New York, New YorktoChristiansburg, Virginia

Walking around Brooklyn as the evening arrives. It’s in the mid 30s (mid 90s if you’re native) and humid. The fire hydrants on the side streets have been let loose and with every sideways glance off the main road you see them, spurting out and misting the dusking day. Sometimes they spray alone and sometimes there’s company, children dancing through the water. Some are enthusiastic in their perpetual baptism of the sidewalk while others just slump a fat stream into the gutter. There’s that Saul Bellow line I once read quoted: “On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok”.

By 08:30 the sun is already strong and most of the hydrants have sobered from the night before. The everyday has settled in again. On the sidewalks, in the sun, men are asleep, their bodies splayed out in organic shapes. Everything else is concrete and perpendicular.

Cross Brooklyn Bridge and you’re all of a sudden in Manhattan and start to feel like an inconvenience.

On the upper east side kids hum Mozart in pizza joints.

I drove for two hours today for purely immature reasons. Intercourse, PA is in the middle of Amish Dutch Country, thus named because the Americans confused “Deutsch”, the language of the Amish, with “Dutch” and then refused to subsequently correct themselves – a familiar story.

Now in Frederick MA I’m lying on a bed eight times my size. The room is vast but seedy. I feel like some kind of compromised monarch.

To get food that evening I had to run across a six lane highway to a gas station. Via touch screen I ordered a jumbo beef hotdog. It asked what toppings I wanted. I chose jalapeños, and chillies. It asked whether I wanted melted cheese. Yes, obviously. And what sauces? I chose chilli, mustard and ketchup. I couldn’t buy a beer because I’d left my driving license in the room.

After making it back to the bed via the same hectic route, the hot dog has turned to meat and mush, the bun all dissolved from the running and the sauces.

A commercial on the radio for the buffet at Hungry Mother National Park:

A frighteningly enthusiastic man names everything available to eat. The list of foodstuffs doesn’t stop after 15 seconds of rapid recitation and when it finally does our narrator adds (with full-pitch excitement) “and much, much, more!” The voice then begins to extol the virtues of the restaurant but finishes with the cautionary remark “But don’t take my word for it!” And just in case we were about to be so rash we are overwhelmed with a parade of other people’s words for it: heavily accented Southerners sincerely inform us of their devotion to the place, beginning with a fat sounding woman who assures us with a poetic clarity: “It’s great!”


“Most of everyone” = Everyone.

The Blue Ridge Mountains take their name from the shimmer of blue which emblankets them, caused by light refracting through the isoprene that the trees emit. I also see a dead raccoon, intact except for its smeared head that pins it to the road, tongue out, eyes open, looking surprised to find itself in this arrangement, and dead.

Walking around the campus of Virginia Tech I couldn’t help thinking of the shooting that took place there. Everyone seems normal now.


Lansing, VirginiatoMemphis, Tennessee

When I arrived Dylan was making banana bread with David Bowie playing at max volume. He had already made cornbread and greens and blueberry pie. Above his bed hung a Kalashnikov. Next door, Nic made wine with his mother. Jenny ran the hostel.

After dark and after eating we drove for 3 minutes into “town” to the gallery co-owned by Nic. A friend called Patrick is there playing a guitar into his computer. His girlfriend sits in the corner facing the wall, throwing a pot. Nic picks up a bass guitar and begins to walk it. Patrick turns up his delay pedal and washes out a wave of humming buzzing echoing strings.

In the hypnosis of the music Dylan gets excited, turns off all the lights and delicately places lit candles all around the room. He walks up behind my and whispers in a drunken heaviness,
“Do you smoke marijuana?”
“I don’t know”, I say and he’s delighted.
“Good answer” he says.

In Asheville, NC I meet a man at a bar. He tells me he has nine university degrees, speaks 13 languages, that his father worked on the Manhattan project, that he served in both the Israeli and American armies, had a private discussion with Buckminster Fuller, jammed with Hendrix, organised a Miles Davis concert, flew to work everyday in a friend’s Learjet to teach philosophy at the University of Florida, and so on. His name is Eric and now he runs a second—hand record store.

At the hostel I meet someone called Cosmos. Cosmos will be sleeping on the bunk below me that night at which point I will learn that he snores very loudly. "Nice to meet you” I Englished at him, “Yeah” he drawled back all Southernly.

That night, a Saturday, I walk up and down along Nashville’s lower Broadway. There are neon guitars, pretensions of country music and crowds, all sweaty and squeezed into cowboy boots. Horses walk by blinkered (to save their souls) pulling swaying people through the traffic.

There was heavy rain this morning on Interstate 40. Streaks of lightning appeared once or twice out of the grey. At times, the cars a few meters ahead were visible only as dark blurred apparitions of themselves. The road, with the rain bouncing off it, became indistinguishable from the sky. After 100 miles or so everything is cerulean and the sky is emphatic in its protests of innocence.

There’s a dead armadillo tipped over onto its curved, ribbed back. Its short muscular rear legs are curled inwards while its snout does the same in reverse thus almost completing a fleshy ball. A comic kind of proven mortality.

On the radio I head a phone—in show with someone who called himself “The General” (he referred to his listeners as “Lieutenants”). The program specialised in “Cigars, spirits, and diversions”, the latter being a code word for right wing rants. His main gripes on that day's show were the non—US—manufactured nature of the US Olympic team's uniforms, and bans on smoking in parks in Atlanta. One listener phoned in to complain about Obama, “our Muslim in charge” (the General chuckled).

In the evening I eat fried catfish with fried okra, hush puppies, and Cajun cabbage.


Natchez, MississippitoHouston, Texas

Highway 61 heads south across Mississippi deltas. It’s the first of the archetypal American roads that I’ve seen so far with views that are long and agricultural. Many dead racoons decorate the way, another armadillo (sliced open this time), and a large dead deer with a dozen or so turkey vultures sitting around it, pecking and tugging at its flesh.

After several hours I arrive at Natchez, a historically a wealthy town sat up high on a bluff above the Mississippi River, free from floods and mosquitoes. The streets are immaculate and unscathed by the Civil War—the Natchez folks, afraid of having their properties destroyed, didn’t offer any resistance to their arrival—but until 1867 they were populated with stalls selling enslaved human beings.

All the streets are empty and the shops closed: it's a Sunday and this is the bible belt. Rain is just about absent and just about to arrive.

At The Blues and Biscuits bar (the only place open that evening) a man sitting at a nearby table overhears me asking for a beer and recommends a local one. He asks where I’m from then invites me to join his table.

His name is Doug Charbonneau and his wife is away on business (catering on a cruise ship along the Mississippi). He’s soon joined by two friends, a married couple: Valerie and John Bergerton. They buy me dinner. Valerie insists that everyone must always want to look after me. She says there was nothing civil about the Civil War, and that my country loves me and I should love it back.

When we leave dusk is setting. They tell me to go watch the lights on the bridge turn on.

“This is the second octagonal house ever built in this country,” the tour guide tells us at Longwood House, just outside Natchez. That’s what cotton (and slaves) gets you. Or almost. Before it could be completed the Civil War began... Confederate troops, fearing the Unionists would seize and profit from the owner's crops, burnt them all; the furniture coming up the river never arrived; and all the skilled labourers fled back to the north.

From Natchez I drove south. More straight. More empty. And a dead dog in the layby. In New Orleans, a long, hot, and bright walk took me through Louis Armstrong Park and into the French Quarter. Along the way, I passed through Congo Square. Originally an ancient Indian sacred space, Congo Square became the only place in New Orleans where slaves were permitted to perform the music of their homelands. On Sunday afternoons they would congregate and play and from this synthesising, jazz was born.

At the jazz club on Frenchmen Street smoking is permitted indoors. The saxophonist, in between solos, takes drags from a cigarette, an old world experience.

In Arnaudville LA I stay at the lakeside home of Kathleen that she built herself. She's 60 years old and strong with deeply indented eyes making her face resemble a skeleton. An Austrian woman is also staying there but she's out now and coming back tonight. I spend a simple evening cooking boudin blanc and okra with tomatoes and eat it on the elevated porch.

That night I get bitten by every mosquito in Louisiana.

The drive into Houston is like a ringroad of hell. Giant trucks muscle me on both sides while kicking up water from the drenched asphalt into the pink and orange glow of dusk. Without the anxiety the scene would be beautiful, like runnig with buffalos on a stampede through a desert. I pull out at the Museum District where the Rothko Chapel and Cy Twombly gallery are elevators up and out to a totally new sphere.

The night is spent in a motel room that smells of cigarettes just off the ramp from the interstate.


Austin, TexastoAlbuquerque, New Mexico

The Capitol Building in Austin TX is built from a solid orange-pink stone and capped with a high-spired copper-oxide-green dome. Inside the floors are decorated with highly a polished phallic tiling. Police wander about in cowboy hats and boots, guns slung round their hips. One of them spots me trying to photograph him from afar and walks over. He asks to see my photos. As he slowly scrolls through my camera, Michael arrives with his government ID card and we leave without a farewell.

In the hanger-shed BBQ restaurant Kreuz Market you walk into a darkness of blackened walls and light smoke. The dense heat and smells of rendered fat bring to religious devotion. Beef brisket is cooked here, Texas style, hot-smoked for hours, and served by the pound on greaseproof paper.

On the patio of a coffee shop in South Austin a small, dull-brown lizard runs skittishly along a banister towards my table. When it comes to within about 30cm from my torso it pauses and observes the gap between itself and my table (about 20cm vertically and 3cm horizontally).

The distance measured, it leans over the edge of the banister, drops, and just about manages to cling on to the edge my table. From there, the lizard pulls itself up and makes another hesitant run to my sunglasses that sit just in front of my resting arm. It observes the glasses briefly then steps up onto them. It pauses again. Then licks the lenses, its little tongue darting out and back in, then a pause, and then another lick.

Five licks later it steps down and returns to the edge of the table, stopping occasionally and flicking its green eyelids. Once at the edge it looks up to the banister, calculates the distance again, stretches out and with an unfathomable leap, manages to grab onto the edge, effortlessly clearing a vertical distance of at least seven times its height, and continues on its way.

Earlier that morning I woke up to read the news on my phone of a shooting in a cinema in Aurora Colorado during a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie. Throughout the day I desperately seek out wi-fi everywhere I go and attempt to find out all the latest developments. Little can gleaned. Later that day I walk around the campus of Austin University where, in 1966, Charles Whitman climbed the bell tower and shot at people below.

Today’s driving was the kind of driving I had fantasised about. Long straight two lane roads, almost a constant speed of 70mph, empty vistas, and the infrequent wide-road empty towns. I had been told many times to speed through Texas—“there’s nothing there”—and in a way I am and in a way that’s true. But there’s richness in the speeding and in the emptiness. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve enjoyed driving through Texas in a way that I haven’t enjoyed driving through anywhere else.

What I saw today include...

– Cemeteries filled with tombstones for people called “Hoover”
– Rolling straight roads
– Towns with over half the buildings in them empty ex-shops
– A large dead deer with two vultures tearing at its muscles
– A large dead bird of some sort, black
– A (living) vulture, swooping down in front of my speeding windshield
– Dust clouds
– Lightning
– Giant wind turbines spreading out to the horizon in every direction
– Rain, falling from neatly circumscribed dense clouds in the far-off distance.

Clovis has a population of over 100,000 and little infrastructure for human beings. There’s a park with reluctantly green grass but the rest is grids, wide and dusty. The buildings are either industrial sheds fenced off with barbed wire and warnings about dogs, or small, broken houses with front yards of dry dirt. More dogs lie here. The larger louder ones are fenced in or tied up but the smaller yappier dogs are allowed to run free and chase me until I am out of sight of their homes.

There’s a mystery to those dirt roads. The ones that leave the highway, cross the railway and disappear south into the Sonoran Desert. Usually about 200 metres along there‘s some kind of structure—a house, a shed, a wind pump—that justifies the effort but beyond this: nothing, and yet the roads continue. To where though? To a heat vortex? The end of the world?

In one of the small rooms of the adobe complex at the Taos Pueblo an old native American man sits flicking through a wholesale catalogue of Indian Relics. He said I could ask him anything but I asked him nothing. I just took a few paces, looked at the whitewashed walls and burnt feathers, made a few sounds I hoped sounded like wonder and curiosity and then left.


Alpine, ArizonatoPanguitch, Utah

I left Albuquerque and drove west, heading towards Acoma Sky City, an ancient pueblo on top of a Mesa. It was closed to visitors. So instead of visiting their village I visited their casino: a dark room with the soft blingings of electronic slot machines and men slumped in front of their shiny casings. There is one real-life blackjack table (fully occupied), but the rest of the customers are spinning slot machines or pressing buttons.

I lost $5 within two minutes on an electronic poker game. Surely it can’t be this easy to lose, I thought. It is. But still I padded around on the deep carpet and continued to feed dollar bills into machines until I ran out of cash (a further $6 I think). One machine was totally indecipherable. The big bright “GO” button was clear enough so I pushed that a few times. Some chimes played and lights flashed but after four iterations all my money was gone. Interesting.

Any regret caused by the casino was quickly erased by the drive which followed. Mountains ditant and blue; sandstone outcrops jutting sheer along the side of the road; a vast spread of jagged black brittle rock from dead volcanoes: badlands.

I crossed into Arizonaand stopped for lunch at a family diner in Quemado: the daughter was waitressing, the mother was cooking, and the father, dressed up as a cowboy, swatted flies. Salty, salty, hot soup and ice-cold Coca-Cola. From Quemado I took US 191 and pine forests began to emerge, and mountains, and lakes. Not at all what I’d imagined from Arizona. I slept that night in a town called Alpine.

I drove out of Alpine on the US 191 and climbed high into a rainstorm. In the invisibility of the rain I crossed into a new valley and descended. After dropping below clouds I saw the landscape had changed completely: the earth had become a crumbly red and a terracotta stream ran along the road’s edge. A wet green snake stretched itself out along the asphalt and without any time to stop I ran it over. In the rearview mirror I could see it writhing.

After spending three days in Tucson with company (friends of friends of friends) I drove the long and scenic route to Flagstaff. The road scaled giant dry mountains then ducked into the valleys between them. In Tonto Valley the road rose a little and the bottom became a glittering azurean resevoir called Theodore Roosevelt.

Heavy rain heralded my arrival into Flagstaff and sunk me rapidly into melancholy. My quick and dirty self-diagnosis was that I was suffering from the immediate separation from company after having become completely adjusted to its absence.

The evening found me buying "camping food” in an organic supermarket, filling the tyres with air in an attempt to appease the gods of the car’s dashboard (they said my tyre pressure was low), eating turkey club sandwiches, and drinking two beers. Tense.

I was out of bed by 04:30, in McDonalds eating a Bacon Egg McMuffin at 05:15, and on the road driving towards the Grand Canyon by 05:30. Precursory fissures start to appear in the desert about 10 miles before the national park’s entrance but there is absolutely no preparation for the all-at-once Wham of the first sight of the canyon.

No adjective-noun pairings are worth the attempt when describing what you experience when you stand on the canyon’s rim. And anyway, you’ve seen the photographs. But photographs, words, paintings, etc. … any attempts at representation of the Grand Canyon will fall way short of real, front-on confrontation with the wonder. So I won’t even try.

After walking the rim all day I spent the night in a tent at the Desert View campsite.

The sun and the cold inside the tent demanded that I wake early. And so I obeyed. After packing up all my kit I took a final trip to the Desert View lookout to have a final confrontation with the canyon. In the softer morning light, the gap, which was jagged and severe at midday, was now awash and lush and oceanic. I blinked and I was back in the car dashing north on long highways. But the views never ceased to let up.

Just outside the National Park gates, trailer homes bake in the red desert and the remains of trucks decorate their “front yards”. Then black hard dunes.

Crossing into Utah the stones become sculpted and white and lie bitter and exhausted in dusty scrub. I spend another night in a tent.

Just before sunrise a crowd gathered in Bryce Canyon and the tone was hushed at first. It wasn’t long until an American family started naming things loudly. Another family joined in because they also liked to say things. Some others decided to sing. When the sun rose everyone shut up and began clicking at their cameras furiously. The hoodoos basked in the attention.

In Panguitch UT a tattooed man is offered a lick of his girlfriend’s ice-cream. He has a long ponytail which sticks out from his trucker’s cap and a dense, wiry beard which comes to a narrow point near his chest. “No thanks”, he replies, “I’ll only end up wearing it!” They both laugh for quite some time.


Las Vegas, NevadatoSan Francisco, California

Through dry grassland and dust the I15 rises slowly then drops away revealing an expanse of hazy desert, by now a familiar sight. Except this time the monotony is broken by a million concrete and glass monuments cowering in baking fumes. You would doubt your senses except the sight's too ugly to be a mirage. This is Las Vegas.

After checking in to my South Strip hotel I walk through the lobby and sit down at a blackjack table. The croupier laughs at my nervousness and my mistakes but after 15 minutes I'm still breaking even. A waitress in a leather bikini asks if I want a drink so I order a bourbon (drinks are free if you’re sitting at a table). At one point I am $20 up and I decide to leave, except my drink hasn’t arrived. And so I politely wait and continue playing.

A new croupier called Lourdes takes over and she is sour faced and deals bad cards. I’m now $40 down. The whiskey arrives. I drink it down in one and leave and experience (not for the last time in this city) the sticky sensation of losing at gambling: an evil blend of guilt, embarrassment, shame, anger, melancholy, and regret.

On the strip under the desert's blue sky, dreary souls flick flyers at you advertising “Pretty Woman to your Room in 20 Minutes”. We are tempted by "their" naked photos, coloured dots obscuring breasts and vaginas. We wear yard-long plastic tubes around our necks filled with blended-ice-based cocktails. Some have pot-bellied bottoms and some are shaped like the Eiffel Tower. A man dressed as a Transformer talks solemnly to a man dressed as Iron Man. Elsewhere, there are other Iron Men. A Spiderman, alone and contemplative, sits head hung by the side of a fountain.

In the Venetian hotel gondoliers punt their gondolas down the swimming-pool-blue canals, singing arias in bass to their entrapped tourists. I walk alongside them on the glossy plastic cobbles to "St. Mark's Square" where the "sky" is a perpetual "dusk".

It's not long until I'm back on the deep carpet of a casino floor. The untameable urge comes upon me to walk over to a roulette table and place $10 (the minimum bet) on red. I watch the ball spin around, land on black, and I walk away $10 poorer. A few hours later I am compelled to repeat the process. Fortunately I manage to stop myself from putting down serious money (the few thousand pounds that are the entirety of my savings).

It's almost as tiring writing about Las Vegas as it is walking through it. The whole strip is a deafening blend of monotony and novelty. Lights flash, cards fly, and you forget who you are. The wonders of the world are recast in plastic American dreams and you forget where you are. That evening I dine at a buffet called The Crooked Spoon and I eat a nauseating list of rich foods and feel sick. In the morning I drive out of there like a wrecked soul escaping hell.

From my final glimpses of it as I drive out west, Nevada looks like what it sounds like: barren scrubland with mountains on the horizon. US 96 turns into Highway 220 and loses all central markings. It's a proper back road and the shortest route to California. The desert then turns into lush irrigated grasslands that disappear almost as soon as they appear. Black cows wander through the nothingness. As I enter into California the valleys get narrower and pine trees appear once more. The ground turns into a matt grey gravel and the deep-blue Lake Mono appears round a bend. The colours—green, blue, and grey—contrast beautifully.

Five and a half hours after leaving Las Vegas I arrive at my campsite in Lee Vinings, a gateway to Yosemite National Park. I pitch my tent in the sun, wander a bit, eat a burger and fall asleep beneath a thin sheet of green nylon.

The sun rose as I drove into Yosemite yet the air was still very cold when I arrived at the campsite. Putting up my tent I danced the forgotten dance of the shiver.

Walking up to Glacier Point, an ascent of just under 1000m, the number of people walking past on their way down, including young children and fat adults, is alarming. How did they get up hear so early? So quickly? Turning the final corner, salted with sweat and exhausted, I see two more large humans in baseball caps and white sneakers licking ice-creams. I soon spot many more of the type grazing on snacks and shuffling along asphalt paths a kilometre up from the valley floor. This was very puzzling. But, as is often the case with the world, turning the corner revealed all...

Glacier Point is accessible via a 4 mile path of climbing switchbacks. Or, by shuttle bus or car to the parking lot on the summit. Everyone I saw up there had come by motor vehicle and were eating snacks bought from the gift shop conveniently located at the summit. As soon as I realised that I was one of the very few who had actually arrived by my own energy I became vainly desperate to signal my achievement.

Looking exhausted in boots and sweat were not enough, I worried, and no amount of strutting and stomping seemed to get the message across. In the end I gave up, bought a bag of potato chips and a root beer, and sat on a stone gawping at the view.

Today my journey ends. It's early morning and I open my eyes to the walls of the tent glowing glorious green. I pack up the tent, load the car and drive west out of Yosemite. By 08:30 I’m beyond the gates and soon after that I stop to have breakfast: a cheese, egg and chile sandwich with coffee. Restored, I continue through the yellow Californian hills of waving dead grass.

A penultimate Interstate weave throws me into Richmond and a Western Wear shop I had been planning to visit to look at cowboy hats. I try on the black felt Boss of the Plains style and look in the mirror. Its rim throws out such a wide perimeter and the crown erects such a tall mound that the hat insuppressibly broadcasts to even the most culturally illiterate a majestic and muscular manifesto. And if the wearer in any way fails to live up to this manifesto’s rigid tenets, then all the power that the hat can bestow are subtracted in a vicious negation and the wearer is reduced to a ridiculous and unworthy puppet. I decide that I cannot have this hat.

From Richmond I cross the Bay Bridge to the peninsula of San Francisco and then to the Geary Boulevard Hertz office. Straight away—with no banners or bunting or even a word of congratulations—they take the keys and drive the car off. I’m now alone on the pavement, my bags piled up around me.

This is how I give up my velocity and return to the stationary life. At the actual moment it neither feels like a relief nor a shame. Losing the car and arriving in San Francisco is just another stage of the trip, as natural as the thought that: now it’s late, it’s time to go to sleep.

Sitting at my computer five years on I regret this resignation.