EM-EYE-DOUBLE ESS-EYE-DOUBLE ESS-EYE-DOUBLE PEE-EYE

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There was something in the air the night we left Memphis and therefore Tennessee behind and it wasn’t cos Phil Collins said so.  It was strange and I’m not sure if I can describe the feelings I felt accurately here.  But I’ll bloody well try!

Having left Memphis with feelings of such disappointment, I wasn’t really looking forward to anything that lay in wait.  Mississippi had always intrigued me, even more so when I read Uncle Toms Cabin, a book I guess a lot of people grow up reading in the States, not so many at home in England.  It’s a shame we don’t have it as part of our school syllabus, it paints the most vivid picture of the times of slavery in the U.S.  Instead, we get to learn about JFK and The Red Baron.  Go figure.  And now this historical state, so pertinent in my thoughts when i finished that book, was within touching distance and I just wasn’t sure how i felt about that.  Fear was maybe one emotion I experienced.  Other conflicting ones were excitement, sadness, apprehension, determination.  The reasons were many.  I guess not knowing where we would stay in a state where the racial divide is so apparent coupled with our number plate (registration plate for you foreigny types) being from Ontario, Canada, the ‘Whiter than White country’, lead to fear and apprehension.  Thoughts of being a target whilst camped on the side of a road in a poor town, of potential breaking and enterings, of how I would be received, a white foreigner with nice shoes!  But then there was determination, not to be the fearful tourist basing all beliefs on what I read or saw on sensationalist newspapers/websites/programmes.  Also, a determination to break down in some way, any possible way, a perceived racial divide by approaching as many locals as possible, being friendly, funny and open.  And, well, excitement is never far away for me when I’m travelling to new places.  I guess it’s the same for you too.  Something new should make one eager to see what experience will unveil itself.  And in my mind’s eye, there wasn’t anything as exciting as going to Mississippi.  Hell, I’d never had to spell it but I knew from watching The Wonder Years how to remember how to spell it… all the consonants are doubles except for the first, unless you are trying to indicate that you find it delicious in some way… think about it! (on a completely unrelated note, as I sit and write about this wonderful state, who else comes wailing over the speakers but that iconic blues man of Mississippi, Robert Johnson!!  More of him later).

So, The Delta awaited us and some emotions were running high.  But as we drove south from Memphis, and out of the state with some of the most grandiose, awe-inspiring and ‘American’ looking rivers I’d ever seen, all eyes were on the road that lay less than 6 feet ahead of us, one Highway 61 (and yes, it would be re-visited on many occasions).  Why 6 feet?  Well, that’s about as far as the biblical blizzard we were in would let us see.  Seems the least likely career path yours truly could ever take is the one that points towards Meteorologist, such is my failure at predicting what weathery fronts lay in wait.  If you ever thought, like I, that the Southern states of the U.S were hot, balmy places that one could while away hours in, sipping whiskey and chatting to hoochy coochy women in Jook Joints, throughout all months of the year, well think again.  I’d never EVER seen a snow storm like this one and I was driving our 1976, 48 ton camper van through the center of it! But if nothing else, I have a steely determination to live as long as humanely possible and so, imprinting my fingers into the steering wheel for the rest of its days as my forearms rippled with their usual Iron Man form, I stared grimly at the road ahead and decided that tonight, we weren’t going to die!! Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the guy in the pick-up in front of us, who, after a couple of dramatic weaves across the Highway, shot into the ditch separating us from the oncoming traffic and did the equivalent of a triple Salchow followed by a double toe-loop and landed upside down.  I hope he was ok.  It was one of those situations I faced that you discuss with friends sometimes, the ‘WHAT IF’s’.  Not the one that goes something along the lines of ‘WHAT IF you had to choose between snogging Maggie Thatcher for free or a seahorse for eight quid?’  I mean one of those that’s something along the lines of ‘What would you do if you saw an accident in front of you and knew that someone may need your help but in helping you risked having a potentially fatal accident yourself?!!’  Luckily, we were only doing about 30 mph and so from the looks of it, there weren’t going to be any severed limbs, maybe only a thick ear and some damaged pride but in trying to slow down our tank, the same couldn’t confidently be said.  And as I looked in my mirror, I saw other cars further back that were able to stop and help and so I knew things would be ok.  But for us, it was touch and go a few times as we slid across the road towards the trenches either side.  And I’m not exaggerating when I say this was THE most terrifying drive of my entire life.  Even more terrifying than the one from Worthing to Southampton in 1997 when on the M27, in a torrential rain storm, my windscreen wipers failed and Marcus Williams had to lean half of his body out of the window and try to move them from side-to-side, whilst passing lorries sprayed deadly acid rain into our eyes!!  And not only could we not see for the driving snow in Mississippi but the depth of the falling snow on the roads was becoming increasingly dangerous, as was the freezing of our windscreen wipers.  Of course we wanted to turn off and park for the night but we just couldn’t see any turnings off the highway, visibility was so low and so we just had to keep on going……. for 2 AND A HALF HOURS!!!!  Eventually, we spotted some lights in the distance and after realising that they weren’t white and that the voice telling me to ‘come towards them’ was actually my travel braud telling me to go towards ‘those’ lights, i stopped panicking that death was imminent and with all my Nigel Mansell skills, skidded to the left, across the wrong lane of traffic and into the warm nuzzly bosom of the greatest gas station i ever came across!  And boy, was my sphincter tighter than a Hulk Hogan chinese burn!!  But we were alive, we were safe and we had somewhere to rest.  And as the soft, fluffy pat-pat of snow on the roof covered our little cocoon, we were able to sleep, wrapped around each other, thankful that we would live to see another day of this epic adventure.

Our first destination in Mississippi was to be Clarksdale, the city said to be the actual birthplace of the Blues, which has the distinction of being the place where Robert Johnson infamously sold his soul to the Devil in return for the skills and fame of a Blues musician.  It’s a very intriguing story, the basic premise of which was that Mr. Johnson was a crap guitarist who longed to be famous and after disappearing for a few short months to go and make his way in the surrounding counties, returned the sorcerer of the six-string, leading all who knew of him to the summation that he must have made a pact with Mephistopheles in return for his now legendary talents.  At the crossroads of this supposed event, there are a couple of big blue gaudy guitars forming an x-marks-the-spot…

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There’s also a fantastic li’l food-stop that is as legendary in these ‘ere parts as the Blues music that makes it so famous and it goes by the name of Hick’s, home of the World Famous Hot Tamales!  I’d never had a Tamale, didn’t even know what one was and that was all I needed to make me drive around in the Mississippi snow looking for this tiny li’l joint.  And heck, was I glad I did.  Check this out…

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After all the previous evenings weather based excitement, we decided we needed a breather, a shower and a woo (as always) and so we checked into what is generally regarded in my World as ‘The Coolest Lodgings i have ever come across’, namely the Shack Up Inn (www.shackupinn.com).  If you are ever in this part of the World and you don’t stay here, i will send a bunch of lairy prawns to your house every week for 7 months and delight as they sweat on your life and invite their crustaceany mates that look like this (on the right)…

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round for Carling and you-punching nights, every night.

The story goes that the owners, after already acquiring an old Cotton Gin house to turn into guest rooms, decided it would be an amazingly cool idea if their future guests could stay in old plantation shacks, inhabited years ago by farm slaves.  They approached a guy who had 4 on his farm and was about to tear them down, to see if he would sell them the shacks.  They struck up a deal with the farmer whereby if they moved one shack from the farmers farmy farmer farm into the woods he owned, so he had somewhere to do things to himself in private, they could have the other three shacks for bugger all.  And so they literally shunted their 3 onto the back of a shack-shifting truck, shackled them down and schlepped them back to their place.  And the shacks are pretty much as they were back in the day, save for a shower, a toilet and a microwave (booooo).  Check out these pics…

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We stayed in The Crossroads shack and watched some documentaries on the history of the blues and an old concert with Amos Milburn, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy.  And I don’t know whether it was the blues I was watching, the shack that we were in or that Mississippi was all around me but I felt a connection right there that I didn’t feel in many others places on this journey.  But I certainly also felt a sadness.  It’s unbelievable to think that 3 generations of families would have to live in this one shack that was just cosy enough for the two of us.  And it was almost inconceivable to me that under my feet were atoms from slaves that had stood on the exact spot years ago, suffering than whilst I was lounging in slave-luxury now.  Is it at least something that I contemplated this when others may have been ignorant of such thoughts?  Not to those spirits that had to endure that life, I bet.  It’s times like this that I say to myself ‘Man, the World is an insane place’…

The proprietors of the Shack Up Inn were two very cool guys, with the baddest southern drawls you could ask for.  Guy, who we met on our arrival, was such a friendly chap.  He was telling us tales of the peeps who stayed there, including Tom Waits, Robert Plant, Flea and loads of other popular musiciany types and how he has been inspired to build a big recording studio and jam area that looks exactly like this…

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Seriously cool guys with a great project. If you’re ever reading those lists of the World’s coolest hotels and this place isn’t on it, burn that damn list and chant a voodoo curse aimed at turning the head of the list maker into a delicious looking roast chicken and then hunt them down and nosh a massive hunk out of a succulent piece of head-breast. Just don’t choke on their ignorant bones!

After bidding a sad but glad farewell to the Shack Up Inn (sad to leave, glad to have experienced it), we headed south on the blues trail to look for the place where one McKinley Morganfield a.k.a Muddy Waters was born.  And even though the biblical blizzard seemed at the time to be affecting the entire planet, 36 hours and a few miles later, Nat King Cole’s Let It Snow had been replaced on the airwaves by more Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James and Sonny Boy then you could shake an enormous blues stick at.  And as we ambled along (as one should in these pastures) and the sun started to do its thang, the countryside became flat and deep and alive with its own history and although these images may not show truly how one feels when looking at these old farmlands, to me, they were extremely pertinent.  But first, see how the slave owners used to lap it up in their Antebellum era mansions, compare with what the workers would have had to put up with and then think how you feel about that…

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Our destination was the house of the then 2-year-old…

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in Rolling Fork.  And oh man, check this out for a pad…

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I assume that he had more furniture back in the day and he probably didn’t have pictures and newspaper clippings of himself all over the walls as he does now…

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After a brief history lesson on how the man famed for creating Chicago Blues came to be the King he is today, (can I say that about someone who is no longer around physically but who’s legend lives on?), it was back on the road to hit the weirdest and most horror-film inspiring religious shrine you ever saw. This place is called Margaret’s Grocery Store and unfortunately it was closed but the story behind it is properly Deep South. Margaret, having been widowed for many years, married a local preacher, Reverend H.D. Dennis on the promise that if she did so, he would turn her grocery store into something people will never forget…

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I’d love to here from any readers as to what they think the end of the sign would have said.  I reckon iniquity but that’s pretty boring. Anyway, here is the full story of the place: http://www.arts.state.ms.us/folklife/artist.php?dirname=margarets_grocery

With the afternoon sun re-fuelling our Vitamin D levels and many miles still to travel, it was time for some necessary bush tucker and so it was to the historical town of Vicksburg we headed and specifically to Walnut Hills (www.walnuthills.net), a restaurant with the steepest entrance to a car park I have ever experienced.  Seriously, it was like the start of The Looping Star at The Bembom Brothers theme park in Margate!  But tucking into Turnip Greens, Candied Yams and proper ice tea in this beautiful old building made the mountaineering worthwhile, although the fact that all the servers are black while the proprietor is some big, fat white guy still makes me think that there are to be many lifetimes passed before any kind of racial equality reaches this part of the World.  Which I find kinda strange because there is such a rich history of black role models coming from this State, almost more than any other, that you would think it would give new generations something to graduate toward.  And couple that with the tremendous hardship suffered by these people in recent history that enabled black people today to be treated, by some at least, as equal citizens.  I felt a little sad that this inequality still occurs and maybe I didn’t have to because maybe these workers are happy with their lot and want for nothing more but as I would find out in the next state, I think my initial sadness was justified.

In two days, we had almost driven through the state of Mississippi.  A state with a stronger historical identity than any other I was to encounter.  A state where christianity is freely celebrated and yet a chasm-like racial divide is still tolerated. A state of the have’s and the have-nots, usually dependent on the colour of one’s skin, the cut of one’s jib.  A state that has a power hidden in its midsts, the power to break men, to keep them down and destroy any sense of self-esteem but also the power to make men strive to be something better, of role models, of people who started out with nothing and really became something.  And maybe because it was the middle of winter and thus there were few people going about their b’sness or because our time here was short due to us only being allowed 3 months in this wonderful country, but I just felt like i didn’t experience enough of Mississippi.  And maybe that’s a good thing because I didn’t see a huge amount of the poverty that makes this America’s poorest state, thus saving me from adding to the sadness of its history with the sadness of its present.  But deep down, in the deep south of my being, there is a pull on one of my hearts six-strings to see what this area is REALLY about, to REALLY explore its people and it’s connection with its past that this current journey didn’t satisfy.  And so I feel like I can say this with certainty and sincerity…
‘I ain’t yet finished with your Muddy Water’s, Mississippi…’

Muddy Waters – Mississippi Delta Blues

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Memphis, Tennessee

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The drive to Memphis was mean.  I expected to look out of my side window at times and see a little demony troll hanging to my wing mirror, grinning at the disgustingness of it all.  The forecast had been checked and we knew rain was imminent but this?  It was like driving blindfold in the Wacky Races with Dick Dastardly doing his best to live up to his name (the Dastardly bit) by pulling all sorts of ruinous tricks to stop us in our tracks, like making it rain and putting big lorries on the road and making our windscreen wipers crap and putting distracting little monsters on our wing mirrors.  Its times like this, I thought, that one sees an Ark carrying an abundance of creatures (although, how does one fit 2 of every type of whale on a craft such as this?)

We were going to be in Memphis for 3 nights, to check out what was one of ‘THE’ Blues and Soul capitals of America.  I was pretty excited at being in the home of Memphis Slim, Isaac Hayes and The Reverend Alan Green!  I imagined myself in a blues bar, sipping bourbon, listening to an old-timer croaking at us and strumming on his old steel six string about how life used to be, how everything from waking up in the morning to the dinner he’d eat at night gave him the blues.  I don’t know why I was thinking of taking comfort in someone else’s past sorrows.  Maybe it was the thought that if he could talk to us, he’d tell us things were even worse today then they were in the old days, therefore adding a tad of shining light to his personal anguish.  Little did I know that a similar feeling of the blues would be felt by yours truly when I left Memphis…

The beauty of couch surfing is that you get to meet a plethora of different people.  So far we have ‘surfed’ with a Stoner, an Aunt, modern-day Hippies and a World Record Holder (unofficially), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Speaking of such things, a man told me last night that when the icebergs in Antarctica start to thaw in the summer and float northward, there are little fish right at the bottom that feed on the new algae that grows there, as the light starts to feed through the water and reach the nether regions.  And these fish are so plentiful that if you managed to weigh them, they would weigh more than all of the humanoids on the Earth!!  WTF!!   I find those sorts of ‘facts’ so hilarious, i wanted to blurt a guffaw of biblical mockery in this persons general direction.  People come up with all sorts of hilarious ones that make me think they should be locked in a massive mental zoo, where we can poke them all with fangs of tarantulas through their bars ‘… that are actually made of exactly the same metal as the genre of music heavy metal, divent ya na’? (see, pure nonsense).  Another one, that once prompted a discussion of such enormity that two ’erberts would be standing in snowfall in freezing temperatures during the mornings early hours arguing their points, is the old, timeless ‘No two snowflakes are the same’.  All I’ll say on the subject is this… check all the snowflakes, people, check all the snowflakes…

So, more bipeds of a different nature were to be met, chatted to and waved goodbye at, in that order, in Memphis.  These people had gone through our strict measures of suitability testing that happens every time we send out couch surfing requests, the one at the top of the list being ‘Does it look like they might decapitate us and use our teeth as their new false teeth?’  We’d heard from our previous new temporary couchy friend that Memphis had some pretty dodgy ‘hoods that we didn’t want to venture too close to.  And as our ‘Very English Gentleman’ sounding sat nav guided us to our destination, we thought said friend had maybe forgotten to tell us about this one.  This information about our destination we did know:

This was a co-operative house that had a 24\7\365 open door policy, meaning anyone was welcome, ANYONE, at any time of day or night.

The ‘hosts’, and I use that word in as liberal a sense as possible, were a young couple, the female of which had been in a car accident some time ago and therefore could sometimes be a bit quiet (her words).

The night we arrived, there was to be a party with live music, which had been aforementioned.

Ok, we thought, this sounds like it could be an interesting experience…

So, we rock up at the edge of a ghetto.  And my initial thought, at seeing the people unloading there ‘gear’ into the house, was that maybe I should have blindfolded myself, span around in a circle 72 times and taken a dozen swipes with a meat cleaver at my wardrobe, poured gasoline on it and got a fire breather to cough at it a few times before donning the closest thing to hand.  The first lesson I learned that night was how not to dress at a post punk party, taking place in a house with an open door policy where no one was above legal drinking age and the protagonists had 3 bob between them!

But we gathered our things, swanned in and said “hi” to the ‘kids’ standing in the kitchen, shyly not talking to anyone, whilst we tried terribly hard, unsuccessfully, to spark up a conversation with those people who were to be our ‘hosts‘.

Here’s a brief insight into the general salutations that take place when you first meet your couch surf host:

Door opens.  Smiles, handshakes, sometimes even hugs take place.  ‘I’m so and so, so am I’, etc, etc, ‘this is my place, let me show you around, this is where you’ll sleep, this is my (insert chosen creature/s here), drink?’ conversation, continuum ad continuum…

That’s how it ‘generally’ happens, it’s all very convivial and even though I always spend the first night trying unsuccessfully to sleep, (at times I have laid in the dark thinking how easy it would be for our host to do unmentionable things to us (mainly me!) whilst I’m breathing in the chloroform from the rag that has been stuffed into my mouth!) everything always works out tickety-boo  However, this time, as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and many others since have blurted out, a change was gonna come…

We asked where we could put our bags.  We put them there.  Through various mediums, none of them our hosts, we found out that tonight there was to be a party with three live bands, all playing ‘post-punk’ (nope, nor did I) and that there would be lots of people sleeping over and that our hosts were to sell homemade vegan (of course) pizza slices for a buck (to facilitate rent paying, THE sole source of rent paying).  As a few sketchy looking people had disappeared into the room that we had ‘hidden’ our bags in, my voluptuous travel braud and I went on an R&R mission for said items after deciding they may be safer in our locked vehicle than sitting in the corner of the evenings designated crack den, being eyed up by kids who’s first translation of the word job that sprang to mind was something you did in private once or twice daily, even parked in the ghetto as we were.  Next, I went for a recky to find the bathroom and when I did, I wish I hadn’t. What was interesting as I pee’d though was that I noticed I could count 69 different coloured pubes on the toilet bowl.  This, I believe, was a challenge to a World record that I previously didn’t know existed.  Intrigued, I pulled back the shower curtain.  And there I saw them.  If only, I thought, someone could transfer what I was staring at, to the toilet bowl and find the number for Norris McWhirter, we’d have a new Record Breaker!!!  I’d also never seen a white porcelain bath with that colouring.  Did we have a budding interior designer in our midst’s who had chanced upon a new ‘base’ colour with which to design the rest of the room around?  No, sadly, we did not.  Before we arrived, I was really looking forward to having a hot shower, as it would be the last time for a few days that such luxury could be enjoyed.  Suddenly, smelling like the rotten end of a tramp seemed more appealing.

After chatting to one of the bands, a nice bunch, random stuff for an hour or so, me and ‘er decided we needed sustenance and lots of alcohol to get us through ‘NIGHT ONE’ of our ordeal.  So off we headed to what has since been recognized as ‘THE’ pikiest supermarket we have and probably will ever set foot in (www.memphispigglywiggly.com/).  I seriously thought I would be mugged for my toe nails.  We looked like something out of Mary Poppins.  Everyone else didn’t.  The cashier asked us where we were from.  I said “London”.  She said, ‘In France?’…(insert Family Fortunes big wrong answer X sound here).

Wandering around a ghetto at 9 o’clock at night for something tasty to eat, dressed like Mary and Burt isn’t something I would recommend, for two reasons: a) there isn’t anything tasty to eat in the ghetto and b) you may get yourself erased from this World in a fashion not befitting someone dressed in such a fashion!  We experienced one of these, I think we may have come within a whisker of making it a full house.  When the Gods decided that we were gonna eat Domino’s that night, I thought ‘who are were to defy the deity’s?’.  And whilst we sat ‘inside’ the take-away pizza place, we couldn’t help but chuckle at what our anti-capitalist, anarchic hosts would make of us eating delicious Domino’s pizza 10 minutes up the road, whilst they tried to make this months rent by selling their egg-plant and vegan-cheese version for a buck a pop. (87% of Americans can’t pronounce Aubergine, a point highlighted by the fact the spell check doesn‘t even recognise it!).  We also couldn’t help chuckle at the fact that this particular branch of Domino’s had a security lock on the door to stop the gun-toters coming in.  When my travel partner didn’t come back from the toilet after a few minutes, I stopped chuckling…

Back at the house, the party was mental!  I don’t think I’d heard such an atrocious attempt at good live music since Christopher Shakespeare armpit-farted the tune to Coronation Street 18 years previous.  And as the evening progressed, so did the volume of kids screaming into a microphone trying to do what a million other kids for a million years before them had done, just with a little less ‘soul’!

About an hour later, I was in the kitchen chatting to a couple of young guys when my grotesque generalizations about some of these youngsters changed dramatically.

One dude must have been 19.  We were talking about Memphis and how I thought it was gonna be this bustling city, loads of cool shit happening and that I couldn’t wait to check it out.  After talking to him for a while, I started to see a very different picture of it being painted.  He started telling me how things here are going downhill very quickly, primarily because of the economic meltdown but also due to the fact that because of  bad governance, the only area in which the city seemed to be taking much of an interest was the promotion of tourism, which is focused on a very small area of downtown.  He said it was hard for kids like him because he’d had very little education to speak of outside of an under-achieving high school and his parents didn’t care what he did and the fact that his grades weren’t sufficient to get him into further education coupled with the fact that he would never be able to afford to go to University meant that his prospects in life were really poor.  He knew that he should have tried harder at school but the guidance from home wasn’t there and so at the time, he didn’t care.  He said that he carried a knife around with him and in a year and a half’s time, he would also be getting a gun because it was the only way to protect himself.  He’d been mugged for his phone a few months back and another friend of his had been done over for a few dollars.  He then started talking about the laws regarding carrying firearms, in a nutshell being that at 18 you can have a firearm in your vehicle as long as it’s in a case in the trunk, unloaded and at 21 you can have one loaded with you in your vehicle.  How accurate that is, I don’t know but I don’t think the accuracy of it is the point, the craziness of it is more pertinent.  This coming from a 19-year-old kid!!  I felt so sorry for him and proceeded to try to point out the positives in his life and give him some direction but every avenue I went down came to a dead-end because his future to him was so bleak, it was like he was living without hope, in any way, of a better life.  This didn’t only seem to be his outlook, his friends all joined in the discussion and all had similar things to say.  So what did they do with their lives?  They got their benefit cheques from their parents, they skateboarded about and they smoked dope!  And yeah, it’s a vicious circle.  But who was I to judge these kids who didn’t have much of an education or the funds to try to further that education, lived at home with parents who, it seemed, showed little or no interest in them and lived with no hope for the future?  And on top of that, they resided in a city that was in gross decay and was, as they made it out to be, overrun with gang violence (Memphis has one of the highest crime rates in the whole of the United States, 3.6 times the national average and standing at number 6 on the FBI’s list of most crime ridden cities in U.S and A ).  Man, they even talked about getting guns so they could feel better protected.  AT 19!!!!!  When I was 19 I thought an oozy was a Greek cocktail and at 20, something you caught off the lass down the road who stroked the pigeons and had a constant trap-door of green mucus plugging up one nostril!!  I felt like taking this one kid under my wing and trying to show him that his life didn’t have to be like this, that there were other ways of thinking that could give him some kind of hope.  But after another 20 minutes and a lug on a bong, he was too stoned to talk.  And that’s when me and the good lady decided we would be better off sleeping, not on the promised couch which that night didn‘t seem to exist, but in Trixiebelle, during what was to feel like the coldest night during our entire trip.  Still, it was that or sleep in a house with broken windows, no heating, a pube-fashioned toilet with no lock on the door and a bunch of anarchic, stale-stenching, punk kids, all looking to change the World by hating on everything.  I could see their point though…

I’d like to say the next day we awoke and everything we’d previously thought about Memphis turned out to be false, but to say we awoke would have meant sleep had been taken place.  ‘This was not what we signed up to’ we said in unison.  Couch surfing is supposed to be an exchange of ‘something’ between you and your hosts, which includes a sleeping medium of some kind and quality.  Our exchange was about 3 and a half grunts out of our hosts that night and I’m not too sure if they were even from the more polite orifice.  Still, not to be perturbed, we tried to make the best of the situation and that morning we breezed into the breeziest house in the ‘hood for a shower, some breakfast and with a renewed vigour to finally get something out of our hosts.  And after approximately 2 minutes and 37 seconds, we realized that our optimism was based on nothing but hope and as a man somewhere once said ‘to build things you need a foundation and hope aint no foundation for nothin’’.  And although I strongly disagree with this fictitious man and his fictitious phrase, it seemed that day that our hope of better cultural exchanges lay not with those who we were banking on, but on our own intrepid exploryness.  So, after trying to get a few places of interest out of a now hung-over and somewhat defunct group of young anarchic punks, we headed for downtown Memphis and saw this stuff:

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In 1945, Nat D. Williams, a Memphis radio announcer and history teacher said of Beale Street…” Come what may, there will always be a Beale Street, because Beale Street is a spirit … a symbol … a way of life … Beale Street is a hope”.  For those of you not in the know, Beale Street is to Memphis what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans. It has been the schooling ground for many musicians, including B.B King, Muddy Waters and Big Joe Williams. It was once a microcosm of blues bars, all serving up a hefty dose of the good stuff. However in recent years, it’s been living off of that reputation to draw in the throngs of tourists that want to get a taste of how things used to be.  I didn’t expect there to be only 7 tourists who felt this way, even on a cold… sorry, bitterly cold, grey Sunday afternoon in the middle of a Memphis Winter.  To say I was disappointed was akin to Elvis sitting on the toilet one final time, cheeseburger in hand only to realise Priscilla had swapped his favourite meaty-cheese combo for one of those Quorn varieties, sending him into a pit of heart-attack inducing rage from which a legend is made.  I guess I expected Sunday in Memphis to be alive and kicking but seems like Beale Street, one of the Blues capitals of America, has given the blues the blues…

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And after walking around and looking for Stax records (since bought out by Atlantic) and Sun recording studios, two of the most legendary recordy places in the World, but finding only more sadness and before some minging looking snow clouds threatened to descend upon us, we headed back to our couch surf hosts’ place, sat outside in our motorized living container and decided this was one experience we just had to let go of.  And as the freezing cold atmosphere finally caved in, the clouds burst, snow began to fall and we pulled away from the co-operative and the least participatory, friendly and hygienic couch surf hosts we had ever had the displeasure to experience.

There are two other things that Memphis is renowned for.  I’ve never been much of an Elvis fan but I have always been a fan of BBQ ribs and we’d been told that Memphis and Texas are the two places in America that serve up the most delicious of this bony-sticky-meat staple.  So in the now heavy snow and following the advice of our ‘57 billion things to do in America’ guide book, we headed to Central BBQ for possibly the most delicious rib dinner I have ever and probably will ever eat at this place… http://www.cbqmemphis.com/

Just as we were about to head south out of Memphis, we decided that, even though the snow was now coming down with Biblical ferocity, we may as well check out Graceland, being as we weren’t likely to ever be coming back here.  As we drove down Elvis Presley Boulevard and saw Lisa Marie (the jet, not the weirdo)

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parked up, I looked at Graceland and said ‘Is that it?  It looks like a motel’.  And as I swung Trixie around, baffled at all the fuss made over this supposed fairytale-like mansion of a once revered fat guy, I realized some snow must have got in my eye and the sign I thought referred to Graceland must have referred to the Graceland motel that people stay in when they travel across the globe to look at the actual Graceland… across the road!!

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Obviously, being Sunday and the American south, it was closed, but it had some pretty colours emanating from it, from what I could see through the now Arctic Blizzard that was attacking us from all angles.

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And I guess it would have been interesting to see it on a warm, sunny day, to wander around and gawk at the extravagance and gaudiness of it all.  But then, it would also have been interesting to go to Al Green’s church and it would have been interesting to see some real Memphis Soul or a gritty Memphis Blues jam and it would have been interesting to see Stax records and Sun recording studios too.

I was really looking forward to Memphis but it seemed its reputation had preceded it and it was a reputation I felt it didn’t live up to anymore.  And maybe it was a combination of the time of year, the freezing temperatures and the day of the week, but after being there for 24 hours out of a proposed 72, I felt I’d had the soul drained out of me.  And when the city that was built on soul seems to have lost its soul, maybe it loses all that it was originally based on and maybe even the people who live there lose a little bit of their souls too.

What I know for certain is that Memphis sure did give me the blues.  But then, maybe that’s its point…

Nashville, Tennessee

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A few years ago, I was buying the Guardian newspaper every Saturday and collecting up all the Travel supplements that had sections on places I wanted to go.  There were many mini-papers in that pile of mine, much to the chagrin of my once-upon-a-time travel buddy, the Ne’er-do-well Kid.  But he was pretty much spot-on in his scathing put down that I’d never do what I purposed, which was to copy all the good bits into my travel journal so that one day, when I arrived at said destinations, I’d know what was hot and what was not.  One thing he wasn’t right about though was that I wouldn’t copy ANY of the info into my expedition encyclopedia.  For one of the few possy of notes I scribed was on the city of Nashville, Tennessee.  And what notes they were!  Notes on the best bars, clubs, sights and sounds of America’s ‘Country City’.  And these notes, once made, were the subjects of many distant daydreams about what it would be like to go to this musically historical city.  I wondered when I would get the chance to check out …’one of the coolest cities in America’ as I remember the quote spouting.

And so it was that as I drove towards this pretty mundane skyline

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(though this building would later stand out…)

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I couldn’t help thinking that I had maybe built Nashville up a little too much in my minds eye.

Again, as the sun took a bow and took a running jump from this particular day, it was that we entered another major U.S. city in the heat of the night, with no idea where to go or where we were staying.   As is the norm, we found a parking space behind a shop that we thought would have Internet, flipped open the laptop and looked for somewhere to sleep where we wouldn’t get murdered.  And as luck would have it, just as we were closing our eyes and pointing our fingers dangerously close to exactly where we were, a local knocked on our window and offered his assistance, in return for nothing but a few pennies!  Yes, that’s right, we attracted the attention of the only drunken transvestite homeless person on the streets of Downtown Nashville.  A friendly chap was he, didn’t want to take my ‘no, we don’t need your assistance, thank you very much’ for an answer (probably more to do with the fact that he was 3 sheets to the wind than my foreign way of saying ‘piss off you weirdo’, which I’m sure sounds pretty much like ‘piss off you weirdo’, wherever on this fine planet you may inhabit).  So off we went again, driving around looking for a quite street to pull out our camper bed within and partake of some zed’s withon but it was with a strange sound coming from our beloved Trixiebelle that we pulled into some car park of other.  And as soon as the hood was up and the necessary oil had been administered, a security car arrived, a window wound down and a voice went up asking, in a VERY strange and strong accent, ‘Y’all got a problem?’.  It was one of those annoying security patrollers that pop up at the slight potential of anyone new being seen in their security patrolled private apartment complex.  ‘No, piss off and bother someone else, ya git’ I wanted to say, stressed at a sudden bout of mechanical melancholy as i was.  ‘Just a bit of engine trouble’ I blandly retorted.  Nice as pie, he drove off, leaving me to curse my 1976 engine for making me stop and myself for assuming that he was going to be a right bugger when he turned out to be doing his job.

We headed to the east of Nashville, which was the hipster capital, not because we felt a kinship with these peeps but because we thought ‘the last people who are gonna mug us in our van are hipsters’.  Funny though, if ever there was a social group who could get away with petty crimes, it would surely be hipsters.  Imagine the description of the suspect; ‘Er, yeah, guy was about average height, early 20’s, well spoken, kinda geeky looking, ya know, sort of a cross between Su Pollard

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and Richard Clayderman’.

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I mean, these days, that pretty much sums up half of the population, right?  However, I will go against public perception and say that I rather like hipsters,especially those in England, cos lets face it, most people over the age of 30 in good ol’ blighty seem to have decided it doesn’t matter what they look like anymore and so go down the route Gyles Brandreth clearly chose when he donned this magnificent number (although, if everyone went around with the same sultry look as Mr. B, England would certainly be a sexier place).

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So, we spent the night on the side of a pleasant-looking street which looked safe enough, although when you wake up in a camper van in the morning and all the cars around you that you thought would act as protection from the pikey’s in the night have disappeared, you realize you must have stuck out like a pants tent at a 4 year olds swimming party birthday…… party……

The next day, after again sleeping in sub-zero temperatures, we found this neat place http://www.bongojava.com/, had our fill and decided that as it was about 10.30, we should head to lunch!  And as we were in Nashville, as we are two intrepid explorers and as we like to meet as many peeps as possible on our journeys, there was only one place we could possible head for and that was Monell’s (http://www.monellstn.com/n-rest.html).  This place is a Nashville institution and it’s not hard to understand why.  OH MY LORDY McLORDICUS, was this exactly what the Harold Shipman ordered!!  The premise is, you get to sit at a big table, next to a bunch of ‘REAL’ Americans, eat fried chicken, biscuits and basically every other type of food you could ever expect in this part of the country, i.e., The South, and not only talk to said Americans, but actually watch them be ‘PROPER REAL AMERICANS’!!  Talk about genuine experiences!  There were people from Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, you name it (don’t name Alaska or about 41 other states!), they were from there and they all spoke with these MAGNIFICENT drawls.  And just to show that the stereotype of racism doesn’t stretch to ALL Southerners, there was even a black dude/white gal combo-couple sat opposite, complete with racially aware parents, all dining together!!  I felt a tad uncomfortable when the gals pops kept hollering to her partner, ‘Boy, you’ll get me some more a’dat fried chicken if ya know what’s good for ya’ but one cultural-accepting step at a time, right?  Boy, did we eat some proper southern food that lunchtime.  I coulda sat there all day listening to people telling us their life stories, where we should go on our trip, where they have been, where they would still love to go, what there mums did, how great America is…  Did I mention we ate fried chicken?  HELL, DID WE EAT FRIED CHICKEN!!!!

Having the best American friends anyone in the World has ever had in Marjorie Daws and Chris Blisstopherson meant that nights two and three in Nashville were to be spent with this person…

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Miss Erica Spangler did the good dead and put us up for two nights in her sweet li’l apartment.  And after realizing how super ace she was, we decided that the next day we would all take a ganders at the quirky side of Nashville before gettin’ our ‘coun’ry boots on’ and checking out some rootin’ tootin Garth Brook-a-likes.

The first place we headed on ‘the next day’ was this wholesome eating establishment http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/IE-5GIHlAINr0zO4lrJ_Lg?select=UsUf1jrJ__kNl_XdKi6SNA, not only Nashville’s premier hot dog culinary experience but ran by a guy who was the best New Orleans Tour Guide in Nashville we could ever have hoped to meet.  Here was another example of the Southern States’ reputation for friendliness.  This guy spent 5 minutes writing us a list of the best darn places to hit in N’Orleans, as the locals call it, and served up the best mystery meat in a finger roll I ever wolfed down, though I left this vendor with the same disappointment that I leave every hot dog vendor I visit, due to the fact that I never get the opportunity to have this exchange http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_vssdys8lk

Next, we checked out some very cool vintage clothing boutiques, notably The Hip Zipper (http://www.hipzipper.com/), The Goodbuy Girls (http://goodbuygirlsnashville.com/) and this, my favourite store in Nashville, Fanny’s House of Music (http://fannyshouseofmusic.com/StoreFront.bok).  In Fanny’s (phnaar phnaar!), you can pick up and play any instrument you like as well as check out some VERY nice vintage garms and if you’re lucky, you may have arms short enough to fit into a very dapper Royal Blue vintage Lacoste shower mac for only 20 buckaroo’s!  And right there you have one of the great things about the consumer United States for me.  Vintage, retro, call it what you like but don’t call it a bunch of ponces trying to rip you off.  Vintage isn’t expensive like it is in England; no one is jumping on the bandwagon and trying to sell ‘Vintage Denim Levi Jackets’ for $100 or any other examples of daylight robbery.  Stuff is old and if you’re daring enough to wear it or lucky enough to find it, no matter whom it’s made by, it’s yours for a steal of the price it’ll cost you at home (somewhere in the future, i would buy an Alfred Dunhill suit, brand spanking new, for a mere $15. I’ll tell you more about that one in about 6 blogs’ time!)

But it wasn’t shopping we were in Nashville for; it was this…

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And so that night, with a recommendation of some cool Knoxvillians we trusted, we headed to this place http://robertswesternworld.com/ and saw the only Brazilian Country Music singer I’ve ever seen and probably the only one that exists in the known Universe.  His name?  BrazilBilly.  Who else…?!!

Unfortunately, walking around this strip in Nashville was the first experience of disappointment I was to have on these shores regarding expectation of somewhere with a certain reputation.  I guess I expected more traditional country music fans and less beer swilling jocks, more dames dosey-do’ing and less hoochy’s hosiery ho’ing!  It seemed like the quality of the music and it’s related establishments had somehow been forgotten, nay lost, amidst the rush to turn this once legendary city (musically at least) into a huge disgusting money-making tourist trap.  I mean, there were a few cool bars and I’m sure if you hunt for long enough you can find some good music too but everything seemed to cater towards those people who just wanted to get wasted and listen to the new wave of country crap than the decent traditionally sounding stuff.  I mean I’m no country fan and my knowledge of it stops at Johnny Cash but I know my Johnny Cash from my Jonny Gash and I know quality when I hear it and there was very little on display from America’s Country City.

Am I to be constantly disappointed due to my expectations?  I guess therein lies the lesson.  As Benjamin Franklin once piped up, ‘Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed’.  He was probably on his way back from Nashville…

Knoxville, Tennessee

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Logan Wentworth has 4 whole beards that make up 1 big beard…

After leaving Asheville, we drove for some way, took some photos of a beautiful, meandering river that seemed to feed something in my soul,

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captured more sights of wonderful countryside

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and were extra clean from the participation of 74 showers that we’d had in two days.  There’s an old saying in history from somebody or other that goes a little bit like ‘You cant make up for what has gone before’.  Well, it’s a lie.  I had so many showers that I’d made up for pretty much every bad thing I’d ever done in my life.  So now I’m on an even keel, a clean slate, a pain château!

I was looking forward to our time in Knoxville.

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I knew little about its attractions and less so of its patrons.  But I did feel like I knew something of Dr. Logan Wentworth.  Of course, Logan wasn’t a doctor in the old-fashioned sense of the word, ie, he wasn’t a doctor of anything.  But there was something about his profile on couchsurfing that drew him to me and made him seem like an authority on some subject or another.  The fact that when I saw his profile picture it was like looking at myself may have had something to do with it, the handsome b’stard!!  But I just had a good feeling about him and I guess that was why, over a month before we stayed with him and way before we even hit the U.S, I told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had to put us up and become our first couchsurfing host in this part of the World.

I’ve been extremely keen to tell the left hand side of my travelling companion’s face during this journey that I would like to arrive in unknown cities during the day, as trying to find your way around somewhere you know nothing about at night is pretty disconcerting, especially when you’re not only on the wrong side of the road but the wrong side of the vehicle too.  And so it was that we rocked up to Logan Wentworth’s pad at about 8.30 on a chilly, damp and dark Sunday eve, with not a hint of daylight left on Tennessee’s William-less horizon.  The drive to this relatively unknown city was quite eye-opening as it was the first time we had seen proof of the poverty that America can be known for.  As we drove through yet more beautiful countryside, there started appearing ramshackle properties

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complete with old cars that hadn’t had a whiff of a road in decades and the obligatory mangy looking mongrel barking at anything that went by.  And it wasn’t too long before we saw the one thing that we’d been both expectant and dreading of.  THE REDNECK…  Yes, Tennessee is Red Neck country, fo’ sho’.  In string vests or dungarees and usually both, these idiosyncratic folk could be seen doing the things that everyday people do, just in a distinct way.  The way of the Red Neck!  And even though I have a mild fascination for these people, there was also something Deliverance-like about the scenes as they flashed by, not quick enough as far as I was concerned.

On a serious note though, it is sad seeing the way some people have to live in this, the World’s supposed richest nation, especially when we had just come from something approaching luxury.  Houses half-raized, vehicles in states of disrepair, people in tattered clothes.  It made me feel incredibly fortunate to come from a country that doesn’t feel like a 3rd World country covered with a first World veil.  It was my first real taste of poverty here and it gave me the blues.

However, squeezing Trixiebelle into a parking space that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place in Boyz ‘n The Hood and greeting Logan Wentworth’s beard cheered me up no end.

This is Logan Wentworth (on the right)…

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Logan Wentworth lives in a house in the downtown area of Knoxville.  The house is pretty much as close to a tree house house as one could expect from a house that was situated not in the distant branches of some bark-a-thon but right here, on solid old groundy house Earth.  It had a woody spiral staircase that seemed like it was leading up to one of these (www.freespiritspheres.com) and other woody bits and pieces that made it feel like I was staying with Woody Woodpecker, annoying laugh aside.  It had some fantastic fairy lights all over the place and other stuff too and if I was living in Knoxville I would steal it off of the current dwellers and barricade myself in, eventually dying from inhalation of stale smells and bird flu.

Logan also lives with a bloke and that bloke has a girl and she dwells in the tree house house too.  The fellow, David Cain Bowers, has one of the finest moustaches I have ever seen on a man and may be some extremely distant relative of mine (his ancestors’ name was the same as my surname, dating back to the 1200’s).  And his missus is a classical musician with an orchestra, blowing into something woodwindy that might be an oboe or might be something similar.  At any rate, she’s reet bloody good at it, I tell thee.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about peoples’ reaction to me when I meet them for the first time.  I’ve met a hell of a lot of people in the last few years, tons and tons (a ton of people is about 13 people I reckon, all weighing about 70-80 kilo’s!).  And some of those people who I’ve met are people who I know I’m immediately going to get on with really well.  But there’s this period of time before ‘they’ know ‘me’ that has to pass before they get the same feeling.  And it’s that period of time that I would sometimes like to eradicate because I feel like we are wasting time with formalities when we could be getting sown to the nitty-gritty business of having fun and being whimsical.  It’s almost like there is an interview period in which you have to feel your way into someones subconscious to let them know that you’re not a moron.  I guess this is a consequence of couchsurfing.  You have to answer questions that you’ve answered a hundred times before so that you can be ‘accepted’ as a person.  And although there was a modicum of this when I met Logan Wentworth and friends, I must say that this process was the most minimal of any people who I have met on this journey.

The first thing I noticed about Knoxville was that it sold beer for 2 bucks a can in the local pub (Pabst Blue Ribbon) and that the owner of that pub had just done some hard time.  She was an extremely generous lady cos she gave us free drinks, what with Logan Wentworth being a friend of hers and all.  Then Logan Wentworth, my travel braud and I shot the breeze and that’s when we realized that we loved Dr. Logan Wentworth.

Unfortunately for us, Knoxville, indeed Tennessee as a whole, didn’t have the year round Costa Del Sol warmth that I believed it would.  In fact, it was cold as a box of fish fingers that you forgot were in the back of the freezer.  Why don’t you have them for dinner tonight?  Go on, it’ll be like when you were a kid and your mum made you fish fingers, chips and beans for dinner.  Or put them in a sandwich, white bread only mind, with some Thomas Knight.  ‘Captain BirdsEye…’

Because Logan Wentworth is a man about town, we did some rad things whilst in Knoxville, Tennessee and we met some sweet peeps too.  Peeps like Kevin, the guy who owns ‘Yee-Haw Industries’ (www.yeehawindustries.com).  Kevin was about to buy a million and a half old printing blocks that would have given him the largest collection of old school printing blocks in America.  As soon as Kevin knew we were from outta town, he told us to follow him to a secret cabinet from which he pulled a bottle of ‘real’ Kentucky Bourbon.  He said he could only get one or two bottles of this stuff a year because it was proper proper!  Then he took the bottle top between his teeth, popped of the cork like an old salty sea dog and invited us to take a swig.  Now, I’m not a big whiskey fan but like most men I know, at some stage in my life I’ve tried to be.  I’ve gone through a period of ordering it at the bar, straight, double straight, on the rocks or with a dash of water and I’ve even gone so far as buying a bottle of it and keeping it at home but it just sat there, sneering at my lack of manliness from the shelf before I hid it behind a bottle of Malibu or Crème de Menthe.  I would shift my eyes towards it as I walked into the room where it was stored and then quickly look away before it caught my glance, wishing that my 30 quid had been better spent, notably on Mars Bars and Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.  But whiskey does hold a kind of mysticism for me.  Its like the key that gets you through the gateway into the World of ‘real men’, men who work for 30 years in the same company and are sole providers for their family.  Men who have sailor tatts or who have had an old school 3 litre Rover at some stage in their lives, who have short first names and have never taken a sick day.  Throw in an 18 carat gold chain and an adoring wife in her mid 50’s and the generalization is complete.  I, as you can probably imagine, am or have none of these.  A dark rum and coke is about as close as I come.  But in spite of my whiskey short comings, I supped from the bottle of 73% vol., 140 proof Bourbon and once I’d swallowed the vomit in my own mouth, decided it wasn’t as bad as all that, passed the bottle on and vowed never again to try to be a real man.

The shop Kevin owned sold posters and such like, that he created for up-coming events.  Here are some that have been made over the years…

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and these are some of the blocks he uses…

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It was a wicked place and Kevin was a real geezer.  We checked out some other cool locations, including a sweet ass record shop, owned by a dude who invited us to come and hang with him whenever we fancied.  We were shown a very cool Theatre that had just been renovated to look like it did in its glory days…

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and also went to a café that had a daily radio show broadcast from within and that every lunchtime had a free live performance that was broadcast live on air, called The Blue Plate Special.  However, although our first day was spent as is generally the norm, as tourists of our newest temporary habitat, it was the following nights’ events that would make me feel like an honorary Knoxvillian…

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Once a year, when the end of winter is in sight and Tennessee glimpses the spring sun readying its noggin’ for its fedora or whatever that seasons head warmerer might be, the time has come to remove the ice rink from the City centre.  And although it was January and unseasonal blizzards were yet to make their ice dance towards these ere parts, it was the time of year for children to put away their skates and don their post-winter, pre-spring whatevertheywears.  But not before some adults had had one last chance to add meaning to their post-Christmas survival.

On the evening in question, I was supposed to be watching David Cain Bowers (he of ‘King Super and the Excellents’ fame) and his team of underdogs scrambling their way around a course in a relay race, from the comfort of the local booze establishment.  At 15 minutes before race time and with 2 men down, I was asked to step up to the plate and become the Knoxville Nigel Mansell.  But instead of racing motor cars around a racetrack I was gonna be racing a 5 year olds plastic tricycle around an ice rink!  BLOODY HELL, was it just about the most fun I’ve had since I sprinkled mint chocolate milkshake powder on a cow pat and watched a moo-er gobble it up.  In teams of around 5, we were to each perform 1 circuit of the rink before ejecting ourselves form the saddle as quick as poss for the next person to jump aboard and shoot off, relay style, though you try to shoot anywhere on a plastic wheeled tricycle on ice.  Why other places don’t partake in these sorts of events is ludicrous.  Everyone had such a great time, and by the time we got to the semi’s, not only was i completely mahoolered, I’d met about a hundred people, had my years’ fill of excitement in one evening and couldn’t care less who won cos i and everyone else was having too much bleedin’ fun.  In England, you’re not allowed to have fun once you become a grown-up.  In Knoxville, it was the law.

The next morning, we headed to Cracker Barrel for our first taste of American Country Cooked Fast Food Heaven (www.crackerbarrel.com).  Slightly hung over but with my name on a trophy in the Preservation Pub (although i still don’t know what position we came), we headed for biscuits and gravy, eggs sunny side up and maple syrup and bacon.  And although I’d experienced it previously, I really felt like I was in America.

And so our last night in Knoxville came and went with dinner at some friends of Dr. Logan Wentworth’s.  We all bought something to eat, his friends supplied the beer (they brewed it themselves and I must confess to tasting no finer stout than I did that night) and a night of chattle ensued.  And when we left Knoxville the next morning, it was agreed that this was always going to be an experience that we looked back on in years to come and thought ‘BLOODY LUSH GUFF’.

I like racing kids tricycles on ice.  I like Knoxville, Tennessee.  And I like Dr. Logan Wentworth.  They do say everything comes in three’s, don’t they…

‘Sweeeet Caroliiiiiina…’

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In one of our many road books, upon the cover of which are blazed words such as BEST and ROAD TRIP and JOURNEY and 1001 and most importantly I suppose AMERICA, there are guides to which drives upon which roads one should partake if one wishes to get the most out of a journey of such ilk.  Coupled with my travel wife’s extreme internet research skills, these books have become our bread and butter when it comes to how to get to such and such a place by means of the most scenic of routes.  And so it was that when we had sufficiently thawed out enough following our 2nd night sleeping in minus temperatures, in our less-than-glamorous surroundings of WalMart’s finest of car parks, we headed towards what was described in our myriad travel books as one of America’s most beautifully scenic drives (http://www.blueridgeskyline.com).

Our destination on this day, which just so happened to be the New Years Eve approaching 2011 was the home of Laurie and Jack, parents of the man Daniella’s good friend was soon to be wed.  We had met ‘the man’ once before, on a brief night out in our home nations capital, prior to his and his wife to be’s departure to India and Thailand to partake on various meditation, yoga and I guess all round spiritual experiences and he seemed a pleasant enough chap, although that goaty…!!!  What I didn’t expect, the night I met him was that less than a year later I would be sleeping in the bed that he grew up in, a bed his parents would have read him bedtime stories in, that he would have had wet dreams in as a pervy teen, that he may even have popped his cherry in.  My first thought was ‘I hope they’ve changed the sheets’.  My second thought was ‘What’s that stain’ and my third something along the lines of ‘if they turn out to be even half as cool as the Mettlers of Philly, than we’ve lucked out… or in… (I still don’t quite get that phrase).  Actually my real first thought was ‘a shower, how amazing’.  People, we really take for granted the simple things in life like a shower, a bed, a safe haven.  Nevermore will I assume that these things are a part of life that I don’t need to be thankful for.  Even now, at this early stage of our journey, I realize how important those three things are to our comfort and our enjoyment of this humble life!

There is though something a little strange about turning up to someone’s house that you have never met and whom you feel a little sorry for to have had you forced upon them, just to facilitate a little cleanliness and sleepiness and warmthiness.  I don’t know how it must feel for your son to call you one day and say ‘Hi Mom, hi Pop, just to let you know, two young Englishes you blatantly have nothing in common with are going to come to your house on New Years Eve and destroy any plans you had to see the New Year in with revelry amongst friends.  They’ll be staying for the weekend, wont you be good enough to cook for them and engage in conversation so as not to make them feel like they have gatecrashed your lives and made you wonder what you have done to deserve it?’  This thought alone filled me with pity for our upcoming hosts.  The fact that said son was trying to hook us up with his friends so we could not only turn up to his parents place, spend 10 minutes ‘getting to know them’ and then get them to drive us to a party 20 miles away ON NEW YEARS EVE, but then come back at 3 in the morning, wankered, smashing their precious bone china whilst trying not to trip over the Worlds biggest dog and unsuccessfully being as quite as possible by ‘shooshing’ each other loud enough to wake up Mr Van Winkle from a seemingly record-breaking slumber, made me feel even more of a git.  May I just add something?  This was New Years Eve…

As I keep telling myself and my travel beau, the adventure is in the journey, not the destination and so it was onward with not just a taddlesworth of excitement towards one of this countries most rural and scenic of journeys, the Skyline drive.  And to get to the skyline drive, we had to take what to this day has been one of my favourite journeys undertaken behind the wheel of any vehicle, the drive on the old Indian Valley Post Office Road.  Although I am driving a vehicle with a 5.8 litre engine that weighs about as much as the Empire State Building, which is in a vehicle that resembles a tank and handles like a 747, the narrow roads of this wonderfully rustic feeling route were no match for me or my trundling bungalow.  And so it was that we wound and wiggled our way, once again, through the charming countryside of Virginia, with its religious signage and flag-clad front porches, with not so much as a bison horn’s tribute to the Appalachians who used to call this land their home, although I suppose naming part of the drive The Appalachian Mountain Trail does remind one of the cheated and butchered true owners of the land!!  (nothing like having something named after you to appease hundreds of years of brutal savagery against your people).  Round right winders we drove, narrowly evading the grasps from roadside relics that thought they had seen everything until history’s most cumbersome fairy came into view.  But on Trixiebelle flew, pausing only briefly for her guides to gaze in awe of streams and creeks that gurgled about a history we were straining to see.  Hills that would have had wild stallions groaning for a more even keel were put to bed as we climbed up and up towards the sign that said the Skyline drive is closed due to inclement weather…!!  “Big steaming piles of horse crap, all that way for nothing!!!”  Oh well, you take the rough with the smooth when travelling and in all honesty, there’s very little rough when you’re experiencing some of the most awe inspiring scenery.  It would have been something else to have driven on one of Americas most iconic roads but as we headed to our New Years Eve soiree with Laury and Jack, I felt like I already had.

So we turn up, we meet and greet, we pat quite possibly the biggest dog ever to have not swallowed a man whole on the spot

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and we realize that you cant possibly meet two people who are putting you up for the weekend then bugger off out to dance the night away with tequila in one hand and someone elses friends grasping the other.  So, in true time honored fashion for people in the prime of their lives, we went to bed at ten o’clock and by 5 past were snoring our adventurous little conks off…

I’m always interested in peoples little quirks, especially those that are of a superstitious or ‘spiritual’ nature.  Some people believe that opening the back door of their houses followed by the front will let out the old year and see in the new, others that this brings money and good fortune for the year ahead and others still that deem it the last chance to escape the family and get one in before last orders.  There are those of us who go out to parties to try to make something special of the fact that we are entering a new year that in the real calendar terms of time on Earth isn’t even the true beginning of the year, and those that like to see the New Year in with their families, reminded of those in their lives that they care most about.  Then, there are those who have nothing to look forward to because their lives are crap…  Laury and Jack were none of the above.  Their plain, heart-felt ritual every year is to light candles for each person in their lives that they love and wish them the best for the year ahead.  Right touching it were.  And you know, even though they knew us for all of about 2 hours, they lit candles for us too and we in turn gave a candle to them and before you knew it, the house had burnt down all around us and firemen were dousing what was left of our singed clothes, hanging preciously to our sopping but charred bodies…!!!  In reality, it was a very atmospheric gesture with not a fireman in sight, much to my travel wife’s disdain.

Our time with these two lovely peeps was short but sweet.  We took in a movie on New Years Day, True Grit, another stella performance from Bridges, ate delicious fare, some of which we cooked and drank delicious red wine, the likes of which I’ll probably never be able to afford (Jack, a wine buff, is an attorney!!)  And although a small, selfish part of me was glad for the comfy bed and steaming hot shower, a bigger part of me was happy to have met and spent time with two people whom the chances of me meeting in life beforehand would have been slim.  It’s another fine example of how travelling to new cultures can bring you in contact with people you otherwise wouldn’t expect to meet.  And although they weren’t Patagonian Llama Farmers or Ghanaian Goat jugglers, they were made from a different cloth and we had a swell time and that’s about all that matters about that…

On our way out of North Carolina, we hit Asheville City Centre to see what all the fuss was about.

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And quite frankly, considering we had heard that this was one of the most liberal and progressive places in the U.S, it seemed like a relic of Old Camden Town from years gone by.  The New Age culture that has crept up on the blind side of our society in recent years and is poised to Bastardise all that it originates from is alive and well in Asheville.  Call me a purist (go on, ‘…I like it a lot’!) but taking something as historical and meaningful to a culture like Yoga, Meditation and other forms of Eastern well-being practices and turning them into a money-making business that includes selling shit jewelry to White, Middle-Class Americans (and Europeans and Oriental tourists and anyone else with money to burn) who think that a piece of Quartz embedded in a cheap minimally-carated ring makes them New Age and Progressive, is taking their understanding of Eastern Culture a tad too far down Wrong Street for my liking.  These days, Yoga Instructors, Indian Head Masseuses and Pilates instructors are ‘a dime a dozen’ as they say in these ‘ere parts but those who actually practice the true Yogic Paths the way the East has for thousands of years are one in a million.  And Asheville seems to be a place capitalising on the West’s Bastardisation (I reserve the right to use that phrase at least once more in this paragraph if I deem necessary!) of these such practices… Bastards……isationalists…!  Still, if poopy people want to part with their money for the potential placebo effect of inner-calm taught by jabbering stretchy bods, who am I to bemoan their misunderstandings?

However, though Asheville clearly wasn’t to my liking, they had a few places that had a bit of quirkiness to them and they also had the greatest exhibition of gingerbread houses I had ever seen.  Just check these out…

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All pieces made from Gingerbread, what what…

Alas, it was bigger fish that we had to fry than Asheville and so with the warmth and kindness of a mind doctor and an attorney in our hearts and with Gasheville certainly not, it was one Logan Wentworth we were gunning for and the Shenandoah Valley through which we were aiming.

Bring it on, Knoxville, Tennessee, show us what you’re made of (and may it not be over-priced pendants, tie-dye and Nepalese Yak wool pull-overs)

Freedom

(Please note that this entry should have been posted before the most recent entry but I made a mistake.  So if you wanna read this in its intended chronological order, read it before the Virginia post.  Oh yeah, please also imagine a sign saying ‘Welcome to Maryland’ and something nice written underneath like ‘…where Mary is always welcome…’!)

With Philly another city to check off on the phantom list of ‘…cities that we’ve visited that we can now check off of our list of cities that we’ve visited…’ it was on to our first night on the road to freedom in the good ol’ U.S of eh?

Freedom.  A word with a huge amount of gravity and not without a degree of controversy.  Many people have a different understanding of what the word freedom means, indeed it can mean many different things to us all.  Our differing ideas of freedoms meaning can lead to arguments, fights, even wars.  People die for their freedom, they die for other people’s freedom.

In recent years, I’ve looked at those around me who have been, to some degree, successful (but again, that word carries different meanings to all of us) and thought ‘at what cost success over freedom’, or at least what my idea of freedom entails.  I guess I should mention what the ‘success’ I see represents, or rather what represents success in the World I see around me.  I guess, in the World I occupy with the people who surround me, success comes in having, to some degree, a secure career, a certain degree of wealth, maybe habitual security, relationships you can count on and a comfort with the life that you have built for yourself.

But then people say to me things like ‘I wish I could do what you do and just go travelling’ or ‘you know, I think its great that you can just up and leave without worrying about the future’ or ‘don’t you worry about just quitting your job and having no money?’ and other ridiculous things of the sort.  And it always makes me think something along the lines of ‘please don’t spout that shit to me cos if you really wished to do something, you’d just do it’!!  That’s honestly, almost word for word what I think! (I curse a lot in my mind!)  And when I mention this internal prose to people, the excuses they tend to come up with are along the lines of ‘well, I’ve got a good job’ or ‘I couldn’t give up the money I make’ or ‘I like my things around me’ or, and this is my favourite, ‘well, I’m about to buy a house’ or ‘I recently bought a house and I cant really leave for a couple of years’.  And in my mind, I’m screaming at them BULLSHIT BULLSHIT BULLSHIIIIIIIIIIIIIT.  Don’t talk this BULLSHIIIIIIT to meeeeeeeeee!!!!!!

If you really want to do it, you do it.  If you don’t want it, don’t spout that drivel to me about wanting it just cos you don’t know what else to say.  Because you don’t want it.  You want to sound like you want it, maybe cos you think its cool to want it but that’s your ego talking and I’m not interested in your ego.

But then how much freedom do people ‘really’ want?  Does the idea of freedom actually scare people?  Maybe we aren’t comfortable with the idea of having to actually leave the ‘comforting shackles’ of society to pursue freedom.   Maybe freedom is being able to be free for a small period of time before going back to the security of the life you live, with the creature comforts that you think make you happy.

Benjamin Franklin once spouted: “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

I don’t know within what context he was talking.  But I assume he was talking about a freedom with more weight to it then the freedom of being able to ‘go travelling’ or ‘to do the job you really want’ or ‘to have the money to buy the cheese you really like’.  But maybe he wasn’t.  Maybe he was talking about exactly those things.  Maybe he saw a society being consumed by ‘things’ and therefore being trapped by those ‘things’ that stop them from living the way they want to live and therefore being free.

I’m not saying here that I’m totally free, in fact, in our society and by our, I mean the Western society, to be completely free takes more effort then most of us would ever be able to muster.  We all rely on something, whether it’s a store to buy food from, a manufacturer to make our clothes, an institution to enable us to make money, a bank to hold that money, indeed reliance on money itself in some form of capacity (although that’s a level of discussion that I don’t feel this is the platform for right now, mainly because a) this isn’t a discussion and b) to delve into the freedom needed to live without money would take time I don’t have at this moment).  And therefore, in my mind at least, that makes us ‘un-free’.

But I find it sad when I think that the people I love would rather be doing something else than the something they are currently doing and I cant help to think that they are losing sight of the amazing gift that not only life is but the life that they have been lucky enough to have been given, i.e. the life of opportunity, the opportunity to be whoever you want and to do whatever it is you want to do; the life of personal freedom.

And I guess it was with a greater sense of freedom than I have felt in a long time that we headed in our wheelyhome to an uncertain future on the roads of this vast country with its plethora of different people and places and spaces.  Of course, I’m still not totally free, I rely on petrol stations, stores to buy food, a vehicle to enable me to keep moving.  But it’s a greater form of freedom than that which I have had for some time.  To paraphrase another person of some intelligence, Robert Frost, ‘Freedom lies in being bold’ and so with boldness it was that we headed through the state of Maryland, past this nations capital and towards a first nights sleep under the stars of the ‘land of the free’.

When we first bought our Trixiebelle off of a couple of friendly Kiwi’s back in September of last year, we were enlightened by the fact that you could sleep in WalMart car parks for free, with the added bonuses of a security patrolled area and a toilet for your morning woo woo’s.  And those of you who have experienced these ramblings of mine from a past expedition will have noted that a morning’s revelry in a porcelain palace is of utmost importance and extreme relief.  I balked at the time of spending my eves of freedom spent in the car park of one of Americas largest corporate businesses.  I think I said something along the lines of ‘I aint sleeping in a fuckin’ WalMart car park, we’re on the road, man, America’s our bedroom.’

The fool I felt when a) we slept our first night in America under the safe eyes of the WalMart security guard and b) the next morning I was reminded of the above quote.  Initially I thought it kinda pikey to be sleeping in a car park.  And I guess to a lot of people it is.  But when you’re at the mercy of those people who live in cities and either make the rules or make it their business to break the rules, somewhere semi-secure can be a comfort, no matter how ‘concrete and corporate’ the surroundings.

And I guess that’s where the freedom I mentioned I was a part of became just another fantastical philosophy.  Because although we were free to pick where to rest our weary bonces that first night, there was too much at stake for us to use the stars as our ceiling and the compassion of man as our blanket.

So it was with the distant glow of a flashing orange security light and a rather large piece of humble pie in me gob that I bade my lady ‘bon soir’ and fell into a dreamland in which I shared a dinner with my favourite people from history, armed with laser eyes and 4 stomachs.

At least we are free in our dreams…

She says Virginia, you says Vagina

(just pretend there is a photo here saying Welcome to Virginia with a Cardinal bird on a branch or something, ok?)

In sex education class at school, when I was about 15, I sat at the front with a man many of you know, some of you as the BFG, others as other pseudonyms.  Directly behind me sat Helen Drinkwater.  Helen had quite firm thighs.  At least, that’s what I used to think when I’d glance back to the place where the light stopped showing her skin and started showing nothing but a mysterious dark porthole within which I could only imagine what went on!  I didn’t so much as fancy Helen, I desired her every bead of sweat!  And I didn’t even find her that attractive, except from the waste down, a waste-down that I knew nothing about, at least between the waste bit and the down bit.  It was just that I was 15 and, how can I put it… INCREDIBLY horny!  So, we’re in sex education class and the school headmaster, a former psychiatric nurse, is trying to teach us how you go about putting one thing into another thing, kind of like the building blocks of life.  Actually, what am I saying, not at all like building blocks, Saul, clearly I learnt nothing then and still know about the same amount now.  Anyway, a 20 question quiz came up and for some reason, I remember answering ‘Parkinsons’ to a question something along the lines of ‘Name two diseases that can be passed on during intercourse’?…  As you can imagine, the friend sitting next to me, when marking my test, pissed himself laughing, although I’m not sure even he realised why I got it wrong!!   Another question was asked, as so happens when a test is in progress, but I don’t remember exactly what it was.  The answer though, I do remember and it had something to do with the reason why I was looking back, although at the time I wish it was up, at Helen Drinkwater’s taught, muscular thighs.  And as luck had it, on that balmy late afternoon, as all the guys in the class were sat there hoping they didn’t have to stand up for about 20 minutes and all the girls were daydreaming about all the guys in the class being Robbie, Jason, Howard, et al, Helen said something that not only lifted the erotic tension that had built so lustfully in the room but also endeared her to me to such an extent that I asked her friend to ask her if she would be my girlfriend the next day.  And that something that Helen Drinkwater, on that steamy late May afternoon in 1992 said, was just one word, pronounced mistakenly at a time when the last thing you ever Ever EVER wanted to do was to pronounce a word incorrectly, especially when in the class were 2 giggling fools who thought the very mention of anything remotely sexual was intolerantly hilarious and would happily let you know by way of squawking and guffawing (and to this day, still do).  That word, uttered so innocently and so utterly incorrectly by Ms Drinkwater, was……… Virginia.

And so, as we made our way towards our 2nd night on the open road, with nothing between us and the actual open road but a very small ‘double’ mattress, doubling up as a very small sofa, some lino and various metal pieces belonging to the year of 1976, Helen Drinkwater and her unfortunate Virginia popped into my mind…!

I knew very little about Vagina, but that days drive taught me that it has to be, visually, one of my favourite United States… states…  It reminded me of the wonderful rolling hills and lush, verdant countryside of home, albeit without the, what must be, thousands of miles of hedgerow that stop you enjoying the beauty that is England and instead make what should be an enjoyable Sunday afternoon drive feel like a bobsleigh ride through Pans Labyrinth.    And although pretty much all we did that day was drive, it was one of the most beautiful drives I had undertaken and yet, this through a land where most of the trees looked as barren as a desert made of Chinese-restaurant-Peking-window-ducks.

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All I could enthuse was how that much more satisfying the countryside would look during the summer months.  I guess the one other thing I noticed about the vista, compared to that of home, was the lack of segmented land.  The land owners here, and I know that this is just here-say cos I don’t know anything about Virginia (apart from the fact that when it was at school, it must have wished its parents had called it Bryan or Claire or something equally non-descript) don’t seem to be so keen on being seen to be dividing what is ‘theirs’ and happily closing themselves off from the rest of the World with hedges and whatnot (unlike that sentence, which was happy to be seen to dance along in full view of everybody with its little jaunt mid-way through!)  It makes a real difference to a pleased eye to see land as it should be, open and therefore more welcoming and embraceable to the passerby then I, as an Englishman, am used to.

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And so through narrow, scenic, winding roads Trixiebelle gallantly drove us, through quaint little towns called Nassawaddox and,

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stopping every now and again to catalogue the view with our experience-depleting, analogue-destroying all new smaller and better (the World of bigger and better is soooo yesteryear) picture takerer, which has assumed the mantle of ‘new born child’, its protection being of the greatest importance.  We stopped off at quaint little gift shops that offer a million different ways to ruin your dinner by covering it in every type of hot sauce the country offers (Globalisation in its culinary form) and ‘Gas’ stations that literally gave fuel away (compared to UK prices at least – $2.95 a gallon, that works out at about 50 pence a litre!!).  Past lanes driven by the same tractors for generations and buildings held together with the same nails since their construction we meandered and as night drew in and we started thinking of where to rest our weary heads, we left the emerald countryside and headed for that great substitute of all things natural and welcoming, another WalMart car park!!

As we entered the vast grey and white striped abyss, looking like a huge expanse of prisoners in traditional garb, lying, waiting for the right moment to up and make their escape, and looked for a place to park up, it was with dread that I spotted the flashing orange light of the security guard hastening upon us.  I got out and offered a cheery English ‘Hello there’… Now, one thing I have learnt in life is that when you want something from a total stranger and you know that their first impression of you has to be that you are the greatest living being since Ghandi or Mussolini, depending on which side of their burger is ketchup-ed, you have to be as wining as possible.  And so it was with my most winningest way that I undertook a conversation with said security guard that went not to dissimilar to this:

Me:  Good evening, kind sir, and how are you on this most crisp and scrotum reducing of chilly nights

Security Guard:  Acrawben diw bratten all, boutten get bidrewblagger en te sou anall

And that was about the gist of our conversation for the 2 minutes that I was trying to convince him we weren’t Al Qeida recruits on a mission to stay for free in as many WalMart car parks through the States as possible.

The conversation ended with me laughing heartily, him looking at me as if thinking ‘Are you for fucking REAL?!!’, pointing, grunting then driving off.  And that was about the most interesting conversation I ever had with a man I couldn’t understand.

Next stop, anywhere but here…