Friday, 29 June 2007

"In a New York state of mind"

The last time I was here was in 1989 and it was about a week before Xmas. I found it freezing and slightly threatening. Certainly around Times Square.

A transformation has come over the city since my last visit, or maybe just my perception of it.

It is busy, busy, busy and with that comes exasperation and high levels of noise. My theory is that in order to mask the background noise of car and truck horns, construction work and people hustling anything from gold and diamonds to suits and theatre tickets, everyone has to turn it up a notch.

People complain about "Muzak" in public buildings. The hotel lobby where I am writing this has music thudding away which makes conversation difficult. Everyone is shouting to make themselves heard. I gave up on breakfast as Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes" forced me out of the restaurant area.

The first night I was here I set off for a walk in the steamy humidty and 85 degree evening heat. Every so often I would duck into a shop in order to cool off thanks to fierce air conditioning.

I found myself in an Irish Bar somewhere down Hells Kitchen way and fell into conversation with an ex pat Irish guy who had married and moved over here 8 years ago. His boss was with him. The Irishman had to translate a lot of the conversation as his chief was either drunk, mad or possibly both.

He was probably in his early 60's and talked about how in the New York of his childhood you had to marry within your own community. "If for example I went out with a Guinea I would get shot by her father."

Me: "Guinea?"
Him: "Italian."
Me "Isn't that term a racial slur?"
Barman "Yes, I think so these days."
Him to me "Anyways as I was saying...Italians married Italians...Polacks married Polacks."
Me: "Excuse me I think you may be slipping into old habits again."
Him: "I AM a Polack"
Me: "erm oh I see..lovely."

The conversation continued along similar lines for an hour or more as he railed against everything he could think of and more besides. The Irishman and myself were completely baffled when he decided that the reason the Queen doesn't have direct power any longer in the UK was part of a Communist plot.

As I left, I noticed a large poster on the wall which listed names such as that of Bobby Sands and other IRA and INLA "martyrs".

There was a thunderstorm and pouring rain as I squelched back to my hotel. A cab came round the corner too fast surprising me on a pedestrian crossing. "Mudder ******" shouted the driver. I gave him the finger.

This is a great town.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

"From sea to shining sea..." 159 miles

Atlantic City to New York is only a short hop compared to my previous jaunts, and it would be my last day's driving. The car has behaved wonderfully and in a later blog I will give the stats as to the full distance and the fuel usedzzzzzz.!!

Took the Garden State Parkway foolishly thinking that a city the size of New York would have a sign to it. Either I am losing my sight or I didn't actually see a single one on the entire journey! I wonder if the other places are jealous, or ashamed of it, and trying to keep it a secret.

I wanted to get to Kennedy Airport to return the car, then hop a cab to my hotel as car parking can be up to $60 a day and frankly I didn't fancy trying to find my hotel in midtown Manhattan with no navigator and a creaky sat nav that was unable to get me out of San Francisco. It has been useful in the wide open spaces when I have found myself 1000 miles from nowhere and the road I was on didn't appear on my map.

The Toll roads were coming thick and fast by this time and maybe it was my imagination but the traffic was speeding up as well as thickening.

On this trip, as a cautious driver and in no particular hurry, I have usually stayed in the right hand lane except when I needed to overtake an extremely slow moving Lincoln Town Car with an elderly couple inside, or a huge full loaded Mack truck which was climbing a steep gradient. The flaw in this plan is that if you are in the right hand lane, very often that means you have to turn right, so on at least one occasion I ended up leaving the toll road then having to get back on again which cost me another 25c.

I headed in the general direction of New York and asked one toll booth operator "New York this way?"....he just nodded.

A heavily industrialised landscape appeared through the haze on the horizon complete with some skyscrapers. This had to be it! Suddenly I was on the New Jersey Turnpike which is like being in a log flume, or going down one of those waterchutes at a theme park. Everyone is going hell for leather and don't get in my way buster!!!

In all my previous travelling here I have not witnessed, nor been on the receiving end, of any road rage.

I think the Americans store it up and then let it out here.

Everyone seemed to be blowing their horns at everyone else, and I suspect at me too for not going fast enough, even though I was at the limit. A car tailgated me and the driver had the hand hard down on the horn. As they swept past the driver, a little old lady, gave me the finger. In the passenger seat oblivious to all this an even older woman, I presume her mother.

It was obvious I was lost. At the next toll booth I encountered I asked the guy "which way to Kennedy airport?".
"Watcha doin here, this is Newark?" he then gave me some terrific and simple directions.
"See you in an hour, probably" I said.
"I'll be here," he replied.

Needed to get onto the "Beltway" so had to go back south on the turnpike and over a couple of bridges. The second of which the Verrazano you will have seen a hundred times before on the tv and in film. It is a huge suspension bridge with two decks. I ended up going over the river on the upper deck, although its not very scenic as you are still in this motorized, yelling and horn-honking bedlam.

Suddenly I was on the Beltway and actually saw a sign for the airport 15 miles ahead. I could relax slightly so began to get into the spirit of it by blowing my horn and flipping off anyone who got in my way.

However just ahead someone had fingered when they should have horned or maybe the other way round and there had been an accident. That meant I sat in the humidity and 90 degree heat for half an hour as they separated the fighting drivers and parked the wreckage of the vehicles by the side of the road.

The airport came into view and the sign "Rental Returns". Drove in parked. Decanted my stuff into a cab. Took one last picture and headed for the City, leaving behind a grimy, fly spotted, dead bird encrusted all-American muscle car.
I will miss you, my Ford Mustang I called Betty....

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

"On the boardwalk..." 174 Miles + 17 others, as will be explained.

Easy day, although I covered 4 states: woke up in Virginia, drove into Maryland, crossed into Delaware and then caught a ferry to New Jersey.
The roads are not only more crowded but toll roads and turnpikes have suddenly reared their change-guzzling heads. Admittedly, of the two I travelled, one cost 70c and the other $2, so haven't broken the bank. I expect I shall hit several more tomorrow.

With this type of outlay I have learned to organise my money over the last four weeks.

As this is a society that is based on tips, you need a good supply of dollar bills. Trouble is all the notes look the same apart from the denomination. When you see a tips jar full of paper I can see why it has been called variously "cabbage" as well as "greenbacks".

Dollar bills in the back pocket, fives front right and any other notes front left. This worked well until my final destination today when I was stymied by the cash point.... I will elaborate in a moment.

Stopped at a diner for breakfast: bacon strips, poached eggs on French toast. Not sure how different it was to normal toast, but it is nice to see that sanity has once again prevailed and it is not known as "Freedom Toast" or "Cheese Eating Surrender-Monkey Toast".

When I reached Lewes in "Sussex County" (I wonder where they got that idea from, geography fans?) I bought a ticket for the ferry. Lewes to Cape May is 17 miles across Delaware bay and takes about 70 minutes. It is pretty much like a cross channel ferry without as many shops. I sat outside and watched dolphins leaping out of the water whenever they knew that cameras weren't trained on them. I also saw hundreds of rather tough looking jellyfish and one small apologetic looking shark.

After landing at Cape May it was only 40 minutes to Atlantic City, passing Ocean City on the way....hang on....we just passed Ocean city!

The trouble with such a huge country, they ran out of place names early on I reckon. A lot of settlements have obvious Spanish names or Native American titles but with the others lies the problem.

How do you describe a place to someone and give it a name at the same time? Well you can always tell em what it looks like. That is why there are several "Big Trees" in the U.S. Or you could describe what you saw: "Lonesome Polecat Lane" in California. Or "Johnson Sausage Lane" - a place which had a filling station, and as far as I could tell had once boasted a meat factory. Then again, you could always tell people where to find you...such as beside the seaside, hence: "Ocean City".

This was fine when travel was by horse and it took days to get from one place to another. With the advent of the internal combustion engine and the paved highway, putting two Ocean Cities 67 miles apart does show a lack of imagination.

There is currently a media battle going on between the 14 different Springfields to be the one chosen to premier the new Simpsons movie shortly. One claims that "Shelbyville" is close by so it ought to be them. Another has ignored the competition as it was "nothing like the town portrayed in the cartoon" a claim all the other Springfields could make unless their inhabitants all have missing digits and severe jaundice (yellow complexions and 3 fingers, non cartoon watchers).

After Ocean City, New Jersey it was a few short miles to my destination - Atlantic City (like Ocean city but with education..obviously). My motel downtown is only a couple of blocks from the famous boardwalk, with its casinos and salt water taffy shops. I needed cash so found an ATM in a gambling house and asked for $100. Out came one crisp bill. I was astonished. Every time I have taken money from a machine on this trip it has arrived in my hand in the form of $20 bills. I can't go and buy a $3 Philly Steak sandwich (rather close to burritos I thought but very nice) with a $100 note!!

Salvation came with the "bill breaker" machine. You feed in your note and out come 5 not quite so crisp $20 bills. At last, after a month I have played a machine in a casino...and won!

Have you been with me all the way? Check out how far we've come on the route map which can be accessed via my showpage at

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

"They go up diddly up. They go down diddly own down..." 299 Miles

I forgot to mention a couple of days ago I crossed the final time zone, so I am now on Eastern Time (five hours behind the UK). I only noticed when the clock on my mobile reset itself automatically and I was wondering why everything seemed to shut even earlier than I had become used to.

Decided to get off the beaten track a little and go the long and scenic way round.

One thing I have noticed about cheap(ish) motels is their lack of soundproofing. It's the plumbing that makes the most noise. A flush here, a shower there, a morning ablute. It is deafening.

A party of Wild Hogs: middle aged biker boys from Tennessee I had met the previous evening were up early and cleaning themselves ready for the off. ("We don't mind who the next President is as long as its not Hilary Clinton")

Just as I was drifting off to sleep after this Niagara of cleansing, my British mobile rang with someone trying to sell me something. "Is this a good time?" "Well, I know you have a job to do, but as it is 0600 here in the U.S I would!"

If you noticed the reference to "the final approach to New York" in my previous entry you would think that sounded like an aviation term and you would be right. Now read on....

I headed out east to the coast. Washington being on the Tar River and part of the Pamlico Basin is I suppose strictly the Atlantic. However, to me I am not there until my feet are in the water.

I took the 92 then the 264 to Belhaven where I stopped for breakfast in a small town cafe. The woman liked my accent and added by way of background: "I am half Italian but I don't speak it". Then headed out to Nags Head followed by my first port of call "Kill Devil Hills".

If this doesn't ring a bell, 6 miles further north is the small settlement of Kitty Hawk. It gets the credit for being the site of the first powered flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903. However, the actual spot was on the large dunes of the Kill Devil Hills.

As you would expect there is a museum. In fact there are two on the same site, both of which have much the same in the way of exhibits....replicas of the glider and the powered aeroplane.

I think the dummy that is either Wilbur or Orville is actually marginally better dressed in the original museum. Certainly there is no wear on his boots. Lets face it, they spent far more time on the ground than in the air; those shoes should have got at least slightly scuffed, particularly in the early years, as they were in lodgings and had to walk 4 miles to the site and 4 miles back everyday. Fed up with this, they built a couple of sheds one for the plane and one for them.

Not entirely sure why there are two exhibitions. I think the second was put up 4 yrs ago to mark the centenary.

There is an imposing monument on top of the hill as well as a series of stone markers that effectively pace out the first four "hops". Kitty Hawk in 1903 was the middle of nowhere. It was chosen for its high winds and soft sand (makes sense if you are expecting to crash a lot). As you can imagine it is now a mass of motels beach front houses and restaurants. Competition is fierce. The advertising is equally to the point: "Don't suffer from entree envy eat here", "Pancakes and so forth", "Bobs Grill - eat here and get the hell out".

I was travelling along a glorified sand bar with the Pamlico then the Albermarle Sounds on my left and the Atlantic to my right. The road then heads inland to Chesapeake in Virginia. At this point to head along the eastern shore you are relieved of $12 to cross the 18 miles of the Chesapeake bridge and tunnel. It is impressive as you skim the water on a low roadway that hops from island to island, every so often plunging beneath the waves in a series of tunnels.

Being on the coast the "all you can eat" meat platters have been replaced by Surf and Turf and a lot of shellfish. In fact, I have just returned from a bar and grill called "The Trawler" here in Exmore after shovelling several types of shrimp, scallop and crab into my gaping maw. A side order of krill and I would be in danger of being harpooned by the Japanese for "research purposes".

Judging by the incredible watery slooshing noises from the room next door, I think an oriental research vessel may have just attempted to capture a fellow guest. Either that or he is having a shower.

Monday, 25 June 2007

"...through the cradle of the civil war.." 340 Miles

I had just got into bed last night in Morganton, after yet more Mexican food, when there was a bang, a flash, a boom, a fizz, another flash and a deafening "kkerrrrracckk".......

Thunder silly!

I have never witnessed a storm as violent. The rain poured from the skies and ten minutes later it was all over. The heat of the ground caused everywhere to be enveloped in a cloud of steam. Part of the reason I gather they call them the Smokey Mountains. About half an hour later the car park was a dry as a bone.

Nearly a whole day on the I40 as I continued to head east. I think I have decided on my final approach to New York. There is a clue in that last sentence.

The interstate is a lot more crowded, and a lot grubbier too, as the hard shoulder is littered with the remains of hundreds of truck tyres. No one seems to clean up in North Carolina. There was also a dining chair, a mattress, quite a few abandoned cars and bizarrely a pair of boxing gloves. Maybe a passenger asked "are we there yet?" one too many times.

Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Wilson, Durham and signposts to some of those places I remember from my schoolboy history about the American Civil war: Lexington, Wilmington, Bunker Hill.

The temperature is falling slightly as I am beginning to head closer to the coast and slightly further north. However it was still top down and air con on. Not sure if it is a fault but every so often a drop of condensation drops from under the bulkhead onto my exposed ankle. All instrument readings normal however. So far the car hasn't missed a beat.

I have, however, picked up a trophy. It was pointed out to me about 3 days ago by a puzzled kid: "You got a dead bird on your radiator, mister."

I remember where I picked up this unfortunate sparrow now. Halfway across Kansas. Birds fly low, presumably to avoid all the hawks that are circling. Alas, this one wasn't keeping an eye on where he was going and collided with me. There was no "ow thunk!" so I assumed it had swerved to safety. I shall carry him/her (can't tell) to New York as a hunting trophy in lieu of bull horns.

Turned north and thought I would spend the night in Greenville. Turned into a trading estate and it was as if it was a haven for anyone with any ailment.

Pristine modern building after building boasting signs such as: "Spine Right Chiropractors" "Retina Center", "Ankle Fix". I was driving so I am writing this from memory but you get the gist. Americans are very upfront about their ailments; healthcare is a business like any other. If you have the money, there is someone who claims he/she can do something for your problem, real or imagined.

In Los Angeles there was an off street kidney dialysis centre. You could peer in and see rows and rows of patients lying hooked up to machines, watching little TV's or reading the paper. The patients looking at the classifieds may have seen the ad I did which boasted: "Lunch hour G Spot sensitisation....are you getting all you should?" Not sure that is what I would want to be doing during my lunch hour if I was a woman. Where would you rest your sandwich?

I moved on to Washington which is nearly at the sea. The Tar river is close by and it was the birthplace of Cecil B De Mille. As you can see from the picture, it was rather quiet. Found a motel and asked, as ever, "where is a bar to get a cold beer?". The answer was pure "Driving Miss Daisy".... I set off walking, a free newspaper under my arm in search of the third stop light. I saw two young black women in a car at a road junction so was able to ask the question: "Is this the way to the Piggly Wiggly? I am looking for the "Southern Cheers" sports bar". There then ensued a heated discussion as to the correct way to the Piggly Wiggly. I left them to it and about a mile later I arrived at my destination to see the welcoming sign: "Closed"

Remember this is America and it's 6.30pm and it's Sunday. The Piggly Wiggly was open though.

You can check out my route so far at Click on my show page and then "The Great American Adventure". You'll find it eventually!

Sunday, 24 June 2007

"My home is across the Smokey Mountains.." 358 Miles

Nearly 3 weeks in the US and I am beginning to get the scent of home. If I took the shortest route it is only about 700 miles to New York from here.

Another late night in Nashville where the only person who wasn't a musician appeared to be me. They do have some truly awful buskers though. Not sure why they bother with all the quality acts in the bars and theatres.

I was leaving the day the Flugfest took place; people build ludicrous flying machines and do a bit of a turn then hurl themselves into the river. Brighton does something similar, I think, from the end of the pier.

Like everything I have witnessed so far, there is a sponsor for this event. Most disconcerting for me, a man of the BBC, is the habit newsreaders have of stopping after the news headlines to deliver a lengthy sponsors message before the main body of the bulletin. I can't imagine Fiona Bruce doing that. However, it might cheer Huw Edwards up a bit. Several people have said to me, and I have also heard one commentator say, that the BBC is "dry". Well if you are not editorialising I suppose it would appear that way. However, our people do seem to take themselves rather seriously in comparison. To American eyes, British TV newsreaders must appear a little like Sam Eagle from the Muppet show segment "Rubber News" (even though I suspect he was based on US news legend Walter "and thats the way it looks" Kronkite). I do like the habit the some weather reporters have of giving little tips with the forecast though:

"Very high temperatures with low humidity today so if you are baking make sure you add extra water to your flour as it will be rather dried out and your cakes won't rise as easily". Now that is a helpful forecast!

Nashville this morning was a ghost town. I was unable to squeeze into the motel dining room for the "complimentary continental breakfast" as it was full of people pushing and shoving and generally chowing down. so I thought I would pop round the corner and find a cafe. Some hope. Nothing seemed ready to open much before 10.30. In the end I plumped for a Gyros sandwich in a Greek place. I am beginning to develop a taste for unsweetened iced tea. I expect it will taste vile at home in temperatures below 70F.

Getting out of town was easy; turn right, then the next right and it was straight onto the freeway. The further east I get the more traffic there appears to be. I suppose it is all to do with population density.

Headed east as usual and started to climb up between the Appalachian and the wonderfully green Smokey Mountains. I am beginning to get a better understanding of where the bits we have heard of are. So I now know where the Oak Ridge Boys presumably hail from. Not to be confused with the Ozark Mountain Daredevils - they are further west.

I crossed into North Carolina listening to some Appalachian Dulcimer music on public radio. There are some fantastic accents to be heard in this part of the country. At first some of them sound like they are doing it for joke (hey...fair's fair, they have been laughing at the way I talk for 4,000 miles now!).

Passed a sign for Dolly Parton's theme park "Dollywood" at Pigeon Forge, but the need for speed prevented me from taking a detour. Arrived at Morganton about 6.30, hot, sticky and as usual, in need of cold beer. Not seen any evidence of bars nor liquor stores - was this a dry county? "Yes" said the desk clerk "but you are in luck, the county is dry but the city is not - there is a mexican restaurant in the shopping mall that has a bar". Yippee - more burrittos!

I am not a religious person, so it amuses me that in a country that takes its Bible very seriously, and in many instances literally, the local convenience stores are open all day on Sundays - one boasting 7 day opening 0700-2300....hallelujah! What happened to the day of rest?