, that I expected it to be revealed that we were unwitting extras in a movie, and he would sing with the voice of an angel. Alas, no. His tone-deaf drone not only murdered the song, it also dismembered it and made a lamp shade out of the skin.
We didn't spend much time in New Orleans, but in the small area we visited, you see the same individuals wandering around all the time. Aforementioned tramps, for example, or the extremely aged British gentleman, stooping, dragging three unhealthy looking dogs behind him, and complaining every time I saw him about the number of people around, in a melancholy estuary drawl. I suppose he's an incredibly famous old jazz musician of whom I'm meant to be in awe.
Outside New Orleans, we took a Louisiana swamp tour, cruising up and down the bayous and channels that I excitedly hoped were the same ones on which Roger Moore had caused such havoc in Live and Let Die. I was too shy to ask Nolan, our boat's captain, the question. So George did it for me. No, they weren't - but the location was nearby. George actually spent much of the swamp tour a bit glum because it looked increasingly likely that we weren't going to see any alligators. As we floated through under the willows and cypresses, garlanded with Spanish moss, hearing Cap'n Nolan's stories of smuggling moonshine from and ridiculing another tourist on the boat who exclaimed that she had seen a monkey (it was a squirrel) we all peered desperately into the undergrowth, only slightly placated with some snakes. Finally the alligators came, a couple of them swimming up to the boat, and leaping from the water to take the marshmallows and frankfurters on sticks proffered by Nolan (in fact, the swamps are blighted by floasting marshmallows). George brightened up, only for a bit of a dampener to be put on proceedings when we saw 'gator roadkill on the way back to New Orleans.
Sunday 24th April 2011
From New Mexico into Texas, and past signs warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers as there were penal institutions in the area. i had wanted to visit the Big Bend National Park in South West Texas, but I was stupidly careless in putting a town name into the Sat Nav. As a result i thought that the desired destination was hours further away than it actually was, and we headed instead for the rather bizarre town of Fredericksburg.
This Texas Hill Country town is dominated by a long and colourful main street, lined with Victorian town houses containing shops and cafes. Unfortunately, the main street is also 4 lanes wide and roars with traffic, and the shops are exclusively fully of twee nick-nacks and Texas kitsch aimed at the "seniors" who appear to flock into the town at weekends to spend their dollars. But I wasn't looking for fragrant bathtime products, bumper stickers stating "If you're lucky enough to be born in Texas you're lucky enough", beads, dream catchers, Sarah Palin action figures, Coca Cola memorabilia or Stetsons. A local bar and restaurant was good though, and typically Texan. George listened in muted horror as our waiter told her about the gazelle he'd shot and had stuffed (there are taxidermists everywhere).
I was keen not to spend too long in the town (George was more relaxed) but weekends are the enemy of the traveller, who, not really having much sense of what day of the week it is, will clumsily try to find somewhere to stay in a city at the last moment, only to find the place is full. So it was with Austin - we couldn't get in on the Saturday night, so we spent another day in Fredericksburg before packing up and driving to the Texan state capital.
Once in Austin we stayed in a pretty and peaceful suburb called Hyde Park, full of large wooden houses with porches and shady lawns. Downtown was about an hour's walk through the University of Texas campus and past the Capitol. We spent a day walking the streets. First in South Congress: George browsed the vintage clothes stores while I had my head shorn in a very old-school barber's. Then along the river spotting the tiny turtles bobbing by. We found the "museum of the weird", a freak show on 6th street containing cows with two heads and yellowing posters for 19th Century side shows, and drank mojitos in the wood paneled bar of the Driskell Hotel. By mid afternoon the heat had grown unbearable, and we sought shelter in an independent book store, an independent record store and the original and huge Wholefoods, spending about 40 minutes in each, simply to keep out of the sun. Whilst cowering in Wholefoods, we bought a little picnic, and then, when the heat became a bit more forgiving we walked to the little park underneath Congress Avenue Bridge and waited for the bats - for about 2 hours.
It was almost dark when the famous 1.5 million bats finally decided to leave their home under the bridge and go and find something to eat. By that time, we'd decided that the best place to view them would actually be on top of, rather than under the bridge. This proved to be good decision, and we looked down, trying in vain to get a half decent photo, as they swarmed out over the river, chirruping away. I then decided that since we were in Austin we had to see some love music and dragged George to a deserted 6th Street (it was a Monday evening) where we found a band playing loud rock covers underneath a big screen showing the basketball. About four people looked on disinterestedly. We joined them, before walking all the way back to Hyde Park in the dark. It was a bit creepy wandering past all those silent lawns and hedges, especially since we got a bit lost (thank god for the grid system).
Thursday 21st April 2011
We made one final stop before leaving Vegas - the Hertz desk, in order to sort out that pesky dashboard message. The nicest woman in the world (genuinely) helped us out. Thankfully we didn't have to switch to a third car, but our gold chariot's filter did need changing. This was done in 30 minutes, and with 35 dollars knocked off our bill we got back on the road, leading to Flagstaff, Arizona.
Flagstaff is great, a small laid back town, surrounded by pine forests and bisected by rail tracks. If you're planning to get somewhere in town, you have to add 10 minutes to the time you would ordinarily expect it to take - over 100 freight trains a day rumble through Flagstaff, and they're all about a mile long. We did a lot of waiting at the level crossing, with the warning bells clanging away.
We drove to the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff. We didn't have enough time to hike down into the canyon (or the right shoes, or clothes, or energy) and instead spent a few hours walking along the South Rim, every now and again staring across the abyss, trying to work out exactly how it had been formed and how old various parts were. George, with her superior understanding of science and geology eventually worked it out and patiently explained it to me, but any member of the National Geograpic society listening to our conversations leading up to that point would have been tearing their hair out at our ignorance. I was more interested in winding up George than learning about the planet, particularly as she had developed a bad case of nerves on our walk along the rim, perhaps understandably given the huge panorama of red cliffs (some with snow unexpectedly clinging to them) and sheer drops (it's about a mile down) in front of us. I cruelly exploited her fear by leaping onto overhanging rocks and insisting she take photos of me with my legs dangling over the edge of the hole. But I got what I deserved, sitting on and breaking the sunglasses I had bought in Le Cumbre in the process.
From Flagstaff we set off for New Mexico and another epic drive of around 8 hours. Gallons more gas pumped, herds of beef jerky gobbled down, thousands of insects smashed on the windshield, cop cars hiding behind bushes on the central reservation, memorial highways, orange suited convicts clearing litter - somehow the hours and miles pass. But turning off a main highway onto another road in New Mexico and they began to pass more slowly. The road was the loneliest in the world: either side, endless, treeless land, barely any other cars, the occasional tumbleweed or red dust storm forcing us to slow down to a crawl. The monotony was broken a couple of times by small desolate towns, all fading paint and peeling rust, not a soul in sight. At least Patagonia had all the rheas and llamas.
We finally got to Roswell. We had been speeding along in order to get to the UFO museum before it closed at 5pm and George was wearing her Battlestar Galactica t-shirt especially. Having unwittingly crossed into a different time zone during the drive we only had about 40 minutes at the museum, but that was long enough to appreciate the place, the surrounding themed gift shops and the bulbous alien headed street lamps along the road. Otherwise, like so many American towns, the commercial centre consists of gas stations, motels and fast food restaurants that are clustered along the highway running through the centre of town. We stayed in one of those motels and at at one of the food joints, a colourful themed bar/restaurant called Farleys, full of superhero and alien memorabilia and huge food portions.