Category Archives: USA

Tick Tick: The USA Road Trip

sorrelfilmingSo, the driving part of the Somewheresville USA Road Trip has ended, but I’ll be adding more video plus interviews and practical road trip information in the weeks and months to come. Somewheresville began back in October 2012 with a look around the USA, from Detroit to North Carolina and from Atlanta to San Francisco and back. The route was very loosely mapped to get me to places and people connected with a film idea, and in many of the locations I filmed either interviews or something to capture the spirit of the place, sometimes just on an iPhone. There are around 90 USA posts so far, and around  one-third come with short clips and excerpts edited (roughly and without Final Cut Pro which I lost in a HoJo coffee incident) in various motel rooms. As a travel journalist who’s moved into TV documentaries, it’s been great to combine the two media – although I am pining for the expertise of a nice big crew – and the budget. And it would have been nice to have had time to ponder and polish . . . but I wanted to keep it all instant and authentic. Anyway, all the posts can be accessed in reverse chronological order through the USA category linkAlternatively you can click on specific states under Categories to pull up the posts about them, e.g. Texas. Some of the pictures have made their way onto the Pinterest. Please feel free to comment and contact me and give me your ‘likes’, and thank you so very much to everyone who has emailed!

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Thank You

Sorrel & Dave Somewheresville

A big thank you to Dave, ever-present, always patient, who ‘had my back’ as they say, and drove all the way there and back again. Good times!

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.

12 Uplifting Observations: USA Motels

Palm Springs motel: Dave Har1. The protective plastic covers have been removed from the lamp shades;

2. The No Soliciting sign on the door has been replaced by an Emergency Evacuation Plan;

3. The two sachets of coffee are Wolfgang Puck;

4. The mugs are made of something other than Styrofoam;

5. There is a lamp;

6. The plug is still attached to the lamp;

7. The lamp has a bulb;

8. The windows open;

9. The receptionist is not sitting behind reinforced glass;

10. The sink is not pink;

11. The usual synthetic brown blanket has been replaced by a duvet inside a white duvet cover – and it doesn’t appear to have been used;

12. There’s nothing on your Google search to confirm your suspicion your room has been the scene of a gruesome crime.

[Incidentally, the picture was taken – by Dave – at the Royal Sun, Palm Springs, which is really nice . . . in an old-fashioned way].

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USA Roadtripping: Motels & Hotels

super8cupIf I’d travelled in summer, I’d have camped a few nights. If I’d got in the car each day knowing where I was headed, I’d have done an obsessive amount of planning (spreadsheets) and I’d definitely have used 9Flats and AirBnB more. But I didn’t. Aside from the 9Flats and AirBnB accommodation (booked in advance), and a few places we just parked outside in a hopeful fashion, everything was found and booked via Priceline, Booking.c0m, Orbitz, and Expedia on a mobile on a bouncing knee in the car in the dark, and generally, only a few minutes before we wanted to stop. Obviously this approach has its pros and cons.

Pro: You have an address of a motel or hotel to tap into the SatNav / GPS.  Con: You are committed to staying in it. Pro: your considerable – and stress-inducing – effort coupled with eye-strain and nausea and the nuisance of having to extricate a credit card from some bit of under-seat metal tracking has been rewarded by a small discount of a few dollars. Con: the motel is offering a better rate to last minute walk-ins. And so on.

Anyway, here’s the list of accommodation (starting with a bonus tip for top accommodation in Toronto), incomplete because I can’t remember all the places we visited, or the motel names or the room rates, but possibly of interest to someone else who intends to drive across the States and back on a bit of a budget.

Apartment, Art & Design district, Toronto: sole occupancy of well arty apartment in artsy block off Queen Street West, Toronto (yes,yes, Canada). Highly recommended, great location close to the pricier and often fuller Drake and Gladstone hotels, as well as to Ossington Ave with the best concentration of restaurants in the city. Stylish pad, cosy, plus nice owners, and represented by a newish, European rent-from-owners agency, 9Flats. Original post.  9Flats.com.

The Detroit Homestead, Detroit, Michigan: private room. Recommended, the location is best described as coming up . . . slowly, but the hospitality is topnotch, and the hosts are part of Detroit’s fascinating and complex regeneration. Original post; Book through AirBnB

German Village Motel, Columbus, Ohio: the German Village neighbourhood is lovely, the motel is joyless but cheap. Actually we’d meant to book the German Village Inn but someone made a mistake.  Original postWebsite, 920 S High St, 43206 Columbus.

Highland Inn, Atlanta, Georgia: old, quirky, affordable hotel with friendly staff and a great location close to Little Five Points and plenty of bars and eateries. Website, 644 North Highland Avenue Northeast, Atlanta, Tel: 404 874-5756

Microtel Inn and Suites, Auburn, Alabama: spotless, big, light and aesthetically pleasing plain rooms from $48 per night. Not sure why you’d want to stay there unless you were too tired to make it to Montgomery, or Mobile or New Orleans, or you lived in Auburn but you’d lost your keys . . . but nice place anyway.  2174 South College Street, Auburn, AL, Tel: 334 826-1444

Hotel Royal, New Orleans, Louisiana: booked the better-located St Helene, but ended up here. Long story. Ground floor room opened onto dark courtyard, not a balcony over streets filled with rowdy jollity, but bedding sumptuous and everywhere’s close in the French Quarter.  Original post (for that long story). 1006 Rue Royal, New Orleans, Tel: 504 524-3900.

Bayou Cabins, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana: romantic, authentic, slightly rickety cabins of different proportions on a bayou with breakfasts and warm hospitality provided by the friendly Lisa. Original post. Book direct at www.bayoucabins.com.

Days Inn, Beaumont, Texas: a just-can’t-drive-any-further motel located in a big empty space off the Interstate opposite Starvin’ Marvin’s Bar & Grill. Might be a big old chain but the person on reception was out-of-her-way helpful. Website 2155 North 11th Street  Beaumont, Tel: 409 898-8150

Carefree Inn, Luling, Texas: I have a soft spot for Luling, and this place is almost funny. They have their own promotional video. Located at  1908 East Pierce Street  Luling. Tel: 830 875-5635.

Microtel Inn & Suites
, Austin, Texas: clean and pleasant. Good value. Located at  7705 Metro Center Drive  Austin – by the airport (which is handy if your car breaks down and has to be towed to the airport car rental office and replaced). Tel: 512 386-7800

Highland Inn, Alpine, Texas: hardly stylish but fine rooms right by the train tracks in a useful, down to earth Texan town, a short drive from Marfa. The owner has done a lot of film location work and has Tales to Tell. 1404 east HWY, Alpine, Tel: 434 837 5811

Old Cuchillo Bar & Hotel, Cuchillo, New Mexico: unique opportunity to stay in a great, weird place with a top host. Original post, Close to the magnificently named Truth or Consequences. Book through AirBnB.

Howard ‘HoJo’ Johnson, Scottsdale, Arizona: one of the first of the old chain to be re-styled and revitalised, and they’ve done a good job. Great value at, from memory, about $58 including tax, but avoid using the cheap coffee makers. Original post. 7110 E Indian School Rd, Scottsdale. Tel: 480 361 6001.

3 Palms Scottsdale, Arizona: clean, modern with, of all things, a restaurant across from reception. Relatively swish motel with – at that time – rather snooty reception staff, good value. 7707 East McDowell Road.

Royal Sun Inn, Palm Springs, California: not a monument to desert modernism, but fine and friendly, with loyal clientele, pool and mountain views. 1700 South Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 760 327 1564

Newport Channel Inn, Newport Beach, California: probably best seen on a sunny day, but fine, affordable rooms right on the West Coast Highway – that’s Highway No.1. 6030 W. Coast Hwy
, Newport Beach. Tel: 949 642-3030

Motel 6, Carpenteria North, California: industrial-sized misery fest with sluice-down yellow walls and the charm of a high security jail and more expensive than HoJo, Scottsdale. There is a pool. Anyway, in case you also find yourself stranded in a storm, it’s at 4200 Via Real, Carpenteria off the W. Coast Hwy.

Fernwood Motel Cabins Big Sur, California: love this place that combines campsite, cabins and the best sort of quirky motel. Set amongst dripping redwoods on the coast road. Loads of character, good shop and cafe, and bar serving welcome drinks and hearty food. Think we paid $110 for motel cabin. Retro! Website. Tel: 831 667-2422 from $110.

Cow Hollow Motor Inn, San Francisco, California : Hurrah. Motel accommodation doesn’t get easier. Good location, central and close to marina area, on a block lined with restaurants. Plenty of parking, big rooms, reasonable price. Original San Francisco postWebsite. 2190 Lombard Street, San Francisco. Tel: 415 921-5800

Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and Hotel, Bolinas, California: Creaky, antique-filled rooms behind local bar with colourful history by lagoon and sea. Top spot, loads of character. Tourists tolerated. Website 41 Wharf Road  Bolinas. Tel: 415 868-1311

Days Inn, Fresno, California Days Inn Fresno South: Only if absolutely necessary. Grungy room and smell of burger grease outside. 2640 South 2nd Street, Fresno, CA. Tel: ‬559 237-6644 ‬‎

Luxor Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, Luxor Hotel & Casino
, Nevada: Probably the best-value accommodation on the trip – particularly on weekday nights, and it’s certainly got a more than average amount of amenities – shows and exhibitions, slot machines, pool, nicknack shops, bars, restaurants, food courts and chapels! Good fun (for a bit). 3900 Las Vegas Boulevard South
 Las Vegas, NV.

Howard Johnson, Flagstaff, Arizona: Not one of the revitalised HoJos – at least not when we stayed. Good interstate access. Can’t complain at $41. 2520 E. Lucky Lane, Flagstaff.

Inn of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico: nice hotel close to the heart of the place, with lively local bar serving good margaritas and good nachos, and stylish rooms some with fireplaces. We paid $129 but ours didn’t. Website 101 West Alameda Street  Santa Fe. Tel: 505 982-4333

Super 8, Wichita Falls, Texas: super-friendly, helpful staff work wonders with this unprepossessing – okay, sinister – budget motel and transform it into a place people actually want to stay in. Like the sign outside promoting their Grrr8 Rates! Close to intersection of HWY 287 and 44 at 1307 Kenley Ave, Wichita Falls.

The Czech Inn, West, Texas: independent hotel built on a large scale in the style of a chain motel. The most comfortable beds of the road trip bar none. The place to stay when Czeching out West. Original post.  Website. 114 Melodie Drive  West. Tel: 254 826-0900

La Quinta Inn, Huntsville, Texas: north of Houston, convenient for drivers on I-45 (exit 116) and the jail. At $64, slightly more than the Days Inns and Microtels but no doubt worth it in the summer, given the big pool. 124 I-45 North Huntsville, Texas. Tel: 936 295-6454

Budgetel Inn and Suites, Little Rock, Arkansas:  This was a very, very weird place. Like staying at a public baths. Rate was $39.95 which is proof that you can be too cheap. 111 West Pershing Boulevard North Little Rock.

Best Western PLUS, Music Row, Nashville, Tennessee: perfectly fine with nice, big rooms and reasonably priced at around $95 per night, but a short cab ride (rather than walk)  from the nightlife. 1407 Division Street, Nashville,Tennessee.

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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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