23 September 2007

USA part 1

In the footsteps of the pioneers

25 August – To Raleigh

Three hours pre-flight sleep - that's three more than my Iceland trip at least. As I lugged my pack down to the train-station the early morning mist still lay over the quiet streets of Purley. I took the train out to Gatwick for my flight to America - the first time I'd visited the country since 1999. The Continental Airlines flight took seven hours, but departure was delayed for 50 minutes for some reason. I needn't've worried about making my connecting flight in Newark though; it was even more impressively delayed. Something of a pattern emerging there.

On the way across the Atlantic I chatted to the neighbouring middle-aged couple, who turned out to be actors from Santa Monica, California, although the woman had since diversified into the apparently lucrative field of bar mitzvah photography. On hearing that I was from New Zealand, they enthused about the Flight of the Conchords' HBO series, which they and their Californian friends had been lapping up. The inflight entertainment on offer was below par (three episodes of 'House', no thank you) so I read my copies of the Times and Private Eye, and Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show.

My first sight of North America was the curving scythe of Cape Cod. As we cruised in to land at Newark, New Jersey, the hot brown industrial air was obvious on the horizon. Newark Liberty International Airport is like LAX in Los Angeles in that it follows that curiously uniform early-80s motif in which everything is grey or black. Probably not a place you'd want to spend five hours in, but I had to, because my already generous connection time for my American Airlines flight to Raleigh, NC, was blown out by a two-hour delay. By the time it was due to leave Newark the plane hadn't even left Raleigh!

I ambled around the airport to pass the time; ate a Hershey's bar; observed the unusual prevalence of signs for emergency defibrilators (surely a sign of rampant heart disease in America?); and puzzled momentarily at the catch-phrase for the Dick Clark Restaurant: 'Food, Spirits, Fun'. What, not 'Drinks' but specifically 'Spirits'? Is the underlying theme 'come to Dick Clark's and get smashed before your flight'? Thus possibly necessitating an emergency defibrilation before boarding? Despite all the waiting around, Newark airport did afford me with the opportunity of overhearing one of my fellow delayed passengers using the word 'dang' in a non-ironic sense. Now that was a real treat.

The 50-seater jet finally flew south at dusk, by which time I was wracked with fatigue. This was not assisted by the squealing tots a few rows back. By the time we were about to land I must've looked a sight - fingers in ears and head lolling on the back of the seat in front. The steward presumably thought I was a complete loon, until I explained in my most piteous voice that I was merely dog tired. But things perked up soon when I met Ruth & Phil at Arrivals and headed back to their new digs in Raleigh. It was great to see them both again, four years after they left Wellington, where Ruth temped in the Select Committee Office. On the way back to their place, we drove around downtown Raleigh to see the sights, including a visit to the Wrong (i.e. Other) Side of the Tracks. Not much going on, but perhaps everyone was at the free Warrant gig in the middle of town.

Then bed. The ceiling fan soothed the air. Slept 11 hours. Ahh.

26 August – Rock & roll is king

We started with a quiet morning talking and catching up over omelettes at Ruth & Phil's place, a spacious 3-bedroom bungalow in north Raleigh. By 11.30am we drove into town, which was hotting up as only the South can. R & P are new to town too, so our first stop was the impressive North Carolina Museum of History. I enjoyed the collection of Margaret Morley's Carolina mountains photography from the first decade of the 20th century, the copious Civil War collections, and marvelled at the generosity of spirit of the local WW2 poster that proclaims social activities for returned soldiers:

Raleigh welcomes all service men! You'll find a place to hang your hats at 139 South Salisbury Str for white men, 126 1/2 East Hargett for negro men.

What a homecoming for the boys. Elsewhere in the museum, the section devoted to American attire gave pride of place to the outfit of American Idol runner-up and local lad Clay Aiken. Two cheers for that.

After the museum we strolled through the old antebellum mansions of downtown Raleigh, before the keen sunblast drove us into the arms of a local bar for lunch, which was characteristically huge. I was intrigued by Ruth’s choice of North Carolina barbecue, which resembled nothing barbecuey I’d ever seen; it appeared to have emerged from the kitchens conveniently pre-chewed. The meal was also accompanied by gigantic vats of soft drink. I just managed to finish one drink only to find the waitress whisking in another full bucket of pop next to my plate. I wisely gave up, for fear of bursting any vital internal organs from overwork, and we half-watched a lacrosse game on the TVs above the bar while we talked and digested.

Taking in a little more culture, we drove to the outskirts of town, where the state Museum of Art sits in what looks like a bombsite of wire fences, open trenches and earthmoving equipment. A roadsign exclaiming “yes, museum open” reassures passersby that it’s not actually a war-zone. Inside, the collection proves to be impressive, particularly the subterranean fastnesses containing numerous Dutch masters, including a Rubens featuring the portliest baby Jesus ever painted.

To prepare for our upcoming evening on the town, we basked in the warmth and sat on Ruth & Phil’s porch to watch the rain (the only precipitation of my fortnight’s holiday) and drink some nice wine.

Then we piled in the car again and headed to neighbouring Chapel Hill, NC, where the local music venue, the Cat’s Cradle, was hosting a five-band billing for $15 on the door. Hundreds of students packed the place, and I felt distinctly old. As in, the oldest person in the entire building! And when I ventured to the bar and asked hopefully if they had any wine, the kid behind bar replied with the not-too-encouraging, “well, we have something like wine”. Something like wine? And you know, I tried it, and he was right. It was wet and it was kind of like wine, but whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t actual wine.

The bands on display provided a popular mix of choppy guitar rock with singalong choruses that the youthful audience seemed to have memorised from MySpace. Piebald were pretty good, although they had a daft name and their lead singer boasted frighteningly bright teeth. One band’s drummer (I forget which) sported a Nasa muscle-vest for that himbo-geek look. Another lead guitarist played a solo atop the shoulders of his bassist. My highlights of the evening were New Jersey band Steel Train, all corkscrew perms and Thin Lizzy moves (I ordered their next EP from their “merch-girl” – we’ll see if it turns up), and the stars of the evening, Arizona should-be-legends The Format, who had and fully deserved top billing. Their charismatic frontman displayed note-perfect vocals and worked the room like a pro, like the Rolling Stones playing a club gig. It got very sweaty in there. Definitely ones to watch out for.

27 August – Carolina in my mind

As another Raleigh morning heated up, we packed up Ruth & Phil’s Ford and hit the road for a proper mini-Kerouac adventure, albeit with more organisation and markedly less drug abuse. We paused at a local Krispy Kreme doughnut place to stock up with warm and decidedly unhealthy supplies for the road, which we augmented later with a supermarket stop. I detoured to buy an extra memory card for my camera, and when the sales attendant saw my drivers licence, he observed that the only two things he knew about New Zealand was that the Lord of the Rings was filmed there, and that its Stock Exchange is the first in the world to open each day.

We drove eastwards through Carolina farmlands, spotting soaring town water-towers and an ‘inmates working’ sign at one point, although perhaps they’d made a break for it, as there was no other evidence of their presence. I gave up photographing every water tower out of the car window as soon as I realised that they may be iconic but they were also bloody everywhere. I also got to try a local delicacy when Phil spotted a peanut farm shop selling fresh boiled peanuts. Boiled peanuts must be something of an acquired taste, because for all I could tell the boiling process turns them into hot mush, but the Carolinans seem to like them that way.

Stopping for an Italian sub lunch at Plymouth, NC - the site of a Civil War victory for the Confederates in 1864 - we explored the roadside discount stores for random low-rent riches: (crappy) ‘DVDs, $5 and up!’, (crappier) ‘Videos, 2 for $5, Awesome Value!’, and browsed the aisles of the South’s favourite supermarket chain, the marvellously-named Piggly Wiggly. The supermarket’s logo bore a striking resemblance to Porky Pig, but presumably his jaunty supermarket-attendant hat was sufficiently distinctive to avoid the mighty wrath of the Warner Bros. legal department, which doubtless despatches lawsuits disguised as plummeting 16-ton Acme anvils. And just think - wouldn’t it be great to have an employer with a classy name like ‘Piggly Wiggly’ on your CV?

Reaching the Carolina coast, we crossed the Croatan Sound and turned north onto slender Roanoke Island, site of the abandoned 16th-century colony of Sir Walter Raleigh, which was the first attempted English settlement in what would become the United States. Established in 1585, the site on Roanoke was chosen for its sheltered location behind the tall sandbanks of the Outer Banks, which would hide the settlement from passing Spanish warships. But Roanoke struggled due to a lack of food and poor relations with the local Native Americans. Within a few years the colony was cut adrift from England, and although a better-late-than-never rescue party searched for any survivors three years later, by then they had either died of hunger or been slain or enslaved by Native Americans. (For an intriguing account of this time, read Giles Milton’s excellent Big Chief Elizabeth). Nowadays there’s almost nothing to indicate a handful of doomed pioneers tried to scratch out a living here – a tiny earth mound has been re-erected where the original stood. In 1587 somewhere close by, Ananias Dare and his wife Eleanor had a daughter, who was named Virginia after the young colony (for although now part of North Carolina, at the time the whole minuscule English colony was so called). Virginia was the first child born of English parents in North America.

As we listened to Loretta Lynn sing ‘Van Lear Rose’ the car took us seawards once more, to nearby Kill Devil Hills and the Wright Brothers memorial. Here on 17 December 1903 Orville and Wilbur flew the Wright flyer for the grand distance of 120 feet in 12 seconds of powered, controlled flight.

The flight lasted only 12 seconds, but nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it had started (Orville Wright, 1903)

(Kitty Hawk, the better known name for the site, is actually about 12km north, but it’s where the local Western Union telegraph office was situated. The Wrights sent their father a telegram with news of the first flight, and the name ‘Kitty Hawk’ soon rang out across the world’s newspapers. It was also rather less Gothic-sounding than mysterious Kill Devil Hills).

We walked the length of the first day’s flights, which grew steadily longer so that by the end of the day the brothers had managed a flight of 284 yards (258 metres), and strode up a nearby hillock, where a splendid stone memorial to the brothers surveys the whole of the Outer Banks.

As the sun floated gently towards the western horizon, we explored the beautiful rolling sand dunes at Nags Head, which is short on apostrophes but long on sweeping vistas and kite-boosting updrafts. After a short drive northwards we stopped in at a seaside restaurant, the Black Pelican, which was located in a rambling old building that turned out to have been the old telegraph office from which the Wrights sent their famous telegram 104 years ago.

Then came the long night drive north to Williamsburg, Virginia, and the welcome embrace of a roadside motel.

28 August – Yes, Virginia

Another day of powerful, near-blinding sunshine was soon upon us, and we stopped in at the local information centre. We decided to drive to nearby Jamestown before coming back to see historic Williamsburg in the afternoon, skipping the ever-so-slightly touristy restaurant at the centre boasting the name ‘Huzzah!’ (with an exclamation mark).

In May 1607 English colonists ventured up the James River in search of a settlement site, hoping to found a permanent presence in North America and reap the riches of new lands. The river curves sinuously, exposing ample mangrove shallows beside the lapping banks, with top-heavy dragonflies swaying drunkenly in search of a meal. The English felt these curves, like the Outer Banks at Roanoke, would hide their presence from the powerful Spanish ships, and provide ample warning of attackers coming from upstream or down. So a fort was erected, and after many lean years of starvation, mismanagement and cruelty to the local Native Americans, this fort would spawn a town, and the town would become a focal point of the Thirteen Colonies, setting the scene for the United States as we know it today. (For an evocative tale of this period and the life of Pocahontas, see Terence Malick’s film The New World).

Nowadays there’s almost nothing left of the original settlement above ground, although the impressive red-brick church is a late-17th-century construction. There’s a reconstruction of the fort’s barracks, but most of the action is below ground, where archaeologists are unearthing relics of the earliest days of European settlement in Virginia. An impressive interpretation centre highlights some of the finds, and a nearby glassblowing workshop on a quiet point of land recreates the skills of the first European attempt at industry in North America (and also provides sundry glassware knickknacks – square bottles and the like – for tourist consumption).

Driving back into Williamsburg, which came to prominence when the capital of the Virginia Colony was moved there from Jamestown in 1698, we strolled around the historic town centre. The 18th-century shops and houses of the town have been preserved and turned into a relatively authentic tourist attraction, brimming with actors and costumed staff. Luckily by coming later in the afternoon we could avoid all this (and the seemingly exorbitant ticket price) and just walk around the town’s broad tree-lined streets, enjoying the old buildings and the sounds of horse-drawn carriages with their tall red-spoked wheels, coopers hammering barrels into shape, and milk-maids ferrying their wares to the grand houses.

Swinging back towards North Carolina, we called in to Richmond, Ruth’s hometown for a quick tour of the downtown area and to see Ruth’s parents at the Collins family seat, a much-loved old rambling bungalow with a long back garden extending into the distance. It was lovely to meet the Collinses, and their Bulgarian-immigrant little cat, Snyder – who despite the masculine and distinctly non-Bulgarian name, is a girl.

As the night drew on we feasted at a Mexican restaurant, topped it off with delicious gelati, and drove south playing ‘the letter game’ to stay awake as the freeway signs counted down the miles to Raleigh.

29 August – Ridin’ the rails

In the morning Ruth & Phil dropped me at Raleigh’s train station for my onward trip to Washington DC. As the station is by definition actually on the tracks I wasn’t quite sure whether this was the wrong side of the tracks or the right side. I didn’t have long to ponder this notion, as the Amtrak train arrived from Charleston only 10 minutes late. The train carriages were streamlined silver ghosts straight from one of those hi-tech science fiction comics of the 1930s. Looming high above the rails on stork-like rolling gear, the carriages were almost unreachable to anyone without seven league boots. The leather-gloved train attendants (very Village People) spent 10 minutes or more helping the elderly and infirm up the three steps. Inside there’s plenty of room and even power sockets for laptops, but all the passengers from further south make a point of spreading out over two seats each. In the end I asked an elderly black guy if he’d mind me sitting next to him. He didn’t say a word for the two hours I sit next to him.

The advantage of travelling by Amtrak is the chance to see rural American scenery: the train passed through endless pine forests with bottlebrush branches and flitting deer. The disadvantages are that it’s more expensive than the Greyhound – my one-way ticket cost US$72 – and that it doesn’t have a show in hell of being anywhere on time, at least if my trip is anything to go by. All the 10 to 15 minute station stops quickly added up to a mounting lateness. Then I registered the tannoy announcement that the train would be halted in the forests north of Richmond (for half an hour, it turned out) because up ahead on the track there was not only a derailment, but also a brushfire. A combo! I passed the time consuming concentrated grease from the cafeteria car, where I also found the traditional American delicacy known as the quarter-pounder cookie, which sounds rather more coronary-inducing that it actually was. When the train finally got moving again, I felt sorry for the southbound souls on the trains caught behind the derailed freight train: there were four Amtrak passenger trains caught in limbo. For all I know they might still be there.

As the train finally edged towards DC, I involuntarily overheard the entire life stories of the two 50-something black ladies seated in front of me. Sundry tales of deadbeat menfolk and ungrateful employers washed over me as we passed the crew-cut suburbs of Quantico Marine Station, decked out with Blackhawks, C-17s and industrial quantities of US flags. Finally we drew into Washington’s Union Station, more than two hours late. The capital of the nation, the focus of authority, the hand of government.

Three stops westwards on the metro and a few blocks north, I found the HI hostel, which has a bizarre sleeping-bag ban (there’s a sign threatening a $5 fine if they discover an evil s.b. on your bed or even in your possession!). Then, starving, I pounded the sidewalks of downtown looking for a cheap meal, which is just about impossible to find, I soon discovered. Strolling through the balmy night air, I saw a dozen or more homeless people staking out positions in the inner-city parks, and I walked past a stylish nightclub with pumping music and an all-black clientele. Eventually I tracked down a late-night pizza store amidst all the closed boutiques and largely deserted streets of the capital and was able to eat my fill.