Category Archives: Southern States

America: In conclusion

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It’s actually a load of different countries tied together with strings of Arbys and Taco Bells. In some, people are very busy accumulating more and more stuff; in others people are a further along, working out what to do with the mountain of old stuff they can’t afford to run or fix, like mills and factories, warehouses, mines, the trucks and fridges and boats and trailers in their yards, and Detroit. I like those places best.

Aside from that, other observations based on nothing much: for a country obsessed with safety and litigation, they have a very laissez faire approach to hairpin bends (and guns, obviously), tacos are definitely the national dish; you don’t get postcards showing cactus in the snow; the cleaning staff in 99% of the places we stayed were Hispanic and overtly deferential; if you put the fried chicken at the back of Walmarts and took away the little cars you’d give the people who need it most a really good workout; there’s sugar in the ‘natural’ yoghurt, and sink holes under Louisiana, and tunnels full of aliens under New Mexico (can’t remember where), and cupcake ATMs in L.A; sisters (well, people) are doing it for themselves when it comes to building a home, and cowboys are making a comeback in those there hills.

We started in messed-up, empty Detroit (playground of the inspired and energetic), continued through Ohio and the eastern states,Virginia and West Virginia, all wide-open spaces, rural retreats, Amish furniture stores, bail bondsmen, payday loans, attorneys, pawn shops, and guns and ammo stores. I’d had a taste of the Triangular heart of middle-class North Carolina with its good wine, good cheese, good books, good works, travelled through tidy towns with libraries, art trails and bible groups, past green fields with white picket fences and sleek horses looking over them. Preacher men warned against loose women, wrongful ways on the radio through the Carolinas, Southern Baptists sang in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, and by Alabama it was the story of the blues, of civil rights, gulf oil spills and grits. In Cajun country, in Louisiana, it was frottoirs and boudin, and Bloody Marys, dancing at breakfast with old men in hats, and basking by a lake in the heat talking to duck hunters in camouflage. We’d driven under the crystal bright, anything is possible skies of Texas, met unicycling children in the back of beyond and stepped back in time to a world of drunk cowboys, Mexican silver miners and Apache raids on the saloon stables in places where they shoot rattlers and eat chillies with everything, in New Mexico. We’d observed golfers in Scottsdale, 70-year old dancing girls wearing nothing but feathers in Palm Springs, and left behind done-in L.A., with its big mess of smog and flyovers, for a California that was cheeringly, drippingly, wild. After standing at the western edge for a bit, we turned back, wheels spinning, along the fringes of Yosemite, the Mohave Desert, the Grand Canyon and the Sangre de Cristo mountains – the best of wild America, arriving in Memphis, the day after another shooting, when everyone’s thoughts – albeit briefly – were focused on the worst by-products of a ‘civilised’ America.

I read – and love – travel books by experts writing about things they know but they aren’t the books that make me travel. It’s accounts of enthusiasts  abandoning themselves to journeys of discovery that set me off with the packing again. On the whole, I don’t buy a ticket and fly across the world to see something I already know about; I travel to places that are for some reason obscure because it appears I am addicted to the process of discovery – what’s around the next bend? on the next block? what’s up in the north / down in the south? what’s that hotel like inside? what’s the local food? what kind of person lives here? what do they do?  could I live here? could I really live here? Is this my Somewheresville?

So, America. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of an obscure destination, but it was unknown to me (and it’s a big place, so most of it still is). All places are fascinating, odd, surprising to anyone seeing them for the first time whether that’s Slough or Mombasa or Santa Fe. You wouldn’t think that could be possible by looking at the Must See Tourism Attractions (museum, building, monument yada yada), but it is. It really is. Someone at some point in every country has made a subjective selection, and over time that selection has become official. Seeing these certain things is tantamount to obligatory . . . (particularly if you happen to be a travel journalist whose elbow is in the firm grip of the local tourism representative) . . . which leads to stress, inevitably some disappointment, and an experience on a well-worn tourism loop which, while possibly pleasant, is quite unlike the kind of experience people living in the country have on a day to day basis.

Having spent just five weeks or so in America, and mainly in a car in America, I wouldn’t presume to offer any useful concluding observations about what sort of thing America is. However, I hope I’ve raised a virtual glass to that intoxicating process of discovery and the freedom of unplanned drifting travel, and provided a reminder that there is no official decree that ranks the Hoover Dam as a better attraction than the little town of Luling, Texas, or the Golden Gate Bridge over a bar in Mission, or the Titanic Exhibition in Vegas over the cake-sellers at a market in Alabama. There is no travel expert who can say that a $100 dinner is  – by default – more enjoyable than a warm $3 sausage and jalapeno kolache, no-one who can actually prove there’s anything better than listening to the wind blow in the Gila National Forest, anything more beautiful than a straight line of telegraph poles going on for miles and miles under a desert sky. Cheers to that.

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Nashville Country

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Nashville was the final stop on the USA road trip, chosen partly because it’s located within driving distance of Atlanta where the car needed to be dropped off, and partly because it’s a city that’s soaked in the love-hate, bitter-sweet poignant stuff that is country music, and the end of one trip, the start of who knows what, deserves a little poignancy.

I, personally, don’t like country music much (although Joaquin Phoenix is alright); I don’t think it travels, but in the right place a good country singer with that big round sound with a scratchy edge, plus some slide and honky tonk and lyrics about girls, trucks and revenge is just what’s required. There may well be more country music fans in New York City than Nashville, and some people may call this little city Trashville or Nash Vegas (which is pretty good actually) but if you were playing a game of word association and someone called out ‘country music’ you’d snap back ‘Nashville’, as quick as a flash. It may be past it, or a blousy version of what it once was, but iconic things generally are.

You don’t have to stroll through a barrage of songs along Broadway and 2nd Avenue, but why not? On a warm weekend night every bar in this neon-lit strip has at least one live band playing, and sometimes three – all at the same time on different floors. You can hear a dozen just by standing and turning full circle by the traffic lights. Past the flashing signs, through every window in every direction, you can see drummers and bass players and the back of a singer in their cowboy hat; singers coming up and old-timers, dreams unfulfilled, on their way out, all playing Ring of Fire to drunk students.

And you don’t have to visit the Grand Ole Opry. To be honest, I didn’t. But I like the idea of the Opry as a historic hub for talented, troubled, ill-fated, drunk and plucky people, and I’m definitely going to read music journalist Robert K. Oermann’s  Behind The Grand Ole Opry Curtain: Tales Of Romance And Tragedy. It’s not new, but it is definitive. They say the Opry is cursed, that a large number of people linked to it have met untimely deaths, from Patsy Cline and Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Jim Reeves in plane crashes, Dottie West in a car accident, Stringbean (of Hee Haw fame) who was murdered, Hank Williams from drug-related stuff in the back of a car at 29 – and so on. Anyway it was at the heart of a world, that must have seemed a pretty exciting one for a time.

I’ve got a problem with Hank Williams. ‘Hey Good Lookin’ ‘ is about as fun to listen to as ‘Yellow Submarine’, however he did also write ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ so: OK. Anyway my point was going to be that despite the Hey Good Lookins there’s a lot of heart-wrenching stuff about being poor and having no pa in old school country, and I’m not sure today’s country singer-songwriters have such peaks and troughs in their lives anymore. If they do, it doesn’t seem very convincing when the backing singer is chewing gum and doing hi-de-hi waves to men at the bar.

But one theme that has been at the root of country and survives intact today is the push and pull of moving on or staying put. Nashville itself is a place that everyone is either keen to reach or desperate to leave. ‘gotta get back to Nashville or my heart will break in two’ say the Everly Brothers; Catherine Britt wants to hop an old freight train (which, I have to say, sounds quite tempting) and ride it to Nashville so she can learn to play honky tonk guitar; the Delmore Brothers ‘aint got no hat, aint got no shoes’ but they do have the Nashville Blues and want to get back to Arkansas, and Hank Williams III wants to high tail it out of ‘Trashville’ to Texas, and so on. Life on the road, partings, break-ups and loss, lonesome quests, regrets, the seduction of comfort and a good woman (rarely a good man) – it’s all there in verse chorus verse chorus verse chorus chorus.

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To Memphis & Nashville

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Little Rock, Arkansas to Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia: 606 miles, 9 hours, 13 minutes

Great route for breathing in American political and musical history. An alternative – and a loop to boot – would be Atlanta, Montgomery, Birmingham, Memphis and back for your full immersion Martin Luther King and civil rights tour.

 

 

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Motels and Shootings

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The road trip was initially going to be from east to west. That was so nice, I added a return trip – west to east. The minute the car was turned around to face Europe, or at least Atlanta, the journey was touched with poignancy. Not only was there the knowledge that we were going back (that it was a bit over, and more over every day) but, involuntarily, through a series of coincidences, I found myself in the summing-up phase, making ‘best of’ lists, defining themes, fumbling towards conclusions as the days finished earlier.

We’d started the cross-country leg of the trip in Atlanta, birthplace of Martin Luther King, then we’d travelled along one thousand and one Martin Luther King Boulevards until turning around in Northern California, and now, we were nearing the end of the road trip in Memphis where King had been assassinated. When we had left Atlanta it had warm, crisp, bright, encouraging; now, some weeks later, pulling up in Memphis the day was damp, cold, depressing. It was unfortunate scheduling that saw us in this particular spot just as the whole country was discussing shootings and grief and what to do. I’d grown up believing that the shooting of Martin Luther King was a crime that helped people to think enough was enough. If I hadn’t been staring at tail lights trying to make some sense of America, I probably wouldn’t have put the assassination of King and the Sandy Hook School shooting in the same box, but they are connected by something so blindingly obvious it’s generally overlooked: that guns give people with the least to offer the ability to take away the people with the most to offer – whether that’s fully fledged ideas, or potential, or love. And that’s as much the truth in 2012 as 1968. No big change there.

No big change in South Main either. While the area bisected by South Main Street is called the Historic Arts District it feels like it hasn’t been so much actively preserved, as left. For all the alleged fledgling arty happenings, it can’t be much different to the rundown place it was the day that King was shot. The Lorraine Motel is exactly as it was moments before the shooting, everything left in the rooms untouched from rumpled beds to cigarette butts in the ashtray, and his car parked beneath the balcony. The motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum (across the road), and possibly the most moving, compelling part. In the museum itself, there’s a film that focuses on King’s last 24 hours, showing him overcome at the end of the magnificent and prescient Mountaintop speech, describing how the church shutters banging in the storm made him jump, and revealing the jokey conversations in the moments leading up to his assassination. At the motel though, you climb the stairs and walk along the balcony passing rooms 306 and 308, and the corner where King fell, and you stand at the railing his foot stuck out from under as he lay dying, and it all looks for all the world like a place you’ve just checked into, that everything happened yesterday and could happen again tomorrow. Of course, I have been spending a lot of time in motels recently, but to me it felt real; I was as close to being there on the day as it gets. It’s somewhat sobering when the past is a bad past, and you feel it all around you.

I don’t know if this lack of artifice is a Memphis thing, but somewhere else that effortlessly transports visitors into the past is The Arcade, the South Main diner that Elvis favoured. I’d read about it, but then finding it quiet and half-full, and the local clientele chowing down on the usual eggs, bacon, pancakes, hash-brown combos, and a complete absence of ‘Elvis dined here’ signs, I reckoned I’d made a mistake. However just as I was finishing my peanut butter and banana sandwich I spotted a family sliding into the end booth and posing for pictures. Turns out it was his favoured booth (and if you look closely, there is a small picture above the table). I found that quietly exciting although as shrines, or even tourist attractions go, it’s pretty low-key.

Anyway, melancholy was the overall mood in Memphis. Only going on hunch here, but I imagine King would be fairly disappointed to see the state of things today, regardless of the fact the President is black. Anyway, here’s an excerpt from that Mountaintop speech given at the Mason Temple the night before he died. His flight to Memphis (where he was marching in support of equal rights for African American garbage workers) was delayed by a bomb threat, so the risk was real and on his mind. But this is still an extraordinary speech for someone to give the night before they die. Hear it at the National Museum of Civil Rights.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

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Elvis Fans in Memphis

Elvis Fans Arcade Somewheresville

Some people are more clued up on the whole where Elvis ate his sandwiches thing than me. I was wondering whether I’d got the wrong place when this family arrived at the Arcade Restaurant, South Main, Memphis, and, without ordering, slipped into what turns out to have been his favourite booth. There was something lovely about how the kids showed interest because they loved their mum.

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Visiting Marfa, Texas

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It’s 428 miles from Austin to Marfa. And although there are eight (inhabited) towns on, or at least near, the route, that still gives plenty of time staring at sand to think about why you’re bothering to go in the first place. For a little Texas town, it punches well above its weight. It’s a small, hot, dusty town (pop. of 2000 peppered across a few small blocks) with an airport for private jets and a lot of big names hiding out eating tacos.

It was artist, Donald Judd, who started it all in 1971 when, tired of the New York art world he came to to this desert town for its whistling, tumbleweed space, and rented a house. His big, clean, simple (if not minimalist) works and installations are preserved in Marfa by the Chinati Foundation and in some way by the Judd Foundation, and are the original draw. There are other foundations too, and artists inspired to do big conceptual things of their own. There are also plenty of filmmakers and screenwriters and actors.

Anyway, to the untutored eye Marfa could look like a scrapyard, given the rusting cars, industrial pipes, corrugated iron, baked empty earth lots, scrub and weed pushing on through adobe buildings, just-there electrical substation, railway tracks and sidings, abandoned trailers, faded signs and what-nots. There are plenty of towns like this down here that aren’t artsy; they’re just poor.  In fact, Valentine, the next town west, has most of the same stuff lying around in it, but it’s not the Chosen One.

Musing in the parking lot of El Cosmico – the super-cool, urban hipster, pricy airstream trailer and teepee retreat – I wonder whether this isn’t all a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes? It has a ‘Creative Lab’ and  ‘Amphitheatre’, but off-brochure there’s not much to distinguish this site from the Tumble In RV Park on the others side of town where you can pitch a tent on the scrub for $15, or to be honest, from some of the yards you pass on the way, where old cars and RVs sit abandoned in the sun. Or am I just telling myself that because they’re full? The fact is that despite feeling suckered in by the term ‘vintage’ and the nice retro signage, I do find it all weirdly beautiful – and clearly so does everyone else rolling up in the hope of a cancellation.

That confusion applies to Marfa as a whole. One part of me says let’s be honest, if people really want to go somewhere to get away from it all, there are a hell of a lot of places to choose from in Texas. That might have been Marfa when they filmed Giant and James Dean was down to earth and flirty friends with all the local girls and Liz and Rock hung out at the Paisano, but today’s town is too popular to be free and cheap and lawless. There’s something a little tense and self-consciously special here, that makes me feel like a voyeur and a fan rather than a relaxed escapee.

Then there’s the Marfa Lights. Even the bloke some hundred or so miles away who gave us the gas to prevent us from running out of fuel on the I-10 and ending up as two piles of bleached bones, even he asked if we were going to see the Marfa Lights. Everyone talks about them – there’s an observatory, maps – the lot. These aren’t the aurora borealis. They’re a bit like headlights, although to be fair they come from a place without roads and were spotted by a rancher, Robert Reed Ellison in 1883. So remain sceptical? Or abandon yourself to awe and wonderment? There’s a lot of thinking on both sides. Personally, I’d have gone for wonder, but for Mr Sceptic, back in the car with the radio on.

The other part of me though is loving it; admiring telegraph poles, cactus, empty buildings. Confusing. Fact is some things about Marfa are indisputably lovely, like so many of the buildings – Ballroom Marfa, the old National Bank, the Contemporary gallery and Pizza Foundation, the Courthouse and the Thunderbird motel, and random private homes. Plus, there’s the 50’s – 60s style signage, the never-to-be-forgotten art – Judd’s, and others, with Prada Marfa one of the biggest, funniest and the best, and perfect encapsulation of Marfa’s cool weirdness.

BTW Larry Clark’s Marfa Girl (wanton youth, small-town Texas), shot in Marfa, won Best Picture at the Rome Film Festival.

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