Monday, 30 June 2008


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."


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.........


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, in which direction is the lake?

Saturday, 28 June 2008


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


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


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 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


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 "" 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....

Tuesday, 24 June 2008


Well that was what was on the menu in the morning when I left the hotel in Del Rio. I seem to be sleeping longer so keep missing the continental breakfast. Maybe it is that or the thought of something fried does it more then a muffin and a cup of orange juice. This is America for goodness sake! At a diner I had the four-piece fried catfish combo. I balked at other items on the menu. You had the dizzying choice of 1, 2 or 3lbs of "Gizzards”. The main event would set you back a whopping $9.99. Just think of the look on your kiddies faces when you burst in to your house shouting; "look kids - GIZZARDS"!

This is Texas - it is outlaw and hunting country. The radio advertised ‘Bail bonds’ and after filling myself full of fried catfish I drove out of town past the "one-stop deer processing and storage shop". Later I passed the first of several emporia that offered "artistic taxidermy" services.

Weather still stifling and that did give me one of two great stories from the local papers. First from the El Paso Times: "Veteran Palatero Mario Ramirez has been pushing his Frutiki palata cart through downtown streets for almost 35 years says his sales often improve during hot weather". From the look of the picture he sells lollies! So when would you go out if you were in the ice cream business??

However for odd/dumb the Del Rio News Herald in its classifieds had a big picture of a kid in a mortar board and gown clutching a scroll. A proud parent placed the ad as their child graduated from University? Well not quite...:

"Happy Birthday Trace. Trace Davis turns 6 years old today and is having a Tony Hawks skating party (think this is skateboarding) also congratulations on your kindergarten graduation. You are growing up and becoming such a wonderful young man and Mommy and your family are so proud of you and love you very much. Enjoy your day." Way to go, doting parent. If you have not done the same for your child you should feel very very ashamed!

However on the road south west heading sort of in that direction with a toss up : Austin or San Antonio, I carried on down the highway. Over the last few days’ driving I have been through several Border patrol checkpoints. Normally traffic is slowed, the officers clock a lone driver and wave you through. Occasionally a dog sniffs your tyres. However on this occasion it was more hardcore. I was pulled over and asked "You a citizen?" “Er no British”, said I giving them my best foppish Hugh Grant. "Pull over there please" So I did as bidden as another dog sniffed my tyres . Guys with dark glasses, uniforms and guns tend to unnerve me slightly.

He checked my driving licence and passport. He asked what I was doing. They do seem to find the idea of someone in a car driving aimlessly round their countryside a little weird. Come to think of it they may have a point. Particularly when I can't really explain where I am headed apart from New York in 3 weeks.

Making conversation I asked if they were searching for drugs, bombs, fruit or people. "Drugs and illegals" said the Mexican/American border officer. "We like to create a buffer zone of about 100 miles. So by the time they've have been in the woods for three or four days, we can smell ‘em fairly easily". Bearing in mind how whiffy I get just sitting in a car all day without moving much, I can see how personal hygiene would be a problem for people evading the police on a hot day. I have done so little exercise and with an automatic car, my left ankle has swollen slightly as it does nothing apart from envy the effort its right partner does occasionally stabbing the brake pedal every few hundred miles.

It should only have been a trip of about 155 miles but San Antonio doesn't do a very good job of signposting its city centre. Well, to my eyes it didn't. What I failed to realise is that rather like El Paso the urban sprawl is now so vast hence the 30 mile round trip from my hotel to the concert venue to see Tom Waits the other night. When it says "Downtown" it means "The next sign to Downtown will be in 15 to 20 miles. So don't get nervous and turn off the highway after a couple of exits with no further mention of the city centre". I wanted downtown San Antonio as I needed to see....The Alamo.

Monday, 23 June 2008


I overslept so missed the free continental breakfast in the hotel. Having loaded up the car and taken a picture of the wonderful M.C. Escher-style walkways and fire escapes the motel boasted I head off East once more. Firstly trying to find something to eat. El Paso is miles of rather grim urban sprawl and so I found myself with a choice: "Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits" (I am thinking grey sludge here again). A place that just boasted "Dark Meat" (Not sure what they sold) and "Jack in the Box" - A burger emporium with no surprises. The woman behind the counter had terrible trouble understanding me, and me her. I thought Hugh Grant had paved the way for us but obviously not.

I gave my first name and when it was called collected my chicken chilli burger and curly fries and sat down in the corner. A young man glared at me. He was with his wife and two small children. Deciding that he may be possibly a gang member wanting to "pop a cap in my ass" I read the paper, every so often looking up to see that he was still glaring at me.

Later I realised he was glaring at everyone. Perhaps the pressure of being a good old fashioned family man taking the wife and kids for a meal was beginning to tell. Later it dawned that maybe that was his default expression and underneath the beetling brows, the eyes too close together and the mouth set in a firm line, was a warm kind generous man who had simply not taken his mother’s advice. So when the wind changed he had stayed like that.

Found the interstate and decided to just go a short way down the 10 before turning off onto the 90 at Van Horn. That short way was about 100 miles. I think the page I am on has a different scale to the other states. Texas is absolutely vast. The scenery does change but it is overwhelmingly dry with miles of dirt and brush. In a nod to its size the speed limit on the interstate is a sensible 80 mph. Otherwise no one would get anywhere. Tooling down the highway doing 79 (This is a song lyric. Can you guess which song though?) a truck a hundred yards in front of me decided to blow a tyre with a spectacular bang and showering shards of rubber and metal everywhere. I snapped me out of my reverie in an instant.

Once onto the 90 it was mile after mile of nothing in particular. On the radio, Joan Rivers was doing a public service announcement about osteoporosis. I am going to come back from this trip several pounds heavier and a total hypochondriac. Suddenly on a lonely road and not having seen a car for miles I passed a very high class shoe shop. I drove on, thinking "they won't sell a lot of shoes and handbags out here.".........................HANG ON THAT IS LUDICROUS.......SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!! went the brakes. Not quite a handbrake turn but a good smoking-tyred U turn as I headed back to the shop.

A Prada shop. A thousand miles from nowhere? (Another song there folks). Turns out it was an art installation on land lent by the family of the late Walter Alton "Slim" Brown (trucker, rancher, roper, friend).

One of the durndest things I ever seen. Thought I‘d seen everything.... but I’ve never seen an elephant fly! (oh do shut up Alex). The shop was sealed although there was a small area of damage to the glass which would make for a better story if it was a bullet hole. However it looked like someone had thrown a rock at it. Next to the damage were the words: "When two worlds collide". Shortly after that another of the durndest things. A genuine bonafide roadrunner rushed in front of my car and vanished into the scrub on the other side of the highway. Couldn't hear if it made that "meep meep" sound like it did in the cartoons above the noise of the wind and an advert for Glaucoma detection. "If you have a family history....dial 555 EYES"

AS I got closer to Del Rio, my destination, I started to smell rain. Not that sweet damp earth smell of last years blog. This smelled of wet dirt. Not soil or earth. Dirt. The wind sprung up and lightning started to flash so it seemed wise to pull over and close the roof. Shortly after that I swept over the Rio Pecos so I am now the, er rootenist tootenist cowpoke EAST of the Pecos.

Pulled into Del Rio and booked into one of several motels and headed over the road for a cold one at a rival establishment. Staff very young and attentive. It was interesting talking to them as they obviously wanted to get out of this one-horse town but didn't know how, unlike other small towns I have visited where everything shuts at 9pm. They stayed open until 02.00am. Apparently this was because there was nowhere else to "drink up" for miles around. As I was eating yet more nourishing Mexican fare. Del Rio being more or less on the border. I spied a sign above the bar which read: "Felony. State law proscribes a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment for carrying weapons where alcoholic beverages are sold, served or consumed.

Spurs jingling, I sashayed out of the bar and headed back to my room. I like Texas but it does seem a mite aggressive. Still at the current rate of progress I will be out of here in a couple of weeks or so.

Musical references here, tune fans.

"Transfusion" Nervous Norvus

"1000 Miles from Nowhere" Dwight Yoakam

"When I see an elephant fly" Dumbo

Saturday, 21 June 2008


Meanwhile back at "Chilis", sitting at the bar, the thirty-something man had just asked the twenty-something barman if he had a gun.

"No but I think I am going to get one" he said. The customer said "My Grandpa gave me a shotgun. He is kinda nutty though." He then went on to explain how one night there was a powercut. He was staying with his grandfather and their burglar alarm went off. Whilst the young man was searching for a flash light his grandfather appeared in his bedroom....

"He had a machine gun and gave me a pistol so I was his point man." They skulked around the property and saw no one. After a few minutes the police arrived having been summoned by the grandfather. Saw the array of weaponry available and said "guess you have it all under control...have a nice night"- and drove off.

I made a mental note to high tail it out of town first thing in the morning in case there was a sudden power outage. However as I turned the page of the El Paso Times all plans turned to dust. I was thunderstruck.

Friday night at the Plaza Theatre for one night only.......


I have played him many times on the show as part of "Lester's Library" - an enigmatic figure who rarely tours. For his "Glitter and Doom" tour he was only playing 13 dates in the whole U.S and then only a handful abroad. He is doing just two shows in the UK so you will need to head to Edinburgh on the 27/28th July to catch him. The man is a legend. Could I get a ticket though??

Barely slept thinking through the possibilities. Should I just forget it and get in the car and head on as I originally planned? The U.S can be a bit U.K credit card-blind when it comes to certain things. Witness my attempts to put credit on an American phone last year or how only the day before I had to pay for petrol in cash as my card didn't function at the gas station.

The following morning I got up and made the phone call to the ticket agent. "Hello I'm Kelly" said a machine and then gave me the usual thousand options. Why do they insist on giving a machine a name. It just makes the whole transaction even more preposterous to these cynical British ears. Eventually a genuine human answered. From what she was saying. I had to give credit card details. My home phone number. I helpfully supplied the international dialling code (+44 statistics lovers) my middle name and my address. I was assured that they would then send an Eticket to my computer to print off ready for the gig that evening.

Several hours dragged by and nothing appeared on my computer. I had alerted the receptionist in the motel lobby and booked another night. She gave me their email address so I could forward the ticket to them to print off. Several more hours went by and nothing. So I phoned the ticket agent back and a man with a rich deep voice answered. After a large number of security questions it transpired that they had my email address wrong and it didn't matter if they never sent me a confirmation as the reference number they gave me on the phone would do just fine. When I spluttered that this was all a bit vague considering the tight security in place at the gig to stop ticket touts and how hard it was for foreigners to buy tickets he thanked me warmly and sincerely for my call and hung up.

I got a cab to the venue. As I waited in the reception area of the motel that U.S fixation with health came into play once again as I saw an elderly trio. Two talkative women and a silent man. "She has colon cancer. I think its spread to her pancreas and’s not good...she starts chemo on Monday"

The Plaza has been restored to its former glories and is a 2000 seater venue with a wonderful auditorium which, when the house lights are up, appears to show clouds scudding across the ceiling. When the lights go down the stars come out. Strangely it wasn't sold out. The previous 2 gigs in Phoenix had - this was according to Tim, who I fell into conversation with in a bar round the corner. He worked for the Las Vegas sanitation department and was such a fan he had spent 18 hours on a Greyhound bus getting to the gig. He told me his kidneys had swollen due to all the sitting. We were back to health again.

As I was waiting in the foyer of the theatre a large lady came puffing up to me and pressed a glass of beer into my hand. "You can't take beverages in to the show" she explained. "I had bought two and can't possibly finish both".

It seemed churlish to refuse. I do love this good ol' Southern hospitality.

Despite coming on nearly half an hour late, Tom Waits was excellent & idiosyncratic with an amazing band. He had us from ‘Hello’. Then midway through, a policeman arrived on stage.....he said he was going to be "served" Sure enough a woman arrived to share the spotlight with the officer. She then presented him with the keys to the city. Then on he roared. Two encores later he was gone and I called my cab driver Tyrone who was there in 5 minutes and we went back to the motel via a Taco Bell as I was starving, only having eaten once and that had only been a vast steak, with overboiled vegetables. I am trying to get the roughage down me you understand.

I bought Tyrone a Taco too.


Wow, what a long road I travelled. I blame being woken at 5.15 in Yuma and by the time I had showered and had breakfast and read the paper it was still only 7.30. So set off east with the sun as usual as my guide.

As I have said before the reason for these trips is to see the countryside and the American clichés. So many people have told me "you must visit New Orleans or Chicago or Seattle etc" I can do those piecemeal any time. You don't get to drive across deserts and see thousands of acres of scrub and dust otherwise.

Last year I managed a lot of the big stuff such as Monument Valley, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. However to my eternal regret I never once saw any evidence of that cliché of clichés, without which no Western is a proper John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Yosemite Sam-style gunfest. (Sam, incidentally, as Bugs Bunny fans recall was "the rootenist tootenist cowpoke west of the Pecos". I am still currently west of the Rio Pecos and have only met one person who could in any way lay claim to that crown. Well, he had a moustache. More on him later.)

I still hadn't seen the "one armed cactus" or as they are known around these here parts "The organ pipe cactus". What luck then that I veered off the I8 at Gila Bend to take a detour down the 85 via Ajo which at one point had been something but as you can see from the picture no longer was. To end up on the Mexican border at the "Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument". As I turned onto the 86 and headed for Tucson through the Tohono O'odham nation Indian reservation there were thousands of the things. Another ambition realised.

Back on the Interstate at Tucson it was - despite all the miles I had done and the lengthy diversion - only about 2pm. The road wasn't particularly crowded nor wide just a two lane dual carriageway. The sun was shining and more ailments and health-related items were being advertised on the radio: "Wanna lose 10, 20, 100 lbs?....Say ‘no’ to fat with..." "We don't have skunks and critters like that, they're further north. Down here we have rattlesnakes, scorpions and pack rats"

As I continued across Arizona it occurred to me that I could probably make it fairly easily down to El Paso on the Texas/Mexico border. It was only a shortish hop by my reckoning and the map I was using. (The one in the back of the motel catalogue) Through New Mexico and into Texas.

Another reason for not being too good with the old map was I wasn't able to read too easily having been parted with my glasses as some point and being too lazy to get the spare pair out of the boot of the car. Bearing in mind that if I did, the frames would be so hot they would brand me like a steer! So I carried on marvelling at the countryside. It is so arid I really can't think why anyone would want to live here unless property was very very cheap and you wanted to disappear from the authorities.

Every so often a Dust Devil would come into view. Not some form of household cleaner but a lazy twister of dirt that would rise and gently turn 30 to 100 feet in the air. After about an hour I saw a sign which read "El Paso 300 miles". Gulp!!

I stopped for gas at Bowie and turned off the interstate not wanting to be caught out as I had been the day before and pulled up in front of the remains of a petrol station. Next door to it was a totally derelict one. I had seen this yesterday. Perhaps due to the huge amount of room the Americans have out in the West. When something gets too old and rickety. Rather than pulling it down and building a new one they just build another next door.

My credit card didn't work in the pump as sometimes happens so I sauntered inside giving it my best West of the Pecos mosey and inside, wreathed in cigarette smoke, was a man who could only be described accurately as ‘An old timer’. His eyes were hooded from years of blinking in the unrelenting sun. His skin was leather, He limped probably due to a riding accident or an old bullet wound. Or then again it may have been that he needed a hip replacement due to arthritis. He spoke slowly and deliberately as he tried to get my credit card to work on his dust and nicotine-stained cash register. When it didn't I said I would pay cash so went and filled up. When I had settled up he volunteered "I have mah house and its set in 150 acres. Just me and mah house and 150 acres." Outside it was scrubland and dry dirt as far as the eye could see. "Kinda hot too" I drawled. Although to his ears and mine it came out as "Gosh jolly hot too I'll bet"

"Y'know we have all this sun, son....some tahms I wake up and have to get mah spade to shovel 2 or 3 feet of sun offa mah porch before ah can get out". A slow grin spread across the canyons of his face and up through his heavily nicotined moustache.

Some people have just got it.

It was 7.30pm by the time I reached El Paso although by the time I had checked in to the nearest motel and rushed into a bar it was 8.40. I had crossed a time zone somewhere.
Sitting at the bar were a couple of young blokes. One of them was talking to the barman, a bloke of a similar age, and asked "You got a gun?"

I waited - breath baited for the response.......


Today I did the dumbest thing...something that everyone warns you about and something I was always so careful about on the last trip and resolve to be more vigilant about in future.

First though.... Set off fairly early after blearily trying to annex someone else's breakfast of the continental kind. I think I was rather put off by the sign above the toaster telling guests of the selfishness of food hoarding. Apparently under the rules of the hotel, people are using breakfast as a means of stocking up for the whole day and often leave uneaten bread and cereals in their rooms when they check out.

Being a dog- friendly establishment I began to think that they preferred pets to people. There was a sign on the Dining Room door saying "No Dogs". However it was a good area for the Wi-Fi. When I asked to go in I was told I couldn't - "There is a dog in there".

Decided to take the scenic route so headed north to link up with Highway 78 to take me through Ramona (that actually would have been a slightly less obscure song title/lyric for this blog rather than a line from "3:10 to Yuma” as sung by Sandy Denny.) and Julian and over the Vallecito Mountains out across miles of desert that comprise the national parachute test range. Still the radio was on about health matters: "A rattlesnake bite causes reddening of the skin, inflammation, excruciating pain and often death. Don't let this happen to your dog, have it vaccinated at....". A huge number of Border Patrol vehicles and several checkpoints sometimes unmanned. Close to the Mexican border so presumably they worry about immigrants. Also they worry about bugs and diseases in fruit. Then they worry about drug smuggling and they also worry about the terrorist threat. They worry a lot in America. This keeps uniform manufacturers very busy. I passed a placard featuring a couple of smartly dressed border patrol officers bearing the legend "Now Hiring". Wonder what their view is on employing Mexican immigrant workers? At one check point it was time for another dog to sniff. Not me this time but the car tyres. Would the wheels be crammed to the rims with contraband fruit, drugs, bomb making equipment or very small crescent-shaped illegal immigrants?

The temperature was rising steadily until it reached 114F/46C. At this point I noticed something on the instrument panel. The fuel light was on. I had forgotten to fill the car up. Hmm, I wonder how long I have left before I run out and am stranded in the desert? There is other traffic but not a huge amount. Also I take small comfort in emergency telephones which seem to be a regular feature unlike last year’s trip through Death Valley where there were none that I saw. Presumably they want to keep the name pure. A few miles up ahead was the small settlement of Octillo Wells- there would be gas there.

There were filling stations there. In fact two of them more or less side by side. One firmly closed and the other derelict. So on again trying to conserve fuel. Air con off. Cruise control set at 50 mph. Mind set in neutral. Heart in mouth. The next town was 40 miles away. a) would I make it? - and b) would it have a filling station?


I make one more stop at a border patrol post to ask how far it was to the nearest garage. They told me 12 miles into Westmoreland and there would be one there and "go steady". I was hardly able to go any steadier thought the purple faced sweating wreck that stood before them.

After filling up and calming down I set off for Yuma with some fresh cold water. In this heat it actually becomes bathwater very quickly. Drove over the Imperial Sand dunes and with a stiff breeze filling every orifice with grit I got out of the car to take the picture you see here. It was like stepping in front of a fan heater. Just to show how resourceful the Americans are, some bloke built a wooden plank road across them in about 1908 just to prove it could be done. Highway 78 isn't a very big road but then turned to a far smaller one - the S34, before reaching Yuma which looked quite big on the map. By the time I got there someone had either hidden a lot of it in the sand or had lied. It boasted being the sunniest place in the U.S, something which I am scarcely in a position to deny. All the evidence pointed to it. Booked into a motel which seemed to take up half the town as it was on both sides of the road with a small pool on each side and also had its own bar and restaurant next door.

After all the excitement it was time for very cold beer and something to eat. The chap sitting next to me at the bar making a play for a female co-worker who was having none of it delighted in the name of Kermit.

Wonder if that had anything to do with his apparent lack of success. Decided that as Alexander, Norman, Charles, Phillips Lester I was probably going to strike out there too. So concentrated on my beer and food.

I went for the healthy option. Chicken, gravy and fresh vegetables. It arrived. Deep fried chicken. Grey sludge (see last year’s trip re : biscuits and gravy in Branson Missouri) and- well I recognised a carrot, a couple of mushrooms but the other things I had no idea what they were but they weren't unpleasant. Lots of slices of what looked like cucumber of different hues.

Come 10 o'clock things were closing down so I went to bed. Had to turn the air con off in the room as it was probably brought across that plank road in a Model T Ford in the early part of the last century judging by the noise it made, and fell into a dreamless sleep. The following morning I learned another salutary lesson about living in hot climes. You work when its coolest. At 5.15am construction workers starting drilling outside my room!

Thursday, 19 June 2008


First thing the next morning after a modest breakfast of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausages and 4 gallons of coffee (how do you make them stop filling the cup?) and a quick look at the morning paper it was away in a cab to Union Station to collect the car. I was over an hour early for the pick up but the guy at the rental car counter didn't seem to mind. He just looked at the drop off point "JFK!" and dismissed me as a madman. Although I suspect it would be quicker driving than taking the train. I once, with the help of the internet, worked out how a friend of mine who was terrified of flying could visit Reno in Nevada during a two week holiday. After the ocean crossing and the many interconnecting train journeys we came to the conclusion he would be at the tables in the casino playing "Texas Holdem" (I know it sounds rude but who's going to argue with a 9 foot Texan?) for approximately 45 minutes before he had to begin his homeward journey.

I was shown the car in the underground car park. Asked the way to the freeway south. "Make a left, then a left at the lights then another left and you are on the I 5 to San Diego.”

Requisite number of lefts later and I was indeed on the I 5 heading south. This is a totally comedy road. At one point if you added in the 2 multiple occupancy lanes I was heading south on a highway with 8 lanes of traffic on either side. Still I had the radio so to a soundtrack of Todd Rundgren, Slim Harpo, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Kelly Pickler I was on my way. Oh and there were those ads of course :

"Do you suffer from Spinal Stenosis?". "Abby Wilkins is 85 and was unable to walk or talk very well until she had her carotid artery cleared...."

For me the fun of the trip is to get off the Interstates as much as possible and see some of the country so I turned on to the "Historic 101" and soon found myself at San Juan Capistrano - site of a famous Mission. I parked up and immediately two elderly gentlemen accosted me and one very gently said "You unloadin' there son?" I had parked in the wrong place so immediately lapsed into Derek Nimmo meets John Le Mesurier. "Oh I say, awfully sorry, etc" The two elderly gentlemen were police officers who wore a rather fetching ensemble of sneakers, white socks, tan shorts and a yellow tennis shirt with "Police" written on it.

Not sure what branch of the cops they were from but they oozed "Authoritah". They didn't seem to be armed either which is strange as every other policeman, security guard and traffic warden I have seen so far has been laden down with nightsticks and firearms. They probably knew that at the slightest hint of trouble they could launch into a lengthy story about what they did in the war and the felon would be weeping and begging for mercy within a couple of sentences.

Down along the Pacific Coast highway I drove through Oceanside and Carlsbad, the surfing beach rather spoiled by a huge power station and water desalination plant on the other side of the road. My destination was San Diego. It had been humid and overcast for much of the drive but by the time I got to Mission Bay the sun was out. Short hop into downtown San Diego which is a big Naval town and port as witnessed by the imposing grey hulk of the U.S.S. Midway and a vast liner. Had I come at a different time of the year, whale watching would have been on the agenda. I read a placard about it. Can't remember exactly but I think around about this time of the year they head off to Japan to be eaten.

Last year I only booked three hotels. The mandatory one for the first night of reminiscence in San Francisco so wanted to stay in the place I visited in 1985. As luck would have it I actually booked into the new one across the street. The original one being closed for refurbishment - doh!. Then there was the final night in New York. No need to book anywhere else as there are plenty of vacancies at budget motels near the centre of the city....(Cue parping trombones). "Sorry we are full, there is a convention in town". I can see why it is a good place to hold a convention. Sunshine, sea and a huge amount of sex. Not far from the Naval academy there are numerous lap dancing clubs and "Hostess bars". One even boasting of a special appearance by a noted Porn star.

I headed back out of town past the "hotel circle" where the other motels were like wagons all grouped together and miles from anything other than the freeway. I headed on over to Ocean City near Point Loma. A thriving resort town of surfers and hippies and bikers. The beach actually had a sign saying "No Swimming" as it was for surfers only. Got a room with a balcony and a fine view of the sea, palm trees and a big car park. There seemed to be a lot of pets about the hotel and lots of handily placed rolls of plastic bags labelled "poopy pouches". Assured by the desk clerk that it was a "good walking town" I headed off through street after street of ramshackle chalets and rusting cars to the main drag. Lots of bars and restaurants and people disporting themselves in an unseemly manner, which seemed like a good idea to me.

Went into a bar with the loudest roaring and sat down and ordered a big cold beer. The reason for the noise was the finals of the NBA : the LA Lakers v the Boston Celtics. Now I am not much of a basketball fan but it would appear the wrong team were winning. The shrieks of anguish got louder the further behind the Lakers went as the man sitting next to me insisted he had been "on the wagon for three months, not touched a drop, not been to a bar." He was doing a bang-up job of dropping off it now though. By the time the end came he had timed it to perfection - he was making absolutely no sense at all and his head was getting lower and lower until it seemed he was only an inch or two above the bar. On my second beer the barman shook my hand warmly and introduced himself as Pete, which was a nice touch.

Headed off for another noisy bar where I heard music. There I watched more TV. At one point a huge hairy man came tottering over to the bar and asked the woman serving, "Excuse me Ma'am, do you mind if I put a really noisy piece of Metal on the jukebox?” Back to the hotel through dark and deserted streets as the Metallica cranked up, and into bed.

In the morning, up bright and early and down for breakfast - still a lot of pets about. Including pictures of them in the lobby. As I paid up I realised I had spent the night at "Ocean Villa Inn..San Diego's Pet-Friendly Hotel on Dog Beach".


I’m going to have to think of some less cheesy song lyrics and titles or this journey is going to be an extremely long one. The travel equivalent of a ‘Hear and Now Tour’ or ‘Stars in their Eyes’: “Tonight Laydees and Gentlemen, please welcome Alex Lester as......that bloke from Curiosity Killed the Cat."

When I left you last I was leaving the airport in Los Angeles after two rather gruelling, and sweaty, hours just trying to, err….. exit the airport.

Last year when I got a Yellow cab I discovered I was being driven by a Russian with good English, but no real idea of where he was going. This was a bonus as his friend didn't have any English at all and still didn't know where he was going. I presume he’s still lost on the freeway with a couple of skeletons in the back. "Look on the bright side Petunia, the journey can't take longer than it did to get out of the airport".

This time a cheery Somali driver placed my case in the none too spacious boot. I’ve never ceased to be amazed by Yellow cabs - they are vast but there’s no room for the passengers and precious little for the luggage. What does all that car do exactly? He spoke good English and, like last year’s driver, he had no idea where he was going either. Not sure Sat-Nav has reached the US yet…. well certainly not among the cab-driving fraternity. He spent much of the journey on the phone scribbling down what I think were directions - unless he was moonlighting as a secretary and taking dictation.

Eventually we pulled up outside the hotel in Wilshire Boulevard which straddles the areas of Korean Town and the Financial District. Check-in was no trouble and the place was clean and comfortable although there was an odour that I wasn't able to identify. It did have the air of a hotel where you didn't actually stay and it was the sort of place that you were ‘found dead in". Maybe that had something to do with the whiff?

Time for a cold beer. I decided to walk along the Boulevard towards the main part of the financial district. Helpful street furniture told me I was taking the "Walk of Angels", past some rather fine Art Deco theatres, sundry landmark churches and Synagogues and the famous "Brown Derby" restaurant which you will have heard of if you’re a fan of the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’. There was just one snag – it had closed and been demolished in 1980. On the other side of the road was the infamous Ambassador Hotel where Bobby Kennedy had the misfortune to be gunned down in 1968. The hotel didn't really recover from that PR disaster and it too has been demolished. If you walk far enough you end up in Macarthur Park. (Now that may have made a better blog title had I gone that extra mile)

Dived into a side street dive-bar only to be told they had no beer. So I tried a Korean restaurant and bar which was above a small shopping mall. They had cold beer and an interesting way with snacks. Not for them a small bowl of complimentary peanuts or maybe olives. I was treated to a small dish containing a brace of sizzling fried eggs and some odd looking vegetable that looked a bit ‘dill like’ but which didn't taste of anything in particular. How to eat this? Why with chopsticks of course! My shirt would have been unable to cope with a meal in a place like that.

It was then back to the hotel picking up a copy of the LA Times on the way. I love reading newspapers and always make a point of finding the local ones if I can. There are several fixations that the Americans currently enjoy. First and foremost petrol prices which are having a huge impact, even though they are laughably low compared to ours.

The TV schedules are full of ads for ‘compact’ and ‘economical’ cars which boast ‘Highway 31 MPG’. Religious types have got in on the act as well: "With the invention of the car, our young men would change the dating scene, picking up girls and taking them away from their parents and dropping them off later after who knows what" - Ed Black, Pastor Arena Christian Church. Lincoln, California.
A drought has forced Californians to think about their water usage. Seemingly the way forward is to only water your garden 6, instead of 7, days a week according to the articles I saw and the ads I’ve witnessed.

Lastly health and the body beautiful. A famous TV journalist - Tim Russert has just died of a coronary aged 58. So most media outlets have divided their coverage between fulsome tributes and what exactly he died of, how he died, his health prior to him dying and what we can do to stop ourselves dying in the same fashion. Just in case we were in any doubt one newspaper featured an artist’s impression of him expiring on the floor of his office.

On a lamppost there was a placard declaring: ‘Get your accent fixed’ and I passed a hoarding which boasted: ‘Limited period offer, breast augmentation $2999’. I’m not sure if that was for both or just one. Probably both as it didn't say ‘two for one offer’. A huge ad in one paper that I saw while sitting at the hotel bar later that evening, drinking another beer and trying to digest the eggs and the first burrito of the new season that I had purchased from a branch of ‘El Pollo Loco’, thundered: ‘haemorrhoid banding and non invasive treatment for anal fissures".

However by now it was bed time. I realised that I’d been awake for 27 hours now so it was probably a good thing to get some sleep. Plus having to drive in the morning it was wise not to drink too much. Although one final classified ad caught my eye: ‘Drunk driving. Top Gun DUI defense attorney Myles L. Berman’. His trademarked slogan read: ‘Friends don't let friends plead guilty’.

With that it was off to bed and I drifted into an exhausted sleep and woke, as usual, precisely four hours later!

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Leaving on a jet plane...

Well that first title wasn't hard, was it? As with last year’s American adventure I am badly organised and have no real idea where I am going. However, that is part of the charm.

As with last year I will attempt to weave song titles and lyrics into the blog to give it that real "he may have put a slight amount of effort into this" look.

So new trip and new shoes. Cab collected me at 05.15 and off we set for the new terminal 5 at Heathrow. Last year I travelled by American Airlines so it would be interesting to contrast Economy with British Airways Economy although they don't call it that. It is known as "Worldtraveller" or somesuch.

Traffic thick on the M25 at 06.15 so glad to be escaping for a month on the open road. The new terminal is pretty impressive I must admit although as my printer had bust I had just a reference number and not my "Eticket". Was directed to a callow youth on a special desk who typed the number into his computer and said "so you are on a standby ticket?" "Uh oh" thought I! Start the trip with an argument. "No it is a bona fide booking although I wasn't able to do the online check in for some reason.....I hope there is not going to be a problem" I said with what I hoped was a mixture of charm and firmness, and give him the benefit of my "hmm not too sure I am very impressed with you and your organisation thus far" eye flash.

"There is a seat but the aircraft is very nearly full". "Perhaps you could upgrade me then?" "I will get you an aisle seat" he said. Giving me the benefit of his "don't think you are getting anything past me matey, I may only look twelve but I have seen it all before" eye flash.

I got my ticket and as I left the desk I had to point out that his security pass was precisely one month out of date. "I know. I am hoping they are going to send me home when they find out" he chortled.

Onto the plane which left pretty promptly and the thought of nearly 11 hours of stultifying boredom leavened only by "200 hours of inflight entertainment" we were informed rather damply by a member of the cabin crew. There was a slight problem in that the headphones only worked in one ear and only had one foam pad. This meant that I strained my way through "Horton Hears a Who". However as there was no one sitting next to me I raided the seat pocket and found another pair. Yaaay result!!!! These however obviously had experienced a similar trauma in the past so both ears worked but with slight distortion so that for a few hours I thought I was going deaf until I decided to go back to the one ear pair. So not sure what "The Bucket List" was about. And "Creature Comforts USA" also kept its secrets.

The time passed fairly quickly which was a surprise and I managed a little nap and had a couple of pleasant snacks, some juice and when I asked for a glass of water I was told "I will go and get you one".

Rather like the Chuckle Brothers, The Osmonds, The Nolans and possibly even The Corrs - although I have yet to get to the bottom of that act, having seen them a few years back and marvelled at how small they all were - obviously airlines carry a spare. A member who you don't usually see who can probably fill in if they were short. I never saw that particular stewardess again, even when we disembarked. Still waiting for that water.

Then after the smoothest flight I can ever remember we landed at LAX.

Last year I arrived on a Sunday afternoon with many dire warnings of how appalling US immigration was. As I recall I sailed through in under 20 minutes. On this occasion things were ever so slightly different. Monday lunchtime and homeland paranoia has now reached new heights. Walking down the ramp from the aircraft to the immigration area we were all sniffed by a big black dog. Not sure if he was bomb, drugs, or agricultural produce mutt.

Then the queuing began in earnest. An elderly woman in front of me was shrugging and tutting loudly and giving it the full outstretched arms/palms up shtick. I avoided her gaze. I try and remain calm under these sort of delays as there is little point in getting aggravated. She beckoned to a junior member of staff in a rather imperious fashion and demanded to know what was causing the delay. She was told politely "This is LAX it is always like this". The shrugging and tutting continued. In my mind’s eye I was in a happy place in which she was dragged protesting away by member of US Immigration and as a side office door slammed I thought I could hear the snap of a rubber glove.

We queued for an hour before it was my turn to go and hand my passport, Visa Waiver and Customs forms to an unsmiling man working methodically and very very slowly at a computer. It had taken him 15 minutes to process a Japanese family of three before I arrived at his station. Both index fingerprints were taken. I was photographed. Last year I was paranoid about filling in my Visa Waiver form and being sent to the back of the queue or even worse on the next flight home. No problem this time after a couple of questions as to the reason for my visit. (Never sure why they bother with these. If I was up to no good I would scarcely pipe up; "I am here to try and overthrow the Government"). Then he waved me through but not before adding "...and next time fill in your customs form properly". I had omitted the flight number.

As I was filling that part in earlier, the cabin crew had decided like a kindergarten teacher that it was time their charges needed a nap and had switched all the lights out.

There are dozens of staff at the airport most of whom seemed to be standing guard in case the crowd started to get fractious. This may have been part of the reason why they sent in another animal to do some sniffing as we queued. Rather like pets in hospitals or for the elderly it reduces the blood pressure. This one was a little doggy wearing a tiny jacket which said something about agriculture on it. My mind’s eye started to wander again and I pictured myself in an orange jumpsuit sharing a cell with a suspected bomber, a drugs mule and me....the man who forgot he had an orange in his pocket.

I rushed to the baggage carousel, my suitcase was there and I snatched it up. At last I was free!

Hang I wasn't.

Under a system that the video screens called "one, two, three" although from where I was standing it looked like "one, two, threat" - it is not so simple. There was another long line of people stretching towards the exit. There was another checkpoint. I stood in a queue with a couple of hot Mexican women and flirted outrageously. They smiled benignly at the hot middle-aged Brit. This is the dual definition of Hotness here by the way. I think you can decide for yourself into which category we all fell.

Another security guard asked me the same questions the other bloke had and waved me through to...."three" where yet another man in a uniform took my final form, waved toward the exit and said "LA's thattaway" and then guess what he did?? Go on guess!

He smiled!