Saturday, 28 February 2009



Saturday 19th January 2008

From my limited time in LA, I had the impression that instead of a melting pot where hundreds of differing nationalities, languages, religions, races, sexual orientations and lifestyles mixed together, LA was more like a tray with individual test tubes which really don't mix. 

The only common thread seemed to be the slightly surreal nature, or money or the lack of it. 

One minute you are in a fabulous neighbourhood, and three blocks later a dump. 

Sunset Boulevard is a microcosm of the place, where you can go from the up and coming (read multi-ethnic) Echo Park to Beverly Hills in a few miles, from Salvadoran pupuserias, a pupusa apparently being a stuffed tortilla (or slang for the female pudenda ) to Rodeo Drive, the mecca for conspicuous consumption. 

Of course you could argue that this is true of all cities, but having lived in a lot of the world's biggest (NY, Washington, Boston, London, Paris, Geneva, Tokyo, Seoul, Bogota, Caracas, and Hong Kong) I think that LA is perhaps a bit different.

And everywhere billboards, lights, neon churches, and signs in foreign languages (Spanish, of course, Korean, Russian) to remind you that this is a fount of a lot of the world's pop culture AND frontiers of human expression. 

What starts on the streets of LA can appear a week later in Shanghai, Lima, or Bamako. 

This is true for fashion, the vernacular, culture. 

Also, unfortunately, for Brittany and Paris.
My first impressions are at night, where the glitter and the glitz of the light shows gloss over the hard reality if you pass in the daytime. 

The next morning, however, Tobes and I set out on our quest to buy a car, the sine qua non of California culture. Without wheels, you are nothing.

We have a budget of $10k, $3k coming from Toby and the rest from me. 

I ask Joel for some help as to where I might buy a car for this amount. He laughs and says: "I have never bought a car for $10k."

Having done some research on the web from London, we have established that it is possible however, and quick research brings up a few possibilities at in Burbank, including one, a white PT Cruiser which caught both Christina and my eyes, but which Toby had sniffed at due primarily to the colour. 

We navigate out to Burbank, and arrive in the brilliant morning sunshine to be welcomed at the door of the pristine car lot by a shy Filipina named Sharina. is the antithesis of a typical used car lot. 

Their salesmen (or women, as it happened) are masters of the soft sell, mainly because of their ironclad policy of NO HAGGLING. 

You pay what you see on the sticker. You have 5 days to return it and a month warranty. That's it.

Big point: is one of those places that prefer cash, or at least a cashier's check.

We ask Sharina if she has any cars for $10k. Lo and behold, she directs us to the exact car I had seen on the web from London, the white PT. Upon closer inspection, it is not white but cream, potentially an important distinction. It is a 2004 model with only 35,000 miles on the clock.

Buying anything with Tobes, clothes, shoes, beds, etc. is a challenge because he comes in extra large: 6'6" with size 16 feet. 

The first question, always the first question, is: does it fit?

We get in. NO problem. There is a least six inches clearance and the steering weel tilts away from his knees and is adjustable. We take it for a spin. So far so good.

The only problem is the distinct smoker's smell.

We decide to press on and look at alternatives. We try Hondas, Pontiacs, Nissans etc. They all fall down due to criteria #1. 

They are also a) more expensive and b) have more mileage on the clock than the PT.

We kibbutz and then tell Sharina we like the car but "we would like you to do something about the smell." 

She says they will clean it again and use some magic potion (not really, but some stain/smell remover).

We provisionally agree to buy the car, and adjourn to the showroom.

One thing that America is really good at doing is separating you from your money....PROVIDED that you have ticked all the boxes.

This means that
a) you have a driver's licence in the same state
b) you have a prior insurance record
c)you have CREDIT in some form, or CASH.

Luckily we have all of the above, Toby having gotten a California licence the summer he spent with Charlotte.

We are informed of this fact by Sharina's manager, a black woman with a plastic smile and a paint by numbers hail-thee-fellow-well-met manner. 

"Good morning/afternoon/fill in the blank, Mr. Pettigrew (the NAME always the NAME), a pleasure to see you this morning/afternoon/fill in the blank."

Sharina is obviously new at this selling cars gig, and Ms. Friendly but Firm instructs her how/where to accompany us to get the aforementioned cheque (since I had no briefcase with unmarked bills, but more about that later).

We get into Sharina's car, a stolid Honda she did NOT buy at Carmax (but I would have had I been working here, she says) and we hurry over to the nearest BofA branch, a branch staffed by Russians, Armenians, hispanics, and blacks. I guess a mirror of their clientele.


Always speak to people as if they are individuals and not drones providing you a service in WHATEVER capacity they are acting. I will elaborate later.

Our teller is Mary Avadessian. I ask her if she is Armenian, and then proceed to tell her our whole story of our trip, moving, Tobe's new career, and our car buying expedition while she withdraws the money from both of our accounts and prepares the cashier's cheque. She is very efficient and motherly and we emerge to go back to Carmax.

We give the cheque to Ms. Friendly But Firm, and put the finishing touches (together with Sharina) on their automated if slightly flawed computer system (it wipes out previous entries without saving them cumulatively, so each minor amendment effectively means starting over....oh those programmers are such cards aren't they?). This prolongs the process, obviously.

Suddenly, Ms FBF returns, her smile replaced by a regretful facial shrug. "I am SO sorry, Mr. Pettigrew, but there appears to be a minor glitch."

"Glitch? What glitch?" I ask.

"The cashier's cheque is dated the 22nd (ie. Tuesday)."

Today is Saturday. "But it is a cashier's cheque drawn on BofA," I reason. "Surely they are good for the money on Tuesday."

"Our system won't take it." There is a finality in her tone.

"So what are we going to do?" (I am flying out on Monday).

"You can go back and exchange it for cash," she offers up.

"Cash?" I say incredulously. "$10,900?" (By the time you throw tax, hidden costs, annual dues to the Scientologists, the original $10k has morphed into this figure).

She nods and shrugs her shoulders. It is the only way. "Your son can stay here and finish up the paperwork. You can go with Sharina." She gives Sharina the nod.

I have no choice.

Sharina and I trudge back to the branch, where there is (of course) a long queue.

Reasoning that I need to go back directly to Mary, our Armenian teller, I wait for her queue to clear.

"What happened?" she asks. I tell her why I need real cash. She says : "Well, all our cheques are dated the first business day, which happens to be Tuesday, the day after Martin Luther King day."

"Hmm. .." she says. "Don't tell anyone, but I will reverse everything and then redraw money from both your and your son's account."

I quickly understand her point. She of course has no authority to withdraw money from Toby's account without his card/pin or his orders. Otherwise I could easily fleece him if I weren't telling the truth.

And that is why treating people like people has paid off (unintentionally). This saint of a woman proceeds to reverse all the transactions, give me $10,900 is $100 bills, and then rebalance ALL of the money in her tiller to make sure she has done this process correctly. I can assure you that this is no mean feat. It takes about five minutes and I am very very grateful. Thank you, Mary Avadessian. May some day you take your right place in heaven. You have restored my faith in the kindness of strangers.

I then emerge nervously from the bank, clutching a fat wad of bills, and make a beeline for Sharina's car.

On the way back I ask Sharina her story. She fesses up to have only recently joined She is from Cebu (where Steens and I had gone in 1981)and had arrived in the States three years ago with $100 in her pocket. She had worked as a caregiver for the elderly, a job which she really liked but which did not pay enough. She was a kind, gentle soul and pointed out where a horrible accident had taken place in the past week, sort of a gentle reminder for Toby to drive carefully.

Anyway, we arrive back for the final stage, handing over the readies to a team of a ditzy blonde and a fast fingered Mexican guy to make little piles of the $100s. 

"So," I offer, "either you guys feel like bank tellers or cocaine dealers." 

The Mexican looks at me sideways. 

Toby looks at me embarrassed if not incredulous. 

Oh Eric. Such a wag.

All is in order, however, the next thing we know our car is delivered to us, the smoke smell magically banished.

We pick up the alternate key and Toby starts the engine. After 4 or 5 seconds it cuts off. He tries it again. Same result.

I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Toby looks pale.

We draft in Sharina for an explanation, and I begin painfully reversing all of the morning's steps in my head. She has no idea what is wrong, and scuttles off, reemerging with a technician (ie. mechanic).

He doesn't look bothered. "Oh. You need to reprogram that spare key," he says. "It stops people from stealing your car."

Toby tries the other set of keys. RELIEF all around as it starts and purrs along smoothly. We decide to leave the UHAUL in the parking lot while we search out lunch. Bidding farewell to Sharina, we drive along the streets of Burbank looking for eateries.

When we stop to park, Toby observes: "It's not really white, is it? It's more cricket flannels."

Perfect. The car fits him like a glove, and standing there in his sunglasses and van Dyke, it fits his persona. I take a photo.

In a morning, a car which called out to us in London has become his, and the Cricketmobile has been christened. He is now, presto chango, truly a resident of the City on Wheels.


We adjourn to an Asian/fusion restauant called Wokcano, yes I know, dumb name, where we proceed to share bites of a delicious wonton salad, sashimi salad, and shu mai (pork dumplings). We rake over the coal's of the trip's campfire, congratulating ourselves and thank the Big Man up there for our good fortune and safe passage. 

The Cricketmobile just felt right.

Our waitress, a perky brunette with piercing blue eyes starts to chat with us, hearing (of course) about Toby's plans and his upcoming job with Didier, and confides wisely: 

"Well, if you find good people out here, stick with them. God knows there aren't many of them around."

She has been in LA three years, an aspiring actress working as a waitress (seen that movie?) and she has had just about enough. She came from a small town in Missouri. 

We told her a lite (sic) version of our thoughts about Lebanon, leaving out the gory details. 

She hasn't figured out what to do with her life, but my money says it won't be as an actress, and certainly not in LA. 

She says that she has found out about herself. She has obviously banished her illusions (and perhaps her dreams), but she at least retained her shining eyes and her soul. 

Good on her, and good luck.

Both of us listen intently; Toby as a new participant in the LA game and me as a more than just interested observer. A cautionary tale; no doubt the rule rather than the exception out here.

It is now Saturday afternoon and we are shattered. 

We decide to go to Joel's, who lives in the tallest building off of Sunset Bulevard, a condo on the edge of Beverly Hills and Hollywood with valet parking and a key that awaits us. Our plan is as follows: nap, dinner, movie.

We arrive at Joel's and everything goes as planned. The Cricketmobile doesn't look too out of place. Joels' place is on the 25th floor. In LA parlance: the VIEW OH MY GAWD THE VIEW. 

Hollywood Hills to the right, all of LA to the left. The flat  is pristine, tasteful, and slick. Uh oh, I think. We will have to take special care here. I call Joel, up in Palm Springs, and relay Toby's one word reaction to the apartment to him: WOW.

So this is what happens whe you stick it out and make it here. 

Joel is a lawyer, unmarried. 

Exquisite furniture, art, kitchen. Lucky we have always been a shoes-off in the house from our days in Japan. 

We find blankets (so much for the LA wardrobe I packed, it is chilly now). We collapse on the sofas and count ourselves damn damn lucky.

Upon Joel's recommendation, we head to Farmer's Market for dinnner. 

Tobes is comfortable in the CM, and I am firmly now just a navigator. 

Now then, forget frou frou restaurants in LA. Go to Farmer's Market. We did. Twice in the next two days. Even in this so-called winter, you sit outside under heaters and can have any manner of good wholesome food.

We have thin sliced corned beef sandwiches that would put a New York deli to shame. Just the right amount, a full meal with the pickle. No alcohol at this counter, but I stroll over and get a couple of draft beers in plastic cups. 

The next day we came back and went to a Brazilian Churrascuria called the Pampas Grill where you pay by the weight for fresh palmitos, okra, aubergine, collard greens, sausage, lamb, beef or chicken. We throttle back but my oh my it was good.

We discover one thing about this not-so United States of LA. Our good meal count starts to increase, and we are talking about GOOD, HEALTHY food. Lots of greens. Reasonably sized portions. There is no end of variety, and it is, by London's standards, cheap. 

I feel better about Toby's prospects. 

Because they are not trying to cater to middle America but perhaps to their neighbour from back home who is visiting from the old country (wherever...Laos, Peru, Brazil, Korea) or for their neighbour here who IS from the old country, you get the real McCoy. 

If the food has changed it has turned into fusion..what they have done to Japanese cuisine deserves the Mr. Oh* award for out-Babing the Babe.

(*Suduhara OH was the Yomuiri Giant who held the world record (in the days before steroids) for home runs. Never mentioned here, of course, in the place where the World Series doesn't include any other countries.)

Nicely refueled and now on HOLIDAY, we head off to the movie theatre in the Grove, a pedestrian shopfest adjacent to the Farmers Market. 

The movie theatre, as one might expect, is cutting edge, with God nows how many films. 

A sign of technology gone haywire is the computer screen you queue up to have to touchscreen your food order before having to queue up to fill up your own drink. 

All to save a few bucks or to prevent some high school kid (the old days) or illegal immigrant (nowadays) the chance to either earn pocket money or survive.

Sometimes I wish we could get the people who dream up this shit (like the automated phone systems which are the bane of modern life) to be caught in an endless loop of their own creations, or at least endure a five minute session with an amateur thug with a baseball bat.

Speaking of endless loops. We get caught up in one. 

Apparently Daniel Day-Lewis is going to be awarded an Oscar (he wasn't thankfully) for his portrayal of an oilman in There Will Be Blood, a three hour vehicle for his ego which ends with him beating in a guy's head with a bowling pin, by which point I had long since stopped caring about the character, the movie, the delicious meal, the will to live....anything but the foldout bed in Joel's flat under not one but two duvets and sleeping the sleep of the dead, which I gratefully did.

Go to Chapter 12

Friday, 27 February 2009


Friday 12th January 2008 

Having missed sunset the previous night, we resolve to see the sun come up over the canyon, and with a somewhat tenous estimation of sunrise (and no internet or phone signal) we collapse into bed. 

I set the alarm for 6AM. 

 Our plan is to rise (we are staying in Tusayan, having entered and exited the park to get to our hotel), go to the park, and then return to the hotel for breakfast before continuing on. 

We arise at the appointed hour, and with only a modicum of grumbling from the non-early riser between us, drive back to the park in the pitch black and bitter cold. 

The thermometer reads 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 degrees Celsius). Oof. 

 This time we have to pass through a manned gate, or rather a womanned gate, as the ranger is a female with the classic Smokey the Bear hat. 

We pay $25, and ask to the best place to see the sunrise. 

She says Hopi Point (pronounces it Opie Point) and indicates on the map where it is, 11 miles off. 

We head off into the dark. Before leaving we ask her at what time sunrise actually is. 

She says 7:38. Okay, we are off as usual. 

But it is okay. Better early than late. 

We arrive at Hopi Point, and we are the only people there. 

 The light appears way before the sun, and by 7 o'clock the eastern sky has changed colour, and we can start to make out the variegated hues of one of the world's truly amazing places. 

Even I can't exaggerate (as I am prone to do) the size of this gash. 

I said 5 miles across. 

In some places is it actually 10. 

The shortest walk down and up on a trail is 24 miles. 

To go by road to the north rim is 200 miles. 

Far below, we see the Colorado in the dim light. It is clearly frozen in spots (no surprise at 5 degrees). 

We are woefully underdressed (sound familiar?). 

I have no gloves, and a toboggan I bought at a gas station in Jicarilla for $1.98 does a disservice to the word useless. 

I shiver and get back into the cab from time to time. 

We keep the engine running. 

 By 7:30, a German couple, some Chinese, and two fat Georgia bells (their shape, not their type) show up.

 "It don't get no colder than this." says one. 

 Everyone ignores each other, caught up perhaps in the cold or perhaps the anticipation. 

The sun eventually comes up and we snap photos. 

It is exciting. 

Primeval. Magnificent. And cold. 

We get back into the truck to go to the next point and hike a bit out to a promontory where we join some Hare Krishna monks and take some more pictures. 

I think to myself: I hope these boys have long underwear under their robes or they are really in trouble. 

We then return to the hotel for showers and breakfast.

I also spend some time shaving Tobes, sculpting a magnificent Van Dyke more keeping in LA than his bearded woodsman look. 

We have been truly enriched by this experience. Cold but rejuvenated, and raring to go. 

We call Joel, who says it is not convenient to come a day earlier than expected as he has a houseguest. I had already changed dates on him once, true to my nickname in grad school...Wadhead...(I allow this gratuitous insult making allowances for the fact he went to Carolina). 

 We calculate the distance ,accurately this time, and realise we can easily make LA. 

We hesitate between staying somewhere outside LA and then coming in the next morning as planned. Instead I call Charlotte, with whom Toby had stayed two summers back while he worked for Miles, Charlotte's husband, a successful screen writer (Smallville, Spiderman, Lethal Weapon, Jackie Chan etc.). 

Charlotte, who is a dear soul full of joy and laughter (I was her first boss and I hired her on her birthday) and who will always be on my list of favourite people, says of course I could stay the night with them. 

That's it, then, Tobes and I decide. 

Today is the day. 

Right here. Right now. 

 We are now hurtling towards a surprisingly green and mountainous Arizona, heading for California and our target, one day early. 

It is still chilly outside (40 degrees) as we cross over some mountains. Suddenly we are crossing the Colorado River, and after going through a checkpoint where some border police (yes border police) rifle through the back of our trusty steed to see if we had any contraband, we are in California. 

Last time I looked, both Arizona and California are both in the US, a fact lost on Arnold, I guess. 

We are now apparently in a different country. 

 No I mean it. The first thing is that temperature is suddenly 20 degrees hotter. 

No I am NOT exaggerating. We stop for lunch. People are in T-shirts. 

For us, recent graduates of the school of freezing our butt off only 4 hours earlier, the contrast is surreal.

The desert outside is deserted, as the name implies, but the whole place has a different feel to it. 

More developed. More diverse. The woman behind the counter ( a Taco Bell) seems genuinely interested in explaining the different products. 

The food is surprising fresh for a chain. Tobes takes over driving a short while later at our next Frisbee stop, 1 1/2 hours outside of LA, where suddenly civilisation comes onrushing at us in droves. 

As does the end of our trip. We reach and pass Barstow, and when we come over the San Bernadino mountains and see the brown haze, we are closing in on the denouement of our voyage and a new beginning for Tobes. "I'm nervous, Dad." Tobes says, and it has nothing to do with the steady increase of traffic and lanes. 

" I'm scared." 

 "I know, Bud." 

We have talked a bit over the trip and Toby has been girding himself for this new challenge for the past year, arming himself with studies of psychology, persuasion, negotiation, magic...anything to prepare himself for entering into a brutal and competitive world. 

When he was talking over Christmas to Steens and me, it sounded sometimes like bluster and arrogance, but I thought then and know now that it was his way of erecting a shield around what is his sensitive core.

I go back to my past and reassure him by describing my days in NY in the Chase training programme. I tell him about a tree in Brooklyn, where overcome with nerves on an Easter Sunday that I was going to have to spend in the office preparing for a pass-or-get-fired presentation, I blew grits against a tree (I will never drink pineapple juice again), and had to make a I go back to Steens and our houseguests or do I continue on? 

And how in that pivotal moment I gritted my teeth, said to myself that the bastards were not going to beat me, and pushed on, where I muddled through a horrible day and a miserable week but eventually came out okay. 

Not great, but okay. 

All this by way of issuing a gentle warning. 

It ain't going to be easy. 

 Normally Toby would have probably feigned interest in one of my countless stories, but not this time. 

We discussed money, strategy, and managing his life. 

Mainly I told him that he was going to sink or swim as himself, and that himself was plenty good enough.

I tell him how his ability to touch people will eventually pull him through, and that in the initial stage it will be tough, plenty tough, but that what he has to do is keep his eye on the prize, his goal, show up each day to play, and play each day to the final whistle. 

But mainly that win or lose, he has two people who love him. 

God I love that guy. 

Then all of a sudden there we are in LA, almost unbelievably. 

The other side of the four lane freeway has been blocked for 10 miles as everyone heads out for the long weekend (Martin Luther King Day). 

On our side, drivers come by willy nilly, sort of like dodge 'ems and total concentration is required. 

We call Billy Kennedy, one of Toby's new roommates (4 Dukies, 3 of whom are runners). He gives us docking directions. 

It is 5 o'clock, six and a half days and 3500 miles after leaving Boston. 

We have arrived at our destination, and the start of Toby's new life. 

 We pull the van up behind the house, which is off West Sunset, first going around the block. 

The plan is for Toby to go on Sunset, find the hidden key, and open up the back gate for me. 

On our first pass I see some neighbourhood kids playing football in the back alley. 

Oh good, I think to myself. We approach. 

Not neighbourhood kids....neighbourhood GANGS. 

Oh.....good thing about the iron gate. 

Toby goes around to Sunset, and appears shortly thereafter to open the back gate. He mentions that there is a girl in the house (this is unexpected) but that she hasn't said anything. 

What? I ask. 

She is working on her computer apparently. 

 We enter the house through the kitchen at the back and walk through the dining room into the living room at the front of the house. 

Lights are at a bare minimum, and sure enough, there is a girl lying on her stomach on the sofa, lost in thought/music/Facebook. 

When she sees two strange men entering, she gets up. 

Her name is Sefira, or some such. 

She goes to Wellesley (ironic, since that is where we started our journey from the Engels) but has just returned from Australia. 

She is a friend of Alex Romero, one of Toby's new roommates. 

She is thin with one of those emo lawnmower-gone-wild haircuts. 

One skill she has obviously not perfected in the Outback is self-preservation. 

If I was sitting in the dark and two strange men came waltzing in, I think I would take more than a passing interest. 

 Oh well, never mind. 

Tobes and I proceed to unload the truck into his room in jig time while Sefira takes her place on the sofa again, lost in iPod land. 

By 6PM, that was it. 

Done and dusted. 

Mission accomplished. 

 As we are leaving for Charlotte's Alex arrives. He has on a hoodie with bright orange curls protruding from the sides, and slightly manic eyes. 

He goes in the house after brief niceties. 

I look at Tobes. 

Up go the eyebrows.... Alex then reemerges, sans hoodie and sans wig. OK, a jokester then. 

He turns out to be a very interesting, you could even say extraordinary person. 

He goes to Cal Tech out of Duke. 

He and his brother have run the San Francisco marathon barefoot

Nuff said.

Tobe's room is a big step up from Brookline, and the house is relatively clean. 

On y va.

We stop off on Gower and buy Charlotte and Miles a nice bottle of wine. 

A wasted effort it turns out, since both are Christian Scientists and don't drink. No matter. Toby and I toast the completion of the journey, before going out for a nice meal. 

We now have three days to buy a car, get him settled, and explore LA. 

He returns to his new digs in the truck, and I retire to the palatial surroundings of Miles and Charlotte's guestroom.

What a day. From 5 degrees to 70 degrees in twelve hours. Go figure. 

What a place, America.... eh? 

A different country.

Go to Chapter 11



Thursday 17th January 2008

With the mileage ticker over 2100 on the heels of two straight 600 mile days, we got cocky. 

As we had done in previous days, we calculated distance to a destination (in this case the Grand Canyon) which via Mapquest, was 400 miles. 

A dawdle, or so we thought. We looked at the map, and decided to take the scenic route, heading northwest from Santa Fe up to the Four Corners (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona) before heading down through Monument Valley on 160, a route I (mistakenly as it happens) remembered going down with Steens to the Grand Canyon. 

Toby was utterly determined to see Monument Valley. 

Flushed with our Hotwire success, we booked a hotel in Flagstaff, as we assumed we could go up on the secondary roads, down to the Grand Canyon to snap some pics of sunset, and then drive down to Flagstaff for a well-earned rest. 

 This little itinerary was at best, delusional. 

At worst it represented a fantasy on a par with the most practised opium smoker. 

However, like naive and optimistic rookie voyagers (who should have know better) we took our time with breakfast, didn't fill up the tank, returned on second thought to Santa Fe after having driven five miles up the road, and then set off again under brilliant blue skies that in London one can only dream about to head up into the New Mexico mountains. 

 Yes, you heard that right. Mountains. 

Now then, what happens in mountains in winter? 

It snows. And if the sky is blue with no prospects of clouds BUT the temperature is 5-10 degrees fahrenheit and the sun beats down during the day, what do you get on the road? 

How about ICE? 

 Our timetable was immediately in jeopardy as we wound our way through deserted roads amidst spectacular scenery. 

At one point we saw two cars in sixteen minutes. 

We also entered into Injun territory, where we would spend most of the day. (My apologies to native Americans. I only say Injun because it makes it sound like driving a car is some sort of adventure). We first were in the Jicarilla Apache reservation , and then the Navajo reservation. 

When we turned to head into Jicarilla land (jicarilla means little basket in Spanish), we began to notice what happens when the federal government cedes you land. 

It is a case of no tickee no washee. 

The feds say: okay, you can have your land, but you can forget about getting our first team road builders up there. 

The difference between jicarilla roads, with turns cambered at the wrong angles (ie. the bank, unlike a Mercedes test track , is either flat or slopes with the curve) meant that on some corners there was a real risk of whipping off the road. 

A few shrines of flowers proved this point. 

Also, in the shade of the mountains, there was ice. 

Thus mountains plus ice plus crappy roads meant our progress was slow. 

Given the lack of people and the cold I was forever thinking that one f***up could be problematic, to say the least, and so drove defensively. Finally, we emerged from Jicarilla nation, which I should say was gorgeous and unspoiled, and trundled on into Farmington, home to a prison up on a hill, one of a plethora of barbed wire enclosures we happened by out West. 

A little known fact; there are 2.1 million prisoners in America (population app.300mln). Compare this with the UK (pop 66mln-82,000 prisoners), or Sweden (pop app 9mln- 7000 prisoners). 

So don't believe those unemployment statistics. 

Faced with a lack of restaurant choices (surprise, surprise) and ravenously hungry, we decided (perhaps for the last time ever, at least that is what we subsequently said) to go to a Burger King. 

Standing in the queue in front of me was a girl who smelled of stale cigarettes and weekend old clothes.

Her hair was long and tangled, and she had a poor complexion, a nose which looked as though it had been recently broken, and scratches on her face. 

She was, what one could charitably call a real piece of work. 

She made eye contact with me in that cynical come-hither way, and then turned to talk to the woman behind the counter.

 "How's work?" she asked. 

 "Honey. I been working 143 hours in the last two weeks and I'm tahrred," said the woman, with a big deep fat fryer tush.

 "You need help?" asked the girl. 

 "We always need help." 

The woman pointed disinterestedly to a stack of employment applications on the counter. 

 "You know me. I'm a good worker." said the smoke girl, a comment followed by a pointed silence which made both seem unconvinced by this assertion.

"Where you been, girl?" asked the woman. "I was in for seven days with that good for nothing boyfriend of mine." 

She didn't elaborate, but we all knew what she meant. Then all of a sudden she turned to me. "Can I borrow a quarter? " she asked with a practiced smile. 

 "Uh....okay" I handed it to her, thinking she was really hard up. 

 Her thank you turned with her head. 

The next thing I knew, she whipped around to a guy standing off to the side, a guy with a marine corps haircut who I originally thought she had come in with and said: "Here", and handed him my quarter. 

She then took her fries (no sandwich) and sauntered off. 

I looked at the guy briefly but he did not acknowedge me. I was the chump, and he had just received some chump change from a cockroach intermediary masquerading as a woman. 

 The burger, full of the onions I had specifically stated three times to omit, left just as sour a taste in my mouth, and with each subsequent rancid burp I just wanted out of that town. 


The day got worse. Rt. 160, which passes by Shiprock NM and heralds the start of the Navajo reservation which runs a couple of hundred miles through the Painted Desert, does not run through Monument Valley, the whole reason for taking this detour. Instead it runs through a thoroughly depressing Navajo reservation, where housing is in maroon/brownish pre-fab squares. 

The women are fat, and if the two Indian (er. ..not Injun) men we encountered are anything to go by, the warriors have given way to a generation of panhandlers or drunkards. 

Of course we had a limited sample, but at the first gas station we stopped at to refill, we got a drunk and ornery Indian who yelled at Toby in the washroom (remember, Toby is 6'6") and then staggered out to lambast us both. 

This was at 1PM. We felt like aliens, which I suppose we are. 

Our mood remained sour as it became clear that we were NOT going to make it through Monument Valley, a fact which Toby did not tire of pointing out was my fault. 

He was right of course, but while he pouted I saw not a young man but a big child who had not gotten his way. 

Eventually we got to Kayenta, after a long stretch across the Painted Desert (painted a uniform beige, as far as I could tell). 

 When it became clear that I had definitely taken the wrong route Tobes said: "I told you last night it should have been 163, and you said you knew the way." 

He was right of course, but I told him that if he knew he should have insisted, for that route was a good 80-100 miles out of the way and most likely we never would have come that way in the first place.

 Then for some reason, we both suddenly realised that we were no longer father and child, but that we were equals, and our decisions were joint decisions, the responsibility both of ours, the consequences borne by both of us. 

We also, without actually saying it, realised that our ill-thought out and casual decision had wasted a day, that there was no way we were going to make the Grand Canyon before nightfall, and no way we were going to recoup the $60 we had laid out on Hotwire for the hotel in Flagstaff. 

Instead, we stopped at a Holiday Inn, cut our losses, and reserved a spot at the Grand Canyon South Rim....still a ways away. We then agreed to divvy up the driving the rest of the way (I had done all the driving through the ice). 

The air cleared, at our next changover at the other end of the Navajo nation, we stopped off to throw the Frisbee, our de rigeur tradition to clear out the cobwebs and refresh ourselves. 

We needed a good outlet for our frustration, and after a good session in the pre-sunset light in a parking lot, I was suddenly approached by an Indian. He was small, with greasy hair and a wispy moustache, probably mid-40s. 

 "Hi." he said. "You're throwing the Frisbee." 

 "Yep." I responded. "Where are you from?" he asked disinterestedly. 

 "England," I said. 

 "Oh," he said. "I'm from Shiprock, New Mexico (we were now in Arizona). 

 "I've been there," I said, noncommital. "My named is Ray," he said, and stuck out his hand. I shook it reluctantly. 

 "Hey, you don't think you could give me some gas money..." he said...."you know, to get back to Shiprock." 

 There was no car in sight for this phantom gas. 

 I looked at him. 

There was no shame, no feeling, no humanity. 

I was just another chump in a long series of chumps. 

Sometimes you just know. I reach into my pocket and pulled out all I had. 50 cents. "Here..." I said and handed it to him. "Now push off." 

He didn't say anything and slinked off, taking with him any residual goodwill I may have had towards him.

Now both of these experiences could well have been isolated, but I doubt it. I can't blame either of these small timers, but I found the whole day's experiences profoundly depressing. Just how cheap is the human soul anyway, and how do you pay for the years and years of mistreatment of these people at the hands of people like me. 

Chuck them 10% in a casino for their chiefs? In this barren land, the only economy seemed to be panhandling on both an individual and societal scale, with a nice school and courthouse in Shiprock and precious little elsewhere. 

The ubiquitous pawn shops were also there for all to see, except parked behind them were a lot of pickups. Who pawns their pickup unless they are really desperate? 

Just survival seemed to be difficult in these parts. Toby and I discussed this as we went towards the dying sun, leaving the Navajo reservation and heading for the South Rim. 

We listened to the political debates on NPR, and I could only think of the difficulty of keeping the system in this vast country humming along with so much inequality, simmering history, and different peoples under an overlay of opportunity clearly NOT available to all, despite the rhetoric. 

I wondered about a woman who had to work twice the time that is mandated in France just to survive. 

Of another who is clearly on a day to day schedule and whose scale of handout asking is down to a quarter, or an Indian whose horizon is the next bottle of MD2020. 

I think I would scream or give up as well. How do you fix this mess? 

 We arrive at the Grand Canyon National Forest after dark. 

We go right through the unmanned gates devoid of rangers. It is freezing. Really freezing. The air is crystal clear. The stars as bright as they will ever be in a land with absolutely no light. 

We stop the truck, get out and breath the clear air in big gulps and yell at the top of our lungs as an empty wilderness. 

 It is the end of a long day of discovery and frustration. 

We then get back in the truck, a team who has just been exposed by their nonchalance. 

We find our hotel (having to exit the park again), and settle on the cheapest restaurant in Tusayan called WE COOK PIZZA AND PASTA, (no kidding) where we drink a beer, scarf a pizza, and watch a private girl's school's basketball team stroll in, some of the girls in shorts and flip flops in this brutal dead of winter. 

They are from Flagstaff, our original destination, and are completely oblivious to the irony that only 50 miles away, some Indian schmuck is easing his shivers with a purloined bottle of rotgut partially financed by a Frisbee throwing plonker who passed there by mistake.

Monday, 23 February 2009



* An ESPN feature, when they are not shouting at each other or talking about salaries instead of sports, or dogfights and shootings instead of touchdowns or baskets.

Wednesday 16th January 2008
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We had made it to Oklahoma City, where we wandered around looking for a hotel, first on the eastern outskirts, then in the center near the OU Medical Centers (deserted streets) which resulted in the first minor contretemps where our normal level of affectionate banter and amiable bickering degenerated into slightly elevated interplay (ie. personal insults) and a "frank exchange of opinions" about map-reading abilities. 

Eventually we ended up in a dump (Best Western) after being told no room at the inn at four other establishments on I-40 West. 

At least we were perfectly placed for a quick getaway, which we did the next morning after an outstandingly poor breakfast. BAD CALL.

After endless traipsing along flat and blustery Oklahoma the previous evening, we aimed for Amarillo and the Big Texan Steakhouse Ranch, our destination for lunch.


From Oklahoma City across Okie and the Texas panhandle is a long flat windy stretch across a barren wasteland along the old Route 66, the first transcontinental route that still has a romantic allure to it.

Nowadays it runs parallel to I-40 and is a cavalcade of camions, the lifeblood of America. Besides the easily recognisable names (the everpresent Walmart being the most common) there are plenty of other names which continually crop up-England (no relation), Covenant, and Trinity- among others. 

The only way to pass the time is to concentrate on overtaking them, look at the signs along the highway, and reflect as to why anyone would want to live in this god-forsaken place.

When I did this route before, it was in the heat of the summer in 1980 in my little Toyota Corolla with Steens, when the temperature ranged from 100 to 118, the hottest I have ever been in my life. 

This time it is snowing the whole way, a prairie snowstorm that whistles across the road at a 90 degree angle, the wind too strong (I am guessing 30-40 mph) and too horizontal for any of the flakes to alight on the ground.

Driving the UHAUL is exactly like sailing against the wind, with the steering wheel the tiller. 

You feel the steady beat of the wind against the not inconsiderable bulk of the UHAUL, but because there are gusts you can't overcorrect. 

And when you pass a truck you have to anticipate and adjust for the blast which arrives the second you emerge from the lee of the sixteen wheeler. It makes for tiring driving, and seems to drag on forever.

It also makes you wonder about the lives of the people out here. Blazing heat, freezing cold. Why not just move on?

But Texans are hardy folk and convinced of themselves, at least. This is evidenced by their constant braggadocio. 

Texas is the World's Capital, the Number One, the most Amazing Place for Superlatives, e.g. the Biggest Saddle Store, the World's Largest Steam Museum, the Catholic Superstore, and the Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere (which makes you wonder where the largest cross in the Eastern Hemisphere is).

We decide to go to the latter two, our original plan of going to a mega-church having fallen by the wayside, mainly because we had not happened past one by the wayside.

Anyway, of these two religious uber-places, only one lived up to its pre-match billing, and boy did it ever!
Little Groom Texas (pop 587), nothing more than an exit off of I-40, is home to the newly created wonder. 

Erected by Cross Ministries, Pampa Texas Nite number (806) 665 9603 in July of 1995 of the year of Our Lord, the gargantuan cross, which is visible for a couple of miles away, seeks to show all who pass by that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, a Light to guide us on our Journey, as the sign leading up to it says.

Our previous stop up the road to refuel offered us a choice between an RV Park or a Historic Jail (2 Blocks South on 2 East), both of which we declined. 

Perhaps the harshness of one begat the construction of the Cross. Who knows?

Anyway, we parked the car in the (mostly deserted) parking lot to take pictures, and noticed that the cross was much more than just a cross. The site is quite large, and surrounding the cross are the twelve stations of the cross, which meant that just snapping a few photos in passing was not going to do it justice. 

We were going to have to get out of the safety of the heated cab. When we dismounted from our trusty steed, we emerged into what could only be described as the antithesis of a blast furnace. 

It was perhaps 20 degrees, but with that wind raking across you it felt like 20 below. 

Taking pics proved problematic (I had intended to take all the stations of the cross but only managed two), as within a minute all exposed skin was aching and my fingers were numb. 

Toby, who was better prepared with gloves and a scarf, lasted longer.

 He got a picture of himself with Jesus being nailed to the cross, or as he sacrilegiously put it, getting nailed in Texas.

I felt both perplexed and yet moved by this place. On the one hand, it was the embodiment of the aforementioned Texas braggadocio, a case of my-cross-is-bigger-than-yours chest thumping which is so prevalent in Texas. On the other hand, it was a touching example of how strong the bond to Jesus is out in the vast barren heartland of America. Whose idea was this anyway?

I left with mixed feelings, and as we pulled out onto the interstate and passed by the cross once again, these became even more mixed when I saw the sign, not previously visible, GIFT SHOP OPENING SOON. Ahem, not Amen. GOOD CALL.

Out in these parts, with wide open spaces and a big sky, life seems to be reduced to (literally) the bare essentials. 

This is reflected in the business along the route. As I told Toby, the route caters to the five basic human activities: EAT SLEEP SHIT FUCK PRAY. All of these are activities in their own right, but when lumped together sometimes clash against each other.

This is true especially about the last two. Because of the laws perhaps, or maybe the truckers, there are plenty of "comfort" stations, as they might euphemistically be called, all along the road. Adult Store for Couples, Love Rest Stop etc. 

This being America, however, usually right next to this is some sort of countervailing sign, such as the place in Ohio with the first sign said ADULTXXXX, and immediately behind it another sign 10 feet higher saying PORNOGRAPHY KILLS. Why not just outlaw both? I don't know....

The EAT part of the equation is fundamental to what in my opinion is the big problem in America. The days of the Mom & Pop diner are over , and the jewel of a local restaurant that you would find, say in a piazza in Italy or a small town in Spain, just doesn't exist here anymore, and that is a crime.

Agribusiness, fast food business, just plain business is killing the country, literally. 

As an antidote to the steady stream of familiar icons: KFC, MacDs, BK etc. we head for the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. When Steens and I passed here last (28 years ago) this place was advertised for every mile 60 miles either side of Amarillo. 

This was no longer the case but the raison d'etre for the place still existed, and every so often a sign announcing FREE 72OZ. STEAK appeared on the side of the road.

Yes, this was the infamous Big Texan Steak House(come one, come all) where Steens and I watched Bill Jones from Abilene, Kansas try, and fail, to down a piece of meat the size "of my head", as Toby put it, within the allotted time frame (1 hour). 

If you accomplish this somewhat dubious feat, you then get to eat for free. 

If ever there was the perfect illustration of a pyrrhic victory, this was it.

Anyway, we pulled into the place, more garish, downtrodden, and dilapidated than my memory of 28 years ago (no surprise there, what else lasts 28 years in fine fettle?).

Nonetheless, having eaten almost no breakfast from the crap on offer in Okie City, we entered into the vast dining room (two floors) having walked past the Gift Shoppe (of course). 

Everything had that country-fair-passing-through-town feel to trinkets and stuffed kewpie dolls, sickly sweet cotton candy smell etc. 

Not an appetite whetter, for me in any case. The dining room, which was heaving when Steens and I came here so long ago, was practically deserted. 

No matter. We ordered what we REALLY came here for, a half-size portion of Mountain Oysters ("if you think it's seafood, go with the shrimp").

These of course, are cojones, fried beef balls (literally). 

Not bad really, but I have to say I was expecting something a bit more know...big and round and dripping with blood...semen.....whatever. 

Nothing of the sort. Just more anonymous meat (tender, actually but then again just ask any guy what the tenderest part of his body is) dipped in batter and fried to oblivion.

And the luncheon ribeye? Well...suffice it to say that there was no surprise that the place was deserted. The best part of the meal was the fried (what else?) okra and the DIY beans and rice I concocted from the raw materials on offer. 

We passed on the dessert, a mountainous slice of carrot cake served on a dinner plate. 

What is it with these people?

I beat a hasty retreat to the truck, but after Toby finally emerged and showed me his pictures of the 72oz. contest bulletin board, which in my haste to vamoose I had walked right by, I scuttled back in. And a good thing too (thanks Tobes). I would have missed a true World Heritage Site of human behavior.

In a glass case they have a cellophane-encased example of the lump that the lumps have to eat, the Holy Grail of Meat Ingestion, surrounded by Texas sized strawberries (Why?) and a Texas state flag on a toothpick. 

This was a mindblowing blob of flesh, lying there on a bed of ice to entice the brave (or foolhardy). 

Interesting, in a kind of bearded-lady-at-the-fair kind of a way.

And then the bright red Board Of Champions, if that is the correct term, with relevant dates and comments.
I focussed on the last two, reproduced below. 

There was a place for the date, name, age, weight, time elapsed, hometown, and comment. Herewith two examples of Olympian steak eaters who (perhaps) typify their respective cultures.

Name Age Weight Time Hometown Comment
Scott Cameron 30 187 59:59 Adelaide,Australia Living the dream....
Joe Atterberg 45 315 59:37 Kansas City MO I ate the hole thing

I hope Scott has finally cleansed his bowels from his dream performance, and that Big Joe has returned to feed at a place more in keeping with his spelling skills where his comment would have more relevance, like Krispi Kreme or Dunkin Donuts, for example. 

Ah, THE BIG TEXAN STEAK RANCH. May it long continue, but next time I might just have a salad.


The day wasn't over, however, and we weren't finished with Amarillo. There was still the Catholic Superstore to visit, the World's Largest,.....or so it said. We were looking forward to this, imagining the mementos and pics we would get.

What we got was an 8oz. version of a 72oz. steak, a small Christian Bookstore in a forgotten mall selling trinkets at inflated prices. 

Toby and I were going to take lots of pictures, but there was a very nice lady in the deserted store who inadvertantly made us feel like interlopers (which we were, since we had no intention of buying anything). We snapped a couple of surreptitious shots (one of the Pope), whose picture was literally hidden away in a corner, which made me somewhat dubious of the Catholic part of this alleged superstore. Anyway, we said goodbye to the nice lady and moseyed out of Amarillo, possibly never to return.


From the open spaces of Texas, where you have the semblance of nothing tarted up in Texan garb, we crossed over into New Mexico, where suddenly you have ......Nothing. Period.

The road surface changes, there are no houses, and cactus makes its first appearance. 

We had decided to go to Santa Fe, having secured an anonymous boutique *** hotel for $60 for the night through Hotwire. By the way,, if you haven't used it, is brilliant. Based on the principle: you pays your money and you takes your chances, you never really know what you are going to get for a car or hotel, but usually it is a really good deal, and in some cases a GREAT deal.

What a surprise we had in store, when this hotel turned out to be a grande dame located in Old Santa Fe, the St. Francis, replete with a roaring log fire in the lobby, an old fashioned lift with a brass gate you had to close manually, white mosaic tiling in the bathroom, and fixtures like the Union Club of New York. 

Everything about it oozed the vestiges of class, right down to the thick towels, and at this price frankly there must have been some kind of mistake. We settled in snugly under our duvets and watched a Duke basketball game, before going off at the suggestion of the concierge to The Shed, a homey Southwest cuisine restaurant in the Old Town.

For the second time on the trip, people mistook Toby and me for a couple. 

Yes, a couple, and I don't mean a couple of idiots. 

The first time was in Effingham (an aberration, I thought at the time, but perhaps not), when the lady at the Hilton asked me if I wanted a king sized bed for the two of us. 

"No," I replied firmly, " I have no intention of sleeping with my son, now or at any time, for that matter," to the tittering from the bellhop, who was obviously gay. 

In The Shed, they asked us if we wanted a quiet table to be together, nudge nudge wink wink. 


Anyway, the meal in The Shed, a rabbit warren of cozy rooms where you could be alone, if need be, was high-octane Tex Mex....good guacamole (though perhaps not as good as Kevin's) and tortilla chowder. 

And we needed it. The temperature was 11 degrees. Fahrenheit.

What a thrill to be in a nice hotel, however. Class is class, pure and simple, no matter what you pay for it. 

In this case they could have added another zero without blushing....and the breakfast the next morning (fresh poached eggs rancheros), complete with the New York Times and delicious fresh squeezed orange juice, completed a memorable stay.


Sunday, 22 February 2009



Tuesday 15th January 2008

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Q: Where would you be if you passed by Brazil and Cuba and ended up in Lebanon? 

A: On your way from Indiana to Missouri.

Was this original global thinking by those assigning names to cities, or perhaps a desire for more tasty and zesty food from the bland fare in these Midwest parts? Who knows, but the names of towns along the way are a constant source of amusement and wonder.

We've seen California in Pennsylvania, Cadiz in Ohio, Pacific in Missouri, and will soon see Yukon, not to be confused with The Yukon...this one's in Texas.

And then there are the strange names. Texola, Texas. Vinita, Oklahama. Sarcoxie, Missouri. Tucumcari, New Mexico.

And these are just the ones adjacent to our route. 

I am sure the featureless characteristics of this part of the country play a big part in this fact, as the prairie schooners who trundled along this endless landscape sought to alleviate their boredom or perhaps just make a bad joke.

Anyway, today, after a brilliant breakfast of fruit and yoghurt following a morning workout, we head out under crystal clear big skies from F*******ham, and end up eventually for lunch in Lebanon, Missouri.

I don't know how to put this kindly, but Lebanon is a dump. Any town that has a bail bondsman and a gun and pawnshop in its main shopping district is in big, big trouble.

We deftly avoid repeating our BBQ mistake of the previous day in a "COUNTRY" restaurant run by a dour and formidable Korean woman who glared at us as she held the door for two of her octogenarian regulars, lured by the cheap price and buffet, or perhaps her take on country cuisine. 

This was a distinctly unsavoury mix of the sour smell of collard greens with the unmistakable odour of kimchi or perhaps floor cleaner. 

We beat a hasty retreat, having to pass her glare once more before leaving. We then drive fruitlessly up and down and back and forth the town's main streets.

We find no food other than chains, our hopes raised by the word DELI painted on the brickwork of a rustic building which upon closer examination is, alas, long since deserted. We stop and ask a local resident if there are any restaurants in the town aside from fast food or chain stores. She looks at us as if we are crazy.

We hit the end of town, demarcated appropriately enough, by a gas station called KUM & GO. 

We then flip around and return, slightly deflated, back to Applebee's, supposedly the least offensive of what was on offer.

Now then, a word about what has happened to America. The scales have tipped, literally. From what used to be a third overweight persons in places like Applebee's or Cracker Barrel, the percentage of fatties is now around 60% (we did a bit of statistical sampling). 

There is no mystery why.

I watch depressingly as two girls (off duty staff) sit feeding at a far table. At some point, they get up, and in what must pass for exercise in this town, waddle over to another table about three feet away. 

No doubt exhausted by this ordeal, they immediately reload (Jumbo Cokes and some gawdawful fake whipped cream monstrosity), and commence round two. 

What is more, they just don't just look fat and bored. 

They look unhappy, fat and bored.

I tell Toby my theory that the excess sugar and fat in the diet has had two effects on the populace. 

For athletes and those with a high metabolism (ie. Type A people), it makes them aggressive. For instance, on ESPN, the presenters, males AND female, do not speak...they SHOUT. 

For those with a lower metabolism (Types B to Z), this consistent high octane grazing, in addition to make them waddle and mope, makes them docile, bovine, and frankly, not inclined to intellectual pursuits. 

Okay...dumb. Or if not dumb, then incurious, which is perhaps worse.

Also the corporate bland culture doesn't help, preferring processed over natural (never buy crap which has NATURAL emblazoned all over it...have you ever seen a banana that needed to say that?) and formulaic over creative.

This is epitomized by a confusion of our order, the ubiquitous chicken wings and a salad. 

Our waitress, a dear soul who is in fact the only skinny person in the entire restaurant (her name is Amy, as she tells us twice and writes on the check), takes our order. 

One of her cohorts (a member of the two strong whipped cream tag team), eventually waddles over to us and brings some chicken nuggets, as the blobs of doughy deep fried blobs of flesh are called which are accompanied by pots of medium (me) or hot (Toby) sauce. 

I inquire if these are the chicken wings I had ordered. She replies "Oh you mean wings with the bones in them."

"Yes," I shoot back. "I have never seen birds fly with these lumps. They surely wouldn't get very far."

Which is about as far as irony goes in Lebanon. Deaf ears and a gaping mouth.

Eventually Amy gets involved again and we get real wings with bones in them 20 minutes later (apparently the blobs are actually Applebee's NEW NATURAL wings....see above).

But, as they say, le moment c'est passé.

Anyway, it is a crappy and depressing meal. I do, however, leave a nice tip for Amy, if for no reason other than she wasn't fat.

Two quotes re Lebanon Missouri.

1) Lebanon gives new clarity to the lyrics in a country music song: I don't know whether to kill myself or go bowling.

2) If I had a choice between going to Lebanon, Missouri or the real Lebanon, I would take my chances with Hezbollah. At least there they speak french and have good food and sun in between the bombs.

Go to Chapter 8

Saturday, 21 February 2009



Monday 14 January 2008

To while away the time, the early earnest discussions about life, love, and other such things give way to music ( we stopped and bought a battery-powered speaker for the all-mighty iPod, whose music led us down the road) and bouts of creative thinking. Tobes is ahead of the game, and bubbling with ideas. 

One is a spinoff of ARSOLE, the Architectural Solipsistic Exam aid that my brother did at Sheffield with his mates to help do exams. This was a matrix of prefix, subject, verb clause, and suffix used to construct impressive sounding sentences about the erudite subject of architectural theory. Just by picking 4 numbers and then constructing a sentence using these four components, you can come up with some amazing (though perhaps meaningless) sentences. Not unlike most wine critics.

We figured: Can't beat 'em? Join 'em. 

Our first effort is a Sommelier's Guide, a quick ticket to the oenological hall of fame without know anything about wine. (see below). 

This exercise required great care, as we each pondered and pondered before offering up hotly debated components. 

It takes us most of the day, but makes for some great chuckles and perhaps a future job for Robert Parker's Wine Guide.

Click on Image above to read


We detour briefly to go to an immense (3 acre) indoor Antique Museum in Springfield, Ohio that has rows upon endless rows of glass cases filled with odds and ends, figurines, knick knacks, old basketball schedules
, products(root beer, medicine) from a bygone era....the detritus of years and years of midwest life. 

We snap lots and lots of photos, Toby mostly of sambo art, me of a variety of life in miniature: barbie dolls, a toy car, bottles, some glass pandas. 

The scale of the place is astounding. 

There is also a lot of furniture, none of nearly as interesting as the discarded remnants of someone's toy chest. 

We eat lunch at a forgettable BBQ place. If ever a place deserved to go out of business, this one did. 

Oh well. Collard greens cooked into oblivion with soggy bacon, soggy bread , and pulled pork way by its sell-by date. 

Do you think you could toast this roll please? 

No? F**** you. Goodbye.

We move across Ohiana (two states with similar topography which leave no, and I mean No impression on either the conscious or subconscious. 

The perfect embodiment of the phrase Just Passing Through. 

 We bunk up in Effingham, Illinois at a Hilton that has a gym. I would love to see what English football fans could do with the name of this town, EFFING being the surrogate for F*******, as in Effing Useless. 

 Toby finds a good place to eat on the internet (The Firefly Inn) where we have (to date) the only memorable meal. 

I choose a porterhouse pork chop with butternut squash and a fresh spring mix salad. 

The waiter, who looks like a slimmed down Bill Murray, grimaces when I ask for "just a green salad" and says quizzically "Iceberg?" I give him a return grimace and the classic Japanese NO response, arms crossed in an X across the chest. Dame

He looks relieved. "You'd be better off chewing wood." 

He also asks how I would like my pork chop cooked. "Well and hot", I reply, remembering the Cracker Barrel salmonella incident. 

It returns in perfect shape. And the spring mix also has a spring in its step. 

Fresh and crunchy, with a cracked peppercorn salad dressing that I am going to have to try and replicate back at the ranch. 

Food that not only refuels you but makes you feel cleansed. Portions entirely in keeping. 

 I briefly see a graphic for Duke-Maryland come up on the TV above the bar, and ask Bill2 if he change the channel from the current game, Pitt-Georgetown. 

He looks at me askance, and stutters...."Yeah...OK" and walks off. "Dad," Toby interjects. "That's a woman's game." Oops. 

I trail after Bill2 who has reluctantly done the deed and quickly say: 

"Sorry, my mistake. Can you switch it back?" 

"I was wondering", he says. "Not even women watch women's basketball." 


Our hotel is located on the Avenue of Mid America (I kid you not). It is across the street, appropriately enough, from a WalMart. 

Economists and investment bankers take note. If Walmart is not attracting shoppers (at 6PM there are only about 6 customers at the checkout in this gargantuan store), what is? 

Screw economic statistics. Many stores were devoid of customers. 

In West Virginia I heard a woman say to the Indian (from India, not redskin) store clerk at a 7/11 as she bought $11 worth of lottery tickets. "That's me. I'm tapped out for the month." 

I looked at her in shock and two words came to mind. 

Snowball and Hades. 


 Mid-America is a big place. We have to rethink our itinerary, having originally planned to visit my friend Lynn Fox in Missouri, a trip which would have taking us four hours out of our way and added a day to the trip. Bad planning on my part. 

We had intended to be in St. Louis for dinner. Not possible. Still, 600 miles in a day is booking it. 

  *The air hitting your brain refers to a book Kevin gave me at the beginning of the day before we left Pittsburgh, written by a neurologist. After our oenophiliac creation, and our antique detour, at the end of the day we really do feel like the air has hit our brain, and we collapse exhausted. 

Friday, 20 February 2009


  Sunday, 13th January 2008

 We rise early and get a workout at the local gym, where Toby observes an interesting interplay between a strutting and primped up young Marine back from Iraq and some of the other chest puffing Alpha males in the weight room. 

The empty boasts of the young vet fall on dubious and deaf ears as they obviously don't believe his war stories. The gym is a maze of convoluted passageways (all breezeblock and glass, where you have to go upstairs, down to the end, then downstairs and double back on yourself to get to the weight room which is tantalizingly visible at the entrance). A bit like the policy in Iraq, I venture.

Suitably buffed, we head out, and stop for lunch at a Cracker Barrel, perhaps the best place to observe a slice of Americana. 

 The waiters and waitresses emerge every once in a while to sing Happy Birthday in the official Cracker Barrel way, with bored looks on their faces. 

This demands a rewrite, and when Toby cuts into his chicken breast (deep fried, as is most of the meal) and finds it rare (okay for beef but definitely not for chicken) we duly comply. 

We imagine what the bored entourage really mean to say to the somewhat matronly and dumpy woman they are serenading, or what they would sing to us. 

The result is to the right.

After this bit of light-hearted fun, we adjourn to the restaurant store, where there is a deal on their black Christmas items. A black Santa. A black Angel. A black family. Everything reduced 70%. 

Toby walks out with a black Santa on a reindeer, and I take pictures. 

Sambo art (no disrespect intended, it is reassuring to find that black pride has come to the forefront no matter what you call it) reappears constantly as a surprising theme all along our trip. Why, I wonder?


We order fried chicken breasts. 

A single order is two full chicken breasts off of supersized chickens. Enough for for a family of four frenchmen, let's say.

Finally, after wending our way across Pennsylvania on I-81 and I-80, we switch off on a state highway 28, a single lane country road. It is snowing and sleeting, and Toby is driving. It gets dark, and there is a considerable amount of angst from both of us, especially since we do not know where the hell we are going. 

We call Kevin Walsh, with whom we will be staying near Pittsburgh, and he is fairly curt, vague, and dismissive with his instructions. Only because he is watching his team, the Giants, play the Cowboys in the NFC championship, and there are 20 seconds left in the half with the Giants about to score, a fact we discover later. 

No explanation needed. We are guys, after all.

We eventually arrive at Kevin's and Maureen's in Fox Chapel, where we have a jolly time watching the game on his new HDTV, the likes of which I had never seen. 
We then partook of a delicious meal of burgers, nachos, and guacamole, and meet two of their kids Kate and Brendan, (Emmett, their oldest, being in the UK where he is a student at St. Andrews). 

Toby and Maureen talk at length and get on like a house afire. The next morning, armed with Maureen's bag of goodies of sandwiches, cakes, fruit etc. we resume firing, and head out for West Virginia and points west.
Go to Chapter 6

Wednesday, 18 February 2009


A STABBING AND A SWIFFER Saturday 12 January 2008

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First things first. Bonehead move of the trip #1.

 I had packed my Christmas gift to Toby, a Global chef's knife (get one if you don't have one) in my sports bag. 

Kneeling to pack my bag, I pull the flaps together to close the zipper, and the knife, which somehow had shifted from lengthways to sideways in the bag, pokes through the bag, through my trousers, and into my thigh. Not a lot (not enough for stitches), but enough to bleed and still be open two weeks later. Nice move.

Then onto Tobe's house, where once again Oriane, Tobe's girlfriend, demonstrates dedication and hard work by marshalling the packing and throws in humping some heavy bags (lesbian work camp when she was little, she explains). 

V. impressive. I insist on cleaning the carcass of Toby's empty room, which was spectacularly dusty. 

In fact, to call the sediment dust is like calling the Sahara a sandbox. The only cleaning implement was a (as yet unused) Cherry Swiffer. Whoever the bright spark was who conceived, designed, and then unforgivably produced this sickly sweet smelling "cleaning" tool should be shot. No trial. But on the disgusting scale this abominable household aid was downright pleasant compared to the overall putrescence of this phenomenally grubby house. 

The kitchen was up there with some of the slovenly slop heaps of all time. Up there with the Manila dump. And this judgement comes from someone who did not clean up the Halloween pumpkin in the house I lived in as a senior at Duke until April, a house which incidentally was condemned.

Murphy's Law immediately came into play whilst packing the Uhaul (more about the truck later). 

Operations were hampered by Toby's neighbour, who thoughtfully had parked her car at the bottom of the steps, making transporting things (including the bed, sofa etc) out of the house a contortionist's nightmare. Parked her car before going away for the weekend,in someone else's car, of course.

Renting the Uhaul had also proven to be problematic, as there was a $33 parking fine outstanding from 2005, the last time I had moved Toby. No pay, no play. And I couldn't pay without a US address on a credit card and a valid zip code. This was discovered only by getting to option 20 on the automated phone payment system for Boston City Hall, closed to human habitation because it was a Saturday. After 20 minutes of increasingly desperate failure, Thomas Engels (my friend with whom I was staying) came to rescue and used his card, bemused by the whole situation. So much for a timetable.

After the gruelling packing we settled down to a delicious lunch at Ana's Taquería in Brookline, where Oriane had a fiery chile verde, belying her supposed aversion to things too spicy.

THE LONG GOODBYE by Tobes and Oriane was moving. They make a tight couple, friends and equals, and very devoted to each other. Tears. Hugs, and Kisses. We sit together, on the steps, and they say goodbye. We squeeze ourselves into our new mobile digs, and then after stopping by the Engels to pick up my bags, we are off on the Mass Pike and our adventure begins.


Crossing America is a numbers game.


That's it. You're done. From Boston anyway.

With the exception of 28 and 279, both designed to skirt Pittsburgh (I believe), all of the interstate numbers seem to go DOWN as you head west. Isn't that counterintuitive? You would have thought that the roads were built starting in the East and going West, but perhaps that is my easterner's bias.

To make this series of numbers simpler, once you reach the Mississippi, you only need to remember the last two.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The first task in setting off on a long trip is to acclimate yourself to the truck, to the cab, to each other, and to establishing a modus vivendi.


#1 First things first, the truck. There is no rear view mirror when you drive, only two side mirrors which distort things. So you have the sensation of driving blind. There is thus an entirely new head and eye movement to get used to, and what has become ingrained in me after 35 years of driving , eyes darting to the mirror continuously, has to be unlearned. Old dog, new tricks, and all that. No sudden movements or lane changes. Never back up in a parking lot without someone helping you behind.

#2 The UHAUL factor. People see a UHAUL, and their first assumption is : These guys don't know what they are doing. Their second assumption, especially when they see $19.95 emblazoned all over the truck, is: These guys are cheapskates AND they don't know what they are doing. Irrespective of whether there is truth in either of these, most people give us a wide berth, and us them.

The UHAUL is a stripped down version of a van. No cruise control. No electric windows or door locks. Ours has a big painting of a faux Loch Ness monster on the side named Champ (which we change to Chump). Gives us a lot of road cred. Or not.

#3 Shared driving. We quickly get in the rhythm- 2x2. Two hour shifts. This works well psychologically. One hour up, one hour down. Change.We plan on around 500 miles a day.

And we have seven days and 3500 miles ahead of us.

We make it to Fishkill New York on the first night., and plump for a Hampton Inn. Dinner is prime rib and salad at a Charlie's Steakhouse. 

At the table next to us Toby observes a fat family with an adopted Asian baby. They dump a portion of macaroni & cheese that would choke an elephant on the poor child's plate. She was fairly slim, but that won't last long, refilling the tank like that. New fact unbeknownst to me before: macaroni & cheese is a vegetable, or so it said on the menu.
Go to Chapter 5