Friday, December 19, 2008

LEDBURY, HEREFORDSHIRE




Ledbury's Mayor and the Town Crier watch as I sign copies of OLD MAN ON A BIKE in the Three Counties Bookshop. I am dyslectic. How embarrassing to make a spelling mistake in front of such august witnesses!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

POSTERS

AN ENGLISH GENTLEMAN IN PERU (alias The Mobile Blimp)


Kind people have been posting messages on this Blog. Amongst their number, Gemma, Hubert Kriegel, Rob, Greg Funnell, D J Kirkby, John McClane and an Englishman in Japan. Thank you, a very happy Christmas and a safe New Year. For bikers (Hubert and his sidecar), ride safe and may all your falls be gentle,
simon

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

HEREFORD TIMES

A journalist on the Hereford Times asked for my New Year wishes. Difficult not to be pompous...as with featuring on the radio program, Desert Island Discs. Do those famous people really listen to both Gregorian chant and the most obscure of Dylan albums?
These are the wishes I sent to the Hereford Times:

Wishes for the New Year? Health for my family and myself: though 76, I plan a further six month solo journey by motorcycle, preferably not to Eternity.
On the home front, I wish for leaders who boast less in good times, accept responsibility in bad and are keener students of history.
On the world stage, I wish for the safe and speedy withdrawal of our soldiers from Afghanistan. I am familiar with the country and its people having lived in Kabul in the days of the King and ridden on horseback with moujahidin during the Russian occupation. Afghans were our heroes then. We are their enemy now.
Lastly (or firstly), writers are obsessive egotists: our greatest wish is that our books sell well.

EMPTY NEST

Our youngest son, Jedediah, has flown the nest. I drove him to Gatwick airport from whence he flew to Geneva and continued by road to a small resort in the French Haute Savoye where he will work in a small ski hotel and perfect his snowboarding. He will be away five months. Our home feels very empty without him. I worry that he will hurt himself on the mountains.
He is worried by my health. I have promised to lose weight.

LEDBURY, HEREFORDSHIRE

Ledbury is a small charming town once famous for its cattle market (Herefords, of course). Bernadette and I were married in the Tudor market house. New Year approaches. People are out there buying Christmas presents. OLD MAN ON A BIKE is a fine stocking-filler and readers enjoy having a copy signed by a local author. One of the two books shops in Ledbury, BOOKS & MAPS, has sold 30 copies; I signed a further 14 for them yesterday. I did a public signing last Saturday in the other shop. We ran out of books (an order for fresh stock hadn't arrived). However I had my photograph taken with the mayor and the town crier which I will post in due course.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

GRATITUDE

Having readers (or listeners) leave comments here is a reward only equaled by encounters on the journey. Thank you all. I am an extremely fortunate old man...

Monday, December 01, 2008

EXCESS BAGGAGE

Sandi Toksvig, a great traveler, presents the BBC Radio 4 travel program, Excess Baggage. The program is recorded at Broadcasting House, London, on Fridays and broadcast on Saturdays at 10 am. London is our capital and traveling to London is always up - or so I was taught. I was also taught to judge men by their shoes and to wear proper leather, properly polished. I mentioned on Excess Baggage that I wore a good pair of Church's sensible English walking shoes for the ride south from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego. I wore the same shoes when traveling up to London. I mention the shoes and traveling up to London because such habits mark me as old-fashioned or out of date - as does my accent. I listened to the program on Saturday morning. I sound (to me) like an Old Blimp. My son, Joshuah (22), attempts to reassure me. He claims that people will find me a charming rarity, relic from bygone times.

WEDDINGS AND DAMP EYES

Weddings are private - the emotion they arouse. I wept at my daughter's wedding last month - wept with love and with joy at her happiness. Enough...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

METROPOLITAN STUD

Late Fall in Dutchess County, NY: cloud-skimmed sky, hills cloaked in gray woodland, splashes of golden willow, patches of dry corn, mares in paddocks of faded green, wood pigeons on the barn roof,...
No days of rest on a horse farm. Michael, Shane on his back, marches passed on morning inspection. Overheard, the lilting Spanish from Mexican farm-hands freshening straw in the stallion pens...

Friday, November 14, 2008

STREAMERS OF GEESE AGAINST A GREY SKY

Dutchess County, New York, mares stand close and munch hay together in the paddock below the barn; drizzle softens hillsides of naked woodland; sky is layers of soft greys; long streamers of geese fly south; my grandson does his lion imitation; my daughter beams with pride. Mothers are like that - thinking their kids remarkable. Frankly, crawling is no big deal. Nor is giving the occasional roar.
I see Shane, ten months, through unprejudiced and unemotional male eyes. He is loving and totally lovable, extraordinarily beautiful, a natural comic and possessor of an intense intelligence - in fact much like his Mom.
I am not certain yet as to whether Shane is an oracle.
Charlie Boo (my grandson back in England) is an oracle - though his forecasts of the future are not absolutely reliable. However, this may be my misinterpretation of Charlie's reading of the runes. He is equally wonderful in all other ways and has an equally wonderful mother. The Dads are OK too...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

GRAND CENTRAL OYSTER BAR

My daughter lives in Dutchess County, New York. I can ride Amtrak from Pen Station or Metro-North from Grand Central. Amtrak is faster and more comfortable. It is also more expensive. I take Metro-North and save fifteen dollars. Grand Central is one of the world's great rail stations. The oyster bar at Grand Central is one of the World's great restaurants. Fifteen dollars buys half a dozen Bluepoint oysters plus tip.
There is no senior discount on the bus from Kennedy to Grand Central. Heading back to Kennedy I travel half price. The senior discount plus the saving on Metro-North pays for a full dozen Bluepoints.
My daughter says that I haven't saved a dime. However, she doesn't eat oysters.
I claim to have eaten a dozen and a half Bluepoints free.
Possibly a similar logic and discipline to mine has smashed the World's economy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

BEWARE AIRPORT SECURITY

I flew AerLingus back from New York to Birmingham (England) earlier in the year, transiting at Dublin. My biker boots are too big to pack. I was wearing them. At Dublin, I had to pass through Security a second time – no chairs at the security gate. I had to sit on the floor to drag the boots off - undignified! And worse...
BEWARE
(a warning that Tax Free shops at airports don't give): I bought a large bottle of rum for Bernadette at Kennedy. Dublin Security confiscated it.
Who got to drink the booze? I hope they got sick, threw up and were kicked out of the house by their spouses....

Meanwhile here I am back in the US at my daughter's home, playing with my grandson.
People here ask where they can buy OLD MAN ON A BIKE. The book isn't available yet in the US. http://www.amazon.uk.co or http://www.amazon.ca and most good British bookshops have it in stock. HarperCollins Australia have it listed for December 1.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

HEATHROW HADES - US PRIDE

Flying was slow in the fifties and DC3s had few creature comforts. However there was no demand that you be at the airport three hours before take-off. Three hours in the car to Heathrow, three hours in the terminal: I am exhausted already. I collapse by the boarding gate and watch the US election results on TV.
When I first flew as a young man, Southern States enforced legal apartheid no less vicious than that in South Africa.
Today the US has elected Senator Obama to the Presidency. Were I a citizen of the United States, Democrat or Republican, I would be immensely proud.

DC3s WERE ROMANTIC

I took my first commercial flight in 1952 - Dusseldorf to London, mid-winter - in response to a telegram: my mother was in hospital and unable to write. Unable to write had to be serious. The plane was a DC3. We got bounced around in a storm. I sat next to a Gay male German movie actor. The actor believed that we would crash and determined to have his last grope before death. Being groped was a new experience and not really my thing. However I was a polite young man, a lieutenant in a Lancer Regiment. Fending the actor's hands off without giving offense demanded concentration. I had no space for fear. My politeness was rewarded. I traveled up to London with the actor in a chauffeured studio car and telephoned the London Clinic from his mews house. I wasn't able to talk with my mother. She was out to dinner. She had cracked her wrists in a fall and had moved into the clinic as a convenience - nurses to help her bathe and dress.
I had a weekend pass. My mother wasn't expecting me. She was busy much of the weekend and we didn't see much of each other. The weather was fine on the flight back to Germany. I had a seat by the wing. Later I flew over much of Africa in DC3s. They were trusty planes: you could watch the propellers spin. And flying was a romantic adventure. Turn your coat collar up, tweak the brim of your hat and you were Humphrey Bogart watching the plane lift off in Casablanca...

US ELECTION

I flew Air France to New York on November 6 for my adopted daughter's wedding. My youngest son, Jedediah, drove me to London's Heathrow Airport. We left home at 2 am. Nighttime on the motorway can be scary. Jedediah passed his driving test only a couple of months back and I am a nervous passenger. Jedediah drove beautifully. We listened to the election results broadcast from the USA.
Jedediah said, “You want Obama to win?”
“Yes, I want Obama to win...”

Sunday, October 19, 2008

ME AND MY BIG MOUTH

HOME IN HEREFORDSHIRE
Scott Pack (ex-head buyer at Waterstone's) has a review of OLD MAN ON A BIKE on his web site (hit the title button) and is gifting four copies.

BUY BOOKS AT BEACON BOOKS

HOME IN HEREFORDSHIRE
For any of my local readers, Beacon Books at 23 Worcester Road, Malvern, have OLD MAN ON A BIKE in stock. I will be doing a signing later this month.

BRASILIAN POP MUSIC IS HELL

HOME IN HEREFORDSHIRE
I received an email yesterday evening from a Spanish couple, Diego and Viki. We traveled together by river boat down the Madeira River (see BLOG 2007-11-11) and became friends. From Manaus, Diego and Viki were heading up a tributary of the Amazon to holiday at an eco-jungle lodge. Eco-jungle lodges are expensive and (mostly) uncomfortable. Preeminent amongst the fauna are ravenous mosquitoes, flies that lay eggs in the most intimate parts of the human anatomy, man-eating serpents, man-eating fish and poisonous everything. Flora is equally deadly. Survivors pass through a green muggy hell only to boast afterwards of a wonderful experience. Tell the truth, eco-jungle lodges would close to the benefit of the jungle. I am overjoyed by Viki's survival. I am even more overjoyed by her and Diego's email. They live in Cadiz. Their email suggests I come visit and eat camarones. Camarones aren't poisonous...

BRITS BEWARE

HOME IN HEREFORDSHIRE
This is more than a Blog - probably too long. However it is the distillation of my musings as I lie in bed here at home in Herefordshire and listen to news on the radio of the United States Presidential election.


I have been traveling by small motorcycle through the Americas for the past three years – perhaps an odd pastime for a man in his mid-seventies.
The journey took me from Veracruz, Mexico, south to Tierra del Fuego and back north to Duchess County, New York – 45,000 kilometers.
Before departing, I visited three High Schools in my native Herefordshire. I asked fifteen-year-olds for their image of a Mexican. All gave the same answer: dark skin, fat, sweating, drooping mustache, big hat, comic accent.
And those from further south? Central and South America?
Drug dealers or crooked cops, corrupt officials.
Such is cultural colonialism - so much is absorbed from Hollywood.
I wondered what those south of the Rio Grande thought of us Brits? Do they imagine that we wear bowler hats, carry umbrellas and drink endless cups of tea? Or that England is a land of football hooligans?
Do they differentiate between Britain and the US?

US citizens possess a certitude in their superiority; Canadians are poor cousins; those south of the border are inferior beings: good ones make good house pets.
At a breakfast club for white Dallas millionaires, I listened to the guest speaker promote a verse history of the US flag for distribution to Primary schools. Each verse faced a full page illustration of the flag in transition and an American family in period dress, Mom, Dad, two kids - white, of course.
The speaker began by warning of 1.2 billion Muslims in the World, all taught from birth to hate and kill Americans. The speaker progressed to Hindu and Buddhist, Chinese and Korean and added an off-hand sneer at the cowardice of the French. He finished by warning that only the army and the church stood between America (the United States) and chaos. Chaos was Latino immigration.

Traditional immigration to the United States were escapees from Europe. They brought little other than their native language and religion. From these grow the tribal allegiances exploited by US politicians: Polish, Irish, Jewish, Black, Italian, Latino. Dissent within the tribe is dangerous – dangerous to the dissenter's business interests. Of those fifty or so wealthy Dallas citizens at breakfast, one possessed sufficient temerity to whisper in Spanish to me that not all in the audience were in agreement with the speaker.

Hispanic America is more homogeneous. The Spanish transported their history and culture to the Americas. Conquistadors married native Americans, as did later settlers. To quote a Mexican businessman in Veracruz: the only true bloods are horses. Poverty of soil or remoteness governs the extent of the genetic mixture: few incomers settled the Altiplano or penetrated the Amazon forest.
Hispanic America is equally homogeneous in religion. Catholicism predominates. The Founding Fathers never mixed. Nor have their descendants. Division rather than diversity infects the country with a pox of competing and exclusive sects and sub-sects: ten different grades of Methodist, a dozen Baptists, the Church of God, the Church of Jesus Christ, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Later Day Saints and so on ad infinitum. Politicians crave support from racist TV preachers. Freshly painted churches stand triumphant on every knoll; trees hide the reality of decaying trailer homes.
This is the South through which I rode this early spring. I carried with me adult memories of legally enforced segregation and of Jews denied entrance to up-market resorts and hotels: Restricted Clientèle was the euphemism. World War 11 was won. The horrors of the holocaust were public knowledge.
Now Senators Clinton and Obama were locked in combat.
Senator Clinton boasted of her approval rating amongst white working-class males (white working-class racist males) and attacked Senator Obama for suggesting that her constituency in the mill towns and mining communities of Pennsylvania were bitter.
I rode north through those valleys towards my Jewish daughter's New York home and found reminders of the Scottish Borders in the 80s, employment decimated by the closure of mill and mine, of boarded shops and For Sale notices. The Scots believed themselves betrayed by an English Conservative Government. The Conservative Party in Scotland has never recovered. What fate will befall Republicans?
Senator Obama has the victory over Senator Clinton. He is hailed as the first Black Presidential nominee. To quote my Texan host: One drop of black blood and you're Black. Black? One word to dismiss the Senator's mother.
This is the language and terminology of division, of the ghetto. We Brits echo it at our peril.
It is a language that rules United States attitudes in foreign relations.
Both academics and Government divide the peoples south of the Rio Grande into Hispanic and indigenous. They mount aid schemes for indigenous communities. Ride through Guatemala and pass massive concrete signs boasting of the generosity of the peoples of the United States. Each article of that aid, however small, bares the clasped hands emblem of US Aid and the United States flag. 120,000 Guatemalans were murdered by the military during 36 years of clandestine war. The Central Intelligence Agency organized the war at the behest of the United Fruit Company. The United States funded the war. Military and para-military were trained by the United States, masters of brutality at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Did the guns and ammunition proudly bare the twin emblems of US Aid and the US Aid's slogan: GIFT OF THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA? Are Guatemalans expected to forget now that the clandestine war is ended? An aftermath of violence rules. Buses in Guatemala City suffered 2,200 armed attacks in the first five months of 2006, the year I rode south from Mexico. Much the same is true through out Central America.
The guns and gangs that dominate the townships are US exports. Governments and economies are destabilized by vast profits in drug trafficking financed by the US market.
Tourists skim the facade. They sun themselves at beach resorts, marvel at the pyramids of Copan and Tikal, admire the architectural treasures of Granada, Leon and Antigua, boast of bargains achieved in negotiating the price of a skirt or shirt handwoven by a village artisan desperate to feed her children, seek a greater morality in taking the eco route.
History is a picture postcard. Understanding is wasted effort.
We echo this attitude at our peril.
On earlier journeys through Central America people differentiated between the United States and Britain. On this journey, I was reminded, time and again, that the Founding Fathers were Brits. We are judged by the company we keep. Minor partners in an alliance, we are held equally responsible for the Iraq war, for the deaths of the uncounted tens of thousand of Iraqi civilians.
At first I remonstrated.
I admit to being something of a Blimp (though infected with Leftist tendencies). I have chosen to believe that we Brits acted better, that those who represent us are men of honor. Yet not a single Brit resigned at the disclosure of those vile happenings in Abhu Ghraib: not a Minister nor our Ambassador in Baghdad, not the senior officer in Baghdad nor the resident Chief of Military Intelligence (surely they knew – certainly they should have known).
“You knew what they were like,” a young investment banker in Costa Rica accused. “You knew what Bush's father did in Panama.”
A week later, I met an elderly schoolmistress in Panama City, a plump, motherly woman who, before retirement had been head mistress of the school in the Historic Quarter. We shared a bench facing the Cathedral. The teacher was reluctant to talk of people. She talked of the apartment buildings in the district that were destroyed in the invasion, that the buildings weren't luxurious but were an improvement, that there was a community feeling to the district.
She insisted that Noriega was easy to arrest. There were so many opportunities. He traveled out in the country, walked the streets...
"So many people died. None of the houses of the rich were damaged, none of the rich were killed, none of the captains. It was against the poor," the teacher insisted... Poor people weren't important. Artisans died and poor people who sold fried fish on the street corner and on the beach at weekends. "Very flavorsome," the teacher assured me, "Fried with chilli and with garlic. Yes, very flavorsome."
Memory of the fish was a trigger. She wept, yet her tone of voice remained calm, almost wondrous, as she spoke of a family, her neighbours. All were killed. The grandmother was seventy-three. The youngest child was only six, a girl. And the teacher talked of her own elder sister who had lived on the top floor of a building. "The soldiers shouted that everyone must come out into the street or be killed. There was so much blood in the elevator and bits of bodies.”
The sister died two days after the invasion. "It was the shock..."
The teacher wiped her eyes and was silent for a while. Then, "They killed more than five thousand people,” she said. “They buried them with tractors. They are hidden there deep down in the area that is called Arenal.”
That evening I talked with a successful Panamanian businessman in his fifties. "Yes," he said, "There were thousands killed..." And, Yes, it would have been easy to capture Noriega. The invasion was unnecessary.
The businessman gave the booming Panamanian economy as the reason for the invasion. President Carter had agreed to the canal being handed over to Panama in ten years. The invasion was a warning to the Panamanians of their true status. George H W Bush was US President. The invasion was named Operation Just Cause. Those in the Pentagon referred to it as Operation Just Because. Official Pentagon estimates put Panamanian deaths at 516 while an internal memo put the figure at over a thousand. An independent Commission of Inquiry put the figure at between 1000 and 4000. Some 15,000 civilians were displaced - most were working class. The US army arrested all the police officers. Wide spread looting resulted. Looters sacked a great museum. Businesses were bankrupted.
I visited a respected Panamanian journalist at his office. “Have no doubts,” the journalist said, “Noriega is a vile man. However he would have been easy to arrest. The invasion was simply a demonstration of power...”
The journalist described the US soldiers as country boys, young, ill educated and inexperienced, that they often fired from panic. The blame for the killing of civilians and for the ransacking of the airport by US soldiers lay with incompetent officers.
The invasion is ever present in the memories of Panamanians as it is through out Central and South America. It is proof of US attitudes.
Let the journalist have the last word: The gringos have never thought of us as equals or important.
So it is in Iraq – no need to count civilian casualties.
Race again...
Introducing me to her students, an Afro-American Professor at Texas A & M remarked that I believed that people in the United States were obsessed by race. The Professor asked how many in the group agreed. A blond female student in the front row finally and timidly raised a hand shoulder-high. One by one all the students followed. Once committed, students unburdened themselves of personal experiences.
Race and the United States are inseparable. So is Religion.
Catholicism is the enemy. Senator Obama's relationship to Reverend Wright commanded media attention for weeks. Little was made of Senator McCain soliciting support from the equally reverend Pastor Hagee. Pastor Hagee frequently refers to the Catholic Church as the Great Whore and the anti-Christ.
Senator McCain referred too Pastor Hagee as “the staunchest leader of our Christian evangelical movement,” while claiming to be “very honored by Pastor John Hagee’s endorsement.”
These are our allies. It is an alliance that has cost us respect in every country through which I rode. We Brits need beware.

SENATOR BARAK OBAMA

HOME IN HEREFORDSHIRE
Senator Barak Obama is admired througout Hispanic America. Senator John McCain represents the same old US domination and racial arrogance. Few Hispanic Americans believe that Senator Obama will win the Presidential election. Hispanic Americans believe that, even were the Senator to win the vote, the election would be stolen from him.

ENDEMIC CORRUPTION

HOME IN HEREFORDFSHIRE
The journey is done. I met so much generosity and encountered such sadness, such cynicism: in Hispanic America, cynicism in regard to the United States - in the United Sates, cynicism in regard to Hispanic America.
Citizens of the United Sates judge Hispanic America endemically corrupt.
Hispanic Americans view the United States as the bedrock of financial and political corruption.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

NATURAL ENEMIES

HOME IN HEREFORDSHIRE
Writing is a moderately happy occupation. Having a book published is tough. Imagine sending your beloved only child to boarding school - a sensitive child with whom you are obsessed. You surrender control to people who hate you. The hatred is understandable. Publishers have families and mortgages. They depend on writers writing.
"How's the book coming?"
"Nearly finished..." (writer speak for being determined to begin the prologue next Monday).

IGNORANCE IS PARANOIA

HOME IN HEREFORDSHIRE
I have been checking bookstores on the internet. Most Amazons have OLD MAN listed but not Amazon.com. This has something to do with publishing and distribution rights. Amazon.ca (Canada) is the closest for US readers. And HarperCollins Australia is advertising the book for publication December 1. Is that a separate print run?
Why am I ignorant of the nuts and bolts of my profession?

BOOKS IN THE BOOK STORE

HEREFORDSHIRE, OCTOBER 14
Publishers feed books into the stores ahead of the official publication date. OLD MAN ON A BIKE is due for publication November 1. A friend from over the hills (Worcestershire) called yesterday; she bought a copy at W H SMITH in Malvern.How do I feel? Good. Alive. And back to Blogging.
Publication has been fraught. The Friday Project bought rites to the book. I did the editing with them. They went bankrupt. The UK branch of HarperCollins cherry-picked the ruins. OLD MAN was one of the cherries. Later today I shall drive into Malvern and see how the book looks in the stores.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

LETTER OF LOVE

DUCHESS VIEW FARM: APRIL 8
There is a difference between a love letter and a letter of love. A love letter is written to a lover. This diary is a letter of love - and of gratitude to those who made my journey possible, those who picked me up and nursed and mended me when I was broken, sent me on my way with courage restored. It is dedicated firstly to Graciela Abat Agostinelli - and to her ex-future novio, to Pepe Gonzalez the one legged orthopedic surgeon, to all the residents at the Hotel Argentino, the oil workers of Rio Grande, my cousins in Buenos Aires - yes, the people of Argentina, a people who proudly portray themselves as tough and macho yet are such softies. They are immensely kind, immensely generous and immensely thoughtful. Oh that they were subject to less vile politicians.
My treasured friends, I have waited to write to you until the journey was done. It is your journey. Had I failed, I would have betrayed you.

JOHNNYCAKE HOLLOW

HOME: APRIL 8
Take a right after Pine Plains, then a left, swoop into the next valley. The farm road is on the right. The road runs up hill between dark-stained post and rail fences to the homestead. The journey is done. I park outside the office between the stallion pens. Anya pushes open the door from her and Michael's duplex. Anya is small and immensely beautiful. She carries her baby in her arms. I am a real man. I pretend that riding in the cold wind has made me weep.

PINE PLAINS

PINE PLAINS: APRIL 8
Pine Plains is a few blocks each side of a crossroads. Houses are white weather-board in lawned yards, upstairs and downstairs, a few pillars, shaked roofs, sash windows and dormer windows - cute to an American - and to me. The brick restaurant on one corner of the crossroads is French owned. The food is reasonable.
Nothing much happens in Pine Plains (nothing much happens back home in Colwall). They are good sane places in which to sink roots.
I ride in sunshine. My hands are warm. The Honda purrs contentedly as we coast the country road. In my early youth this was a land of small dairy farms. A hundred or so years of toil won fields from hillsides. Dry stone walls protected the fields. Agro-Industry has put the farms out of business. Hill fields have surrendered to second generation birch woods spotted with weekend homes. Valleys are given over to hobby farms and horse farms. White painted post and rail fences enclose horse paddocks, white houses, white painted stable blocks. Even the dirt has been deodorised.
Why so bitter?
Not bitter, sad.
Sad at the waste of labour dedicated to future generations, a cold funeral pyre of dreams for a better life.
Such was New England...sacrifice to avarice.

ROBERT SHECKLEY

UPSTATE NEW YORK: APRIL 8
I feel the Hudson river as a frontier between old and new, between the United States that is foreign to me and the United States with historic and cultural ties to Europe. I take the correct road round town to the Hudson River bridge. I am home East of the river. Anya and I have toured every lane, visited each small town - Rhinebeck, Red Hook, Millerton - stopped for coffee here, shopped there, visited Anya's doctor, browsed the bookshops, collected a cat from the vet, ordered a Chinese takeaway.
Anya's genetic father, science fiction writer Robert Sheckley, passed his final years in Rhinebeck. He is buried in the artists' corner of Woodstock cemetery. Anya and I visited his grave at Christmas. Snow covered the cemetery. We parked and watched as two deer broke out of the trees and bounded uphill across the gravestones.
I am indebted to Bob for his teaching. He was a fine writer and a great teacher of writing. Largely forgotten in his own country, Sheckley remains a hero to those who live in what was the USSR. Soviet censers failed to recognize dangers in Sheckley's anarchist take on society; collections of his short stories sold in millions. To quote a leading literary critic in the Ukraine: "We were safe in a sort of intellectual stupor. Bob kicked our minds out of neutral".

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

HUMANITY IS IN RETREAT

ROUTE 209: APRIL 8
The terrain of the past two days was familiar in scale and history: a land of valley and hill, mill and mining towns, scattered villages, small fields and woods. Cross the State line into New York and everything is different. Development seems haphazard. The peripheral rash of abandoned stores and warehouses, multi-pump gas stations and fast food outlets is the United States portrayed by Hollywood. Pimped-up trucks, automobiles and pickups are protagonists. People are redundant: a bag lady, hoodies cloaking a black or brown or white face, baseball caps, faded jeans, slouched walk, scuffed trainers. Pennsylvania was an aberration.

MENTAL MATH FOR A NUMB BUTT

ROUTE 209: APRIL 8
I stop in Milford for coffee and a Subway chicken sandwich. Sun shines. Woods fall back The country opens. Route 209 crosses Interstate 84. I ride the frontier of New Jersey. How many States have I crossed? This has been a journey of calculations - kilometers to miles, liters to gallons, distance into minutes - anything to pass the time while crossing the deserts of Argentina or Central Brazil, any distraction that took my mind off the pain in my butt. Next trip I will buy a custom saddle. Next trip? I'll be 76. What am I planning? I'm crazy...

SUNSHINE HERALDS A GLORIOS DAY

STATE PARK: APRIL 8
A barrier closes the road midway through the State Park. The detour winds through woods and a narrow valley. Trees part to a scattering of clapboard houses, a couple of churches, a jail - or perhaps a down-market holiday camp? The lane climbs again out of the valley before dipping to the river. Clouds break. Sunlight glistens on wet tar and on the clear waters of the Delaware. Joy is instant.

ROUTE 209

DELAWARE RIVER: APRIL 8
Cold, cold, cold. Yet the route is beautiful. The two-lane highway follows the wooded banks of the Delaware. Mountains rise to my left. Dressed in Spring-green this would be wondrous. Now the naked trees seem frozen in their stillness. Skinny branches drip at the border of a patch of bald plow. I stop a while, beat my hands on my thighs and watch two men cast for trout in clear waters. The fishermen wear waders; the river drags white water eddies round their thighs.

DELAWARE RIVER

ROUTE 209: APRIL 8
I will finish this journey today - gratefully finish. I have been scared often - here, in the US, of falling ill. Not scared of illness. Scared by medical costs. We Europeans carry a plastic card that gives us free health treatment anywhere within the European Union. How good is the health treatment? Very good. Senator McCaine asks voters which they would prefer: European waiting lists or US freedom of choice. Freedom for whom? Senator McCaine. The Senator has Senatorial health insurance, a billionaire wife and doesn't know how many homes they own. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah....

POCONOS MOUNTAINS

ROUTE 209: APRIL 8
Nature is what the US does best. They possess a vast quantity: desert, plains, mountains, take your pick. I have ridden the Natchez Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Now for the Poconos Mountains. Route 209 follows the Delaware, one more name conjuring a romantic view of history.
I leave Stroudsburg under an overcast sky. Cold? Bitterly cold. I stop at Wal-Mart and buy an outsize pair of ski gloves to wear over my other gloves. The gloves keep my hands warm for a few kilometers.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

ADMIRABLE MEN

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 7
A third giant arrives at 1O am. The boss giant has sent him to fix my bike.
Has he much experience of bikes?
Never had one. Too dangerous. However machines are machines. Patience and logic are the only requirements.
He squats on the sidewalk and studies the bike a while, planning his moves. He dismounts a cover, removes the broken link and a further link from the chain, refastens the chain with a removable link.
Fifteen minutes and the bike is ready.
I am in his debt – and in debt to the boss giant for his kindness.
The boss is a type I recognize and admire from earlier travels through Africa, the Mid-east and the Indian sub-continent: a type of US expatriate. You find them in the oil fields and in engineering, agriculture and construction. They possess great energy and are immensely competent in diverse fields. Decision doesn't scare them. They act where we Brits would set up a committee to come to an indecision. And they treat all men as equals – race and religion not withstanding. Perhaps this lack of prejudice drives them abroad. They are uncomfortable back home. Home is too small.
Both the boss giant and Don Weempe are typical of the breed: Joe (my host in Granada) is another - good men in every sense...

AHEAD OF THE GAME

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 7
I sit in the lobby of the Stroudsburg motel, eat breakfast and read the paper. The paper is dated Monday, April 7. I check my watch: Monday, April 9. I have gained two days on the rest of the world. Better give them back...

CLARITY OF THOUGHT

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 8
The boss curses himself for not thinking clearly. I have less than 200 miles to ride. A new chain is unnecessary. Easy to repair the old. For sure, one of his men on the job will have a spare chain link in his toolbox. The boss will have a mechanic come by in the morning - around 10 am.

PREJUDICE

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 8
The boss and I wait in the truck while the sidekick buys fishhooks.
The boss says, “Never met a Mexican who wasn't polite and a worker...”
The boss is from New York.
The sidekick is from South Carolina.
This is the easy explanation of the difference in attitude.
However, my friend Don, a Dallas Good 'Ol Boy,would agree with the boss. All the workers in Don's construction business are Latinos.

MEXICANS ARE RUDE

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 8
Jack at the gas station is stringy of body and of beard. He has wrecked teeth and a wrecked Honda 750. I am welcome to the chain. The chain is way too big. Wal-Mart is the next stop. Work at the power station requires a multitude of keys. The boss wants the keys hung on fish hooks on a board in the works office. The sidekick drives. And he talks of Boilermakers and how he is one of a dying breed. Modern kids won't get their hands dirty.
Mexicans?
Mexicans are rude. They pretend that they don't speak English.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

HOEING

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 8
Giants require regular sustenance. We eat before hunting for gas-station Jack - eat as in mountains. One waitress is fun. The other is wary of giants - the sidekick is flirtatious. He has undergone multiple divorces. Born in South Carolina, he has a home on the beach.
Boss giant is a bachelor and owns homes in Queens and in up-state New York twenty miles from my daughter's home. We can't get my bike fixed, he suggests I take the bus and he will drop the bike off at Anya's at the end of the month.
They ask where I live. I tell them Herefordshire, that we have a small cottage but a large garden.
The sidekick adds a further mountain of fries to his plate and asks if I do much hoeing.
He and the boss are keen on hoeing.
I say that my wife prohibits hoeing, that hoeing is bad for my back.
I have surprised the hell out of him. He orders mammoth wedges of pie, flirts with the waitress.
The waitress giggles and flounces off. To the boss he says, “Remember those two hoes we met up with in Charlotte?”

BLITZKRAIG

STROUDSBURG, PA: APRIL 8
We are in a dinner. The dinner has a bar and a dozen check-cloth tables. The giants have been in Stroudsburg a week and have integrated with the bar crowd. The crowd is male designer stubble. Dress code is check shirts or sweat shirts, jeans and baseball caps We are hunting the bike shop owner's home number. I plead that tomorrow would be fine. The giants are unstoppable. They are on a mission (imagine a two-man blitzkraig).
None of the bar crowd has the number. One of them suggests Jack has a Honda in pieces back of the gas station – Jack, you know, guy with a stringy beard?
Jack doesn't work at the gas station. He got fired.
Yeah, but he hangs out there in the evening. The bike's in the back.

I doubt that the bike would be a 125. Bikers in the States ride BIG.
I am being negative.
Negativity never stopped a Blitzkraig...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

HEAVY COMPANY


STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 8

The boss directs his sidekick round the block to a small, brick-built bike shop. A notice on the door proclaims the shop closed.
I am a Brit and a Blimp. Elderly Brit Blimps don't hammer on shop doors on a Sunday evening.
Boilermakers do.
Trail bikes crouch behind the shop window. The door quakes in its frame. The frame leaks cement at the edges.
I dread a burglar alarm, cops, jail...

BOILERMAKERS

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 8
A second giant, equally muscled and vast of belly, waits outside at the wheel of a grey four-by-four pick-up truck. I am thrust onto the center seat. My two companions are members of the Boilermakers Union. They are boilermakers from infancy – maybe even in the womb. Years have faded the Union badges tattooed on their massive biceps. They are refurbishing a power station. The first giant is the boss. The second is responsible for health and safety. The sidekick tells me pay is good – that it needs to be: Boilermakers don't survive into old age. Asbestos kills them. The power station here is packed with asbestos that needs removing. The giants have a work gang of forty men.

IN THE PAWS OF A GIANT

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 8
I am inspected by the giant.
“You look depressed,” he says. “The type of depression that goes with needing crutches and owning a small bike with a broken chain...”
I plead guilty to the ownership and admit the depression.
The giant extends a massive hand, hefts me to my feet. “Let's get it fixed.”
I remark timidly that bike shops close on Sundays.
“We'll open them...”

GIANT

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 8
I sit in the motel lobby and drool at the lush scents of curry seeping from the owners' quarters. A giant enters, giant in height, giant in shoulders, giant in belly - late fifties and losing his hair - stained jeans, stained sweat shirt, scuffed work boots. He leans against the reception counter. The counter quivers. So does the receptionist.

MOTELS A GUJARAT MONOPOLY?

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 8
Gujaratis run the Stroudsburg motel. The portly Receptionist was born in Gujarat. He attended art school in England before emigrating to the United Sates. He paints in his free time. His work is traditional Hindu religious. He shows me a painting of a Goddess in profile on a black background, lots of gold leaf and gold dots.
Why did he move to the US?
In England, he worked for the couple who own the motel. They moved to the United States.
The wife is British Gujarati, a university graduate. Does she enjoy the US?
Opportunities are greater - the motel business. Work hard for a few years and you are financially established.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

GRATITUDE

STROUDSBURG PA: APRIL 8
We hitch the trailer to the Honda, collect the bike. Stroudsburg is a fifteen minute drive. I attempt to give thanks, ask for an address.
“It's nothing,” my savior tells me. A nothing miracle of generosity! And so typical of my few weeks in the United States...
I set out on this journey through the Americas in 2006 from Providence, Rhode Island, the home of my ex and her son, Jed. I traveled south by train to Dallas and Don and Jane Weempe and adventured with the Boys with Bikes and was saved from disaster in Amarillo by the Angel of the Bourbon Street Cafe. Now, riding north in 2008 I was saved first by the wicked Muslim at the Texas gas station on my way to Galveston to enjoy the company and hospitality of Terry and Ed, Carol and Peter. I have been pampered in North Carolina by Jim and Liz and aided by Mike Townsend at the Long View Cycle shop. Now I ride towards my daughter and her partner in Duchess County, New York. Encountering such kindness, such generosity, why dare I be so critical of the United States? Why do I feel more at home, more secure, in Hispanic America?

CITY FOLK

ROUTE 209: APRIL 8
I park the bike behind the church. The young man in the Honda opens the passenger door. The rear is loaded with waders and rods and fishing tackle.
He asks where I come from.
“You rode that far on that small bike...” He shakes his head in semi-disbelief. Then, “There's no sense leaving the bike out here. I have a trailer at the house...”
We drive through semi-suburban pinewoods country. His home is on a rise, dark-stained cedar, white window frames, perfectly maintained. Azaleas and rhododendrons are in bud. His parents live near by. So do his in-laws. He works for the electricity company, maintenance on high-wire pylons. He and his wife have a first baby. They were at church this morning. His wife gave him the afternoon off to go fishing.
City folk are moving into the neighborhood, building weekend and holiday homes. City folk complain if he keeps a pig or his chickens crow. We have the same problem back home. An ancient yew tree has been massacred on our lane. Neighboring women complained that the tree cut their light. The tree was there before they bought their cottages. It was there before they were born.

MIRACLE

ROUTE 209: APRIL 8
The chain has snapped. I pry the chain free, drape it over the crutches and push the bike fifty meters to a side turn. Do I push the bike onward until I find a village? Or do I wait in hope of a miracle? The miracle appears in the guise of a red Honda 4x4 driven by a typically friendly young man with short hair and dressed in standard GAP. Sunday and bike shops are closed. He suggests I park the bike a hundred meters down the road behind a church. The bike will be safe. He will drive me to a motel in Stroudsburg.
I imagine, as I push the bike, attempting to push a Harley or Gold Wing.
No way...I would collapse.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR

ROUTE 209: APRIL 8
Route 209 joins the main highway south of Stroudsburg. Sunday hasn't kept truck drivers off the road. I open the throttle to max in hope of not being run down. Full throttle on the flat is around 100 KPH. A machine gun fires a burst under my backside. The chain has snapped. The chain will entangle the wheel spokes. The wheel will collapse. I'll be catapulted onto the road. I'll have two seconds watching a truck's tyres before I get squashed. Totally squashed. Smeared. Except the bike comes quietly to a halt at the road edge.
I sit a while before dismounting.
The sun shines. I breathe carefully and inhale the scent of pine woods bordering the highway. Trucks thunder by.
What am I going to do? I am seriously short of funds. So close, yet so far...

DEFINITELY WEIRD

ROUTE 209: APRIL 8
Midday, the sky clears. The country grows more open, bigger fields bordered by good woodland, wealthier. Polished automobiles pack the parking lot of a roadside diner. The diner is low and light and new and built to last half of a short life time. I finger-comb my hair before entering and struggle out of a wet bomber jacket. Sunday lunch and tables are full. Uniformity in dress is obligatory. GAP or Old Navy is the choice in male tailoring. A smiling waitress with good teeth seats me at the counter and asks, “How are we today?”
Cold and hungry.
In England waiting is obligatory.
This is the US and coffee comes by instant magic.
I cup the mug in cold fingers. I must look a little weird. Too fat for a scarecrow, but, yes, a little weird: three short sleeve jerseys over one long-sleeved jersey, all tucked inside two pairs of outsize rain-proof pants yanked half way up my chest, two sets of broad suspenders visible, red and grey.
What is he? A pessimist? Maybe. But weird, definitely weird.
Country Brits would show their suspicions. Here bland faces hide any curiosity. Or maybe I'm invisible.
Oh, to be back in Hispanic America. South of the border I'd be in conversation, answering questions.
Fish and chips is England's national dish. In my youth the chippy wrapped your dinner in newspaper. Now it comes wrapped in off-white recycled. The smell of sweat, malt vinegar and stale oil is the same. So is the thick, grease-soggy batter and greasy-soggy potatoes. US fish and fries may be equally designed to halt longevity. However the batter and fries are crisp, the servings are immense and I prefer the odour of chemical air freshener.
I doubt that I can reach my daughter's today. So one more night in a motel. One more night and the journey is done. From the start I expected to give up somewhere along the road - admit that I was an old fool, that the journey was too tough. All in all, I am well content.

Monday, August 04, 2008

BITTER? YES, INDEED...

PENNSYLVANIA VALLEYS: APRIL 8
I ride beneath a low gray sky. A thin drizzle falls. Broken-backed trailer-homes hide in dripping birch woods. The mining and mill towns are imprisoned in narrow valleys: Tremont, Minersville, Port Carbon, New Philadelphia. Battered pick-ups are a fashion statement - abandoned automobiles and soon-to-be abandoned automobiles. Shop windows are boarded up. For Sale notices thrive on small red-brick and clapboard houses. Sullen teenagers cultivate a tobacco habit. Health Warnings? What has life on offer?
So were the Scottish Borders of the Thatcher Government in the 1980s, mills shut, mines closed, a lost generation of kids on street corners. Bitter? Yes, indeed...Though Senator McCain claims that bitterness is un-American.
Tories in Scotland ceased to exist.
What future have the Republicans?
What future do I have?
For bikers, this is unfriendly weather. Oh for a little Global Warming...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

KIND COPS AND MANIACAL TRUCK DRIVERS

PENNSYLVANIA: APRIL 8
Forgive me for writing further of danger and truck drivers. My friends in Dallas judged my journey mad or suicidal. They warned of Mexican drivers, of crooked cops and crooked border officials. Mexicans in Veracruz added bandits to their warnings. So I progressed, country to country, each peopled by homicidal truck drivers, vicious terrorists and equally murderous bandits. Chance acquaintances expressed amazement at my survival.
I encountered only kindness.
On occasion, arrogance made me resent the kindness...As with cops in Peru.
I crossed the desert in Peru in a sandstorm. Cops stopped me every twenty kilometres.
“Hey, grandfather, are you okay?”
They were nurse-maiding me.
Me! A survivor of ambushes in the Ogaden, of Russian gunships in Afghanistan.
I felt belittled.
I stopped for lunch at a truck and coach halt and chatted half an hour with the waitresses. Two cops ate at a table against the far wall. They departed. I asked for my bill. The cops had paid. This Blog is my Thank you to the Peruvian police.
And yet, there is a downside.
All drivers in Venezuela are insane.
Most truck drivers in Argentina are bully boys.
Bikers, avoid Venezuela. In Argentina, ride with care.

PAN-AMERICAN HIGHWAY IS A STEEPLECHASE

PENNSYLVANNIA: APRIL 8
A massive trailer truck smashed me from the rear in Tierra del Fuego. The accident has left me wary. I fancy myself an expert on truck drivers. Mexicans are the most humane. See a small bike on the road and Mexican truck drivers pull wide. They salute on the klaxon, wave. Peruvians and the drivers of Ecuador are equally friendly. Meet them and they say Hi with a flash of headlights. I write here of drivers away from the Pan-American Highway. The Pan-American is a high-speed steeplechase track. National borders are the obstacles. Trucks queue for hours, sometimes days. Frustration seeds hostility. Keep your distance...

A BUG WITHOUT A BITE

PENNSYLVANIA: APRIL 8
I ride a short stretch north from Harrisburg before turning westward through the Pennsylvania valleys on route 209. Massive trucks roar passed on the Interstate. The trucks strike me as symbolic of US power, blunt, heavy, rowdy, chrome-flashy and with no use nor need for subtlety. Air is the enemy. Ram it out of the way. Engine thunder engulfs us. Massive tyres add their own roar. The bike and I shudder under the onslaught. I shrink onto the gas tank and struggle to steady the bike against the slipstream. Here comes the next and the next...In passing, they give me the space prescribed in the Highway code. No more, no less...and no communication. My bike is too small for this land of giants. I am unimportant, a harmless bug.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

CAN I MAKE IT TODAY?

ROUTE 209: APRIL 8
I speed (potter|) north through Harrisburg before turning East onto Route 209. 209 will take me through the Pennsylvania Valleys to Kingston, New York. Cross the bridge over the Hudson, ride through Millbrook and Pine Plains, turn left onto Johnny Cake Hollow and right up the track to Duchess Views Farm and the Metropolitan Stud. I shall hug my daughter, admire my new grandson, park the Honda in the stables – Bliss. How far? 270 miles. Can I make it today? Maybe...

THE LAND OF THE FREE

GETTYSBURG: APRIL 8
Road signs point back into recent history: Harpers Ferry, Gettysburg; signposts, in the Land of the Free, to a war in defense of the rights of gallant slave-owning Southern gentlemen. Perhaps I am obsessive. However, I repeat accusations made by so many Hispanic Americans met on this journey.
Spain is the historic evil taught to white Protestant Anglo Saxon England and the United States: Spain, Catholicism and the Inquisition.
The first laws in defense of the freedom of the native population were promulgated in Spain by Charles v in the 16th century ('New Laws' 1542,43,44).
US President Andrew Jackson ordered the clearing by force of the native population from its lands in the 19th century (Removal Act, 1830).
Evil knows no monopoly.

SCAREDY CAT


AND ONWARD: APRIL 8

I traveled deserts in my youth, was shot at, broke free of ambushes. In my thirties I rode trucks the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent and, in later years, drove and rode horseback across much of Afghanistan, hid from Russian gun ships, mislaid my false teeth in a mountain stream. Now I am old – and a scaredy cat. Or grown more sensible? Washington DC can wait. I crossed the Appalachians on Route 211. I bypass Washington on Route 15 to Harrisburg and head for safety.

MEMORIALS ARE EPILOGUES

ONWARD: APRIL 8
Is my head cold responsible for my dark mood? Or my fear of riding through DC?
I feel vulnerable.
I imagine DC as a city to which wise people travel by train or plane. They take cabs to their hotel or to friends' homes. They venture forth by cab or with a guide.
I have a young friend in DC, Elizabeth Bergner. We met this trip in Cartagena, Colombia. Elizabeth is making a career change. She shares a house with the like-minded, mostly met on her travels. I would enjoy listening to their experiences and to their opinions. Sadly, Elizabeth is away at a wedding.
And the Vietnam War Memorial would be out of place at this point in my journal. Memorials are epilogues...

GONE WITH THE WIND

DILEMMA TERRITORY: APRIL 8
A pale sun shines upon a vast territory of gated communities and country clubs. The cold front hasn't yet hit. I weep with a head cold. Sneezing fogs my spectacles. Signs point to Monticello – slavery as romantic, all those loyal darkies, Gone With The Wind...

REAP AND WEEP


ROAD TO WASHINGTON, DC: APRIL 8

I am finally north of the Appalachians. Washington, DC, is a rock thrown into a vast economic puddle. Ripples flow outward. White clapboard houses are bigger, better maintained. Mercedes, BMWs and Porches are common as flies on a Third World butcher's slab. I catch glimpses of red brick mansions sheltered by parkland. Riding stables abound, paddocks protected by white picket fences. Horses are as plentiful as hand guns and bare the same romantic mystique. I am crossing the political heartland of the Land of the Free whose early heroic Presidents, General George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners.
The slaves have rebelled.
Reap and weep.
Or move to the suburbs and gated communities...

Monday, July 28, 2008

ANXIETY ATTACK

ON THE ROAD: APRIL 8
I have been riding and cogitating. I checked the chain before leaving the Ramada Inn. It is very slack and I am a little anxious – and nervous - not only regarding the chain. I have survived the cities of Hispanic America without mishap. I understand Hispanic American cities. I am sensitive to invisible frontiers that divide safe from dangerous – and moderately safe from terrifying.
Washington, DC, is an unknown. However, shootings-for-sport and carjackings are frequent – so the media reports - and I don't have a city map...Though city maps aren't marked with safety zones.
Jim Donovan visited on his Harley and had police warn him that he had taken a wrong turn, was in the wrong area and should get the hell out fast.
The Honda won't do fast.
I wish to see the Vietnam War Memorial.
I don't feel in immediate need of a personal memorial.
And I am running short of funds.

NEARLY HOME

TOWARDS WASHINGTON, DC: APRIL 8
I leave the comforts of the Ramada Inn, Harrisonburg, soon after first light.
I ride the Interstate north towards Harrisburg. I am riding through a gently up-and-down horse country of green meadows, white fences and woods. The sun shines – less watery as the morning progresses. Washington, DC, is over to the West. I intend stopping a night in DC. I want to visit the Vietnam Memorial. I also want to be safe at my daughter's, to have this ride done with. To survive.

PRAWN DETOX

HARRISONBURG: APRIL 8
Evening: the wind has dropped. Rain continues. Tomorrow will be dry - and cold. I am suffering a head cold. I am scared that the infection will move down to my chest. I am scared of United States medical bills. So are most citizens of this country.
Should I hole up here in Harrisonburg until the cold front passes through?
Or should I make a dash for my daughter's in upstate New York?
Cogitating such weighty matters requires energy.
I call the Thai restaurant and order spicy prawns.
Eleven months on the road - I'll be in need of a prawn detox.

SENATOR OBAMA IS ELITIST

HARRISONBURG: APRIL 7
Wind and rain batter Harrisonburg, Virginia. I watch Primary Election coverage on TV. Both Senators Clinton and McCain attack Senator Obama for describing working class men of the Pennsylvania Valleys as bitter. According to Senator Obama the cause of their bitterness is the closure of the mills and mines in the Pennsylvania valleys. The men have lost their jobs. However, bitter is an insult, it is un-American. Describing the unemployed as bitter proves Senator Obama an elitist (according to Senators Clinton and McCain).
I am an outsider.
What would I know?

VILE WEATHER

HARRISONBURG, VIRGINIA: APRIL 7
Fierce squalls thrash rain against the windows of my room at the Ramada Inn. The Honda is parked outside between a massive RV and an equally massive double-cab pick-up truck. The Honda seems very small and somewhat bedraggled – even a mite reproachful. It is accustomed to overnighting in hotel lobbies and 17th century Spanish Colonial patios. The Ramada Inn is a come-down for a bike. The king size bed is a sybarite's delight.
I suffer a twinge of guilt – and worry that the Honda will avenge its self; worry that the chain won't hold up or that a worn tooth or teeth on the sprockets will offer insufficient purchase for the chain.
However, this is not a biker day. It is a day for catching up on correspondence and my journal, for planning the final stage of the ride and for watching the election reports on TV.
And for sprinting (slowly) for free breakfast across the parking lot to the main building.

WET CLOTHES AND HOT SHRIMP

HARRISONBURG: APRIL 6
Management, Reception and cleaners at the Ramada Inn, Harrisonburg, are Gujarati. I long for a curry made with fresh spices. I negotiate a small discount on the room rate. I have ridden through steady drizzle for the past three hours. Now the TV weather channel shows heavy rain moving southward towards Harrisonburg. Rain will be followed by a cold front. Is a cold front colder than the cold I have already suffered up on the Blue Ridge Parkway?
I strip, turn the heating up and drape wet clothes over chair backs and over the air conditioner. Bliss is basking in a hot bath and contemplating the menu of a newly opened Thai restaurant. Spicy shrimp with fresh coriander...

Friday, July 25, 2008

KINDLY PEOPLE

HARRISONBURG: APRIL 6
Most cities have an obvious geographical purpose. The lesser inland US cities often confuse the foreigner. Why were they founded in this particular stretch of emptiness? Where is the center? What logic propels developers to clump forty story buildings wall to wall in a country of unlimited space? Why these few city blocks rather than the next? And where do I find a hotel? I enter Harrisonburg on a minor road. For a motel I need the Interstate. Rain mists my spectacles. Dusk settles. I am wet, cold, miserable and lost.
I pull in at a gas station beside a black Buick sedan. The driver is a Black woman dressed (that bit that I can see of her) in artificial furs. She owns four teenagers - surely sufficient Hell in an automobile without instructing a fat old Brit on a bike seeking a bed.
The teenagers compete with her in directions. My younger sons might understand the teen-speak. The mother recognizes my bewilderment and accepts the impossibility of keeping the teens hushed long enough for a sensible conversation – even if the drenched old Brit on the Bike is capable of rational communication (doubtful). “Follow,” she says, “I'll drive slow.”
She makes a U out of the gas station and heads right across town to a Ramada Inn.
Many people have aided me on this journey. Few will read this account – and expressions of gratitude come easy. Yet I know of a future. I will sit on a bench in our Herefordshire garden, enjoy those few days of sun offered by our English summers and be better warmed by remembered evidence of so much kindness in a troubled World.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

HARRISONBURG, VIRGINIA: TUESDAY, APRIL 6
Tired is reasonable; I am tired. Cold is reasonable; I am cold. I am also wet and miserable. I have no right to be miserable. This ride is a privilege. I am one of the fortunate. So smile, Old Man, smile as you ride into Harrisonburg.
VIRGINIA: TUESDAY, APRIL 6
I last an hour on the Parkway. Thin drizzle mists my safety spectacles. I take a left down to the foothills and ride a further hour before pulling in at a gas station. A woman serving coffee directs me to an upright heating unit. I wear wet-suit gloves under leather gloves. I put both pairs on top of the heater. I unzip my bomber jacket, press my chest against the heater and sip coffee. I am in a small town. Asking the woman serving coffee which town seems impolite. A weather man on TV points to bands of downpour sweeping south from the Great Lakes. The rain won't hit till late evening. I could find a motel. Or I could ride a further couple of hours. Riding gets me closer to the end, to my daughter. I ride.
This is Virginia horse country. Route 42 crosses a land of hills and lush pastures, white farm houses, white stables and white fences. Goshen and Staunton are red brick. Drizzle turns to light rain. Trees drip. I drip.

BRAVE OR STUPID?

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY: TUESDAY, APRIL 6
There are those who believe me brave in undertaking this journey. I judge myself stupid. To exchange the warmth of the diner for the heights of the Blue Ridge Parkway – definitely stupid. I wish to write that the Parkway was beautiful. Perhaps. If so, I was soon too cold to notice. Low grey cloud enveloped the mountains a hundred feet above the road. A lone black turkey cock scuttled across the tar in search of a new winter overcoat. I rode with my left hand under my backside. The right hand froze.

WEST VIRGINIA DINER

APPALACHIANS: TUESDAY, APRIL 6
I am being mothered by the waitress in the diner. The waitress is medium young and blond. She has a genetic advantage in remaining slim or avoids fried cat fish in crisp batter accompanied by equally yummy fries. The servings are vast. Outriders escape. Add tomato ketchup and my plate is soon encircled by a scarlet-spattered war zone.
The lunchtime crowd packs the diner and double doors keep the heat in. The waitress helped pry me out of my bomber jacket and I have shed a couple of jerseys. Warmth seeps through the remaining layers. My hands stop trembling. I feel good. I ponder on the politeness of people here, their friendliness. And I ponder at their lack of curiosity. Or does questioning a traveler breach etiquette? Are people nervous of what opinions they might encounter, nervous of betraying their own opinions, nervous of disagreement?
It is very different south of the Rio Grande. South of the Rio Grande, I would be in a discussion. The discussion would begin with the standard interrogation. How old? Where have I been? How does my wife feel at my being away? What do my children think? Which country did I like best?
We would drift into accounts of the economy and on into local politics and, inevitably, someone would denounce President Bush as ignorant, arrogant and stupid - and denounce the United States as racist.
In the Appalachians, I have met only one Afro-American. That was yesterday, the up-market dealer in up-market Bonds, the driver of a 4x4 Lexus. Or was he an FBI agent or a lawyer with the IRS – or a holidaying hit-man? Or chaufeur for his ill-dressed Caucasian American companion?
I have no idea.
People south of the Rio Grande are close kin culturally to Europeans. They are familiar to me. A few minutes talk and I can write a reasonably accurate summary of their place in society.
Our sharing of language with the United States provokes a delusion of commonality. Dig a little deeper and we are very different. The United States is unknown territory...

HARPER COLLINS

COLWALL, HEREFORDSHIRE: TUESDAY, JULY 9
A publishing disaster delayed my posting the completion of this journey. The journey was planned to end close to publication date. My publishers declared bankruptcy. Harper Collins have cherry-picked the corpse. I have agreed a new contract with Harper Collins (though, if a cherry, I must be over-ripe). OLD MAN ON A BIKE will be published September 1 and I reappeared in public last Saturday to give a presentation at the annual UK meet for bikers organized by Horizon Unlimited.
The presentation lasted an hour. Listeners expected highlights of a ride from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego followed by a question and answer session. I short changed the audience. One hour and my account had reached Panama.
Those frustrated might buy the book.
Meanwhile I will tidy up my notes and post the final week of the journey.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

CATFISH AND FRIES

BORDER OF WEST VIRGINIA: APRIL 6
Back in my youth, blue-collar Brits queued at the chippy most Saturday nights for fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. Thick soggy batter encased a stale chunk of greying cod; chips oozed grease. Today's preference is for equally vile fast-food sweet-and-sour with fried rice, chicken tika, donar kebab or a Savaloy sausage.
So I muse as I shelter at a corner table in a gerry-built road-side diner in the Appalachian foothills on the border of West Virginia.
Lunch hour and the diner is packed with locals. These are country folk and polite. They don't stare at the fat old man off a Mexican mini-bike. A friendly waitress serves coffee and takes my order for catfish and fries. A woman at the next table interjects that we are suffering a cold front.
Yes, indeed...

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

COLD

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY: APRIL 6
The Blue Ridge Parkway relates the history of white occupation. Here camped explorers, traders and military expeditions. Historic cabins and camp sites mark their progress. A century or two of rain and stormy weather has washed away the blood of conquest. Cafes and a hotel cater for tourists. Campsites have hot and cold water and power points for recreational vehicles (camper trucks). Ancient trading posts (1850s) sell tourist tat. Log-cabin is the architectural style and signposts are varnished slices of tree trunk. Very tasteful...
What makes me cynical?
The pretty-pretties of a Colonial Power that boasts that it is rooted in freedom and democracy?
Or merely that the intense cold makes joy impossible?
Cafes are shut. So is the Minerals museum and the urinals. I pass two cars in 100 miles. I hunt with numb fingers within layers of clothing and pee with my back to the log wall of a Trading Post. I leap and caper in the deserted parking lot and thrash circulation back into frozen hands. A few mile further and the cold is victor. I take a left down off the parkway. A diner advertises fried fish heaven...

BLOWING ROCK IS DEAD

APPALACHIANS: APRIL 6
Zoning laws are foreign to North Carolina. Property rights are sacrosanct. Citizens have the right to do what they wish on their own land. Guard it with guns. Turn it into a shooting range. Or a bombing range. Build a cottage, tower block, incinerator.
Blowing Rock is a pretty village for affluent summer residents. Early April is out of season. Shops and restaurants remain shuttered. Blowing Rock is dead. So are my fingers. I beat my hands on my thighs a while, then take a right up through pine forest gouged for summer mansions and reach the Parkway. The cloud has lifted. The mountains are blue with cold. So am I. I work hard at admiring the view. I work hard at imagining trees in leaf, rhododendrons and azaleas in flower, the tiniest smidgeon of Spring blossom. Beautiful? Yes. And enjoyable if wearing two pairs of thermal socks and driving an RV graced by a fully functioning heater. This is bad weather for a biker - even a biker wearing heated leathers. Cold is cold is cold...

TOO COLD BY FAR

BLUE MOUNTAIN PARKWAY: APRIL 6
I am so close to the end of the ride - yet so far with news on TV of heavy rains tomorrow. Today promises clear skies and a cold front.
I intend rejoining the Blue Ridge Parkway. I load the bike under an overcast sky and take Route 321 out of Lenoir into the Appalachians. The cold grows bitter on the climb. Add wind chill and my fingers freeze. Paulo in Ushuaia fitted protective cuffs to the Honda's handlebars. The cuffs were torn off in the accident.
The road is being widened. Giant dozers and hydraulic diggers munch chunks out of the mountain. Patches of wet slippery clay transform tar into a bobsleigh run. Massive dumper trucks pant on my tail. Frightened? Scared shitless...
I pull in at a gas-station cafe and wrap frozen fingers round a steaming mug of black coffee. Breakfast is two eggs sunny-side up, bacon, hashed potatoes. I share a table with two locals,lank haired and noses they wipe on their shirt sleeves. Conversation is unintelligible. Yellow hard-hats occupy the other tables. Two women work a stainless-steel hot plate. The smaller is younger and pregnant. Her nose drips. Heat and grease fumes rouge her cheeks. Or does she have a fever? I am a little anxious as she breaks my eggs onto the hot plate. What makes the eggs splutter?

BRAVE TOAD? DUMB TOAD?

HIGHWAY 40: APRIL 5
I have backtracked to Ashville, taken Highway 40 to Morganton, then north to Lenoir on Route 64. Crazy to retreat into this vast semi-circle? Probably. However what remains of my mind refused to grapple with the map and Highway 40 required a minimum of navigation. True, trucks are vast; slipstreams buffet a small bike. Buffeting does nothing for my bladder control - such are the minor handicaps of old age.
Now I am in Lenoir at the Comfort Inn and tapping the keyboard while sprawled on a king-size bed. I arrived at dusk and too tired to search for a less costly or better presented hotel. Better presented? Carpets are being renewed which may explain the hotel's unpleasant odor.
The TV weather channel warns of a cold front moving down from the north followed by heavy rains and flooding on the East coast. The screen fills with snow shots from Michigan. At least tomorrow will be fine. I set the alarm for 6 am.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

SUMMER HOMES

HILLBILLY TERRITORY: APRIL 5
I am on an adventure through Indian/Hillbilly land. The Indians have long gone. So have the Hillbillies. These lovely green valleys offer cool summers and glorious mountain views. Perfectly groomed houses set in greenery are second homes for the wealthy who bypassed Florida - or third homes for those who took the Florida route.
I stop at a gas station. A gleaming Lexus 4x4 pulls up. An Afro-American and a white man dismount. I check the atlas with them. They aren't familiar with minor roads. The Black man has the soft clear diction of an upmarket bond trader. This is the South and he is the first Afro-American I have seen since fleeing Nashville. Is he investing a small fraction of his Wall Street Christmas bonus on a summer home? He seeks deliverance for his family from summer city pollution.
I am delivered from DELIVERANCE...

RETREAT IS IGNOMINIOUS

HILLBILLY TERRITORY: APRIL 5
I wish the tractor driver Good day and ask for directions back to the Parkway. He appears unsurprised at being addressed by an Englishman on a Mexican registered motorcycle and he was born with good teeth or has an excellent orthodontist. A rock fall has blocked the Parkway. The only road round the fall is loose dirt and mud – not to be ridden by an old man on a town bike. I can retreat to the Parkway and return to the diversion or circle back to the highway. The highway will be quicker. Retreat is ignominious.

HOLLYWOOD EDUCATION

HILLBILLY TERRITORY: APRIL 5
A barrier closes the Parkway. The barrier is 20 miles beyond the sign for the diversion. The diversion was to the right. Here there is only a lane to the left. The lane twists down through forested mountains. Appalachians are Hillbilly territory. Hillbillies are vicious degenerates in need of an orthodontist. I was taught this by Hollywood. Remember DELIVERANCE? Trees drip. Shadows twist into scary shapes. I ride very slowly and with great caution.
The lane leads to a lush narrow valley and a T junction. I carry a road atlas inside my jumper for extra protection against the wind. I brake and unzip my bomber jacket. Where I am doesn't exist or the atlas is in code. I don't have the code. I turn right and hit a further T junction. Right leads to a church. Left gets narrower and turns to dirt. I retreat. I am, of course, about to be raped or murdered. True, the only person in sight drives a red tractor and mower across a horse paddock. And the Hillbilly houses seem in fine repair and are considerably grander than those few in DELIVERANCE. I stop by the paddock, heave myself out of the saddle and wait for the driver to approach. He shuts off his engine – both a sign of friendship and that he has cash for a good battery. In the old days a Native American would have raised a hand and said How - or carved my scalp into a belt decoration. More Hollywood education...

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY


BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY: APRIL 5
Add the Natchez trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Skyline Drive north along the Shenandoah Mountains: the distance far exceeds the length of the British Isles. Perfect road surfaces and no trucks offer a fine combination to a nervous old man on a small bike. I ride without fear of being smashed in the rear. Views are superb. Oh that the walls of rhododendron were in flower. And sad that disease is attacking the pines. I stop a dozen times to photograph the mountains. This is the Blue Mountain Ridge and the mountains are blue. I wish that I owned a wide angle telephoto lens. A sign warns of a diversion – no barrier so I ride onwards. Fool...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

TOO EARLY


APPALACHIANS: APRIL 5
Early Spring and the Parkway climbs to over 6000 feet. I wear three jerseys and a thick shirt over Alpinestar thermals, overalls, two pairs of $9 waterproof trousers from Walmart in Franklin, leather jacket, two pairs of gloves and Alpinestar boots. The road climbs steeply out of Cherokee. Road sides are grey rock, pine trees and rhodedendrohns. The rhodedendrohns aren't yet in flower and I ride five or more miles before meeting a car. My feet, legs and body are warm. My cheeks freeze. So do my hands. I pull in at the summit view point, dismount, beat my hands and sprint on the spot. Sprinting is an inexact term at my age and swathed in layers of clothing. However I thaw somewhat and take photographs and say Howdee to a couple of fellow tourists warm from a heated motorcar. The crunched-up ridges and peaks of the Appalachians march eastward to the horizon. A faint blue haze softens the contours and makes distant magic of the valley below where toy houses and barns crouch amongst stands of broad-leaf trees and beside small paddocks minutely spotted with dairy cows. Beautiful, magnificent, spectacular – oh that it were a fortnight later, warmer and the banks of rododendrohn in full flower. Maybe another time...and riding with Liz and Jim. That would be fun. In thinking of them, I feel my solitude. This journey has been an accumulation of farewells. Depression threatens. I heave a leg over the bike (no mean feat), kick the starter, settle into the saddle. A final wriggle of gloved fingers and onward again. A few days and I will be with my daughter, Anya, lie on the carpet and goo and coo at the baby, talk horses with Michael, admire the foals. Then home to England, my own bed, Bernadette, the boys, my daughter-out-of-law and Charlie Boo. Depression lifts. Life is good. I am imensely fortunate.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

APPALACHIANS: APRIL 5
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs the length of the Appalachian mountains from Cherokee, North Carolina, pretty much all the way to Washington DC - though the last stretch over the Shenandoah mountains has a different name. Speed limit is 45 mph. Commercial vehicles are forbidden. Perfect for the ancient rider of a small bike who is fearful of trucks...
Cherokee is Native American tourism: mowed grass by the river beneath great trees in Spring leaf, log-cabin fast-food outlets, mom and pop motels, native handicrafts manufactured in China. A gentleman riding a mower assures me that the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed, that it was closed yesterday. Sun shines. Gates are open. A Park Authority cream Ford pickup speeds by. Go for it...

FAREWELL TO FRANKLIN

FRANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28 - APRIL 4
I leave in the morning. This evening I sit in a comfortable armchair and watch with Jim the political news. Liz, Jim and I are Obama supporters. I don't have a vote- unjust given that the UK's foreign policy is dictated in Washington. Obama is under threat for suggesting that the people of Pennsylvania are bitter at losing their jobs and take shelter in a gun and church culture. I shall ride through Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile I enjoy friendship and companionship and kindness. I have been a guest of the Donaldsons for a week. We have done nothing out of the ordinary. We have merely spent time together, enjoyed each other's company, explored a little our differences and our similarities. It has been a good time, a very good time. These are wonderful people...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

GENEROSITY

FRANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28 - APRIL 4
Jim rides me down to collect my bike from the bike shop - Long View Cycle Inc. Mike Townsend is the owner. A mechanic has serviced the bike, oil change, etc. Mike has written across the invoice OUR CONTRIBUTION TO THE RIDE - one more act of generosity.
Mike warns that the chain is about done and that the drive sprockets are worn sharp.
Will the chain get me to upstate New York?
Ride carefully...

SWEAT, GOLF AND EROSION

FRAMKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28 - APRIL 4
Jim and Liz have been showing me the beauty of North Carolina. Spring has yet to blossom the forested mountains. Private roads to summer houses of the wealthy spill trails of soil erosion through naked trees. Many of the incomers are Northerners by way of Florida which they find too sultry in July August. Sweat wrecks their Florida golf game. Their holiday homes wreck North Carolina.

ROOTLESS AND GUILT FREE

FRANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28 - APRIL 4
Franklin, North Carolina and Ledbury in Herefordshire are both small country towns. Where do they differ? Sprawl is the easy answer. Distance from Franklin town center to the Walmart mall would take me half way to Hereford. Treking to either one of two bike shops is further. And by our very English standards everything is new. Our cottage was built in a time when the Appalachians were Native Cherokee territory. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830: the Cherokee were herded 1200 miles in winter. The trek lasted six months. One in four died.
Few of today's US citizens have roots in the Americas deeper than the last quarter of the nineteenth century. They avoid guilt for genocide and for expropriating the tribal lands of Native Americans.

ADIEU TO THE FIRST FLUSH OF YOUTH

FRANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28 - APRIL 4
Jim has steel panniers and a top box on his trail bike. One pannier is already full with spares. The other holds a medical kit. He has divided his future trip by nations and files information in a leather folder. I am not against being organized. I am merely a foreigner to it. My main doubt in regard to Jim's preparations is weight. Jim and I have passed the first flush of our youth. We are mature citizens (mature in age – in attitude we remain boys with toys). Our legs have lost much of their thrust. We delay getting up in the night for fear of back pain. Lifting weights is dangerous. I can heave a Honda 125 back onto its wheels. I wouldn't waste time trying to lift Jim's bike. And spares are heavy. My advice is to chose a bike for which spares are available. True, I am being wise after the event. I bought the Honda because it was cheap and because I drive a sixteen-year-old Honda Accord back home that has never betrayed me.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

SEEKING PERFECTION

FRANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28 - APRIL 4
Jim's approach to biking differs from mine. I put my trip together in under a week. For bikes, I wanted light and cheap and with spares available. I checked prices on the Internet and emailed the Honda agent in Veracruz.
Birmingham to Boston with Aerlingus was the cheapest flight to the Americas. Hoping for an upgrade, I found a secondhand Irish jumper and a green cord shirt at a charity shop in Hereford. I waxed my Church's walking shoes and stuffed five months of heart medication and two FootPrint guides in a hold-all: Mexico and Central America, and South America. The guides have maps that give an idea of where places are. For detail, I talked with people on the road and picked up road maps at gas stations.
Jim is a planner. He and Liz have toured the US and Canada on a Harley (they towed a custom camper trailer). Jim has explored Mexico with the gang and ridden south through Central America to the Darien Gap. He wants to complete his long-distance biking with a ride through South America. Triple bipass and a bad back have ended his Harley days. Harleys are too heavy. Fall and he would be pinned under the bike until help came. The Harley is for sale and Jim has downsized to the trail bike.
However - it is a big However – Jim is seeking for perfection.

PILLIONS AREN'T FOR COWARDS

FANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28 - MAY 4
My tires are shot. A man at Honda in Queretaro told me they are cheaper in the US. Yes, but you pay to have them fitted. And availability is a problem: Honda 125s aren't common in the land of super power. Jim checks via the Yellow pages – no success. So we order a fresh set at a local bike shop for delivery in 48 hours. We leave my bike at the shop and I ride pillion home behind Jim on his trail bike. I hate riding pillion. Riding pillion surrenders your safety to a fellow biker. Bikers are adrenalin freeks. Risk is fun.
Except for cowards.
I am a coward.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

SOUTHERN COOKING AND LIGHTNING STRIKE


silver foxes

FRANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28 - APRIL 4
The Donaldsons have been introducing me to Southern cooking: fried chicken, corn bread, collard greens, black-eye peas, grits.
Grits are for chickens. The rest is great – especially the corn bread. So are the politics.
Jim and I are avid and cantankerous followers on TV of the Democratic Party's Presidential Primaries. We are angered by the same crap, dismissive or suspicious of the same people, hope for an outcome of which we doubt the probability. Yes, Senator Obama...
We share other attributes. Jim has had triple-bipass surgery. I've had a couple of minor heart attacks. Jim has been in agony much of the past six months with a bad back. I suffered six months of back pain; the truck cured me.
Jim has a long silver mustache. I have a trim silver beard.
And we both enjoy toys.
A massive white Harley and an equally impressive trail bike bare witness to one of Jim's passions. I am privileged to sit astride the Harley.
Ride it?
No, thanks...
Harleys weigh a ton.

HOLIDAYING WITH MOVIE STARS

FRANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28 -APRIL 4
the Donaldsons are typical of the American heartland as portrayed by the Hollywood pre the 60s - the Hollywood of segregation. They are decent folk, open, kindly, generous and honourable. In stature, they are taller than the average European and make a handsome couple. And they are white. James Stewart would have made an excellent Jim. Liz is played by Deborah Kerr.
In his early days, Jim was a staff photographer for Time Life. Divorce and custody of three children switched him to the construction industry. Liz inherited a 500 acre farm and they bred horses for a while – Pintos. Horses enjoy company. See them in a paddock, heads together. What do they discuss? Grass? Stallions? Horsemanship? They make a big target. Lightning killed the Donaldson's two best horses. My daughter's husband, Michael, lost two mares last year. I lie in bed and wonder that giraffes survive.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

SPUD GUNNING


FRANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 29
A sun-shiny Spring afternoon in the hills outside Franklin, North Carolina: rain has washed the air; tiny patches of pale pink blossom shimmer in sunlight on trees sprinkled with minute green jewels. Liz and Jim and I are on the deck at the rear of the Donaldson's home. Jim is introducing me to spud-gunning. The gun is made from plastic water pipe. Jim loads the eight-foot barrel with a plump potato and charges the combustion chamber with two squirts of hair spray. He spins the sparker: Whoomph!
That whoomph is spud-gunner heaven (think car crazies responding to the whining roar of a tuned Ferrari).
The spud flies high over a row of massive trees and I stamp and caper and slap my knee with juvenile glee.
My turn to fire.
A well fitting potato hurtles three hundred yards. Accuracy? A barn door is a suitable target – or maybe the barn - a big barn.
Jim and I whoomph a sack of red salad potatoes while Liz watches with that look of kindly condescension. You know? The look all women keep in their armory? The Boys with their toys look...

Friday, May 02, 2008

BIKERS AND BORDERS

NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28
Two bikers on Harleys recount a ride through Mexico and Central America. The bikers are middle-aged, married with kids, financially comfortable, on the School Board, etc., respected. The respect is important. These are law abiding citizens.
They complained at having to wait in line at frontiers, traipse with their documents from window to window, fill forms they couldn't read (they don't speak Spanish).
They were caught speeding a couple of times and overtaking across the double yellow line.
They paid the cops off.
Breaking the law didn't concern them: this was Latin America and they were citizens of a super power. Superiority goes with the territory. In our days of Empire, we Brits thought ourselves superior.
An island off the coast of mainland Europe doesn't carry the same weight.
Perhaps that explains my sympathy for Mexicans who queue patiently at US borders. And why I understand Latin American anger at what they perceive as United States arrogance.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

HEALTH

Jim and Liz, a walk in the country


FRANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28 - APRIL 4
I am staying with Jim and Liz Donaldson at their home outside Franklin, North Carolina. Jim is a young 69 and retired. Liz teaches school in Georgia, a four hour drive. Why? To retain medical insurance. Liz rents a studio apartment close to the school. She and Jim spend weekends together, either in Georgia or at home, and the school holidays.
Insane? Of course. Health in the United States is insane.
McCain, Republican Presidential nominee, asked an audience whether they would rather enjoy the freedom of choice and excellence of the American system, the best in the World, or suffer British socialised medicine and wait months for an operation. McCain forgot to mention that we Brits have private hospitals for those who chose to carry private health insurance – or he deliberately deceived. Unlikely. McCain is an American hero.
However he is old and naturally forgetful of inconvenient facts...Whilst we Brits are in agreement with our European neighbours in our belief that medical treatment for all is a hallmark of civilized society.

Friday, April 25, 2008

BEREFT OF A SOCIAL MAP

TO FRANKLIN, NORTH CAROLINA: MARCH 28
I am meeting a biker today. Jim Donaldson is more than a biker; he organizes biker meets. We first made contact via an Internet biker site. He has read my Blog and I talked with him on the telephone from Galveston. He advised me to ride the Natchez Trail – excellent advice. He and his wife have invited me to stay at their home outside Franklin, North Carolina.
But who is he? What is he?
Were he a Brit and we were back home, I would have picked up clues.
I am lost in the United States. I don't possess a social map.
Is he a Hell's Angel? A racist? A Red Neck? A Right-wing Bushite Republican? Supporter of the United States Occupation in Iraq?
Is he insulted by my oppinions?
Will he swill Budweisers and bash me over the head with a bottle...Or throw me out of the house in mid-discussion?
I am a little nervous as I circle the south west tip of the Appalachians. Athens to Franklin is a short ride, no hurry. I stop for lunch at a diner.

ATHENS, TENNESSEE

ATHENS, TENNESSEE: MARCH 28
With a population of 15,000, Athens, Tennessee, is a small, quiet, pleasant town situated at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains. Tennessee Wesleyan College is a small liberal arts University – less than a thousand students – and provides that archetypal American amalgam of God, sport, education and the American flag. The 40 acre campus is two blocks north from Athens town square. Buildings are of red brick with the obligatory white pillars and surrounded by lawns. Old College Hall was built in the 1850s and is referred to as historic. Architecture is inoffensive.
I stay at the DayInn motel on Interstate 75. The motel is run by Gujarati and is equally archetypal of the United States...As is the diner specialising in barbecue chicken wings.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A RIDE THROUGH TENNESSEE

TENNESSEE: MARCH 27
Spectacles mist in a light drizzle. A narrow lane passes a clutch of small houses with sagging porches. Weeds clamber up rusting trucks and tractors, abandoned refrigerators, cookers, washing-machines. I am reminded of a road-side gypsy encampment.
Three dark curls in a field are Latinos harvesting spring greens. In Herefordshire they would be East European and legal. Here they are illegals. Get rid of them is a popular cry. Truck farms would close. Rural economies would collapse...And from where would the US import fruit and vegetables? I stop at a diner and eat fried catfish served with fat fries. Three overweight women belly-bulge from belted jeans, drink colas and eat fried food. One woman raps instructions in Spanish into a cellphone. I listen as she organizes a squad of cleaners. Cleaning is Latino work. Surely Tennessee is part of the South. I had expected Afro-Americans.

A RIDE THROUGH TENNESSEE

TENNESSEE: MARCH 27
I am due in Franklin, North Carolina, tomorrow. Franklin is the far side of the Appalachian mountains. Today I ride east from Nashville on country lanes that dip and twist through green hills topped by woodland. The countryside is similar to my native Herefordshire. Cattle are the same breed: Herefords. Locals call them White Faces. Even today's weather is a reminder of home with low cloud and spits of drizzle. Lack of hedges is the prime difference; erecting fences is quicker; as is building in timber as opposed to brick or stone.
The houses are pretty when freshly painted, yet, to European eyes, lack permanence. Agriculture has changed. As at home, dairy herds have been superseded by fruit and vegetables. Our brick barns are converted into luxury homes. Here, out of use, they rot. As do houses and trailer homes.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

MYTH AND IGNORANCE

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE: MARCH 26
Anyone who has tapped along to Country & Western music on the car radio knows Nashville. It is a small town on a flat dusty plain, maybe a dozen streets, battered black Ford pick-ups, a bunch of saloons, a couple of theaters, a few last-decade recording studios manned by over-weight white men who keep their pants up with red suspenders. We have been there, all of us, in our imaginations. A cowboy songster hopeful drops off the Greyhound bus with his guitar and heads for the Grand Ole Opry.
Or has Hollywood has been at it again - deluding us.
I am complicit with Hollywood through laziness.
Nashville is a big modern American city set in green rolling wooded hills and embraced by twelve-lane Interstate expressways.
The red brick buildings of Vanderbilt University dominate the high street. Glass and steel office blocks tower. The Grand Ole Opry is a minor also-ran.
I had imagined Vanderbilt as East Coast Ivy League. And I hadn't expected to ride ten miles from the city center to find a hotel room under $80. I will be out of here tomorrow.

A PERFECT RIDE


NATCHEZ TRAIL: MARCH 26
Trucks and commercial vehicles are banned from the Natchez trail. Speed limit is 50 mph: perfection for the small Honda. The countryside unrolls, meadows glimpsed through the naked trees, a herd of our native Hereford cattle - White Faces Americans call them. Azaleas and rhododendrons remain in bud but the yellows and blues and mauve of wild flowers sprinkle the grass. I am well muffled and sunshine offsets the Spring chill.
I pull into a lay-by and chat for a few minutes with a clean-shaved thirties on a gleaming blue 650 Suzuki.
Bikers are a community in the US. Every passing biker extends a hand as they pass.
What a magnificent ride! What joy it would be to ride it in summer shirt-sleaves.
The trail ends and I head into Nashville...