Tuesday, April 15, 2008


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.


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...


A white-tail stag bolts across the road. The road follows the wooded shores of a reservoir. The reservoir would dwarf any lake in Europe. A spur leads to a boat ramp and general store with a couple of gas pumps. A dozen vehicles with boat trailers line one side of the car park.
I pay $6 for gas. The store keeper left his smile in the bedside locker. Perhaps he has tooth-ache or had a fight with his wife.
Two men arrive in a pick-up and scoop minnows out of a tank for sale at the store.
I report seeing the eagle.
I am lucky. Eagles are increasingly rare.
I hoped for breakfast and use of the restrooms. The storekeeper has been replaced at the cash-register by an overweight wife who has forgotten to brush her hair.
The restrooms are back of an abandoned diner. Perhaps the diner isn't abandoned. Possibly it merely looks that way. Breakfast can wait. I remount, ride a while, irrigate a conifer.


I have seen an eagle. This is a wondrous experience. The eagle flew directly overhead and its size startled the hell out of me. It flew up the road well below tree tops. Given time, I could have counted the bird's belly feathers: the bird was that close. Brilliant sunshine and I was riding the Natchez Trail. The Natchez Trail is glorious. The trail winds north through wooded hills from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee. Picture a private road through parkland to a Duke's castle in the Scottish borders - lengthened to 470 miles and not a single halt sign. I ride in brilliant Spring sunshine. Blossoms sparkle. Buds on broad leaf trees uncurl...

Monday, April 14, 2008


A parade of chuches marched through my head as I lay in bed at the Day Inn motel in Natchez. I intended spending a day here admiring the architecture. Natchez is pretty-pretty. Trees shade Southern houses. Southern houses have pillars. Pillars are romantic. So is the South. And the South is gallant. Both Hollywood and Southern tourism projects the image. Visit an old plantation house, inspect the slave hovels. Tourists go home happy...they have flirted with history.
Sadly, it is too recent a history for years to have softened the evil. Slavery existed in the South during my great grandfather's lifetime.
Racial segregation continued into my adult years...And Jews were banned from resorts and great hotels, not only in the South, but in New York City and Chicago and San Francisco - Restricted Clientele was the euphemism.

Institutional segregation and anti-Semitism continued through the Presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower. We knew of the Holocaust. We had seen film of Dachau and Belsen and of Ravensbruck where my Aunt Helen's sister was executed.
This is very recent history. The white elders of the myriad churches here in the South were complicit as are the white Southern pastors of my generation.
This is not company that I wish to keep.
I shall move on tomorrow.


I have cruised, on this journey, the Beagle Channel and the Madeira River, crossed the Amazon, Orinoco, Panama Canal and Rio Grande (a muddy trickle). This evening I ride across the Mississippi into Natchez. The Southern States are a fine market for white paint: first the churches, now a casino disguised as a virginal white paddle steamer moored up-stream. Life is a gamble. So is the after-life. Pick your Christian sect or pick your number on the roulette wheel.


spring flowers in sunshine

Massive trucks roar east on Interstate 10 from Beaumont to Baton Rouge. The Honda 125 is a flee. I am a plump tick on the back of the flee. Flee and tick quiver in the slipstreams. We escape north on State 165 towards Alexandria and Natchez. Louisiana is as flat as Texas. However fields are green and the road runs for mile upon mile through loose woodland. Broad leaf trees are faintly powdered with emerald green. Wild flowers edge the road. Brilliant splashes of deep pink azalea mark houses tucked amongst the trees. Trailer homes are common. Many are old and shabby; backs broken, they sag at each end as do old wooden ships beached on the mud.
And, of course, there are churches.
Christian churches painted in gleaming white serve or are served by a bewildering assortment of congregations. Is there a true difference between the dozen or more Baptist sects? Enough over which to divide a small rural community? Or merely sufficient to keep a pastor in food. There are Methodists and Independent Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists and Lutherans; best of all, the Church of Christ. What are the rest? Such exclusion, such splendid arrogance of faith...


I am back in my travelling persona: a weird old bearded Brit with crutches riding a small bike. There is a warming openness and generosity in the American character. A tangled gray beard in a hooded yellow rain slicker approaches while I wait for the ferry east from Galveston to the Bolivar Peninsular. Where have I come from? Where am I going? My replies are relayed to deckhands on the ferry and to what ever driver has a window open. I am made welcome instantly and bid Have a good one, as I disembark - though two seagulls squatting on the top of the ramp give me a cold eye.
Bolivar Peninsular is a narrow strip some thirty miles long. The road bridge spanning Rollover Pass is the highest point on the peninsular. Much is marshland and a haven for water birds. A gray heron stalks the rushes. A scattering of developments face the beach. Pillars raise wooden holiday homes in offering to a stiff cold breeze. I imagine a hurricane tearing the houses free and spinning them inland: a scene from the Wizard of Oz.


My replacement credit card arrived yesterday. This morning I drink coffee upstairs at Ed and Terry's for the last time. We dined together last night at Terry's favourite restaurant. Now Terry presents me with a ROCKETS shirt on which she has written: ya'll come back now, ya hear!
For the ignorant, the Rockets are Houston's basketball team
I shall sport the shirt with pride - and I would dearly love to return. Galvestonians share with folk from other islands that sense of being different - somewhat off the wall.
Memories of Terry and Ed will warm me through bad patches, as will memories of the Davies family. Carol has straightened my thoughts. Time to leave: Brrmmm Brrmmm