Tuesday, 15 July 2008

OH, OH, BIG OL' JET AIRLINER - 0 MILES

Not far from my hotel I passed the wonderful and legendary Radio City Music Hall. As I photographed the front I also happened to read the billings. The very next night had a terrific double bill and it also had the attraction of appealing to my inner "anorak".

‘Steve Miller Band with special guest Joe Cocker’. I like both artists although it would be fair to say that if I ever made it onto ‘Desert Island Discs’ there would be other acts I would choose first. However contained deep within Steve Millers band was a secret musical weapon. So I rushed in to join the queue for tickets. Luckily there were not too many people waiting. In front of me were a party of Germans, behind them were Spanish and then there was me. The woman behind the ticket counter asked where I was from as she ‘liked to know’. Wonder if I’ll start getting junk mail from New York? I said "UK....by the look no Americans are coming to this gig." "We are”, said a family of four behind me.

I got an aisle seat in the stalls about 20 rows back. The place is vast and apparently seats up to 6,000. According to the internet it’s the largest indoor theatre in the world. However it’s not big enough for some artists. Neil Diamond is doing four nights at Madison Square Gardens which seats over 19,000. Although small by comparison, I wonder if Squeeze or Ricky Gervais will sell out as they were billed as forthcoming attractions at Radio City.

Come the concert, I guzzled a pricey gin and tonic and examined the statues and the sign which read, ‘No more than 2 alcoholic beverages per person’. Into the auditorium I went.

In El Paso, Tom Waits had been late on stage and, being an anal retentive, it irks me when this happens. Joe was on first, on time and with a fantastic 8 piece band. Can't remember the last time I saw a support act that got two encores. He was great although he did sound croakier than ever. However, he’s still a commanding presence though with some vestigial Sheffield accent in evidence which was nice despite being in exile for years.

He amazed a lot of the audience who expected ‘Up where we belong’ and ‘You are so beautiful’ - which he did. (He still can't make that last note by the way). Joe rocked out with ‘When the night comes’, ‘Come together’ and ‘Unchain my heart. Of course he had to do ‘With a little help from my friends’ and, even though he didn't do ‘Delta Lady’, he was terrific. “Wow who would have thought...Joe Cocker really rawks", said one guy as we headed towards the ‘restrooms’.

Long queue of blokes with prostate trouble meant it took and age to get too and from the khazi before Steve Miller came on to ‘take us to Swingtown’, which he opened with. He ran the gamut of musical styles from rock to blues to country and – yes, he was there in the band. One of my idols:

This all goes back to my formative years when me and my mate Andy; two spotty middle class teenagers played pubs and clubs in and around Birmingham as our version of blues greats Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. We were, erm, boys from the, er, ghetto....... As a result I’ve long been a fan of great harmonica players

There he was Steve Miller's long time sideman harmonica player Norton Buffalo. I’ve been a fan of his from his days with ‘Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen’, through his solo work which I have featured on the show and will again, to 32 years with Steve Miller. He was on tremendous form and was featured prominently on ‘Wild mountain honey’ and ‘Wintertime’. They played for two hours and were tremendous.

What a great way to end my month in the US. How do you top that??? Well I was a mite hungry so headed for a Deli for a proper New York sandwich.......Corned beef on Rye.

Now have to think of planning next years US adventure. For all the statistics on how far, how many states and how much fuel I used, head over to my weekly blog and I will update that as soon as I have found all the screwed up receipts amongst the dirty washing in my bag.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

NOW PAUL IS A REAL ESTATE NOVELIST - 171 MILES

The month has gone by really quickly. Seemingly far quicker than last year’s trip. I set off about 11 and had gone a few miles before hunger struck, so I pulled in somewhere. One thing I’ve noticed particularly this time - either it is senility or everywhere looks the same, but if it carries on like this I will only be able to tell where I am by the temperature and the colours: 30C Green. Must be North. 40C Yellow. Must be south. 35C erm Taupe. Must be in the middle?

As I hadn’t the opportunity to eat much seafood while I was in Maine and New Hampshire, this was my last chance before New York and its culinary delights. Jack's Seafood Barn Family Restaurant seemed ideal. That wasn’t its name but probably quite close. If you want to sell anything it's probably a good idea to add the words ‘Barn’, ‘Town’, or ‘Ville’ and possibly the name of your establishment. Bung in a reference to God isn’t out of order and it’s probably not a bad idea to stick the world ‘family’ in there as well.

That way you get ‘BoozeBarn’ or ‘Vehicleville’ or ‘Jack's Christian Family gunsmith, drug liquor Barn Laundromatville’. Anyhow back to the food. The place was like so many establishments around the world - a mass of junk. I sat in this restaurant expecting a load of license plates, traffic signals and fisherman's floats to come down on my head if I coughed violently.

Decided that the shrimp served on a bed of pasta with a Cesar salad would be a good light-ish lunchtime choice. Iced water and popcorn arrived. Seems to be the equivalent of bread on the east coast. I had a taste and no more. Those words: "Don't fill up on bread" wandered around my brain. The picture shows what arrived. It was vast. It was delicious. It was very difficult to finish. I nearly succeeded. I then tottered to the parking lot and headed south.

You may remember that last year I returned the car to the airport and then took a cab into Manhattan. Admittedly I did end up at Newark airport rather than JFK first-off after being rattled by the New Jersey Turnpike. This time I researched the route and had absolutely no trouble. I went straight to JFK and then got hopelessly lost trying to find the rental return. After going round the airport a couple of times, I finally found one of the many security guys who pointed me in the right direction. Passed a few signs for ‘Kiss and Fly’.

This seems a new thing and it’s probably meant to ease ones passage, rather than being anything saucy. Maybe for newlyweds or people having affairs. For the rest of us, and people in long term relationships, you have to check- in at the "Peck and Flee" desk.

The car had operated pretty neatly for the whole journey and I will tell you in a later blog how many miles I travelled and how much I spent on petrol. One thing is certain, it cost more than last year. The car, although a convertible, wasn't as cool as the Mustang I had last year so I didn't really care about leaving it behind caked in dust and factor 30 sun.

Cab into Manhattan and to the Wellington Hotel which I'd booked that morning over the internet. It was a last minute purchase which kept the cost down. Pulled up, paid up and went into the elevator with the bell hop. It was stifling in there. "It’s directly above the furnaces" he told me. "Last summer I was trapped in here for 2 hours. They had to rip the top of the elevator car off to get me out. Had a month off on full pay."

I have one day in New York and lots of chores to do. For instance I’ve been carrying half written and unsent postcards to family and friends in my bag since Lake Superior. Better send them. I have CD's to buy, although perhaps due to the terrain, I listened to a lot more than just Country Radio this time so the music I'm planning on buying will be more varied. Sundry friends and colleagues have put in requests for me to bring stuff back for them but, judging by the size of my suitcase, they may be disappointed.

As I set off down 7th Avenue a woman on her cellphone waiting at a crossing started yelling at a cab driver stuck in traffic blowing his horn: "Why you laying on your horn, Nothing’s moving? Asshole!" This is such a great city. As I continued walking I looked up and noticed something. Went in and immediately bought a ticket.

WE RAN ON THE BEACH WITH KENNEDY FLAIR - 175 MILES

Started the day by doing some laundry. Overnight the Boston Water company had repaired the leak and normal service was resumed. I needed to do two loads and a nice woman had got there first. She had six children, although some were grown up, and I think she had a few spare ones with her as well. It turned out her husband worked for DELL - I hope it paid well with all those mouths to feed. She told me he’d been in the navy during the 70's and that she had followed him round the world. That’s love for you. It also means that if you follow a bloke on a ship, the chances are they go from one trouble spot to another. From what she told me she was in Barcelona when General Franco died. Then it was onto Greece for The Coup when the army took over. Later she arrived in Lisbon for the ‘Carnation Revolution’. It was a great treat to talk to her as we did her smalls. Despite 6, or was it 8 children - I guess it is easy to forget when you have so many, her smalls were considerably smaller than mine. Being a Brit I tried not to stare.

Valet guy managed to locate my car from somewhere in Boston and I set off for Cape Cod. It took so little time to get there and was so crowded, that I carried on and found a turning for "Martha's Vineyard", an island and playground for the rich. There’s a ferry that demands ID before you’re allowed to board. That irked me slightly and made me think of Jersey with its regulation of incomers, so I decided against it and headed for Providence.

Two mega expensive hotels in town so I did my usual trick of heading to the outskirts where I found West Greenwich. This was more my style. I booked into a cheap motel and headed for a bar.

There were only a couple of people in the bar – a callow youth who was slowly and shovelling ‘chicken tenders’ down himself. Turns out he was the son of the owner and the bar staff were quizzing him about stuff. He airily said at one point. "My Mom y'know is like really old. She's 52 and seen that movie ‘The Bucket List’. Now she keeps saying she wants to do all this stuff before she dies...." I kept listening. "I don't have a list but I'd like a big bike y'know......and a Tommy Gun like the Gangsters used". The chap to my left piped up: “You can get them new. I've got a dozen guns. Ain't got one like that. All legal but if the Police want to come a-callin’…”. He’d slowly been filling himself up with pretty much anything that was going.

When the full sign went up, he staggered out. Next thing I heard was the sound of a motorcycle starting up. In the approaching dusk this bloke slowly weaved his way out of the parking lot. Helmet on? No he just wore the Bandana.

Then a number of women in sports outfits (skirts, shorts numbered shirts), burst in and ordered food and drinks. They were just back from softball practice. Not quite a Norman Rockwell painting but it was on the way. Life in a small town..eh?

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

I'M SHIPPING UP TO BOSTON - 79 MILES

Short day - however I wanted to see Boston. Also I’m now only a short hop to New York so I have plenty of time in hand. The East Coast is pretty crowded compared to West and The Plains. This is also the place where the history, in a British sense, starts to kick in.

Did the usual trick of heading Downtown and this time I found a hotel fairly easily although, admittedly, it’s the most expensive one I’ve stayed in so far. My car was snaffled off me by the valet parking guy who vanished round the corner with it at high speed. I wonder how Ferrari owners feel about valet parking guys?

I was in dire need. Blog fans may have noticed that I’ve not mentioned my laundry lately. There’s a very good reason for this – I haven't had the chance to do any. A couple of days ago I checked into a hotel that boasted a guest’s launderette. These are terrific as you can wash and dry a big load of clothes for around $3 including the powder. In Kennebunk the motel had a laundry. So after getting the right number of quarters from the receptionist, I scuttled with my reeking bag and duly loaded the machine. I put a dollars worth of quarters into the slide in the coin drawer and pushed. Now the idea with these machines is this. It’s a simple transaction: coins in, powder out. On this occasion coin drawer in.......stayed in. I was unable to reclaim the coins and there was no powder!

I called the front desk. They couldn't help. The machine was run by a contractor who wouldn't be around until later in the week. How about they give me a cup of detergent from their own on site laundry -the one they use to wash sheets and towels and stuff? Nope. It was a closed circuit system and all the powder was in pipes that fed directly into the machines. I reclaimed my filthy clothes and stamped out into the street.

For the past few days the weather has been fairly mild but it decided to heat up and in the most humid way. So much so Bostonians were fanning themselves and complaining about the humidity. My hotel was in the theatre district but many of the theatres appeared to be closed for the summer and/or were being refurbished. There’s a lot of building work going on to beautify the centre of this city. It has some lovely old, (honestly what we would call old), 18th century buildings. They’re certainly the oldest I’ve seen during this trip, apart from Alamo, and in many places the pavements are of brick and undulating.

I walked up to Boston Common, a park where a selection of bums shrank back from the terrible stench emanating from this red-faced sweating man. They could see I had the wild eyed look of a man on a mission.

I liked the TV show ‘Frasier’ and ‘Cheers’ even more so and I had to visit the bar which is on Beacon Street. A man in his fifties in smart shorts and a tennis shirt saw me peering at the street plan. "Need any help?" he enquired. "Cheers, original or the replica? The real one is about seven blocks that way." His name was Mike and he’d travelled. He had been to the UK and also to Australia so he made a pleasant companion for a few blocks until he veered off either to his destination or to get away from the stench which had become too much for him.

I found it and it was just as I remembered. Down the steps, opened the door and..........A totally different and packed bar greeted my eyes which also had a T shirt and souvenir shop at the back. As I left without buying a drink, much to the relief of the clientele and staff no doubt, I saw a sign which explained that only the outside was used in the TV show. The inside was a studio mock up.

By now I had a raging thirst so I stopped at a lemonade stand. Using just one lemon, the man made me possibly the most delicious drink I’ve ever tasted. No idea how he did it but it was perfect. Tasty and very refreshing. Not sure if lemonade is a local delicacy but there are stands of this kind all over the city.

I walked down to the harbour where you can go on whale-watching trips. I also did part of the Heritage Trail. This can make uncomfortable reading for a Brit - and an Englishman in particular, as it charts all the terrible things we did not only to the local population but also to the colonists who later on became ‘Americans’. Also there are a couple of bronze statues which mark the Irish potato Famine. According to the bronze plaques we don't come out of that one smelling of roses either. The Heritage Trail winds its way around town and I paused at the old State House. This was the site of the Boston Massacre of 1770 in which five people were shot by our soldiers. Not sure how many qualify as a massacre, but it if was a massacre it must have been a relatively small one as massacres go. Come on guys move on, it’s more than 200 years ago!!

Had a pizza and some more fab lemonade then headed to the hotel lounge which promised ‘Open Mic’ night. Was this stand up comedy? NO! A rather camp man appeared with his very elderly mother. While he adjusted and tuned the piano, she dusted it and also wiped a large glass tips jar very, very carefully. As he started his first show tune I headed out into the humid night air.

Found a bar round the corner and watched the Red Sox game. Although I’ve watched hours of baseball and have even been to a game, I’ve still absolutely no idea what is going on. WE chuckle about it being akin to ‘Rounder’s’. I don't really think it is. I see it more as an opportunity for guys to chew gum, possibly tobacco, and posture a lot before spitting on the ground. There is some running and sliding involved too. However the best bit is the fan discussions. They bandy on about batting averages and "inning" at one another and talk of "road trips". I even (nerd that I am), have an old LP of Chicago Cubs radio commentary from the 50s through to the 70s: "It’s a one and two pitch to Billy Williams!!!!" No idea what that means.

After returning to the hotel, I picked up some ‘complimentary detergent and fabric softener’ from reception and hurried to the 15th floor laundry to suds my duds.......A sensor in a water main was telling the water company it was about to burst. So an emergency team had rushed to the road outside the hotel and turned all the water off!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

RED SNAPPERS SNAPPIN' CLAM SHELLS CLAPPIN - 192 MILES

So far on this trip I’ve been lucky. Many people have said "Watch out for this" or "Watch out for that" and "You won't find a hotel as its July 4th." "Everyone is armed and you will be shot to death for smiling at a stranger"…….OK maybe not that last one.

However, I will admit to being pretty lucky with accommodation for the July 4th weekend. Maybe it's because of our American cousins misfortune with their fuel prices. I know it’s easy to mock the fact that they're now paying just over $4 per gallon (U.S gallons are slightly smaller than Imperial), when we’re paying far more. However, their fuel hike has been 39% in 12 months, so they’re definitely feeling the pinch - not that we aren't in the UK I hasten to add. Due to the fuel increase many Americans decided to stop at home this Independence Day so there were far more places for me to stay without difficulty.

With that in mind after my riotous night in Bangor, I headed down south. I’m now not so very far from my destination for this trip - New York. I’m ticking off the (comparatively), tiny states on the East Coast – Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island. Perhaps Connecticut, it’s difficult to follow. So after a gentle driving day, following people heading back home after the holiday through pleasant enough scenery, it was time to find a motel for the night. I headed down to Kennebunkport. It’s a pretty and tiny settlement of wooden houses and a lot of yachts in the harbour. It’s also packed with tourists.



So I dropped the "port" and settled for the "bunk" by driving the mile and a half to Kennebunk. Booked into a motel which, like most on my journey down, had the ‘Vacancy’ signs lit. No worries about accommodation then?

It was time for some food. "Try Mikes Clam Shack," the receptionist said. Mmmm the thought of Maine Lobster was making me slobber. A shortish walk to the restaurant revealed not so much a rustic bar come cafe but a large purpose-built restaurant packed with people shovelling seafood down themselves and, judging by the queue, there was a waiting time for a table of about an hour.

A quick peek up and down the road revealed a steak house which also boasted seafood. When I got there it was also packed. I thought a beer might soothe the savage breast but all they could offer me was a drink in a plastic cup and a seat in a waiting area. Every few minutes an ear splitting PA system would shout "Eagleburger party of eight...your table is ready". Cobblers to this I thought. So, practically within sight of the coast I walked to a petrol station and bought some beer, before trudging to the local McDonalds. Bad Mood!

In previous excursions I’ve had to keep the beer covered with a bag so the label didn't show but on this occasion no-one seemed to bat an eyelid. I opted for what I thought was the healthy chicken option and asked the kid behind the counter, "Am I allowed to carry beer in here?" He grinned goofily at me without replying.

It reminded me of my night in Plattsburg when I went into the liquor store in search of some beer. They didn't have any. "Where’s your beer?" I enquired - "We don't sell it. We’re licensed to sell beverages with an alcohol content of more than 1%" ME: "Erm doesn't that include beer?" THEM: "Yes, it’s just a New York State law". I tried the other liquor store in town just to make sure they weren't goofing me. They said the same thing but added: "You can buy beer at the gas station".

Whilst chowing down on my ‘healthy’ chicken meal I read the nutritional info. It was one of the most calorific and fattiest meals they did! I should have done the burger

Sunday, 6 July 2008

DOWN DRINKING AT THE BAR - 336 MILES

Woke up fairly early again and it was a beautiful morning as I headed down to the ferry. It’s a 12 minute journey across Lake Champlain to Grand Isle Vermont. As I was buying my ticket I noticed a yellow sign with a "1" on it. I asked the clerk what that was: "It’s our security alert the Government make us put it up.” "Is that high?" I enquired. "No don't think so”, was the reply.

I had a quick internet check and apparently there are 5 levels. However it never goes below yellow so it’s, err more a 3 level system. He seemed unconcerned by it all and rather shrugged it off. It reminded me that I have my UK Government ‘Duck and cover’ envelope attached by a magnet to my fridge door at home. Do you still have yours? Do you know where it is???

Flat calm across the lake and then off I went again. Vermont is absolutely beautiful – miles of hills, mountains and trees. I got onto highway 2 and stayed on it practically all day. At one point deep in the forest there were major roadworks although they’d stopped for the holiday. The end result was that the entire road surface had been removed and for 2 miles I followed a cloud of dust that was the vehicle in front, expecting any moment to burst a tyre.

After spending months seemingly in Texas and quite a while in Michigan and also New York, Vermont came and went as did New Hampshire until I reached Bangor Maine. I did the usual trick of heading downtown and, like Kansas City and Buffalo, I was thwarted by the lack of hotels. I headed out of town and found a motel. Would everything be booked up for the holiday as I’d been warned? "Got a room?", "Yup”, so I booked into ‘The White House’. Remember we are heading close to Kennedy country here. You get a lot of motel for your money. I turned my nose up at a perfectly adequate outdoor pool and examined my room carefully.

Huge bed CHECK. Enormous TV CHECK. Air conditioning unit CHECK. Internet CHECK. CD player CHECK. CD about the life of JFK CHECK. Relaxation CD's (2) CHECK. CHECK. Vibrating massage chair CHECK. I sat in it and it pummelled me and massaged my calves it was actually quite painful but it did make me laugh at lot. No idea how these things work, but my best guess is there’s a dwarf hiding inside.

There was a truck stop over the road so I went over and had a plate of broiled chicken, parmesan and spaghetti. No pudding for you tonight my lad. Thought I would have a quick drink in the basement bar of the hotel then go to bed - after all it was nearly 8pm.

Biiig mistaaaake! When I arrived, there were just a couple of guys there and the barmaid, who I later found out was called Robyn. I got a beer and she thrust a huge basket of salted popcorn under my nose. We started chatting and suddenly there was a commotion as one of the guys started dancing loudly to the jukebox with lots of thigh slapping and stamping. He was an oldish looking dude with a red face and a long white beard. After flailing away for a couple of minutes he sat down and started chatting with his friend.

Robyn told me she lived way up in the woods and had 35 acres to her name. She showed me a picture of a gushing stream that ran through her property and told me that she was going to turn about 4 acres into growing fruit. Suddenly the dancing and the slapping started again. We gave each other a look. This guy was a regular.

Being nosey I tried to keep one ear on his conversation but it was very hard to follow as he seemed to be speaking in tongues. After one more outbreak of frenzied dancing he sat down and talked to me.....I gleaned his name was Larry. What else he said I have no idea. He bought me a drink. In fact he bought a drink for "the whole dang place" (Check the bottom of the page lyric fans). Then his frenzied dancing started again. I was sufficiently in with Robyn by this time to suggest he reminded me of the incomprehensible character ‘Boomhauer’ from the cartoon show ‘King of the Hill’. She laughed and agreed.

Larry sat down again. As time went on I gleaned that he was Acadian. He was either from New Brunswick Canada or from Louisiana. Either way this is where Acadian's or "Cajuns" come from. What he was speaking was a form of heavily accented French - well not just French he was also talking American English as well. He admitted that due to the booze and all the LSD he’d done in his youth, he only effectively had half of each language so had to swap between the two, midway through a sentence. His friend seemed to understand him well enough though. The actual timbre of his voice made him sound a bit like ‘Compo’ from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. It was absolutely baffling but he was such a nice guy. Other people drifted in and out and Larry bought them all drinks while he danced away, stopping every so often to feed the jukebox.

He was such a catalyst that soon everyone was talking to each other. At this point I stopped remembering names. I talked to one guy who in his 48 years had owned 66 motorcycles. He admitted he was a fool for driving 140 mph down a country road without a crash helmet.

Another man didn't say anything at all because he had a terrible stammer but sat and beamed as Larry did another dance. A couple of retirees came in for a drink before heading off to bed as they were on a fishing trip. The older of the two suggesting that he was amazed he was still alive at his age. However both elderly men perked up when Robyn sashayed up to them in her skimpy shorts. Naturally for dramatic purposes the TV was showing a Viagra ad as I recount this tale. She’d had 4 children and was now divorced.....at that moment Larry started dancing again and ordered another round of drinks for everyone.

I helped out too. I remember putting Stevie Ray Vaughan on the jukebox. I must have eaten all the popcorn too. I do remember Larry insisting on buying "shots" for everyone.

Robyn was very disparaging about the President and the current state of the US and its standing in the world. She seemed pretty liberal and it was good to hear an opposing view for a change. Suddenly it was one o'clock in the morning and we all drifted off to bed. Well I bounced off the walls as I made my way along the corridor to my room. It was lined with pictures of all the US presidents. Each had a small paragraph attached and I vaguely remember Abraham Lincoln – ‘First President to wear a beard and the first one to be assassinated’. Some comfort no doubt as he lay on the floor of his box at Ford's Theatre having been shot in the head at point blank range.

In the morning I woke up with a slight headache and one fact in my mind from the night before. The energetic, mad dancing Larry with the red face and the long white beard was actually one year older than me!!

Song reference: Tracey Byrd "Ten rounds with Jose Cuervo".

ITS WIN AND PLACE AND SHOW - 284 MILES

Woke very early as the walls of the wooden motel were rather thin and, as I was on the ground floor, I think the sewage pipe from upstairs went down inside the wall partition.

Also a beeping sound emanated from the next door room which started at about 5am and didn't stop - Next door being the office which was unoccupied. So I got up and did my morning ablutions, rather irked that I was on the ground floor so was unable to flush noisily enough to wake others. I posted the room key through the letter box of the still empty office and got into the car and headed off.

It was July 4th - would I be able to find anywhere to stay because people had been issuing dire warnings as to my likelihood of finding accommodation on this big holiday. Resigned to sleeping in the car and probably being eaten by bears. I decided to take a scenic route east (ish) as I wanted to drive the Adirondack Mountains.

The road led to Rome and then winded gradually up into the mountains. The views were terrific. The sun shone. There was quite a lot of traffic and, having digested the salmon stuffed with crabmeat from the night before, I decided I needed breakfast. I pulled up outside a country store at Joe's Forge and went in and sat down at the counter. Ordered ham and 2 poached eggs ‘over easy’. I’m still not entirely conversant with the easiness of eggs so I questioned the hapless woman behind the counter. From what she said it appears to be how runny you want them to be. I like runny eggs so mine were less "easy" more of a pushover. When the food arrived it was a thin slice of ham, two fine eggs on a paper plate and plastic cutlery which I loathe. Perhaps they thought I looked dangerous or something. I did note on the specials board they were doing burgers and ‘Freedom Fries’, so I suspect they are suspicious of foreigners.

Back into the sunshine, I headed off over the mountains. At one point a small traffic jam occurred as we waited patiently for a deer and her faun to cross the road. On the radio a news report stated that 17 people had contracted Lyme disease. Apparently it’s a tic born bacteria that is carried by erm… deer. Old Forge. Long Lake, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake came and went. Then I swept into Lake Placid. (Thinks: ‘hang on I recognise that name.’) Site of the 1980 Winter Olympics and also the 1932 version. Remarkable for being the occasion Norwegian figure skater and later Hollywood actress Sonja Henie successfully defended her title. Also more surprising and coincidental, I was once sent a lock of hair by a listener from Scotland who claimed to be a reincarnation of Sonja and my wife. I felt right at home as I hurried out the other side.

I stopped in Plattsburgh just over the road from the ‘Rip Van Winkle’ Motel to do a telephone interview with Matthew Wright for his Radio 2 show. It seemed to go pretty well so when I get back I will hassle him to appear on his TV show. Where to stay the night was the next question after all it was July 4th. Didn't fancy the ‘Rip’ just in case I fell asleep and didn't wake up for 20 years. I could have gone in and airily mentioned that the original story was set in the Catskills not the Adirondack's. No, that was churlish, so I headed along the highway again and eventually found another place. "Got a room?" "Why sure no problem" said the woman behind the reception desk. Transpired she’d been studying in Europe but hadn't visited the UK as it was too expensive.

The pound may not be doing so well against the Euro these days but it’s still strong against the dollar. The standard of accommodation I’ve found is universally high. So for the equivalent of about £50 I got half an acre of room which opened onto the terrace next to a rather fine indoor pool. It was too good an opportunity to miss so I flopped in and lazily paddled up and down for ten minutes before heading for a restaurant.

As I have said in an earlier blog. A diet, or a change of diet, is going to have to occur when I get back. I hauled myself up onto a stool at a branch of Applebee's, perused the menu and decided on the "12 Oz New York Strip" with a topping of parmesan and shrimp and seasonal vegetables. I started to have that sort of body image thing going on in my head: "You are disgusting. Look at the size of you ugh ugh ugh!" Then I heard the sound of voices swapping languages and food. Two French Canadians were shovelling all matter of stuff down themselves with lots of lip-smacking and finger-licking. I felt marginally better about myself. It’s all a question of scale – if you’re overweight, stand next to fatter folk! Was sufficiently cheered to finish up with the ‘triple chocolate meltdown’.

AS LONG AS NIAGARA FALLS... - 236 MILES


Not seen many enormous breathtaking, and famous, examples of American scenery on this trip although the country has mostly been very pretty. At last, out of Michigan and into New York State. I headed for the Niagara Falls. The weather was so vile it occurred to me that maybe more water was falling from the skies than was pouring over the falls.

They straddle the US/Canadian border with the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side and American Falls...you are ahead of me. As with tourist attractions all over the world this majestic sight is afloat in a sea of Tat. Horrible souvenirs and hotels and casinos abound. How this place can be described as romantic I have no idea. Maybe I’d feel better about it if a) The weather was fine, b) It was night when they are illuminated with coloured lights and c) I was with a woman rather than being a bloke by himself.

Decided it would be a good idea to go to the Canadian side to get a better view. In order to do that you have to cross the ‘Rainbow Bridge’. I can only assume it’s called that because of the sun shining through the spray. On a day like today it’s just a grey metal thing with cars and pedestrians on it. I trudged across it in the sleet and, when I arrived at the Canadian side, I was met by a smiling and efficient Immigration officer who took my passport and stamped it. Spent about 20 minutes taking a few pics and then headed back, having decided against going on the ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat ride which takes you up close to the Horseshoe Falls. I squelched back to the Rainbow bridge and made my way into the Control Building only to discover that to get back to the US I had to put a quarter in a turnstile! So it’s free to go to Canada but 25 cents to go to the US.

When I entered the US immigration building wringing wet, I was subject to the full force of "Homeland security". An unsmiling officer barked questions at me asking where I’d been - "Erm…. Canada for 20 minutes". “Had I bought anything? Where was I going?” At least they didn't take my photo and fingerprint me like they do on initial entry to America. As I left the building I noticed they were searching a bag belonging to an elderly Muslim. I suspect some racial profiling was going on there.

It was then into the car and off in the direction of the Adirondack Mountains. Like Michigan and Minnesota before it there are a lot of lakes and so I eventually found myself in Sylvan Beach by Oneida Lake and booked into a small Motel. I got the last room and was told that as it was a resort and it being July 4th the next day, everywhere was fully booked.

I decided to saunter around and have something to eat. There were lots of nice wooden buildings as the place is a mass of rather grand chalets and you could say everyone’s doing jolly boating related stuff and lots of fishing. Went into ‘Captain Johns’ and ordered a rather fine Salmon stuffed with Crab meat. After Alex was stuffed with Salmon stuffed with Crab meat, I headed for a bar. I heard music and went into a place called ‘Harpoon Eddie's’. As I ordered a drink, a couple of drunken women accosted me and asked if I was Australian. This happens 9 out of 10 times. As I made to sit down they said I couldn't - not out of blind prejudice but because their husbands were about to come back from having a cigarette outside.

So I stood and struck up a conversation with the bloke next to me who correctly guessed I was English. Despite my protestation, he paid for my drink and he said his name was ‘Wrencher’ so-called because as a child he’d hoiked out one of his milk teeth with a pair of pliers. He’d obviously been there for some time and, as well as his beer in front of him, he had a small plastic cup with a tissue folded inside. Every so often he would spit a load of tobacco juice into it. Because of the proximity of the cup to his mouth, and the fact it had a tissue inside it didn't make the "ptui.......tang" noise you associate with this practice, which was a slight disappointment.

He was very affable showing me a picture of his Harley Davidson and also a near naked photo of his ex-wife on his mobile phone. He was also a mass of prejudices.

Rather like the redneck I met last year he hated the French. It seemed churlish of me to point out that as it was nearly July 4th surely he should recognise the aid France gave to the US in the War of Independence? He also hated fat people and admitted to never having watched Al-Jazeera TV but said that everyone on it should be killed. He also made some rather disparaging remarks about Arab headgear.

His job was as an insurance agent - insuring churches. He insured all denominations except Catholics. They have their own insurance agent he explained. He also hated born again Christians as they’d obviously made a mess of their lives and hadn't gotten it right the first time. I didn't ask him if he insured Mosques.

I bought him a drink and made my excuses. As I left I noticed he was wearing a ‘Stars and Stripes’ sweater. Tsk…. now surely everyone knows about US "Flag etiquette: The flag should only be worn as a patch on the uniform of military personnel. Firemen, Policemen and members of Patriotic organisations. Oh, he did like Jeremy Clarkson though!

Thursday, 3 July 2008

SHUFFLE OFF TO BUFFALO - 237 MILES.

After leaving the truck stop and its assorted creatures of the night behind, I set off quite early. It was then I discovered I was not making the progress that I'd expected. I had intended to make it to Niagara Falls but, as the day wore on and the miles of Pennsylvania stretched before me, this became increasingly unlikely. Still no matter I was enjoying the open road. The woods - and there are miles and miles of them, although they were different looking woods to the woods I’d travelled through in Minnesota and Michigan, were enjoyable enough. You can tell from this studious description that I majored in Botany.

Pennsylvania is not what I would call a tourist hub. This is part of the reason I have been travelling like this. Off the beaten track is more illuminating and travel, as we are often told, broadens the mind. You have to admire the Americans for so many things. Not least for their marketing expertise as I flashed past one of the many Hospice related billboards.

‘Stein Hospice -“It’s not about giving up. Its about living until you die." There was another which pictured a Doctor saying: "I know if it was MY Mother...!"

Would we be able to cope with such techniques over here? The roadside billboards and signs outside shops are an endless source of wonder. Although two which stick in the memory and made me smile read as follows. The first was outside a branch of ‘Hooters’. This is where scantily clad women serve you burgers: "Plagiarism saves time" and another outside a tattoo parlour: "We're a hole lot better. Get poked by a pro"

As I’ve mentioned before there are many things about the US that are a constant delight and also some that make me feel uncomfortable. As we head for July 4th I’m wondering what the outpouring of patriotism will be like as they celebrate getting rid of us all those years ago. Will it be a flag fest? Or rather like Christmas in the UK is it just another excuse to get drunk and spend money on stuff and have the day off.

By the time 6pm came around it was obvious that Niagara wasn't an option so I turned my attention to Buffalo in New York State. As I’ve done so often in the past I headed for Downtown in search of a hotel and could only find one. It said on a billboard outside ‘Valet parking $15’. That seemed a bit stiff for that whole car jacking thing. I’ve never paid more than $5 for it in the past. In fact when I asked the guy on reception at the hotel in Ann Arbor if he thought that was about right as a tip, he said it was spot on.

For that price I would want the car to be properly valeted which actually meant getting rid of all the old newspapers in the boot and wiping the Factor 30 smears off the dashboard. As the weather has been changeable to put it mildly over the last few days, I’ve had the roof up meaning there’s not a lot of need for the sun block as there hasn't been much to block. I headed out of town, thwarted by the lack of hotels, and then drove for miles through a grim suburb until the road opened up into a twee little town called Williamsville and a welcoming motel.

They had everything I needed, except laundry facilities, so I booked in. No tucking in service here. However similar to the Ann Arbor hotel, as I was unpacking, (getting the toothbrush out), the phone rang. "Was everything OK with the room?" “Yes, fine, nice of you to ask. Not found the Gideon Bible yet but everything else is in order.”

After a quick shower it was out into town. This involved going next door to a bar and grill which was distinctly upmarket compared to many of the places I’ve visited in the past. Still full from a corporate American fast food lunch, I decided that a few beers would do the trick.

I can't remember how many I’d had but when I went back to the bar the barman said "no". What? I don't think I was drunk and staggering, spoiling for a fight...”I love you your my pal you are etc”. He then poured me another and said: "On the house". Buy 4 get the fifth free?

Reminded me a little of an old Reg Smythe ‘Andy Capp’ cartoon from the old non-pc days. Andy hands his pint to Florrie his wife and says: "Sup this will yer pet?” She turns to the reader and says: "Its his thirteenth".

BESIDES THE MEXICAN FOOD SUCKS NORTH OF HERE ANYWAY - 322 MILES

A day of aimless meandering through some pretty countryside with plenty of woods although try as I might I couldn't manage to get the brain and map suitable meshed to enable me to drive along the shores of Lake Erie. Instead I just took wild swings off the freeway in order to leave the ribbon of concrete. Not an unpleasant day but just one that was unremarkable. In many ways I think I’ve been spoiled on my previous trip by the spectacular scenery of Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite etc. Perhaps my expectations are too high.

Not that I'm having a lousy time - far from it. It’s quite a nice feeling bowling along in the sunshine with a more or less completely empty head. I left Michigan and entered Ohio. As with last year, by the time I was in the East of the country the toll roads started. The Ohio Turnpike came first and for $3 this took me all the way into Pennsylvania. About a mile after leaving the Ohio turnpike the same road became the Pennsylvania turnpike and I had to fork out again.

Due to my circuitous route down some back roads, dotted with some rather grim ramshackle housing and abandoned vehicles and by the look of it people too, I ended up in Hubbard.
This is back in Ohio. I booked into a motel at a truck stop and sought out the nearest bar. Well in fact the only bar – ‘Erin's’. This was a small place with a clientele that resembled that bar in ‘Star Wars’. There were a few tables but the only people inside were a gaggle of drivers all sitting on stools around a smallish U-shaped bar area. Oh and one brightly painted woman. Not sure what she was doing there....welI actually I think I did. She would appear and disappear from time to time, although she never got as far as me.

This saloon configuration (yes, it had batwing doors!) makes talking easier. It’s a bit like the bar in "Cheers" meaning you can yell at the people over on the other side. A drunk was wandering around shouting drunken guy stuff to all and sundry and a huge man with a ZZ Top beard and hair was making a thumbing motion with his hand in the drunk’s direction. He caught my eye and yelled across the bar: "Goddam remote won't work! Trying to turn him down". "Perhaps your battery is flat," I roared back at him. Well, actually it sounded rather feeble and piping above the hubbub.

I don't know why it is - and it's just an observation rather than one of those ‘funny foreigners’ things that so many people do, but Americans are boisterous and often loud. I think it must be the result of years of being outside and having to shout across long distances. That and to make themselves heard above the elements. Being here and seeing people in their natural habitat doesn't make me think – ‘they are sooo noisy I wish they would quieten down’, it actually makes me think, ‘why are we Brits so buttoned up and reserved?’ Perhaps it’s because of our distinct natures. They are open and positive and we are closed and negative. These are obviously generalisations of course. Also as much as I like travelling, it is always good to get home to the UK again.

However there are a number of pressing issues that need addressing. I must get some laundry done. I’ve come to the end of my clothes again. Many motels have their own launderette but the luck of the draw at the moment is that I’ve managed to book into the ones that don't. Although they may boast other facilities which are welcome such as swimming pools and gyms.

Then there’s the next problem. After last year’s trip where the food and my gluttony managed to pack on the pounds - which I didn't really lose, yet more is being packed on, so when I get back I will have to go on a very public diet in an attempt to get down to something manageable and be able to do up the top button of my jeans.

It is insidious. Everywhere you look there are food outlets. I stopped for a late breakfast and shovelled more burger and Swiss cheese related stuff down me. Still, for the first time EVER in all the weeks that I’ve spent here in the US, the waitress said "have a nice day" as I left.

At the current rate of expansion I think by the time I get to New York they are going to have to cut the car off me as it’s getting harder to get in and out.

As I left Erin's that night having consumed nearly a bucket of monkey nuts they had helpfully left in front of me, I found myself in another burger bar availing myself of the "2 for one" offer.


Maybe that’s why Americans are so loud? They have to shout above the noise of their thighs rubbing together

THY LAKEBOUND SHORES I LONG TO SEE - 264 MILES

Next time I come over to the US I’m going to get a better map. Or better still Sat-Nav I’ve decided after thousands of miles of nothing. As the population centres are not so far apart, (comparatively speaking), I’m relying more and more on the cars compass and I’m finding myself on roads that aren't marked. Whilst this is all part of the voyage of discovery it does mean that it is sometimes difficult to achieve your objective. I thought a nice gentle drive down the peninsular would be nice meandering down some back roads sniffing the pines and lake spotting.

As I screamed down the Interstate once more I felt that a bit of culture was called for - so I headed for a town that I’ve known of for years. I've dozens of CD's in my collection in the spare room which contain the words ‘Recorded live at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival’ or some such. There was bound to be something moving in town.

There was…so I went. But first off I had to find somewhere to stay and, as most of the motels are miles out from the centre of town, I headed in and drove round and round and round and round….then round and round some more until found one. It was slap bang in the middle just off the University Campus. Big with students this place so much so that you feel incredibly ancient creaking along the streets surrounded by ‘Skaterboi's, Goths, Punks, Hippies and Frat Rats’, oh and the occasional nerd - but they can be any age I suppose.

Not sure if you’re born into geekdom or develop it like disease? No, that can't be true, as I haven't seen any adverts for its cure: ‘Are you suffering from chronic Nerd? Do you find yourself repeating old Monty Python routines whilst alone in your bedroom playing computer games? You need 'Geekbegone'!’

Booked into the hotel and a young man, who went into "Sir" overdrive took my keys and hid my car somewhere. This is my first valet parking experience of this trip. It always feels strange giving your car keys to a stranger who then drives off in it. The same stranger then gives it back on payment of $5 or thereabouts. The hotel also had a proliferation of "begging messages" thinly disguised as services. I usually leave a few dollars for the housekeeping people and this place posted a "turn down service". When I asked what this was I was told that at 11pm someone would come to my room and turn the bed down and put the light on for me. "A bit like Mummy coming to tuck me in?" I beamed. There was a silence as another shaft a devastating "Briddish Humor" fell to the floor - to be vacuumed up by "housekeeping" later on.

As luck would have it the hotel was only a stones throw from the venue which was the ‘Top of the Park’ – part of the Ann Arbor Summer festival and sponsored by the local Public Broadcasting Station WEMU 89.1

Before the main event there appeared to be a ‘School of Rock’ thing going on as several impossibly young bands played a couple of numbers each. It’s funny and also enjoyable watching earnest 12 year olds wrestling with the intricacies of Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper and the standard was quite high. The young guy in the middle who didn't look much older than about 18 himself appeared to be their teacher as he was in charge and performed with all the bands.

It was a beautiful summers evening and before the main event I wandered over to look at some of the stalls. Well in truth I went to see the guys at WEMU 89.1 (I think I’d better pop down to Walgreen's pharmacy in the morning to pick up a pack of 'Geekbegone'). They were very friendly and invited me into their ‘Friends and Sponsors’ tent. They also gave me a ticket for a free beer. YESSS!!

Chatted to Linda Yohn WEMU's music director who was also doing the on-stage announcements and we compared notes about the sort of formats we had and the state of radio in the UK and the U.SZZzzzzzzzzzzz! She made her excuses and left, possibly worrying that she may have been infected with 'Dork'.

On came the 'Cadillac Cowboys'. They were workmanlike country and Western Swing and enthusiastic enough and suddenly I noticed....older people. They were dancing. My foot tapped in its usual unbridled devil- may- care, let-my-hair-down, wild and crazy British guy way.

All that dancing had made me thirsty so I decided to head into town to see what was on offer. Downtown is very pretty and with the sort of shops you'd expect to find in a university town. There were also a couple of nice neon lit cinemas one showing ‘Harold and Maud’, which is a favourite of mine from years ago.

The Monkey Bar was empty when I walked in. I checked with the barkeeper that it wasn't about to close as it was 9pm by then. He assured me that he had in fact just opened and they would shut up shop about 2am. So I sat and read the paper and listened to the Blues on the sound system. Watched yet more baseball on the TV.

Gradually people drifted in and started to play pool and gather in groups to drink "shots". Our pub culture doesn't really embrace this aspect of boozing. Plus we're not really into cocktails as the Americans are. There was a lot of shaking of mixers and jiggers and jugs and stuff going on. Things have obviously moved a long way from "Gimme a Beer" or "Whiskey". I don't remember John Wayne ever lurching through the bat wings and shouting; "Margarita!" or "Manhattan!" at the cowering barman.

When the full signs had gone up in my head I headed out into the warm evening. As I walked back to the hotel it suddenly occurred to me what had been a bit odd about the "Monkey Bar". Every single person who had come in had been asked for their ID to prove they were over 21 and old enough to be served alcohol. Every single person...save one.....ME!

I felt very, very old as I made my way past the 13 year old receptionist. It was gone 11pm when I went into my room. There was a note on the floor which read: "As you had your ‘Do Not Disturb Sign’ up on the door handle we weren't able to provide our turndown service" – so I missed being tucked-in and a goodnight kiss from Mummy as well.

Monday, 30 June 2008

BONES RATTLE MY DICE. I SLOBBER DOWN MY SIDE - 310 MILES.

One of my favourite cartoons consists of just two pictures with the caption: ‘One of the guests at this party is a hypochondriac’. The first frame shows a party. The second is in darkness with a chorus of speech bubbles saying "What happened to the lights?" There is a lone bubble which simply says: "My eyes. My eyes!"

One moment I was sitting in a basement bar in Escanaba talking to Johnnie. The next minute everything went black. The power was "out"- which was a shame as Johnnie was telling me how he was thinking of hiring a boat to live on during the summer that he was working here. I was also enjoying an ad on the TV for ‘Dulcolax stool softener’ which had just followed one for "Arisept....Alzheimer's isn't waiting". Wheel of Fortune in this country is obviously aimed at a certain age profile.

What to do now? Bizarrely I was beginning to feel a little peckish. The restaurant shut at 11pm and, providing the power came back, all would be well I was told. So I returned to my room and, as it grew hotter due to the lack of air-con, I typed this blog by the light of the computer which ensured that it made even less sense than normal. I then sent it to the BBC for the team to make more intelligible before putting it up on the site.

Eventually a clang and a whirring noise was heard over the sound of my rumbling stomach as the fans started in the air conditioning unit. The lights came on and I looked at my watch......five past eleven!


I woke up early and stomped out of the motel determined to find some food. Michigan is a treasure trove for old fashioned diner fans. Corporate America has ensured that every town looks the same, but there are some notable exceptions. I found a fantastic café and, for a modest fee, they served up ‘The Skipper’. This was smaller than ‘The Trucker’ which frankly I doubt I could have finished. It was served with the words: "of course you can have that since you asked so nicely." There were smiles and everything, so unlike the café of the other day.

Weather not brilliant so I drove much of the day with the roof up. Still the smells of the forest were tremendous as I rounded Lake Michigan, went over Mackinac Bridge, and drove down towards the peninsular. At one point I noticed something moving rather awkwardly across the road and slowed to observe a turtle crossing. A little later I swerved to avoid a gopher that was hell bent on self destruction.

Miles and miles I travelled through dense woods broken occasionally by the odd shop selling "Pasties" or sometimes even "Pastys". No desire to try one as ‘The Skipper’ was still occupying my insides.

As usual I dawdled and around every mile or so there was another lake with more boats of every shape and size. Apparently due to the rise in fuel prices people are not using their boats as much this year. Also many driveways had a boat with a ‘For Sale’ sign on it. Could be some bargains here! Worse still - in one small community not only had high fuel costs damaged the boating and fishing season but, due to a burst bank, the whole lake had vanished and wouldn't be back until next spring. The water in these lakes is tremendously clear but, due to the colour of the earth, they can look jet black.

Eventually I started looking for somewhere to stay so opted for a place just outside Cadillac. Looking at the map I was not more than 150-or-so miles from Detroit....the motor city. Also not far from Pontiac. Hmmmm..I wonder!

Booked into a ‘resort hotel’ which, from some angles, had the look of a ski lodge about it. The old photos inside showed that it had grown up from being a hot-dog stand in the early 50's. When I hit the bar I realised however exactly what sort of ‘resort’ it was. It was golfer’s heaven. Sitting at the bar were a selection of stereotypes all joshing and flirting with the woman behind the bar. I sat and read the paper as they told short jokes about one of their number. They then made a few ribald remarks about the woman's tattoo. One of them got cramp so was standing awkwardly which resulted in a lot of fart gags and noises which they blamed on the woman behind the bar. Big Yocks all round. Meanwhile on the TV in the background, that had previously been showing the baseball, there was a man sitting outside on his terrace by the light of a furnace, cuddling his wife.....yup another Viagra Ad.

At the bottom of the screen it read - "See our ad in Golf Weekly."

LOVE CITY (POSTCARDS TO DULUTH) - 301 MILES

The motel I stayed in was jam-packed with bikers as it was a big wild hog crazy Harley guys weekend. They had come from miles. They had chrome. They had leather. They had chicks. The bikes driven by chicks had guys. They had little trailers. They had a lot of towels -they were drying themselves off and their bikes after the astonishing cloudburst we had all witnessed. We were all young, wild and free.

I sauntered downtown. By the time I set out the rain had more or less stopped although I didn't get the chance to see a lot as it was getting dark by then. Found a fake Irish bar. Rather sterile so just had the one and left. Interesting array of shops from the standard high street ones to the more esoteric ones. "Last Place on Earth" boasted: "Pipe,cigs,guns, adult toys, urine cleaner" . Further down the street there was a shop called and here I am using the American spelling: "Electric Fetus". Shudder to think what they sold.

Found another place which claimed it was a "Tavern". Sat at the bar as two young guys talked fishing. Here we were on the shores of Lake Superior and they had the knowledge. They talked rods, they talked lines, they talked weights, they talked water temperature, they talked depth. They then talked beer which apparently was a vital component of the whole fishing ethic. Everyone seems to have, or have access to, a boat.

Wherever I have been outside of the cities, people have used the land. We just don't have the space and never have done. If you don't have a load of pubs, cinemas, theatres or sports stadia on your doorstep, what do you do for fun? We have often ridiculed our U.S friends by doing that whole "what did you do Saturday night when you were young?"- "Stayed in washing my hair till I was 13 then married my cousin" routine. They are out there and there is plenty of space out there to be out there. Believe me I have been driving through "out there" for a very long time without making any particular headway.

By the time I got back to the motel all the bikers were tucked up in bed dreaming of the open road and possibly a new tattoo.

I had been playing peekaboo with Minnesota, Canada, Wisconsin and Michigan all day. The drive through the Ottawa forest was fairly spectacular and pretty much deserted. I had left Duluth with a stone of breakfast burrito stuffed inside me. It felt like that even though it was delicious. I think it was Miss Piggy who said "Never eat more than you can lift". U.S portions can be large but usually they are manageable. This was a bit of a struggle but I succeeded. The downside, diet fans, of large portions is that your stomach stretches.

By lunchtime I was rather peckish so had to stop at a Dairy Queen for a chilli dog with cheese combo. I had one a couple of days ago which was far superior to this. The last one had far more chilli and the cheese wasn't totally melted. Still the Brit in me said "Super, lovely" when asked how I was getting on with it. However I did spill what little chilli I received down my white shirt. I needed to find a motel with laundry facilities. It had been nearly a week since the last ablutions stop.

Continued on Highway 2 through Watersmeet, Iron River, Crystal Falls and Iron Mountain. The turning to "Felch" was ignored with a certain amount of schoolboy snickering and eventually ended up in Escanoba on the shores of Lake Michigan. I noted when I checked in that another time zone had been crossed. I had crossed the last timezone. I had gone from Pacific to Mountain to Central to Eastern.

Booked into a motel that boasted a bar, a restaurant, a pool, internet er - but no laundry facilites.

Found a basement bar and struck up a conversation with Johnny. He was a health and safety officer from Texas who worked on big construction projects. He had driven up here in just over 2 days as he liked to keep his car with him. That is some 1500 miles. I thought I was travelling! We chatted about this and that and then he left. I was getting a mite peckish by then so I asked for the menu. Just as I was about to order, everything went black.........

A MIGHTY WIND - 250 MILES

Spent the night in Morton, Minnesota with a population of 420. All the life was down by the stop light - which was the liquor store and across the street, the restaurant. It was in fact a tiny Mexican cafe. The woman who ran it didn't understand English so her son of probably about 8 had to translate. However this was hardcore ethnic food. I thought I had ordered Chilli, salad, rice and tortillas. What actually arrived was a stuffed and lightly battered green pepper stuffed with ground chicken, salad and 3 tiny tortillas. It was tasty but not a steaming bowl as I had hoped.

As I left I said to the kid; "Guess the accent". He giggled and said he had no idea. "Ever heard of Hugh Grant?" said I. He giggled again and shook his head. "I am from England, a long way east of here" quoth I. He looked at me slightly nervously so I decided to cut my losses. There is only so far you can go before you start doing that awful patronising Brit thing of mimicking their accent and talking loudly. Had I started on about "I came here by big silver bird", I think he would legitimately be allowed to shoot me.

In the morning I set off. I was originally going to call this episode "On a bus to St Cloud". Two things prevented me. 1) I was still in my trusty Chrysler Sebring Convertible, not the world's most exciting car but serviceable, not on public transport and 2) A Mighty wind put me off my stroke.

The weather has been changeable of late. I suppose it was never going to be Texan heat of 114F. It was still showing 26C on the car temperature gauge. I bowled along through some rather fine pine forests listening to the satellite radio system. The rental company had offered it to me as an extra at LA. I refused but it was in the hire car anyway. This system entirely free from regulation so far as I can ascertain and so it has "shock jocks" on it.

Lazy journalism in the UK refers to some of my colleagues as "Shock Jocks". Broadcasting rules in Britain renders them impotent and frankly laughable when compared to their U.S cousins. There is no one on UK radio that I have heard that can in any way shape or form be described as a "shock jock" .

You have probably heard of Howard Stern, and you may have even seen his film "Private Parts" but maybe not his colleague "Bubba the Love Sponge". They are truly coarse and disgusting. As I drove listening to Stern's studio based competition: "Anal ring toss" with tears of laughter pouring down my face, sometimes I wish we could push the boundaries a bit more in GreatBritain. It was so rude as to be beyond offence. I admit I have a high grossout threshold so the stuff I have been hearing hasn't caused me to be "offended".

No one will let me do "Nazi rhyming slang" on my programme. so there seems little point to ask if I can have nude women on the show....!

Comedian George Carlin died last week and TV is still showing tributes to him. He was another who pushed the boundaries. Especially the "7 words you can't say on television" routine which got him arrested back in the 70's. This is a wonderful country despite is contradictions. On one hand you can have extremely foul mouthed guys with studios full of naked "Penthouse Pets". Then you have the right wing pundits who make wild and exaggerated claims and shout down any opposition.

Last time I was here one of them was trying to say that the U.S healthcare system was terrific but the NHS and the French system had collapsed altogether.

Try telling that to Pam who I met when I reached Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior. She was 39 and had to pay for two back operations which have left her and her husband in so much debt they are about to lose their house and their gas has been cut off. You may be cynical and say she was spinning me a yarn. I looked into her eyes and she convinced me she was telling the truth. Before you reach for the phone, I never said our system was perfect!

There are a lot of Christian stations in these here parts. They make me far more uncomfortable than anything Howard Stern or Bubba can do. Still, it is supposedly the land of free speech so there is endless choice. I tuned in to one of the many country stations picking up a few ideas for tracks to bring back to play you when suddenly a few miles from of St Cloud near Foley the radio went funny.

There were some odd squeaks, warbles and tones and then suddenly a disembodied voice said "Tornado Warning". The local Met office then went on to explain that their radar had picked up "some rotation in the cloud" that could develop into a twister. They then mentioned various counties where it could hit and that the threat appeared to be travelling up......the road I was on!!!

The skies were darkening. However I wasn't sure which direction I was travelling compared to the potential tornado.

It was going at about 30 mph so as I was doing 60 I was either outpacing it or heading towards it at 90 mph. The information continued: "Shelter in the basement of a solid building. If you are caught in the open, either hide in a culvert or face down in a ditch covering your head with your arms."

We have all seen those 1950's "Duck and cover" U.S Govt information films which seemed to say slide from your school desk to your right and cover your head with your arm. "This will protect you from radiation". I wasn't buying this ditch thing at all. Plus culverts may be full of snakes and bears and skunks and stuff. I kept on driving. Every so often I would see a car or a motorcycle then it would vanish, had they ducked and covered? Or just turned off normally to their destination?

Then the heavens opened and it poured and due to the heat, even though the temperature had dropped from 26C to 14C in the space of a mile or two, the cloudburst was mixed with steam from the road surface.

I was very glad when I squelched from the car to the motel with its fabulous view of Lake Superior.......er, in which direction is the lake?

Saturday, 28 June 2008

I'VE NEVER HAD A WAY WITH WOMEN BUT THE HILLS OF IOWA MAKE ME WISH THAT I COULD - 392 MILES


The states are falling, the temperature is dropping and the weather is turning.

Left St Joseph or "St Jo" if you are in the know as I am. Wow, I am practically an American citizen. So steeped in its lore. I explained to the desk clerk (you know the correct pronunciation) as I checked out that the "faucet in the tub" was dripping. As I did so yet another TV ad was extolling the virtues of "3 a day".

The Americans are across the idea of "5 a day" for fruit and veg. It is just that the "3 a day" campaign is sponsored by the dairy industry. The 3 consist of "milk, yoghurt and cheese". So Mom, make sure your kid has enough calcium for growing bones and with all that cheese can clog his or her arteries too. This meshes neatly with the ads for "the health screening programme....they saved my life" and "Caduet - blood pressure and cholesterol medicine combined in one pill".

North seemed another good idea as it looks like I am heading for the Canadian border. Missed breakfast yet again so was getting rather peckish and somehow none of the regular outlets seemed enticing. Yesterday I had visited Baums and had chilli and fries and iced tea for breakfast which seemed a pretty good way to start the day.

I think we do give our American friends rather a rough time when it comes to food.
It is not all huge portions and fast food rubbish. Cooked correctly with good ingredients, burgers are terrific. Not sure how U.S cuisine developed.

Was it a result of the ethnic melting pot that makes up this great nation, or in the early settlers’ days they had to eat what they found or killed? After all, when they arrived there were something like 60 million buffalo and in a few short years they had whittled this number down to round about 1000, so I was told. They must have been pretty damn hungry!

So if you are out in the woods living off the land and its going to be the same everyday - buffalo presumably until they ran out - you are going to want to leaven the diet slightly. The only way to do this is to add whatever is to hand. This may explain the fact if you order bacon, eggs, hash browns and toast, they will add a slice of orange to the plate. Or if you forego the toast and opt for pancakes you will get maple syrup.

The salad bar had an interesting selection of stuff at a truckstop recently. As you would expect, it had tomatoes, lettuce & onion. It had a selection of dressings. (I got fed up with the list the waitress would have to go through so I always say "ranch" when asked. No idea what it is but it tastes pretty good.) It also had raw mushrooms, croutons which I can understand but jelly?? How anyone would want that with a salad I have no idea. Also the whole idea of eating what you have means that if you want a steak you can have it cooked in a normal way or because they may have a few critters left over you can have it "chicken fried". This could be a good parlour or car journey game; "Create the American dish" . Just think of a food and add something totally bizarre.

"Enjoying your Buffalo, Sir? Perhaps a side order of axelotl and emu fries?" Incidentally I passed an emu farm and they make soap out of them somehow apparently.

All this talk of food. By the time I got to Braddyville in Iowa I was starving so turned off and found "Dolly’s cafe...smiles are free". This was my first ever introduction to the "I opened the door and the conversation stopped" kind of place. I took my seat at the counter and ordered the special "meat loaf, green beans, mashed potato, gravy (not grey sludge but proper brown, gravy fans) and a side of pasta and a roll and butter". Plus iced water and a bottomless cup of coffee regular, not decaff. I chowed down very aware of the silence. Not a lot of smiles going on, I thought. When I had finished I paid up and having elicited nothing in the way of smiles I sauntered back to the car. As I was reversing out of the parking lot I noticed a sign on the unit next door. We are not talking separate buildings here. "City Morgue body drop off. No parking"

Soylent Green anyone?

Friday, 27 June 2008

I WENT DOWN TO THE CROSSROADS - 365 MILES


A good evening in Muskogee. Sat in "Chucks Grill" for a few hours chatting with Bill. He was the guy running it on a temporary basis because his brother in law Chuck had just "passed".
He was a cabinet-maker originally and then had moved into nightclub design. He was itching to get his hands on the place and give it a 50's retro theme as the late Chuck had been a singer and had toured the U.S and Canada quite extensively in the 50's and 60's. Chuck also had an addiction to MG cars apparently and at one point owned 8 of them.

As we were shooting the breeze the TV behind his left ear was showing an advert where a middle aged guy rediscovers his wedding suit in the attic. It still fits so he takes his still radiant wife upstairs. He lifts her in his arms then when faced with the staircase puts her down. When they get to the top he picks her up again and carries her into the bedroom. Yup, you guessed - it was a Viagra ad. The other one I have seen is the one with the middle aged couple on the Harley roaring off to the motel. You get the picture.

Bright and early next morning I hit the road once more. After spending seemingly weeks in Texas over the next few hours I left Oklahoma and drove into Kansas where I hit a bit of Route 66 again and crossed the route of last year’s trip at the small town of Iola. Looked pretty much the same as I remembered it. The Crossroads motel where I stayed was still there but I think it must have had a bit of a revamp.

Small-town America is unique and in some ways a little sad. Over the years big business and perhaps recently the economic downturn has left many small towns with parades of boarded- up shops. All the commerce seems to be by a few huge chains who are situated on the outskirts of town. I suppose we are seeing the same thing in the UK now. However in the U.S the devastation is so complete they are like ghost towns.

Shortly after I left Iola as the countryside was getting greener and altogether more fragrant. Trees and fields smell great in an open-topped car. The temperatures had been falling since I left Texas obviously as I was heading north, although Kansas is still described as one of the "Sunshine states".

I heard a muffled bang from the rear of the car but thought little of it. The roads aren't exactly billiard table smooth in these here parts. Then I started to smell beer along with the trees and the grasses. A can in the boot had become so hot and agitated it had exploded. However because the interior was so hot it evaporated more or less immediately so caused no damage to my already rather fusty clothes. I may add at this point I have been a "clean teen" and when in San Antonio had washed all my duds in the motel launderette. Wash, dry and powder for the grand total of $3.25. Under £2 seems a good deal to me. Many of the hotel rooms I have stayed in have had irons and ironing boards too..........not a chance. Life is too short to be uncreased.

I have been driving aimlessly for much of my time here which is great. I have the luxury of time and no real need to be anywhere apart from New York for the flight back.

I have just been a passenger really as the car has headed further and further north through such towns as "Big Cabin", which boasted that it was the "Hay capital of the world" . So where to spend the night? Kansas City seemed a good idea.

It straddles the Missouri river which although swollen was not flooding in these parts as you have probably seen on the news.

Weird to watch the TV which covers a country where there are massive fires in California and in Missouri and Iowa there are severe floods.

Arrived in Kansas City in the rush hour. Headed for Downtown as the city centre was obviously where the action was. Erm, unable to find any hotels at all. So after driving around the financial and theatre districts for a while, KC's loss became St Jo's gain. I headed further north to St Joseph which is in Missouri. A small, pretty town with a lot of boarded-up shops. Biggest thing in town that day had been a fire in a boarded-up store. Everyone was standing around taking pictures of it.

Booked into the motel which was adjacent to its Convention Centre and found that there was a choice. Due to some delegates being in town I could either have a smoking room which reeked. Or the room with wheelchair access which was the same as the others except the furniture was lower and there was a bar in the bathroom.

How Cool is that? I thought......OK - you are ahead of me. It is just that after 8 hours on the road my thoughts turn to beer. Still, it did make it easier getting in and out of the tub.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE - 397 MILES

As I set out from Jacksonville, it began to occur to me that I was losing track of the days. As I headed out of Texas into Oklahoma at least the scenery began to become a bit more interesting. Not that I have anything against hot and arid scrubland. It just gets a bit wearing after the first few thousand miles.

To be honest, Texas had become slightly greener and as I pointed out in last years blog: ‘The greener the country the more diverse the roadkill’. So after miles of nothing much to report, crushed armadillos started turning up along with the odd racoon and very occasionally, half a deer.

As I was driving I began to realise all those things I had forgotten to tell you. I had been mesmerised by the country and had somehow hypnotised myself. Move over Paul McKenna - I have the perfect cure for anything....drive across Texas.

Then again I may have contracted "Rocky mountain spotted fever". Apparently this tick- borne illness is rife at this time of the year. It causes flu-like symptoms apparently - with the side effect of death in certain cases.

Or this memory loss may be due to sleep deprivation. Or it may be the effect of sitting at a level crossing and waiting for the train to pass. Both are the result of trains. As I type this a train has just passed my hotel. I timed it from the first whistle. It took 8 minutes and 10 seconds to pass. They pass every fifteen minutes.

A couple of days ago I sat and counted a freight that consisted of 2 locomotives at the front. Then 120 boxcars. Topped off with 2 locomotives at the end. What do you think the effect of that was? When the lights went off at the crossing I blindly followed the line of traffic that turned left and we turned up "Tank Destroyer Boulevard", past a large tank. I should have suspected something as a couple of miles earlier I had driven past an enormous hoarding which read: "WELCOME HOME TROOPS....THANK YOU FOR MY FREEDOM". Looked like a turnpike up ahead. I drove up to the barrier and asked the man how much the toll road cost.

Then I noticed he wasn't so much a man but more like an avalanche of massive boulders that had somehow come to rest in a very crisp uniform. He asked for my ID so I had to give him my passport and my driving licence and also an explanation as to why I had turned left instead of right. "I, erm took a wrong turning, erm sorry"

He took my documents and went into his hut. Shortly after he came out and said "Do you want to come in?" I beamed and turned on my best Stephen Fry and hit him with: "As much as I admire your troops and the work they do, I think I may be a little long in the tooth and the wrong nationality to join up but thank you all the same." There was silence for a moment as he regarded this podgy purpled-faced apology for a potential soldier. I think I also heard a small "plink" as this attempt at levity bounced off his starched uniform and hit the tarmac. He looked at me for a moment longer and then said; "I'll open the gate and let you out. You can get on your way then Sir.

The word "Sir" is one that is often used over here. If you are unfortunate to be held up down a back alley in some large American city by a crazed mugger with a gun hell bent on stealing all you have and then shooting you to death, you can bet the last words you will hear will be along the lines of "Just give me your wallet and watch...SIR.” So beware of Fort Hood which is between Austin and Waco in Texas. As I exited whimpering with joy in apology-overdrive I noticed a wrecked car "Soldier side" of the barrier - above it, the legend "2 fatalities this year". It would seem that being in the armed forces is dangerous whether you are home or away.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

DEEP WITHIN MY HEART LIES A MELODY - 351 MILES

I had checked into a motel in the downtown area of San Antonio as I wanted to be close to the Alamo and the bars, etc.

In fact I was just around the corner. As you can see from the picture, the Texans have thoughtfully placed the city slap bang next to the Alamo so there is no need to walk far, particularly in the steamy heat. I had to keep going in and out of shops to keep cool. Had a good long look at the Alamo which I recognised from a million pictures and film clips. It is of course quite small. Maybe that or it is dwarfed by the buildings that surround it.

One thing I never knew and was certainly not brought out in the film was that Col. Jim Bowie was a Freemason. In fact several of the defenders were. "OK guys whilst we are waiting to be slaughtered by the Mexicans, hows about we join an organisation that has been criticised in the past for excessive secrecy but however does a lot of good work for charity?" Now if the Mexican President Santa Anna had been a mason too, things may have turned out differently.

After all this frenzied sightseeing a cold one was in order. I went into a bar across the street that boasted live music. It was live alright but frankly not what I called music: One bloke reedily warbling "The Gambler" - it was nearly karaoke. I left hurriedly although the bar did boast a rather fine fountain which not only spewed out water but flames as well.

Went round the corner to "Ticket"- a sports bar - and watched the rodeo highlights. All the riders now boast Kevlar jackets to protect their ribs and some even have crash helmets. It was enthralling to watch for a five minutes, as each cowboy settled himself down on the steer and spent an age adjusting his handgrip on the one rein. The gate would then open and a couple of seconds later said cowpoke would be eating dirt.

Luckily the Extreme Cage Fighting was on afterwards : "Wreckage" was where blokes in baggy shorts beat seven bells out of each other with a combination of boxing, wrestling and some rather girly kicking, I thought. Being the U.S, every inch of their trunks contained sponsorship messages. The bloke who seemed to be losing had the words "Nosubmit.com" on the back of his costume. The one who appeared to have the upper hand had the rather shaming legend; "United by lending" on his bum. Probably gave him added impetus.

Went back to the hotel and fell asleep to the sound of the trains in the distance. There seems to be quite a lot of them in Texas.

Next morning I decided I had gone far enough south and it was time to head north. Like El Paso it took forever to leave the urban sprawl behind - in fact the scenery was rather dull and I was a bit bored. However there was always the radio and ads for "HealthYes Preventive screening" and "866-455-TURN - Turn to health for opiate dependence" lifted the mood. You can get a lot more things wrong with you in the U.S.

By the time I reached Crockett one of the stations had been advertising an event which probably has the edge on the "Chilli cook off" which seems a popular pastime. This was described as a "Watermelon thump". This takes place in the town of Luling and features, as part of the festival, the world championship watermelon seed spit. Now there is an Olympic event just waiting to happen....!

In Crockett itself one station was advertising the latest funeral notices. So like our local stations advertise lost pets and the Chemists’ Rota, in Crockett you would never miss a funeral nor the chance to pop round to view the corpse.

I had meandered aimlessly round Texas most of the day trying to get away from the Interstate and the urban sprawl. Eventually I found it. ‘It’ being Jacksonville. Booked into a motel that boasted its own club and diner.

After a swim in the pool accompanied by the sound of the trains I decided to hit the club. "Bottoms Up" it was called and there were only a couple of people in. I had to produce ID for membership although it was free. Some local bylaw or other. Woman behind the bar was very taken by my accent although all she knew about the UK was that we had "The Queen and stuff".

As last year I noticed when I was getting out into the sticks the number of tattoos people sported was in inverse ratio to the number of teeth they possessed. A woman who introduced herself as Betty-Lou beamed gappily. Shook my hand briskly and showed the self-inflicted tatts of the names of her children to the man next to me, who struck up a conversation. Transpired this was "Hoove". He was in between jobs as he was a big cheese in healthcare and ran hospitals. He was joined by Christa who was a speech therapist. They were very friendly and obviously besotted as they spent a lot of time examining each other. Unless it was another sudden health scare that had escaped me and they were checking for symptoms.

We chatted and Hoove (Hoover if you hadn't already guessed) bought me a drink and we drifted off to play pool despite my protests. I told him I was an artist not a sportsman. "Well it’s angles!" I told him that I wasn't that sort of artist and I couldn't draw. "Can't you do anything?" he roared as another feeble shot of mine bounced off the cushion and did nothing to advance the cause. Frankly not really by the look. They then went off to have something to eat. I suspect it was each other. So I returned to the bar.

By this time there was a new staff member on duty. Feminists look away now.

Her name was Tiffany, and you remember those tiny gold shorts that got Kylie Minogue so much publicity a couple of years back? The ones she was wearing were tinier and tighter. She seemed to spend rather a lot of time getting stuff from the lower shelves. There was quite a lot of whooping going on. As a lot of the service industries are tip based, I expect she made a fortune. Me being British. I concentrated on my newspaper very hard....