America, driving across the country (April-May 2004)

 |   |  42 min read

America, driving across the country (April-May 2004)


My fans are troubling me in America. You expect it in the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, however. This character-filled landmark within whistle-blow of the Santa Fe rail line and just off Route 66 has hosted any number of famous characters, living and dead.

From Zane Grey and Humphrey Bogart to John Wayne and REM's Michael Stipe, the charming Monte Vista has offered comfort and cocktails since it opened in 1927.

Some have liked the place so much they haven't left, such as the phantom bellboy who knocks on doors, the ghostly woman in the rocking chair in 305 (who was featured on Unsolved Mysteries we are proudly told), and the transparent couple who occasionally dance in the cocktail lounge.

Which may explain my trouble with a fan.

We'd been in our room for about 10 minutes and the fan started unexpectedly. It was kinda spooky. And it wasn't the first troubling fan we'd encountered.

My wife Megan and I are on a two-month road trip across America from LA to NYC, with digressions through New Mexico, the most deserted parts of Texas and the steamy parts of the South. Already, just 10 days in, we have run headlong into the strangeness and beauty of the various and separate Americas.

And worrying fans.

Back in Los Angeles, we ambled along Sunset Strip after a drink at the beautiful art deco Argyll Hotel with its view across the sprawling city. At the once-notorious Whiskey-A-Go-Go (no smoking now of course, this is California) we caught the tail end of Wild Child, a Doors covers band. Seeing this alarmingly exact replication of the original band, which made its name in places such as this, was also kinda spooky. But the disorienting fear factor set in back at the hotel.

With images from Fallujah on television and the Doors' The End still ringing in my head I finally figured out the fan, turned it on and fell back on the bed: The End, war images and helicopters, a spinning fan ... I am in someone else's movie.

It's an interesting time to be in America in the Apocalypse Now age of Iraq. And with Bob Dylan appearing in Victoria's Secrets commercials your gyroscope gets a little bent out of alignment.

Conversations turn to Iraq and the President (Brent in the Monte Vista bar tells me with a wink a lot of people actually voted for President Cheney) but mostly life just goes on. Television ads in LA favour cars and how much food you can get on a platter for $5.99, and in Las Vegas, Gilley's Bar still promises "Bikini Bull Riding" and "Cold Beer and Dirty Girls".

We stay first at the Excalibur in Vegas -- which seems to have been modelled on the movie Shrek -- then at the Luxor, that pyramid of excess where Ancient Egypt meets Modern Gomorrah. From our window at the peak of the pyramid we can see just how far Las Vegas extends at this end of the Strip. About three blocks before the desert takes over.

And that is where we are headed. We are driving a silver, bullet-shaped BMW supercar. It takes us three days to figure out the radio and every time we put the car into reverse the in-vehicle radar emits warning sounds and shows on a screen sine-wave scans we cannot comprehend. But it goes forward beautifully and at great speed, two features essential when you take on the vast landscape beyond the windscreen.

We have negotiated Sunset Boulevard with ease, been slightly panicked by the hail of vehicles coming from all directions on the San Bernadino Freeway but by the arid beauty of Joshua Tree, with its strange cacti and dust-blown landscapes we have control of the steering and, just as important, the stereo. We bang in Grant Lee Phillips' Mobilize album; the chorus of the first track is, "We're off to see America".

We are often taking the old roads using a National Geographic map from 1959. Before Vegas we wend through 29 Palms (we count four, and twice as many dozing dogs) and then make one of those perfect mistakes on a dusty back road.

The junction sign said "Amboy straight ahead". But Amboy we know about. It's on the map. The road less travelled to the right seems more interesting. And so for two hours we drive through a lunar landscape peppered with low scrub and shack housing.

God knows where we are -- and there is no one to ask. Whoever peopled this place are either long gone (some shacks are boarded up or burned out) or hiding from the searing heat. They were literal folk who settled here -- we pass Sunmore Rd, Jackrabbit Drive and other such mundanely named dirt tracks.

After a circuit of a handsome mountain range we drop down to a dry lake bed which seems to stretch to Hollywood in one direction and Houston in the other. America is full of wow-landscapes -- this is certainly one of them. And in the two hours we see only three other cars, and no one other than two kids pushing a bike up a hill.

This digression has brought us eventually to Amboy on Route 66. This famous cross-country highway may be a poor version of its former self but that doesn't put anyone off. Hundreds hire Harleys, wrap themselves in black leather and bandannas and "head out on the highway". These grey-beards and their partners (there are few under 45) swarm down Route 66 like squadrons of flies high on petrol fumes.

At Amboy we stop for gas where three beer-bellies are lounging in the shade, sipping brews and swapping stories about women who had abandoned them. One guy admires the Beemer and offers to swap his flatbed for an hour. We laugh, but he repeats the offer with a slightly alarming insistence.

Time to move on, and there ain't nothin' to see at Amboy these days anyway, unless you are interested in real estate. The whole town -- houses, fire station, the abandoned cafe -- is for sale. This is Route 66 today, although after Vegas on the way to Flagstaff the excellent road takes us to Peach Springs, the pretty centre of the Hualapai Reservation which runs up the edge of the Grand Canyon.

And then you travel on.

We arrive in Kayenta and are within minutes of Monument Valley. We go out there the next day with sassy Barbara, whose mother is Navajo and father was Anglo. She grew up in New York, talks faster than we drive and is full of stories of Navajo history, legend and good humour.

I have my photo taken at the tree where John Wayne did his ad for Asprin just months before his death. We see where The Eiger Sanction was filmed, touch ancient petroglyphs and talk about Indian politics. It is quite a day.

But the ribbon of black highway shimmering silver in the heat stretches out before us. For a week we haven't been below 1500m and down these roads are El Paso, the biggest barbed-wire museum in the world, the flat plains of West Texas and, beyond that, Cajun country, Elvis, the sea shore near Savannah, and much more.

So we turn on the radio and pick up the country music station. Over an early-70s Stones riff the singer spins his philosophy: "God blessed Texas with his own hand, brought angels down from the promised land, showed them a place where they could dance, if you wanna see Heaven brother here's your chance ... I've been sent to spread the message. God bless Texas."

Well, we'll see.

We put the car into cruise control and watch the signs along the highway outside the window: Friendly Indians, Big Wind Sale, Adopt-A-Highway, Elevation 7000 ...

And this one, the most troubling of all: Room with fan.


America might not do Old World history too well -- although dinosaur footprints and 1000-year-old cave paintings are pretty impressive -- but when it comes to modern history, especially pop culture, you can't go past it.

It's not just that you can go to Elvis' birthplace in Tupelo and his Graceland home in Memphis where he died in the throne room, but the marginalia of every kind of pop culture is out there for you to enjoy, be photographed at, and for you to buy the T-shirt.

I can boast -- admittedly somewhat emptily -- that I now have a photo of me at Tucumcari, an unglamorous strip of motels, truck stops and cheap eateries east of Albuquerque in New Mexico. Why? Because it was mentioned in the Little Feat song Willin'.

Oh, I had a genuine reason to be at this low-rent slice of drive-by America, the museum there has the world's biggest collection of barbed wire, so in the interests of historical research I thought ...

Let's pass on quickly before I embarrass myself further.

Remember that scene in Forrest Gump when he sat on the bench and told his life story? That took place in Chippewa Square in romantic Savannah, and although there's no bench you can still have your picture taken on the spot. And when the Gump-chump finally tired of jogging and turned around and went home? That happened on the route through Navajo land to Monument Valley. If you have a guide it will invariably be pointed out.

Monument Valley is a movie buff's mecca. Here John Ford made John Wayne and the towering monoliths, buttes and mesas into stars. Ford's 1939 Stagecoach and 1956 The Searchers, among many others, were filmed here (the river Wayne crosses in The Searchers is but a dry bed today), and so were sequences for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Easy Rider and Back to the Future 3.

Charlton Heston as Moses wandered through this arid wilderness near the distinctive Mitten Buttes.

Throughout the Southwest you are tripping over movie locations. Around Moab in Utah Thelma and Louise took their doomed drive, and Max von Sydow as Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount in nearby Arches National Park. Acres of Indiana Jones films were shot around the region.

When you pass through these strangely familiar landscapes you can almost imagine Clint Eastwood riding through the parched hills (he did for The Outlaw Josey Wales) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid having their outlaw adventures in these here parts. (Yep, Robert Redford and Paul Newman rode this land, and Redford came back to Provo Canyon for his elemental mountain-man classic Jeremiah Johnson).

From My Darling Clementine and The Grapes of Wrath to Three Amigos! and National Lampoon's Vacation, the magnificent and mundane landscapes of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and, of course, Texas have provided more than just the backdrop. They have provided the ambience.

And the stars always needed somewhere nearby to stay, so chances are when you check in to a decent hotel or motel you will walk through a lobby where the famous have also trodden.

Take the Holiday Inn at Kayenta, a large affair at the gateway to Monument Valley in the northeast of Arizona. This was where Chevy Chase stepped out of his red convertible and made a great LA-style to-do about signing autographs.

When the locals showed no interest in him -- remember some had lunched with John Wayne -- he sloped off to his room and sulked. Or so local legend has it.

Holiday Inns usually don't have much history seeping out of the walls but a place like the Strater Hotel in Durango, Colorado, just reeks of it. Completed in 1887, the massive and stately hotel was the dream of Henry H. Strater who wanted to build the biggest and best hotel in the West.

He faced several major problems: he had no money, no experience as a hotelier and was only 20 years old.

But with the help of relatives he realised his dream and now, 120 years on, the hotel with its restaurant decorated with Tiffany shades, stained glass and a buffet brought from Toscanini's casa in Italy, has hosted dozens of movie stars and political figures. Two presidents -- JFK and Gerald Ford -- have passed through the elegant lobby, and Ronald Reagan's favourite author, the cowboy writer Louis L'Amour, liked to stay in Room 222 above the Diamond Belle Saloon. He claimed the sound of the honky-tonk piano inspired his period-piece tales.

Musicians Dave Brubeck, Barry Manilow and Dan Fogelberg have been guests, so have Jerry Seinfeld, Francis Ford Coppola and Will Rogers.

Just a couple of blocks up on the corner of 10th and Main is a street mural commemorating the 10-round fight between 20-year-old Jack Dempsey and Andy Malloy in 1915. Four years later Dempsey, a Colorado native who knocked down Malloy, became the world heavyweight champion.

Our room at the Strater was on the fourth floor, a part of the hotel known as the "Monkey Hall" because of the shenanigans between travelling salesmen and prostitutes in the good old days.

Hotels like these are scattered throughout the Southwest and anyone interested in popular culture will be stumbling over history. Not quite "George Washington slept here" but it is amusing to see the door plaque on the Linda Ronstadt room at the Monte Vista in Flagstaff: "Remember to stop and smell the horses."

And it isn't always the famous, or the flash hotels, that make an impression.

The Budget Inn Santa Fe is a large and anonymous chain motel a few kilometres from the central square. When I checked in the Hispanic gentleman with a boot-string bolo tie asked where I was from. When I told him he said without a pause, "Then it's just as well we have pork and puha for you".

Turned out four Maori girls were here some time back filming a commercial and they took a shine to his bellboy. They sat in this very same tiny lobby where I was signing the register and tried to chat him up. The manager heard every word and liked the sound of "pork and puha".

"I guess it's like ribs and salad?" he asked hopefully.

If you check in there tell him you are from New Zealand. If he says "choice" you can blame me.


Chances are I won't ever get back to Tucumcari in New Mexico, but that won't trouble me much. There wasn't a lot there. The restaurants were closed by 9pm -- Lotsaburger lived up to its name, however -- and the museum which had been the major attraction with its collection of barbed wire wasn't open either.

No matter, there are museums aplenty down the highways and old roads of America. We are still laughing about the Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque. It is in a corner shop just off the main square of the sleepy Old Town where people sell Mexican and Indian wares on the street.

The Rattlesnake Museum doesn't look much from the front, just a doorway through which you see an extraordinary number of snake and reptile-related merchandise such as T-shirts, fridge magnets, caps and other (mostly) cheap stuff. But pay $2.50, then walk through to the back and you are confronted with at least eight different types of rattlers and dozens of other skinny scaly things in glass-front display cases.

And there is more: a large collection of beer and soda bottles which have snakes, alligators and the like as their logos; fetish objects and reptile curios from around the world; snake-related number plates from around the States; a tall Art Deco lampstand in the shape of a cobra; an old opium holder carved like a skull with a snake coiling through the dead eyes ...

This is a snake-lover's dream. After this much reptilian repulsion and amusement you just want to get back into the shop and buy a snake-decorated beer cooler.

In San Angelo -- a small but elegantly attractive town in the centre of Texas -- we are diverted by another kind of museum, Miss Hattie's Bordello. This house of ill-repute ran for about 50 years until 1948 when it was closed down by a well-meaning Texas Ranger new to town.

The place was boarded up for more than 20 years and when a new owner took over it was opened up to reveal Miss Hattie's and her working women's beds, linoleum, carpets and decor. All were largely intact.

It is a fascinating period piece and the straight-faced conducted tour is excellent value at US$3. You can take all the photos you like.

A tip: have lunch (or better, dinner) in Miss Hattie's Cafe and Saloon a few doors down. This beautifully restored building, with mirrors the size of pool tables and chintzy period furnishings, was once the old bank. It was where many of Miss Hattie's customers would enter, before sneaking up the back way into her comfortable, homely bordello.

Off the menu we liked the $5.50 Brothel Burger: "Just the meat between the buns".

Miss Hattie's final years are sad -- syphilis drove her crazy -- but she had a long life. Longer than the unfortunate Buddy Holly whose career as a hit-maker lasted only 18 months and was curtailed when his plane went down in a snowstorm in February 1959. He was 22.

That wouldn't seem to give a museum much to work with but the Buddy Holly Centre in his hometown Lubbock in the flatlands of west Texas offers a terrific overview of his life and music with loads of memorabilia donated by family and friends. It's informative and tasteful.

But if you want amusing trivia buy the nodding-head Buddy doll from the gift shop for your car's back window. I did.

Holly's grave -- the headstone reads "Holley", the original spelling -- in the city cemetery is worth a visit, too. It is a humble marker that allows quiet contemplation on the life of a musical genius who was taken too soon.

But enough of this standing around gravesides. We point the nose of our car towards San Antonio. I've heard it has a circus museum, and the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum of cowboy memorabilia with lots of guns. As well as the Alamo, of course.

It would be a shame not to remember the Alamo.



Is America the best, and possibly safest, country in which to drive? In the absence of objective data -- and not having checked out Burkina Faso or Portugal -- I'm out on a limb when I start making the case over beers.

"Oh no, man," says Aaron, a music programmer for the college radio station at Texas Tech in Lubbock, the birthplace of Buddy Holly. We're sitting in Tom's Place, a rowdy bar in the town's Depot district, where the walls are covered in graffiti and an extraordinary variety of bras hang from the rafters.

We have agreed about most things so far -- many and various beers, and certain alt.rock bands -- but he's not so sure about American drivers. "I don't know about the rest of the country, but here in Texas we're the worst," he says as he chugs a Shiner Bock.

I have to disagree, and with 2500km on the clock from LA to Lubbock via six states -- okay, Utah for only half an hour -- I'm going to bat for American drivers as courteous and cautious.

This is the country of the car and a long fascination with the automobile. Admittedly we are driving something that commands attention -- the new BMW 645 with SMG and a whole bunch of other things I don't understand. And everywhere we go we are on the receiving end of unexpected but enthusiastic car comments from strangers.

"Tight ride, man," says a Hispanic teenager at a gas station one afternoon outside Santa Fe, near the artist Georgia O'Keeffe's home. "A BMW, right?" asks an impressed elderly man at San Angelo.

And then an embarrassing moment. At San Antonio I am about to accept the compliment again from a total stranger when I realise he is admiring the low-slung sports car next to ours.

Cars, pickups, SUVs and XXOS motorbikes are topics of knowledgeable conversation. Highways and driving are such a part of life they are celebrated in song. From the trucker-twang of Six Days on The Road ("got little white pills and they keep my eyes open wide") through the soft-rock of Ventura Highway to the proto-metal of Born to Be Wild, song lyrics have articulated the American passion for the car and motorcycle. Songs speak of the romance of the road and the belief that something better lies beyond the city limits.

Bruce Springsteen's early career was founded on such myths in songs such as Born to Run, Thunder Road, or the failed highway dreams on Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

We have been down bits of the most famous US highway, Route 66, and there, as everywhere from inner-city cruising on the Strip in Las Vegas to the backstreets of small towns and the long hauls down interstates where cruising at 80m/h (128km/h) is the norm, the driving has been easy and a pleasure.

The reasons are simple: excellent roads, for a start. We are sometimes using our 1959 National Geographic map of the old roads, which means detours along deserted byways near the busy interstates.

Yet we haven't hit a patch of unsealed road, an unannounced dangerous curve or even potholes of the kind we expect at home.

Add to that better cars.

Yes, you do see a few older models, but seldom outside inner-city streets do you find the equivalent of our rust-bucket Holdens or even my egg-shell Honda City. And cars seem equipped with functioning indicators and drivers who can use them. Strangers let you in and are contagiously considerate.

If you have cruise control it's just a matter of pointing that baby down the road and your only worry is what radio station you want to tolerate while America goes by beyond the windscreen -- hilarious sports talk, sentimental country, the numerous God channels or classic Elton-rock.

And in a country where the wide lanes roll like ribbons across the continent, people are prepared, willing and even expect to drive long distances.

Alcohol is banned on the Navajo Nation but without thinking, while chatting in a Wal-Mart queue one afternoon, I ask a hometown teacher where a good bar might be, somewhere I could sit and chat with locals.

He reminds me of the ban -- noting when he lived off the rez he used to have maybe a bottle or two in the house, now he stacks up and has close to two dozen hidden. Then he says I might try Page down the road. Page is 145km away. Quite a round trip for a few beers.

Even though we are now accustomed to long drives, I decline and that night at dinner agree to try the restaurant's non-alcoholic chardonnay. It is so artlessly foul it could drive a man to drink. Or Page.

In Lubbock a week later, I am chatting with Joe Don who asks about our route west. We mention we are going through San Angelo and San Antonio then on to Austin. "I'm going to Austin tonight," he says.

We blink hard. We can read a map and Austin is a handspread across it. I have to ask. "Oh," he says in an admirably slow drawl, "it's about eight hours."

But as we head across the flatlands spotted with oil derricks and little else I realise we, too, take on enormous distances across this open land with little concern.

That is not to say driving is uneventful. It can be disconcerting to glance in the rear-view mirror and see the front of a semi-trailer filling your vision, its looming snout like an angry bull bearing down. But, as they say, "Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear".

So you push the gas pedal a little harder and put some distance between you and the raging bull.

Outside Durango one morning, traffic stalls for 20 minutes. When we pull alongside the police cars and tow-away vehicles the mess is horrific: a car flipped with its roof shaved down to the steering wheel and another vehicle with its front folded like an accordion.

They are on a straight, downhill piece of two-lane blacktop and not where you'd expect an accident. But the message from home comes back: the faster you go, the bigger the mess.

Yet we drive by, forgetting this ugly event until nightfall after another day of America out the window, service station forecourts and small-town cafes. We have been too busy contemplating the culture of the car in America.

It is simple: you can just go. Freedom for the price of a gallon of gas, around US$1.80.

Outside Amarillo we detour to see Cadillac Ranch, celebrated in song by Springsteen and the brainchild of the San Francisco art collective Ant Farm.

It is 10 classic Caddies (El Dorados and Coupe De Villes) from between 1948 and 1959 buried bonnet-down with their fins in the air. It is a salute to the spirit of the road and the time when Cadillac fins just got bigger.

Sponsored by eccentric Amarillo businessman and art patron Stanley Marsh III, Cadillac Ranch is just off the I-40 in a field of endless wheat. Over the years it has been painted and repainted -- by professionals and amateur graffiti artists alike -- yet possesses a mysterious quality in this landscape which is silent, except for the steady, distant hum of vehicles along the interstate.

Marsh, who is also believed to be behind the oddball, art-project street signs in Amarillo, says Cadillac Ranch is about the bigger picture.

"What makes America the best country in the world is the car. In Germany, Africa, China or Russia, kids grow up thinking they'll have a house some day. But American kids dream that they'll have a car.

"A car represents freedom, romance, money. You can head west to Las Vegas where you can break the bank, then go out to the beach in California and become a movie star."

We have put the beach and the blackjack behind us and are heading the other way, east to embrace whatever liberties these highways offer.

So we drive on, past the familiar -- Tony Roma's rib houses, KFC, Quizno, Burger King -- and down this endless freedom road into the great unknown.


Few cities live up to the claims they make for themselves. If you are a tourist in Auckland, or a resident without access to a boat, just what does "City of Sails" mean to you? Austin in Texas claims to be "the live music capital of America" -- but you can believe it.

It's not just that 6th St bars and restaurants throb with Texas blues and rock every night of the week. And it isn't that famous clubs such as Stubbs or Threadgills built their reputations on legendary live bands -- although these days both make their money from the vast, overpriced restaurants attached.

And it isn't that the city comes alive during the South By South West and Austin City Limits festivals, when thousands of musicians -- Kiwi rock bands now among them -- for the former descend on the city.

It's all this and more. There is live music in small bars and clubs on the outer rim of the city as well. At any time.

On my first stay in this city of margaritas and music, I caught Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore on consecutive nights. That might not mean much to you, but if you have any interest in the hard-edged, country-folk poetry of West Texas then these guys are legends.

A fortnight ago I was back and on the first night went to the Continental Club, the bar where Lyle Lovett was discovered. It was Monday and I caught Dale Watson, a honk-tonk guitar-twanging truckstop rocker who pulled a room full of drinkers and dancers. It cost $5. Beers were $1.50, if I recall. It was Dale's regular gig.

Two nights later I was back there for James McMurtry whose misanthropic hard-hewn imagery has always appealed to me. He and his band the Heartless Bastards were terrific (better than their current live CD) and the opening act, Jon Dee Graham, formerly of the legendary Austin post-punk rockers the Skunks, was also exceptional. That cost $7 and it was McMurtry's regular Wednesday gig for a month or so.

A couple of nights after that I was at Threadgills for Jimmie Le Fave and his band. A hefty $12. And there was more.

Yes, Austin is the undisputed capital of live music, and you'll get agreement on that from people who have checked out New Orleans and New York.

But there is more to this city, with its strong Mexican flavour and a cowboy heart. It can be sophisticated if you dress up and have cocktails at the elegant, historic Driskill Hotel with its western art and muted lighting. Or downhome if you take beers to the park and watch bats fly from under Congress St bridge just after sunset.

One of Austin's most interesting attractions is unexpected and seldom gets mentioned: the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum on the east side of the sprawling university grounds.

Johnson never expected to be the 36th President but the assassination of John F. Kennedy in late 1963 threw the tall Texan Vice-President into the role. For the anti-Vietnam War generation he was the one who presided over the military build-up and the target of the street chant, "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?"

The huge museum and library -- which looks like an outsized mausoleum -- allows for all of that in its extensive display of the man's life and the history of the nation during that period of social upheaval. But it also offers much more, a subtle shift of emphasis.

Anyone who has been to the Kennedy retrospective in the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas -- from where Lee Harvey Oswald is alleged to have fired on the Kennedy motorcade -- comes away with the impression that the brief Kennedy era was one of ringing rhetoric, photo opportunities, and of plentiful promises but little political pragmatism.

Kennedy spoke of a new generation, of a presidency born of the 20th century. Yet LBJ was a product of the 20th century also, albeit of another kind. "Born in a log cabin" seems a cliche and from another era, but in LBJ's case it was true -- on both counts.

LBJ was born in a plain wooden cabin on the Pernaldes River in 1908 and after schooling briefly became a schoolteacher in Cotulla, Texas, where he taught poor Mexican children. It was a period which shaped him, as he acknowledged in 1965 when, as President, he spoke before Congress.

"I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

"But now I do have the chance -- and I'll let you in on a secret. I mean to use it."

Johnson was an astute, pragmatic and often tough-talking Texan. He was conniving and manipulative, often rude and sometimes patrician. But the man got things done. Legislation which had faltered under Kennedy was kicked to life by Johnson.

He cajoled, deal-brokered and persuaded through an enormous amount of social legislation, and did it with urgency and energy. He declared war on poverty, advanced civil rights legislation, believed in affirmative action and spoke out against the breakdown of black families. His Voting Rights Act of 1965 opened the door for black America into the political process.

He wanted things done, and he expected them done right away. It was as if he knew he was on limited time.

And he was. In a word, Vietnam.

When Bill Clinton visited the library during his 1992 presidential campaign he never mentioned Johnson's name and today few Democrats talk of LBJ, one of the most progressive and proactive of their Presidents of last century.

That's because his name is forever linked with the disaster that was Vietnam, and Democrats -- particularly now -- don't want to be associated with any kind of war, least of all one of their own making. And a defeat.

Yes, LBJ expanded the parameters of the war. However, when he saw what it was doing to his country, and in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, he declined to stand for a second term. It was a rare political move but as his museum shows, he was a rare man.

He was often crude, prone to blunt humour and plain speaking. There is a life-size animatronic replica of the tall Texan telling jokes in his slow drawl. They are clean jokes, but his often weren't. "Get them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow," was one of his more memorable aphorisms.

The museum is also politically sanitised as might be expected. The questionable circumstances surrounding his first election to public office are not mentioned.

But it is still one helluva museum. There is a very cool presidential limo for a start. And some moon rock, television footage of civil rights movement protests, and impressive (or bizarre) gifts from world leaders and slightly demented civilians.

Lady Bird, his wife, gets her due for her contribution (education, highway beautification), upstairs there is a replica of the Oval Office for that photo-op, and the gift shop sells the George W. Bush Family cut out and dress-up paper dolls. (See George in his undies!)

The walk through LBJ's life also comes with a great soundtrack from the Texas country music of the early 20th century through to the counter-culture psychedelic rock of the late 60s.

So if you are in Austin for the live music -- as most people are -- check out the LBJ Museum and Library. It's a journey through a significant part of the 20th century and by the end that "Hey hey, LBJ" chant will seem more than slightly shameful.

And take some Democrats with you. They might learn from the trip, too.


The road from Clarksdale in the west of Mississippi to Tupelo in the northeast offers standard highway stuff. The journey is punctuated by the bodies of rotting armadillos bowled by traffic, and great swathes of tyres and skid marks where truckers have grappled with a blowout.

The countryside is pleasant enough but sole interest rests on seeing if there really is a Tallahatchie Bridge -- where Billy Joe mysteriously threw something off in the Bobbie Gentry hit -- as the river of that name appears.

When we hit generic America, with rows of fast-food franchises and chain motels lining the highways outside most cities and towns, I am reminded how much our view of America has been shaped, and distorted, by preconceptions and powerful images.

If Tupelo is known for anything it is because Elvis Presley was born here in 1935 in a humble two-room home his family built. There is a famous and much-reproduced black'n'white photo of this place, little more than a shack, really.

Having lived with that photo -- and another of a 2-year-old Elvis with his parents looking like something from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath -- I imagined Tupelo to be a small town, perhaps half a dozen built-up streets in the middle of farmlands. More fool me, I realised as Taco Bell after Holiday Inn crowded the highway.

Tupelo is a big and busy city, and proud of its Elvis heritage. But it has a lot more to offer than a photo-op at the slightly restored Presley place, which now has a museum (with gift shop, of course) and a meditation chapel nearby.

Who, going to Tupelo for Elvis, would expect an exceptional car museum with more than 100 beautifully restored and gleaming cars which date from an 1886 Benz to customised vehicles of the 90s?

To be frank, cars don't interest me much but this chronologically displayed collection offers that most important of all responses, a high "Wow!" factor when you first clap eyes on it.

Laid out in a 120,000 sq foot room, it is the passion of local Frank Spain, who was a broadcasting exec (with impeccable taste in car-flesh) and who has declined offers to locate the collection elsewhere.

With touch-speakers giving background information on the vehicles and some of them being of pop-culture interest (Tony Curtis' car from The Great Race, a 1976 Lincoln owned by Elvis, a never-driven 1994 Dodge Viper with 12 miles on the clock), the Tupelo Automobile Museum is a sophisticated surprise.

You can't take photos inside, which is a shame -- I wanted a visual memento of Liberace's custom-made 1982 Barrister Corvette, complete with candelabra. But that may be a good thing. You have to imprint such images in the memory.

Bustling and expansive Tupelo, with its historic downtown area, imprinted dozens of memorable images for me and shoved aside, or at least put in a better context, those two of Elvis.

We were recommended dinner at Vanelli’s and the idea of Greek/Italian was appealing. The lobby was lined with autographed photos of famous country singers and touring comedians, politicians and others.

The food was exceptional but it was the art that diverted us. A Picasso drawing, others by John Lennon and Rolling Stone Ron Wood. The place was an art gallery, and the last thing we expected in Elvistown.

America is full of such surprises.

Nashville in Tennessee is the home of country music. More of the stuff pours out of here than anywhere else, and whole streets are given over to music houses, publishers and record companies.

One night we bar-hopped and weren't disappointed. It's a pretty special city where a country-rock singer clambers on to the bar, the crowd is singing along, and people are kicking back over beers and whiskey. All this takes place in a room little bigger than your lounge. And on a Sunday night.

This is why people come to Nashville. You don't come here to look at classic Greek architecture. But there it is. In a central park is a full-size replica of the Parthenon, although in much better condition.

Can't say I know of a Nashville country song -- which are pretty heavy on specific place names and images -- which mentions it, however.

This kind of thing throws you a little, in a good way. Then roll this image in your mind: Forts.

They are all reliably formulaic: an outer wall of posts (usually hewn to points at the top), a big gate which swings wide to let in the cavalry, and a flagpole in the middle of the courtyard-cum-parade-ground.

Fort Concho in San Angelo, New Mexico has the flagpole -- but there ends any conforming to the cliche. Fort Concho is the best-preserved fort in the region but it stands as a series of low stone buildings which housed troopers and married officers in a square around a huge parade-ground. Not a defensive wall or hewn log in sight.

It is fascinating and another preconception is blown to hell. It's enough to make you give up watching cowboy movies.

Ten days before Tupelo -- with its Picasso, Lennon and other artworks -- we were in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, where Bourbon St was typically thronging with hooting drunks and T-shirt hawkers, and bands in bars battled for attention.

Sure we heard jazz, but not of the kind this city is known for. Late one night we stumble on famous old Donna's Club, some distance from boorish and boozy Bourbon St.

It used to be the home of voodoo queen Marie Laveau and this night it had in a group from Japan. They wore traditional costumes and played in an idiosyncratic style on trumpet, accordion, banjo and traditional drums.

They performed beautifully bent jazz with traditional Japanese overtones, did some elegant trickery with what looked like a bamboo place-mat, and sang the strangest jazz I've ever heard. Best of all, you couldn't have planned seeing it.

Another surprise in a country famous for them.

Near the Kennedy Space Center in balmy Florida we are staying in a cheap place with bamboo and palm trees in the garden, a swimming pool and a Tiki Bar serving tropical cocktails. Lovely.

And its name? The Fawlty Towers Motel.

This monumentally kitsch palace with a lolly-pink paintjob and faux turrets was a salute to the homeland by its British owners.

So what do we learn from all this? Nothing maybe, except that the unexpected is always more memorable than the anticipated. Preconceptions can also disappoint.

And you know what? There ain't no choo-choos in Chattanooga. Amtrak doesn't run there anymore.


Sunday afternoon in San Francisco and we are at Neptune’s Palace restaurant on Pier 39. In the choppy waters below seals dart between the tourist boats heading out to Alcatraz, a spit-sized island at an arm’s length away. Up the bay through the sea spray is the minimally geometric Golden Gate Bridge spun like a spider’s web. Beautiful. All of it.

But I am not here.

I am back before all this.

Back before New York three days ago where we partied on an apartment rooftop overlooking the East River and Brooklyn Bridge, and before when we skated through hip bars and a downtown chi-chi restaurant to emerge with a battle-weary credit card.

I am further back than even that. Back before South Beach in Miami a week ago when we arrived on Memorial Day weekend at the same time as 200,000 hip-hoppers in town for a convention-cum-street party. Yo! Know-wha’um sayin’?

I am way back to a silent afternoon somewhere up the empty coast of Florida, the ocean at my feet, the blue-green water turning to a deep and powerful aquamarine as it fills the space to the horizon. Beyond that distant line between sea and sky – visibly curving at the earth’s surface – lies the Old World of Europe.

To the south is the peninsula of Florida and the Caribbean where Columbus then others – Spanish, French, British among many more – came to explore, and exploit, this new territory.

To the north is Cape Canaveral from which many, equally nameless to us, have taken similar journeys into the great unknown.

The thick sand beneath my feet sucks out with each wave so I dive into the warm water, swim a few strokes then turn back toward the shoreline. It reaches as far as I can see from north and south. Beyond it, invisible over the tussock, lies America, its broad back spreading from this Atlantic coast to distant California.

We have driven from the sands of crowded California to this empty Florida coastline -- and we did it the long way: more than 10,000 kilometres through 13 states, over six weeks. We did it mostly on the old roads and by a route which started like a steady seismograph, but hit serious tremors as early as New Mexico and Texas when we jumped north then south across those sprawling states. We did something similar through Louisiana and Mississippi before levelling out through Tennessee and arriving within sniffing distance of the Atlantic Ocean in stately Savannah, Georgia.

In the words of God Bless America, we have been “from sea to shining sea”.

As a journey it is not quite as heroic as the explorers, opportunists, conquistadors and space pioneers. But at nights in bars filled with local beers and regional music – Cajun and zydeco, Tex-Mex rock, old time bluegrass, New Orleans jazz or Cuban – it has been more than satisfying.

Actually it’s been a blast, and an education.

Some years ago a French friend who had spent time in New York said he didn’t like America. My response was, “Which America?”

There are so many Americas: the endless empty skies above and barren earth beneath west Texas; the manicured beauty of the ancient Indian trails of Natchez Trace; tiny towns like Breaux Bridge in the Cajun country of Louisiana – and for us never-again Cameron on the Gulf Coast which had all the charm and odour of a fisherman’s armpit.

We have seen mountains and chasms where some discern the guiding hand of God, and have been into the smallest chapel in America among the lonely pines off a side road in Georgia. All have been heart-stopping.

We have stayed at a luxury hotel on New York’s upper east side beside Central Park, and endured a nasty motel in Nashville where the neighbours rehearsed their Jerry Springer appearance all night to a soundtrack of thumping hip-hop and the sound of shoes and items of furniture being thrown.

We have stayed in a room where John F Kennedy Jnr slept. But that needs qualification. It was in a run-down, must-stay hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi -- the crucible of the blues -- where we went to hear juke-joint music and drink beer. The place was the old hospital where Bessie Smith died, has been a “hotel” for about four decades and Rat the owner – that’s what everyone calls him – tells me his story of growing up with the legendary blues musicians who used to stay here. My jaw slackens and I shut up.

We have eaten in places best described as toilets and talked with dozens of people of all persuasions. Obesity in America is endemic, but so is courtesy.

The fine, helpful folk – some of whom have become new friends -- don’t deserve the distillation that this writing offers. But they live with us now.

Snapshots then: Joe Don of Lubbock’s Avalanche-Herald who spent more of his own time than he should trying to help us when our computer malfunctioned.

And Janice who works at Walgreens and manages a few bed’n’breakfast places in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. She was slight of build, cheerful -- and used to drive 18-wheelers to California. And Rat. And Brent the backwoodsman in Flagstaff who gave me the gift of a fine knife because that’s what travellers do. We give gifts.

We have made friends. We have drunk fine wine and moonshine, seen Loretta Lynn’s kitsch mansion-cum-theme park in Tennessee, and stood silent everywhere at the sites where Native Americans have been massacred in their thousands.

That is a too-common experience in America. Blood of the ancients feeds this land. History seeps into geography.

We have been in museums large and small, some about the specific history of a Native American tribe, now long gone.

So many American histories . . .

Right now this is a nation at war, preoccupied with a country is knows little of but is seeing nightly on television. It is sending its sons and daughters off to die. I feel I have seen this before. So do many we meet.

I have had conversations with right-wing conservatives, left-wing activists, conspiracy theorists and itinerants who, frankly, couldn’t give a shit.

Being a journalist means people open up because they want their opinion heard, or shut you down immediately.

“So what kind of journalist are you?” asks an elderly gentleman over brandy one night. “Liberal or conservative?”

I say I am liberal in some matters, conservative in others.

Then, to effectively close what had been an otherwise pleasant conversation, he says, “I’m a Republican conservative – and a Bush-supporter.”

So many Americas …

On the road we have seen snakes, armadillos, squirrels, a nesting bald eagle, many ‘gators, and once swerved to avoid a dead deer.

Off the menu we have had elk, turkey, lobster, too many dreary Mexican things with beans, and have often avoided side plates of fries.

So many American foods . . .

My pan-seared tuna and another glass of wine arrives and I am back at Neptune’s Palace in SanFran.

Tomorrow we get another car, drive to Sausalito across that magnificent bridge then head down the rugged coast road to monied Monterey and kitschy Carmel, then through Big Sur to the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, and on to Santa Barbara. All different Americas too, no doubt.

Our destination, a lazy week away, will be the airport in Los Angles where we started this uncharted journey two months ago.

As I watch people on the pier the writer in me searches for that one image, one encounter, which might encapsulate something of what we have experienced. But we have been through too many Americas.

However something occurs to me. It is a familiar and commonplace phrase we have seen so often that we now almost ignore. We have heard it in a dozen regional pronunciations across this remarkable country.

They are simple yet loaded words, encapsulating all that is fantastic and flawed about this place; an emblematic injunction which simultaneously illustrates American capitalism and the addictive nature of consumerism.

And, to be honest, they exemplify the freedom to snatch a piece of one of these Americas.

We have heard these words like a refrain for eight weeks and have been amused, annoyed and mostly appreciative of them.

Yes, there are hundreds of America’s out there with little in common perhaps but this simple credo: “Exit through the gift shop”.




Share It

Your Comments

post a comment

More from this section   Travels in Elsewhere articles index

Central Coast NSW, Australia: Just drive, he said

Central Coast NSW, Australia: Just drive, he said

When you've signed the waivers, strapped on the helmet and given the thumbs-up to eight hearty young men who are raring to go, you can't really put your hand up when the instructor asks,... > Read more

Queenstown, New Zealand: And the Dream Goes On

Queenstown, New Zealand: And the Dream Goes On

Nine months ago my life wasn't like this. Everything was different. Then, the hard white sun would melt the early morning cool and the air would thicken with the smell of decaying jungle... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

LIVING IN LUXURY: When you envy yourself

LIVING IN LUXURY: When you envy yourself

Frankly I've never understood why, if you are staying in some place that closely resembles paradise with a bar -- a quiet beach in Thailand or Vietnam for example -- you need a luxurious hotel to... > Read more

ANTOINE WIERTZ: Rape, damnation and the art of darkness

ANTOINE WIERTZ: Rape, damnation and the art of darkness

Antoine Wiertz was one pretty sick bastard all right. The gallery he demanded be built to house his gigantic paintings in his adopted hometown of Brussels is  testament to an artist obsessed... > Read more