Monday, November 20, 2006

Why old people walk slowly

I know now why old people walk slowly. It's not that they can't go faster, more that they don't want to get there sooner. If you have nothing to do but walk and feed the ducks, you walk there slowly, you feed the ducks slowly and you walk back slowly because it helps fill the time.

That's how I was in Sterling. I stayed another few days in the motel and rationed my walks into town - v e r y s l o w l y - because the alternative was to stay in my room and read or write or watch American television. I watched American television only when I could no longer read or write. It's the only time you'd want to watch American television. Watching American television drives you to sleep, which is another excellent way to pass the time.

Over-blessed with shut-eye, I woke one morning at four and resolved to sit on my bike. All felt a lot less swollen down on the dark side of the moon and I had hopes that, albeit with pain, I could maybe ride again. If I could ride an hour and have an hour off and carry that on all day, perhaps I could go further than the group each day and catch them before the Rockies. I desperately wanted that.

But... I could ride only if I hung flop-bot over the side of the saddle. I could make it round the motel car park but there was no way of getting through the day, still less as far as the Rockies. The ride was over.

At the library I found a site to sell me an air fare for a lot less than the $1 800 originally quoted but still a lot more than the return fare I had originally paid from France. I then booked a place on the train to Chicago, which was the easiest and possibly the nearest international airport to be of any use.

The first pick-up to pass my raised thumb fulfilled its name and picked me up. The driver knew not only Hutchinson, where the train would stop, but the bike shop I was going to ask to courier my bike back home. I couldn't take it on the train because, while Amtrak accepts bikes at staffed stations, Hutchinson was unmanned.

The train left in the small hours and arrived in the middle of the following afternoon. I have nothing but praise for Amtrak, other than the bike incident. It is short of money and that shows in a slight shabbiness . The trains roll and judder and travel at only a third the speed of French trains. But the experience is wonderful. I could sit in my upper compartment and stretch out my long legs, or recline my seat to the near-horizontal, and I could watch the mists of early-morning America evaporate in the rising sun as we rolled through woods and fields and past rabbits that looked at us and cows than trotted away without knowing why.

Why so few Americans travel by train, I don't know. You don't do it if you're in a hurry, that's true. You do it for the romance, for the experience, the time to talk to other people, the chance to see an America you'd never see from the interstate. In that, it was exactly like cycling and, in its way, the train attracts the same sort of person.

Chicago I know nothing of but the stations of the metro, the walk to a travellers' hostel, the inside of an Italian restaurant to which I must apologise for a spectacular level of travel-induced body odour, and then the taxi to the airport next morning.

I travelled Air Canada, to Toronto for a six-hour sleep on the floor, then to London. In London I took the bus 60km to the city's other airport and from there I flew to Toulouse. It had cost me a fortune and sending the bike cost almost all the bike was worth. As if that weren't enough, the papers weren't marked "personal effects" and I ended up paying import tax on it as well.

For a week I felt merely tired. It took three showers to get properly clean. My clothes were no better. In another two weeks the injury began to improve and I could start riding again, if with discomfort. I rode to the Semaine Fédérale, a week-long international rally held in a different area of France every summer. There I had a great time riding with 10 000 other bikies but I could never forget that I was supposed to be crossing America.

It hit me hard the day my former travelling companions were due to reach the Pacific. I heard they'd been dancing on the beach. And then it all overcame me. I am by nature optimistic and insouciant. But I became depressed and very quiet. I began to feel I had failed. I forgot the good parts and wished I had never gone in the first place. In that mood, everything had been bad, from the business with the passport to paying tax on my own bike.

But, things pass. After a while I felt happier. I could remember the laughs, the people I'd met, the stories I'd heard, the breathtaking friendliness and warmth of Americans. It is the time for that mood to change that accounts for the gap in finishing this story. I realised I loved Americans, who in their own land are so different from those you meet outside it. I loved much of America, a country not at all like the view its government seems determined to give of it.

I couldn't live in America. It is for me, a European and very much a European, too far from anywhere. It is a giant island which happens to have neighbours. You can travel for thousands of kilometres and speak English and shop at Walmart and watch the same braindead television .

But to visit, it is wonderful. That's why I plan to go back. Not next year because family and cycling projects get in the way. But in 2007 I want to cross America again. I thought about re-riding the TransAm itself. But then I realised that as far as Kansas I'd be passing the same white wooden churches, the same men on motor-mowers, the same gas stations selling weak coffee and sublime if artificial pastries. And then from Kansas, the route would become a challenge, as though each extra day were some sort of darts board on which I had to play an ever higher score until I hit the bull's eye of the Pacific.

So, no. Next time I will ride the Northern Tier. It goes from the same ocean to the same ocean but it has the merit of dodging into Canada. Canada is the only country I have visited without going outdoors. I have a stamp in my passport but I never smelled fresh Canadian air. Forgive me, Canada: I'll do better by you next time.

FINAL THOUGHT: When I entered America it was with an expensive visa that was very difficult to get. The immigration man gave me a slip of paper which I had, at the risk of going to jail if I lost it, to present to the emigration man at the other end. And what happened?

When I left Chicago for Canada, nobody checked the visa, nobody took this slip of paper. Nobody even asked for my passport, still less stamped it. So when one day you hear there are x million illegal immigrants in America, remember to subtract one. According to the records, I am still there.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The end of the road

Well, the optimism wasn't justified. I am now all man and no longer as cuddly as I was but it is still too painful to sit on the saddle. And that's how it could stay for another two weeks. The result: the great ride is over and the adventure finished.

It has been a wonderful experience to be here and, if you've been good enough to read any of this, you'll know I've met some of the most friendly and interesting people of my life. It's a bitter thought that it has come to an end over something so trivial yet so painful.

Rural Kansas isn't the easiest place to get out of. America isn't known for public transport. Kind-hearted people are trying to sort out a lift to Hutchinson, the nearest town to have car hire, but I don't yet know the answer. It may be I can drive to Chicago and get myself home from there, although the so-called cheap fares sites are now quoting an outrageous $1,800 for a one-way fare to Toulouse. That's several times what I paid for the original return.

Of course, at that rate, it could prove as cheap to have a car for a month and a half and get to Seattle and go home on the original dates. But there's nothing I can do until I get to Hutchinson.

The greatest charm would be to take a train to Chicago. It wouldn't be expensive, either. But the twist is that although the train stops at Hutchinson, you can't get on there if you have luggage to put in the freight van. And I have a bicycle, of course.

Well, doubtless I shall get it sorted out. I doubt I'll be able to add anything to this site for a while so, if you have been, thanks for taking an interest and thanks for all the encouraging messages.

Monday, June 19, 2006

We're simply nearly the best

While I wait for a medical miracle, an anecdote...

All communities have to make the most of what they have. If they haven't got an Eiffel Tower they can't boast of one.

Pittsburg, Kansas, doesn't have an Eiffel Tower. Or much else. Attractions offered in the city's guide for visitors include "Big Brutus - the world's second-largest electric mining shovel". Note the "second-largest" and the suggestion that non-electrical shovels may turn out larger.

Then there is the Veterans' Wall at nearby Girard, just like the famous one... but only half the size. All the names of the fallen are on it but the short-sighted should remember their glasses.

Still, Girard does have "one of" the world's largest American flags. I love not only the "one of" but that bit about the "world's largest", which sounds impressive until you remember that 99.9 per cent of American flags are probably within America itself.

And it's only "one of the largest". And as with the almost-biggest mining shovel, there's no suggestion where the real thing might be.

Perhaps this explains why the big flag is called simply The Big Flag. Anyway, since you're itching to know, it is 30 feet by 60 and "while you can see (it) from your vehicle, you really must stand under the Big Flag to appreciate its true size."

Now, I haven't been unkind and picked all this from the end of a long list that started with something good. These are the first three visitor attractions recommended by the Crawford County (in which Pittsburg stands) visitor guide.

To it, I am grateful for information that Crawford County is "the heart of America" and "home to several nationally-known treasures, like Big Brutus, the world's best fried chicken, and Pittsburg State University."

It takes a special sense of pride, don't you think, to place a fried chicken ahead of a university?

Half-man, half-cuddly toy

Well, I have been grounded in Kansas.

A few days ago I noticed the start of a saddle sore. They're not that uncommon and usually they go away. This one, though, persisted and in one day grew to a lump the thickness of my little finger and as long as my little finger from the big knuckle to the tip.

By chance, we have a doctor on this trip. Bob is a lovely man who retired from medicine the day before the ride began. He diagnosed something with a medical name which sounded a lot worse than it was. In effect, it was that I had something akin to a blister, a great dense area of fluid which couldn't escape because - unlike a blister - the skin across it was too dense.

The only way to burst it was by a visit to hospital. And so, arranging a lift to Wichita in a pick-up driven by a man called Jason, I took my first and doubtless expensive step into the American health system.

Well, it was more plumbing than surgery. I was cut and pummeled and drained and plugged and sent back out among the healthy. A couple of enjoyable free days followed with my friend Erie, who was kind enough to stay with me as my guardian angel... and then the bump came back.

I had had in any case to arrange for a doctor to see the wound to make sure all was well. When he saw it, the diagnosis was that the plug had dropped out before the draining had finished and that I had healed too fast. This, of course, is a tribute to British pluck and fortitude and my brimming youthful good health.

The bad news is that the doctor's opening words as he laid his fingers on the affected area were: "I'm going to hurt you."

The good news is that he is himself a cyclist - the frieze below the ceiling of his surgery is of cyclists in glorious action - and so unlikely to be one of those medics who simply want to tell bikies to keep off their bikes for another month.

By chance, his name was also Tom Simpson. As I told him, the last time I had met a Tom Simpson, he had died a month later in the Tour de France. Tom 2 said it was unlikely he would get to ride the Tour de France but that he had always dreamed of riding across America. Therefore he would get me on the road as quickly as he could.

To this end, he put not just a wimpy little strand of gauze into the wound, as the hospital had, but what he estimated as "between a foot and 15 inches." I have become half-man, half-cuddly-toy.

In 50 minutes from now, and across the road from here, I shall see him again and he'll pull out all that gauze in the way a conjuror pulls a string of flags out of his sleeve. Tom's prediction is that I may be able to start riding again tomorrow.

If I can, and if I can ride around 20 miles further each day than the group has been doing, I should be able to catch them in five or six days' time, just before the Rockies. But it all depends on what happens in what is now just 48 minutes' time...

Wish me well.

Jus' drinkin' coffee someplace else

Life on a bike is often reduced to enjoying the effort and scenery... and wondering where you can next eat a sticky bun. My progress across America could be measured in sticky buns.

That was how I met Edgar and Bob, in a filling-station cafe. When I asked Bob, the larger, what they'd be doing if they weren't drinking coffee right there where they were, he said: "Oh, jus' drinkin' coffee someplace else, I guess."

They were both the same age, Edgar and Bob, had been friends as boys, had graduated from high school together and grown-up together. Bob farmed 500 acres - still does, though he calls it "small in these parts" - and Edgar around 200 - "because I'm supposed to be retired now; trouble is, moment I stop, folks can't stand it and they find me something to do."

He didn't take the hint to tell me his age and it took a while to overcome a natural suspicion of strangers asking questions. But he recollected with warmth the evenings he and his family used to listen to the last great days of American radio and listed his favourite shows.

"But we couldn't listen all evening because the batteries'd go flat."

I asked what there was for young people to do nowadays and he said most of them had moved away to the cities. When I said that I meant those of school age, he said: "Watch television, mainly."

On the face of it, this is little different in principle from spending your evenings listening to the radio, but he was quick to enlarge...

"I had brothers and sisters and we used to spend our evenings playing cards and talking and, yes, listening to the radio. But television's changed all that. It ain't the same."

The fields across much of Kansas look empty, a result of having just so much space but also of the CRP - crop rotation programme - predecessor of land set-aside now operated in Europe. But those fields have something that European fields don't, and that's nodding-donkey oil pumps, usually one to a field. The farmer receives a fee for access to the land, an indemnity against any damage, and a three-sixteenths royalty on the value of the oil extracted.

"You see a farmer round here with a big car or a new combine and you see someone with oil on his land," Bill laughed. "Ain't always like that but generally that's the case."

The man from the cave

Loyd is 89, looks ten years younger. One ear works and the other doesn't but apart from that and some recent surgery that doesn't slow him down much, he's fine.

Which is as well because Loyd spends his time down his cave - a great network of caverns and passageways - shovelling rocks by hand, laying pathways, fitting railings and reaching high behind rock formations to install hidden wiring for lights.

"Not too bad for a man of 89", he says, his voice bubbling with understated modesty and enthusiasm. "Not when you consider most men of my age couldn't even get down here, let alone do all the work.

"Always been healthy. Been blessed that way. Maybe it comes from being down here so much where the temperature is always the same and there aren't any allergies in the air. My wife's 87 and she's down here even more than I am, so there must be something in it."

You'd never call the cave commercial. There's a truly commercial one - the never-knowingly understated Fantastic Cave - just a little further on. Loyd is not impressed.

"They charge you four times as much and drive you round in a car. It's like a four-lane highway down there. And moments later, you're back out again.

"I'm proud of my cave. We have all sorts of scientists and archaeologists down here because there are things here they can't explain."

His knowledge of formations and crystals is humbling and made all the more appealing by his persistent references to "stagmites" and "stagtites".

The cave, he said, had been bought years ago by an Englishman from Brighton, who'd come to work in the area but found the caves more fun. Before him, they had been home for around 150 years to the Osage Indian tribe, who had lived - and died - underground presumably because it was more convenient and a great deal cooler than being up on the surface.

Before then there had been another tribe, known as the Mountainbuilders, "but we don't know a great deal about them and there's a good deal of guess-and-make-up in their history. I've been down the public library to find out more but they don't have a whole lot."

The Osages buried at least their leaders and their wives down in the cave. You need clever eyes to see the markings they scratched in the roof as markers to the tombs. That's difficult even with electric lighting but with the pale and smoky fires that were all the Osages had, the feat is extraordinary.

The Osages obviously hunted with bows because they made arrowheads from the churt that stripes the rock.

"Make them myself, too," Loyd said in the wooden shack and shop at the entrance. He pointed to a cabinet on the floor, a cabinet that exactly matched the theme of a museum, office and bric-a-brac store. It'd take an Osage eye to spot the display among the old magazines, chinaware and what was proudly called a collection of presidential plates but consisted in fact of just one plate of Richard Nixon. Maybe the collection had never grown any larger; perhaps it had but Richard Nixon was the only president nobody wanted.

"Yep, I sit here and make arrowheads when things are quiet. Usually there's a school group coming round but sometimes there's nobody because we don't advertise. So I work down the cave and I make arrowheads. Big ones are the hardest to do. Some reason, the churt don't make up into big ones."

He has no idea how far his caves reach. He recently disc0vered a whole extra chamber, even prettier than the others, after sticking his shovel into a hole to see what happened.

"I was the first man ever to see this," he says proudly. "Looks attractive now I got the lighting in but you can imagine how difficult that was with all those stagmites and stagtites in the dark when all I had was my little flashlight.

Loyd charges $9 a person for a personal tour. If he's down his hole, you just have to wait until he's finished work or until the previous tour has been completed. Tours take as long as anyone wants and he's not hurried - "see something different every time I'm down here".

And the Indians who used to live there?

"Well, the government gave them land some place else and they were all cleared outta the land they'd lived on for centuries and made to live someplace else. The route those families took, that's become known now as the Trail of Tears.

"Kinda sums it up, don't it?"

An awful vision of Hell (2)

Oh to heck with their embarrassment.

It was Carbondale, Illinois.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Life in America (6)

The scene: a rural camp site.

The cast: a woman of maybe 22, all chequer shirt, freckles and big smile

The setting: straight out of Huckleberry Finn.

The quote: "Well now, you guys need enn'thin' else, you jus' holler. I'll be right up that tree there, a-pickin' cherries."

Emergency, 9/11

I met Mel when I left my bike against the drive-through window of what I have learned to call a "gas station". Cyclists don't need gas but they need coffee and sticky buns and gas stations are where you get them.

Mel came looking for the owner of the bike and found him in the shade of a tree. He pointed out the error of my ways, then went back to his porch and his rocking chair. And there he rocked as though he were pumping up the national electricity supply and he contemplated nothing much in particular behind a coffee cup printed with the image of a dollar note.

"Don't do much else these days," he said. "Used to have that store over there by the gas station. Had it 17 years, right up to three years back. Had to stop then, 'cause I hurt my arm real bad and doctors ain't been able to put it right."

He pulled back a sleeve to show a long scar inside his elbow.

"Heart ain't too good either." He tapped his chest to remind me where his heart would be.

"Used to live in Arizona, then came over this place, where I was born, when my dad got real poorly. Course, he's gone a whiles now but I'm still here." He pointed at the single-storey wooden house behind the fenced verandah where he sat and I wondered if he'd ever noticed how similar it looked to his old store.

"Prettiest place in the country, this state," he said, and when it came to south-eastern Missouri, I was prone to agree.

"But things ain't been the same with the business since I passed it to my son. Not his fault, though I'm glad I got out. Takings are right down since 9/11. Down a third. Everywhere's the same. Seems people just ain't got the money any more, or leastways don't want to spend it."

He pointed across the road at a car dealership.

"Been the same over there at Lady Queen. Same ever'where. People just aren't spending. Knocked the confidence out of the country, I guess. Never thought it could last this long, but it has. Course, there's been a bunch of other things as well, like New Orleans. But it seems that just generally the economy's down and staying down.

"I ain't got an answer for it. Heck, just wish I did."

An awful vision of Hell

The other day we passed a church which had one of those signs that the parson can change by moving transparent plastic letters. There are signs like that all over the place here. To tell someone "It's just beyond the church" would be useless because sometimes there are nothing but churches.

Anyway, this sign said: "Come Redemption, where will you be seated: smoking or non-smoking" and I thought it rather clever.

I've never been sure there's a Hell and so I smiled and rode on. That evening I found that Hell exists.

I won't add further to the town's tears by naming it. Let's just call it Hell.

The road through Hell is a six-lane divided highway - a dual-carriageway if you're British - with a service road running parallel on each side. The service road fronts all those neon-lit, primary-colour, flag-and-glitter places that no American town can do without. But in this case the town has gone for it in a big way. A Big Way. It was a glory of soulless, spend-your-money-and-go consumerism. You didn't even need to get out of your car; it was quicker and cheaper to keep you in your car, let you poke your credit card into a machine that beeped and flashed, then send you on your way with your money left behind you.

And so all these people had to be instructed, guided, corrected and cajoled. Every 50 metres there was the tearing noise one side of car tyres on cement and, on the other, yet another metallic, sing-song voice saying "Move to pump six, hun" and "Bay three, your service is ready" and "That'll be an extra three dollars fifty, sir". Horrible voices from hard, faceless people sitting in central control booths and directing the lives of others through two-inch loudspeakers.

One day, it will be like that for all of us. All of those whose lives have placed them in Smoking, anyway.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Miss Sourit, the smiling state

We are now in Missouri, the prettiest state yet. Part of that could be that it is reminiscent of south-western France, with its green fields, winding roads and wooded hillsides. The rest may be that it is so clean. It's not as prosperous as Virginia - I expect few places are - but, again unlike Virginia, there's no litter. Don't ask me why but people here no longer throw drink bottles and the fried-chicken wrappings out of their car window.

On a bike you appreciate that: it gets depressing to have a rubbish-filled ditch on your right for hours on end.

Now, I forget how far we got. I seem to remember that the last time I caught up was to say that we were about to pass into Kentucky and that the locals had warned of wild dogs, depressing poverty and the people who have to uncross their eyes before they speak.

Well, there was none of that. There was poverty, yes, but only of the sort that I'd find in any community dependent on agriculture for its wages. I have seen worse in England, in the Fens for instance. And as for the dogs and tales that nobody got across the state without a dozen tins of Mace to fend them off... yes, more dogs than usual but hardly drip-fanged monsters eager to tear the flesh from your carves.

We crossed from Kentucky to Illinois on a ferry across the Ohio. Funny thing it was too, this ferry, because it amounted to a barge with the nose of a tug-boat joined to by hinge halfway down its length. It's as though two neighbours found that one owned a barge and the other a tug and pooled their resources. To cross the river, the tug sails straight ahead with the barge hanging off its bows. When it approaches the bank, the tug swings out sideways and pushes the barge crabwise to the shore, when experience ensures it meets up with the ramp left there for it.

Anywhere else, a river crossing would be a tourist trap. But in Kentucky there was nothing and on the Illinois side there was just an apologetic village whose idea of a good time was a night at a brick building that called itself the Little Opry in the hope of reflected glory from the Grand Old Opry in Nashville.

Things never got better. The next village should have been a gem. The wide rippling water was beautiful and the place should have been full of visitors. As it was, other than a small hotel which looked as though it was doing all right, the village looked as though in another 30 years it could just crumble to dust.

It's unfair to expect places to be more than they are, just for your sake. It's good when they make an effort but sometimes even that can make you smile. Our last town in our brief crossing of Illinois was Chester. You can't escape its boast that it is the home town of Popeye, the cartoon character. There is a Popeye museum - "cute little place, takes all of three minutes to visit" - and Popeye and Olive Oyl figures through which you can poke your head and have your photo taken. And the last thing before crossing into Missouri is a bronze statue of Popeye beside the road.

But the sad thing is that, while the cartoonist who drew Popeye was born in Chester, he never lived there when he created the cartoons. Popeye first appeared in the theatre at Chester and he was based on a real-life Mississipi sailor - a "scrapper" - but Popeye himself began his inky life in California, to which the artist was presumably pleased to move to escape Chester.

Anyway, the Mississipi bridge has taken us into Missouri and the Ozark mountains. Not mountains by any normal standards but plenty high enough and, in keeping with the cleanliness of the state, crossed by a succession of sparkling streams. The peace of one of which was seriously disturbed yesterday by a flotilla of noisy cyclists in canoes.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Drunk men don't cut grass

America should pray that lawn-cutting will become an Olympic sport. No country is more in training. Barely a mile passes without the sound of yet another portly man in long shorts (it's always a man and always long shorts) driving a little garden tractor as the cuttings shoot everywhere.

It helps that, as I've said before, that Americans have huge and unobstructed lawns. In that they are wise. As any European could tell them, it is tricky to let rip with a mower when there are tulips and fish ponds in the way. And American houses have neither tulips nor fish ponds.

What they do have, round here and in throat-irritating proportions, is fake animals. No states are better provided than Kentucky and Illinois (into which we passed the other day thanks to a ferry across the Ohio) when it comes to models of deer, small bears and anything else the owner fancies. If it's not a cuddly animal, it is a miniature jockey in racing colours. Why? It's beyond me.

The garden animals are fairly realistic. Or they would be if the plastic base that supports the legs were buried in soil. That way, the paws or hooves would stand on the ground. As it is, most people just drop them on the grass, where they look like giant versions of the model sheep and cows you probably had as a child.

Buried or not, they provide a lawn-cutting obstacle and it would be best to be sober when whipping round them with your mower.

And sobriety is a feature of this part of the world. There are runs of counties that are Dry, where alcohol can't be bought.

Why? Well according to the man who runs the crossroads store near Harrodsburg, the immediate reason was religion but the actual reason was the soldiers at Fort Knox. I don't know why soldiers guarding America's gold reserves 50 miles away should have chosen Harrodsburg for a night on the razz but that, it seems, is what they did.

And according to Donald: "They created such Cain back in 1943 that the town decided it wasn't going to happen again and they banned alcohol there and then."

Donald is 74 and he started the shop 45 years ago. "Sold it to my son right over there two years ago an' I jus' help out here now."

"Helping out" didn't go so far as putting on fresh coffee for us but ther sight of hanging, yellow and parched tongues eventually gave him the hint.

He'd been a farmer back then, he said, and he'd had a corner of land he couldn't use and he built the shop.

"And there's enough traffic on this road to run a store?"

"Is when you're right nexx to a dry county. Jus' up there, tha's dry. And folks, they come here, first store over the border an' they stock up on what they can't get at home." He waved at the floor-straining stocks of beer cans and spirit bottles and admitted that somewhere among them there was probably also a tube of toothpaste or a can of soup that non-drinkers could find useful.

"In the next county," I asked, "do they look down on you as sinners?"

"Some sure do. Some. But there's plenty more, they're all religious when they're at home but they're real happy to come over here and be sinners on the other side of the border."

About half the counties in Kentucky were dry, he said.

"Religion, mainly. They've been dry over there since 1943. The mil'try from over Fort Knox use to come over and raise hell, so they went ahead and banned alcohol.

I asked what there was to see at Fort Knox. "Not rightly much," he said. "Can't get real close to it. Moment you turn on to the road, there's soldiers out to stop you. Can't get closer to it than that house over there," and he pointed to a corner of a window visible through the beer crates and a building that stood several hundred metres further on,

"Now that's all changed. They're in a dry county over there but they can drink, see, because that's Federal."

Some states have gone back to being wet, Donald said. "And once they go wet, they don't go dry again. They realise the taxation they're missing. That can count higher than religion even in these here parts."

Life in America (5)

"Saturday morning, a drunken stranger stood on the bank corner and tore up two 10-dollar bills and a 20-dollar bill and tossed the scraps to the four winds. Sheriff Chinn, who happened to be passing by, took him in charge and sent for Chief Smith, who placed him in the lockup to sober up.

"On being searched, $95 in currency was found in his pocket. When he had slept off the effects of the whisky he was fined $1 and turned loose and immediately got drunk again. The chief then notified him that he must leave town on the first train. He begged hard to be permitted to remain here two or three days, but this the chief refused and the man left Sunday at noon.

"He gave the name of W. H. Petty, and Nashville as his home. He refused to say anything further about himself, but it is believed he is a picture salesman. He begged that nothing be published about his escapade, as he did not want his father to know that he had turned such a 'blamed fool.'

"The pieces of money were gathered up and pasted together."

- The Harrodsburg Journal, June 15, 1905

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Praise the Lord

I did my laundry this morning. I've done it other days as well but this morning I did it with a Bible quotation pinned to the wall. "Have Faith", it started.

Usually laundromat messages say "No oily clothing" or "Leave room for the water". But this is Kentucky and in Kentucky you get inspiring messages on the wall and a copy of the Bible among the back-numbers of Big Truck Driver and Appalachian Bluegrass Music Monthly.

For a supposedly secular nation, America is a nest of contradictions. The state is neither for or against religion but the money is marked "In God We Trust". A few days back I passed a school which proclaimed "We Believe We Care", which was either a tribute to modesty or a sign of what happens when you forget a comma.

The people of Kentucky believe God is on their side. It used to be here, as in other states, that motorcyclists had to wear helmets. Then lobbyists complained the law went against the constitution's insistence on freedom and the laws were repealed. The consequence is that overweight Easyriders roar about bare and often bald-headed, wearing red neck scarves, a look of unbearable superiority and the floppy moustaches you thought nobody had grown since 1976.

As one of my partners on this ride, Tim Hewitt, said: "There's nothing in the Bible about racing about on a motorbike without a helmet but there's plenty about drinking alcohol, so we go day after day through one dry county after another while medical costs for crippled and brain-damaged motorcyclists go up and up."

We are in a dry county right now. We are in Berea, pronounced Berry-er, on a camp site for Americans who drive ocean liners along the interstates and tow cars behind them to use in town. Such is the frustration of some of us that we plan to drive into neighbouring Lexington and be damned by the Lord for the beer we bring back.

As for more general religious belief, I heard yesterday of a church in Kentucky that once proclaimed the startling news that rattlesnakes were an excellent guide to piety. If you believed hard enough, God would instruct the rattlesnake to sleep in your hands. On the other hand, sinners would have the critter going for the jugular and - like bare-headed motorcyclists - they'd be justifying themselves before their maker sooner than they expected.

Sadly, the rattlesnake-fondling congregation grew steadily smaller. They are now united, sinners all, in some leafy graveyard. The serpents of sin slither on above their unnoticing eyes.