...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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August 29, 2005 || 11:32 am

Cyber-guerillas that we are, Monday morning sees us hiding out at the back of the Best Western in Ozona, Texas, stealing their wireless internet (we stayed at the Best Value Inn) to check our emails. The modern road trip is one of searches for free wireless, the need for electricity to charge up our iPods, digital cameras and laptops, and sighs of frustration at running out of iPod juice while driving through ten hours of desert, or full memory cards.

In other news, camping plans for near El Paso got scuppered by the most enormous, dramatic thunderstorm. And our dear little Fred, to continue his road-trip run-ins with the cops, nearly got packed off to a detention camp for six months for not having his passport with him when we had to go through a midnight road-block near the Mexico border. Apparently you can get chucked out of the country for not having your visa papers with you at all times. The guard had just confiscated about 60 pallets of marijuana out of a truck, which was sitting casually by the side of the guardhouse. I got a sneaky snap which wil probably result in my prosecution for violating Homeland Security or something, but here it is until I get my cease-and-desist notice...

Drug seizure in Texas

More detail on California. We ate good sushi in San Francisco and wandered the hills which are unbelievably steep and like in the pictures. But the city as a whole was much less urban than I had imagined - the pretty, whimsical clapboard houses were more seaside resort than edgy urban hub. Everything was very - well, nice. We avoided LA, stopping only for a sandwich in Pasadena, but drove the Big Sur coast in between which was predictably stunning. We saw whales blowing in the ocean and dipped our toes in the water. Now we're heading to Austin, then hurricane-hit Louisiana and back to 'bama...


August 27, 2005 || 7:14 pm

We are in California. Ventura, to be precise, having coffee and muffins. Berkeley was fun. San Francisco was foggy and a little bit like Brighton. We visited Ridge friends and re-realised how life is meant to be lived - at the top of a mountain, with a beautiful garden, perfect climate, and endless good food and wine.

Will post later in more detail...


August 23, 2005 || 11:07 am

Sorry for lack of updates - being in the middle of the desert somewhat does that to you. However, I am incredibly thrilled to be able to report that Team Green Jeep has made it to the Pacific! Yesterday at around 5.15 pm we arrived in Berkeley, California, and saw the ocean. Wowee. Meanwhile, here's a day-by-day update of what we've been up to since I last had internet.

Wednesday - we made it to Yellowstone. Nice but too crowded. Watched Old Faithful do its 100ft geyser thing which was sort-of impressive but the fact that you were there with 1000 other people somewhat diluted it. The smoking landscape did give an eery impression of the closeness of the centre of the earth, bubbling away, but actually we were generally underwhelmed by the more rocks&trees scenario. Hmm. But we camped in a beautiful place in Grand Teton NP - at least it was beautiful before the most immense thunderstorm exploded overhead and we were forced to leave our lovely campfire and our waiting dinner to hide out in the car. Tried to wait out the storm and in a brief lull we returned to the fireside but the rain returned and it was eventually game over and we turned in to our tent in freezing conditions! Drinking beer somehow did not lessen our coldness - and we had no whisky...

Thursday - Grand Teton NP to Salina, Utah. Left the rain behind, thank goodness! We drove out through Jackson Hole and the rest of Wyoming under overcast and spitting skies. Lunch at the Red Baron Drive-In was also grey. But then we crossed into Utah and somehow the skies became blue - we could see the storm behind us but managed to out-drive it and took a cunnig eastward detour that totally outfoxed the evil gods of thunder. Mormons seem pretty normal so far, there are adverts for divorce lawyers by the interstate and every materialistic thing imaginable. Buying booze was also unproblematic. Salt Lake City is HUGE. We grilled out by the Salt Lake around dinner and arrived late to the tiny town of Salina, the last stop before over 100 miles of desert.

Friday - Salina to Canyonlands. We woke up to find that Salina is a great small town - with Mom's Cafe, a real local diner, a small-town auto garage where I got an oil change and check-up, and all the rest - I felt instantly at home. The Koreans running the motel where we pitched up late last night were astonished to see me, staring at me wide-eyed as if I was an unimaginable celebrity or else had a horn growing out of my forehead - I never did quite work out what was so strange about my appearance. Went to the Arches National Park, which was fun but again always these things where you are meant to look at something are not aas 'exciting' to me as simlly driving for two or three hours to get there through the most ridiculous, incredible landscapes of ruptured, striped, brightly coloured cliffs, distant canyons and ridges, close-up encounters with vertiginous chasms rising right next to the hard shoulder, and the endless shifting vistas with a sky that turns from hazy on the horizon to intense blue overhead. Camped in Canyonlands National Park, which was absolutely wonderful - grilled fish, potatoes, zucchini, beer, drinking whisky till midnight watching the stars.

Saturday - Beatie's birthday! We drove from Canyonlands to Tonopah, Nevada. After leaving the red rocks and dramatic show of Utah and crossing I-15, we entered the emptiest landscapes we have seen so far - ten miles of scrubland, semi-desert range followed by a pass through a serrated sierra ridge, and repeat, for 300 miles. One understands why people wanted to take mind-altering drugs out here. Eventually we turned south-west and the landscape became weird smooth excrescences from the ground - sci-fi landscapes, airbrushed sunset skies, you see where those comic writers and illustrators, and all those UFO stories, come from. Black lava flows from small extinct volcanoes, no people, the odd trail of dust from a vehicle on a dirt track miles away in the distance. We placed bets on how long one straight bit of road was that we could see stretching into the distance before it curved around a hill - it was 23 miles and we realised that you could fit most of London into the valley that we could see across and traversed in minutes.

Eventually ended up in Tonopah, a weird mining town with many motels, a couple of casino-cum-saloon bars and restaurants, lots of trailer parks which looked incredibly depressing places to exist. a lot of people seemed to be staying in town - the Best Western had only one room left and was way too expensive for us so we ended up in the Economy Inn. Ate at the Ramada - very depressing and strange Engish theming, old Fry's chocolate signs, pub stuff and 'Dickensian' aaccountrements. Weird band on stage playing faded bluesy somethings. People slumped in front of the slot machines, eyes glazed. We wondered why there was this obsessive need to gamble all the time, as soon as it is permitted - even the gas stations have slot machines.

Sunday - Tonopah to Yosemite National Park. We got to Yosemite around lunchtime. Again, very crowded. But much more spectacular and awe-inspiring than Yellowstone, for some reason. The organisation of these National Parks is rather disconcerting - Center Parcs-like shuttle buses, 'villages' of stores, campgrounds, eateries and lodges, well-trodden 'hiking' trails being attacked by people wearing full-on hiking gear when (as we proved) you only need a pair of flip-flops and some water to be able to get up them. But still, you can swim and paddle in the rivers in the middle of the unimaginably tall canyons, where you have to tilt your head right back to be able to see the sky. We camped the night and had a rather lovely campfire dinner of sausages, baked sweet potatoes, grilled red peppers and salad, surrounded by climbers recounting their tales of derring-do around rather more impressive campfires than ours.

Monday - Yosemite to Berkeley! What can I say - we arrived, after a morning swim and walk in the park, a baking drive through central California and the shock of re-entering city traffic, to the famous Lucy Begg's house on the Berkeley/Oakland border. We drove up to the top of the hills to overlook the city and its famous fog which was utterly unbelivable - totally covering San Francisco, so that it might never have been there at all (see below for crappy photo). After much gossipping and Mexican food, it was time for well-earned bed. And today now we are sitting in a cafe with real coffee, fruit on the menu, a compost bin and a recycling bin and wi-fi. Ah, the West Coast....



August 16, 2005 || 8:48 pm
Road trip update

OK. Finally have time and internet to update on the road trip. I can't believe that since Saturday afternoon we've gone over 2000 miles, from NYC to Cody, Wyoming, home of Buffalo Bill. To save words I'm just going to post my notes made en route at the end of every tiring and mind-boggling day.

Saturday. Drove NYC-Chicago, left 3pm. Horrendous traffic getting out of Manhattan. Finally actually started moving at more than 5 mph at around 4pm, drove straight out through NJ and PA, ate dinner in PA at around 8.30. The sun had taken forever to set due to going west, which was quite unsettling and lovely. We decided to drive through the night to Chicago. I had a little doze first then drove from around 12.30 letting the others sleep like babies, trying not to rock. Got through Ohio. got off the turnpike for gas in Indiana, decide to take back roads around Lake Michigan despite it still being dark. We got into Chicago at exactly dawn.

The city was totally deserted - its skyline and streets seeming so clearly laid out without the usual clutter of city life. We drove round IIT campus (even totally unslept, you can't stop three architects from wanting to see some architecture) then downtown to the Loop. Amazing multi-level transport - underground roads, ground-level streets, above-ground light rail. Amazing bridges with their strange although structurally entirely logical shapes, the resultant of economical engineering yet looks so illogical. No people around and nothing at all open, which was why we ended up at Starbucks, where I blogged from briefly before.

Then I slept as Fred drove us into Wisconsin. We got off the interstate around Madison and took beautiful back roads to La Crosse, where we crossed the Mississipi. I never knew it was so wide that far up - miles wide with islands, swampy shallow pools, absolutely wonderful. Then you climb up the high bank on the other side, round the corner and suddenly you are in Minnesota and you don't have to steer the car for 3 hours. Amazing mid-western plains scenery, unchanging yet shifting subtly and always the feeling that you are on the edge of the earth, about to drive off into nothing. It is as if you can see the curvature of the earth, with clouds so low and curving away from you, like the kind of thing filmmakers try to evoke with a fisheye lens yet in reality you don't need the fish-eye, it's already curved around you.

Silos and endless maize fields (what do people do with all this maize?) and the straight straight road into the setting sun, stopping when we need gas or food in these idyllic, sleepy small towns, classic movie-sets for 'lost in the mid-west' type nothing-happens movies. It was an amazing purification, driving utterly straight for so long, the meditation and discipline of it feeling so cleansing after the edgy night and morning. We eventually ended up in Worthington, Minnesota for the night in a motel and a hot shower- joy. We were halfway across the country.

Monday - we got up and set off somewhat late-ish after a Perkins brunch in Mitchell, the home of the Corn Palace, the first place to feel like we really hit the West - saloon and gun battle land, in a totally cheesy way. Crossed the Missouri river - an amazing sudden descent and up again into a totally changed landscape - undulating grassy hills rather than the flatness of Minnesota, really somewhere you can imagine bison and Indians and fighting.

Our destination for the day was the Badlands. The wall really does rise up out of nothing - less 'spectacular' than the Grand Canyon or similar but somehow stranger - I couldn't comprehend how they were formed really, as there wasn't the orienting feature of a river gouging it's way through the rock, just line after line of spiky eroded mountains, plateaus at different levels, disorienting and strange passing through them you suddenly find yourself at an upper level plateau looking down on the striped pink and yellow rocks beneath you. Other things - prairie dogs are damn cool. I saw a bison. We pitched our tent at the foot of the mountains in the amazingly organised National Park campsite and grilled out and drank beer under the stars.

Today - woke early and packed up, and back on the road, into Wyoming, 9th biggest state, and only 500,000 inhabitants. We saw about three people and passed through a 'town' called Emblem which boasted on its sign that it had a population of 10. We drove across endless scrubland, prairie, mountains, all extraordinarily beautiful, huge, making us gasp at every twist of the road (that is, when we weren't on 50 miles of dead straight with distant mountains on all horizons). We dipped our toes in the freezing waters of the Bighorn Mountains and now we're in Cody for the night before getting into Yellowstone tomorrow.


August 14, 2005 || 2:57 pm

We're in Chicago. Or rather, in a Starbucks on the edge of Chicago, having left NYC at 3pm yesterday and driven through the night. We've done New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Chicago is really stunning, but totally uninhabited, at least at 6am on a Sunday. Photos later.


August 12, 2005 || 5:16 pm

More fun and games in the big city. My brain's a little blurred today from a rather late night last night but I'll try, for my own sake, to note down some highlights.

Took the Central Line boat trip around the whole of Manhattan Island, complete with commentary by some wannabe classic NY actor which was initially irritating/hilarious but actually by the end, we had to admit that it was pretty interesting. Amazing to see the island from the waters, all classic hazy blue layers of skyscrapers.

Went to see Chinatown at an outdoor screening practically under the Brooklyn Bridge - really fun, somehow very New York and could never happen in London due to lack of similar large left-over tracts of land and huge, dramatic bridges that make the perfect setting for urbanites to hang out of a Thursday night. Clapham Common just ain't the same, and neither is the South Bank.

Ate delicious oysters for $1 each at Marlow & Sons. Have drunk a lot of cold beer. Have hung out a lot with no obvious intent to 'do' anything, which is a glorious luxury. Discovered that official temperature measurements are always taken in the shade, which I am amazed that I never knew before.


August 10, 2005 || 5:04 pm

New York is really fun. Every time I'm here, I'm struck by how it really is just like the movies. The scale of the city, the real urbanity as opposed to London's rather ridiculous cramped Victorian terraces, the intensity of life...it's great. I could live here. And with the lovely exchange rate continuing to hold up, it still appears cheap.

I'm also getting a blast of NYC architecture world stuff due to my architect friends here. It's such a crazy thing, so far from what I've been involved with recently. Crocodile-proof lap pools and suchlike. Fun, ridiculous, joyful, gossipy, self-referential...which is also what architecture should be about, not just the super-serious politicised stuff.

But it's still amusing as I try to explain New Urbanism and how it has taken hold of middle America's urban planning scene to mystefied Manhattanites, or mention weird governmental policy acronyms to universal shrugs. However, Cameron Sinclair has made it onto the Gutter today so even these hipster archi-nerds will now know of at least one warrior for the greater good...


August 09, 2005 || 5:05 pm

I have not only finally crossed the Mason-Dixon Line but have arrived intact in the Big Apple!

Have (obviously) not had any internet for the last few days so will summarise briefly.

6th - Charlottesville, VA to Lewisburg, WV
Went to see Monticello (Jefferson's house) in the morning. It's wonderful and eccentric, as expected, but the most enviable thing was his vegetable patch - huge, incredibly well-tended, beautiful. I would love to have such a garden, and love the passion that Jefferson seemed to have for cultivating the earth and experimenting with new species and methods. Afterwards, drove through the incredibly beautiful mountains, intending to get to a festival at Clifftop but inevitably didn't make it that far. But it didn't matter - I was utterly jaw-dropped by the beauty of the mountains and happy just driving.

7th - Lewisburg, WV to Bedford, PA.
More beautiful mountain driving. Came literally face-to-face with a wind turbine - part of an array that stretches around the West Virginia/Maryland border, where the height of the road and the height of the turbines on the ridge coincide so as I felt that I could literally reach out and touch the blades. Incredibly beautiful and mysterious objects, strung out along the ridge - how anyone can object to them I don't know. To me they are as mysterious and seemingly symbolic as Stonehenge, marking some unknown ley line along the mountains, silently turning, facing the wind. Crossed the Mason-Dixon line and found that people really do talk differently up north. And it's also 'grim up north', the rain starting literally as I crossed the line. Bedford, PA is probably a pretty town but in the slate-grey rain it was pretty miserable. I watched CNN and MTV all evening in my motel.

8th - Bedford, PA to NY, NY.
Drove in misty drizzle through the Pennsylvania hills to Lancaster, Amish heartland. Ate a huge Germanic lunch. The Amish farms are really very beautiful - incredibly neat and tidy, rows of washing billowing from clothes-lines. The classic cliches come up again and again, and yet I can't help remarking on them - beautifully straight-backed children going about their tasks with a curious mixture of solemnity and playfulness, horse-drawn buggies next to SUVs at the Dollar General parking lot. Didn't mean to drive all the way into NYC but somehow did so anyway. Approaching Manhattan at night in the drizzle was, inevitably, incredibly beautiful and Gotham-like - more cliches, but on the freeway, seeing roof-top water tanks at eye-level silhouetted against the misty lights of the skyscrapers was shivery. But I couldn't stop and take a photo as I would have gotten killed by the crazy drivers...


August 05, 2005 || 11:51 pm
Links for today

A few links - I meant to post some of these the other day, but lost them when my computer crashed...

LA water and power department is now giving away free trees to citizens.. Simple, graceful and highly replicable way of making our cities a little less energy-wasteful.

Interesting post about why the 'sustainable design' literature rarely talks about political or social aspects. SDN doesn't have comments (why?!) so I'm linking to it instead. Obviously the market is (as an eco-lobbyist I was talking to the other day said) colluded against a lot of sustainable options as a result of subsidies, tax incentives etc which do require a legislative solution to correct, and which we need to lobby for. But I think the more interesting issue is maybe also how 'sustainable' options (goods, services, lifestyle choices, policies) are marketed to the public, and why they are still being argued for on the basis of some subjective ideas about 'ethics', 'green', 'community' and so on, not in terms of hard numbers and the long-term implications of decision-making on an individual and a political level. I've said this before, but I don't see people, on a mass scale, really changing their behaviour (or politicians their policies) because they care about the environment per se, but they will if they are shown how it risks their pockets, or their lifestyles. I am writing this to be provocative, as I am well aware of how may people are working on demonstrating more pragmatic and holistic reasoning for why we need to act more sustainably. But it annoys me that people think I'm a kindly hippy when I talk about my consumer decisions, and I have to explain to them that it is actually cheaper and easier that way.

An example of which is: Claire Tomalin was not believed by her bank when she was defrauded. Now my bank - Smile - when the same thing happened to me around Christmas, refunded the money to me the day after I reported the fraud. No questions asked. They are ethical investors, and a co-operative. But even if you didn't care about ethical investing, they have great interest rates (3.3% interest paid on a current account, only 9.9% APR on my credit card and overdraft) and the most fantastic customer service. On their homepage they don't even try to sell themselves as 'ethical' - it's all about the numbers and the service. It works - they are the leading internet bank in the UK - and importantly, it gives the soft message to consumers that ethical decision-making is a good selfish choice too.


10:45 pm
Road trip, day 5

Washington, DC to Charlottesville, VA - 117 miles

Ah, I'm back in the countryside. Big sigh of relief. Although my dutiful sightseeing this morning in DC ended up being quite fun - after tackling the totally unnavigable IM Pei wing of the National Gallery of Art, followed by the more navigable but far too vast old wing (beautiful Italian rennaissance saints and Rembrandts to restore my sanity), I gave in the the ultimate DC tourist attraction, the Air and Space Museum. It is absolutely packed as (unlike high art) it appeals to every tourist group that might pass through the city. It has a McDonalds and Wendy's as its 'food court'. But it's also really good fun, because they actually have the real deal to show you.

The actual Apollo 11 command module. The actual airplane which the Wright brothers first flew in. Real long-range nuclear missiles from the USSR and the USA, cold-war style (without warheads, of course). The real backup Skylab space station that you can actually go inside. A V2 rocket. The first Boeings and the Breitling balloon that first circumnavigated the earth non-stop. A bit of the Hubble Telescope that they brought back when they repaired it. The Apollo-Soyuz modules that docked together in 1975. And so on...

The nearest you get to a replica is a fully working test model, like the rest of the Apollo 11 (the bits that were left behind in space) which is shown by an identical one that they made and used for training beforehand. It's actually a really weird object - I am dumb, but it never occurred to me that because space has no atmosphere and therefore no friction, you can viably have something covered in tinfoil attached with duct tape flying around at hundreds of mph. Which is basically what the lunar landing module was - it looks like something out of Blue Peter. And the command module that came back to earth is unbelievably tiny, as are lots of the other craft that took astronauts into space in that era. I could hardly believe that it was possible to survive such a journey in such a small, toy-like thing. Space exploration - what a ridiculously crazy thing.

After all that, I left DC and struggled through horrendous Friday afternoon traffic for what felt like hours, hot, frustrated and claustrophobic. But when I finally got to the hills of Virginia - ah, what a relief. The Shenadoah hills are absolutely beautiful, and the roads opened up across a more familiar terrain of small settlements, antebellum houses, roadside gas stations and fields. It is more hilly and more populous than Alabama, but it felt so good to be back in the open country air amongst the blue hills, with friendly country folk everywhere.

I finally got to Charlottesville where I intended to stay the night, and headed into the downtown in search of food and to check out the town. What I found was a prosperous, genteel, peaceful university town, extremely quiet, until I got to the Main Street and spied, through the gaps in the buildings, that the 'real' Main Street was pedestrianised and seemed to have rather a lot of activity on it. So I parked, exited the parking garage behind a group of people in funny costumes and carrying circus implements, and found the whole street was full of people strolling, shopping, sitting in cafes and outdoor restaurants, and watching street performers - very unusual for an American downtown. Ah, I thought, this must be some kind of festival that I happen to have caught. So I strolled around, looked at everything, ate a lovely icecream, found the ice-rink (!) at one end of the street and then headed back to explore the other end.

And at the other end I found a new-looking amphitheatre of sloping grass and concrete covered by a big tensile roof, in which a band was playing and hundreds of people were milling around. So I approached and entered, didn't have to pay, and inside they were selling beer and everyone - from babies to grannies, and plenty of punky young people - was just hanging out, dancing a little, chatting and having fun. It turns out that this isn't a one-off, but happens every Friday in the summer. How lovely. And (I hate to have to mention this) almost all the young people were hanging out in mixed-race groups. Normal-looking youths - not preppy, not on crack. First time I've seen this here.

My new favorite motel: Econo-Lodge. $30 cheaper than everywhere else and still has wireless internet.


10:05 am
Road trip, day 4

Fredericksburg, VA to Washington DC - 54 miles.

I've reached the Capital of this enormous country. It's an incredibly weird city. I drove in yesterday morning with a little bit of a 'soft landing' of lunch at a friend's house in a leafy suburb of the city. But then afterwards, I did like any redneck tourist, and pointed my vehicle in the direction of the seat of government - the Mall itself. After all, what else was I to do? and thus I entered a zone of impossibly big things. Enormous monolithic buildings, windowless and scaleless, separated by vast (and vaguely terrifying) boulevards. Hot, hot sidewalks with no people on them. That huge park, with its huge monuments to - well, what exactly does the Washington Monument embody? apart from that it doesn't take a fascist political system in order to erect an incredibly fascist monument, something from imperial Rome on crack?

I got quite fazed out by it all, and the crazy city traffic which I am not used to at all, so found a place to park and retreated to drink a soda under the Hirschorn Museum, before going inside to see some art. Which was nice an' all, but again, I was reminded that my year in the backwoods has in some ways rid me of much of my former understanding/appreciation/pretensions about high culture. Going to see Picasso, de Kooning, Francis Bacon is like revisiting somewhere I went on holiday a long time ago - vaguely remembering the lay of the land and how it all works, but also having to slowly re-learn to navigate and decode.

Then I emerged again, braced myself and dived back into the traffic, driving around the Capitol, veering uncertainly round some multi-lane junctions, gawping at quite how big every government department building is. Passing the USDA, I thought how strange it was that the drawings for our little house in Alabama were getting sent off to this enormously inhuman building, full of Orwellian flunkeys who would look it over and give it the stamp of approval or not. And what might they make of the little pack of drawings that practically smell of rural America, so far from this city?

Eventually I got up to my former teammate Phil's house in Columbia Heights and experienced the other side to DC - the face that has some of the highest violent crime rates in the US, the 'ghetto' in even 'nice' or 'hip' neighbourhoods. I have always gravitated to areas that aren't too 'nice' and have a gritty reality, but here, something in the mood was too much even for me. The feeling of transience, the ominous and oppressive heat, the bullet-proof glass in the 7-Eleven - or maybe it is that I have simply become too accustomed to a non-urban life.

Because, I realise more and more, cities slightly freak me out these days. The number of people, the noise, the pace, the incessant activity make me crave an escape back to the solitude of Alabama, the Outer Banks, or Dungeness. In this way, I think my year in Alabama has affected me in a way I certainly didn't expect. Even when I went back to London, a city that I have been utterly passionate about, it somehow exhausted and disoriented me.


August 03, 2005 || 10:47 pm
Road trip, day three

I was rather tired when I finally found an affordable motel with internet tonight. So much so that I forgot to look at my odometer and see how far I went today. But I would estimate around 350 miles in the car, plus 27 by ferry.

Took the ferry from Cedar Island to Ocracroke first thing in the morning. Ocracoke is really incredible - wild and beautiful sandy beaches stretching all along the island, with no people on them And this is August! If this place were in Europe it would be heaving and horrible. Yet somehow, here it still feels untouched, despite the tacky resort and condo-towns either side of it and well within an hours driving distance. I pulled over and dipped myself into the Atlantic (which is warm here!), and sunbathed for half and hour before hitting the road again, making a mental note that if I ever want to be a total beach bum, this is definitely a good place to do it.

On from there northwards along the Outer Banks, things gradually get less romantic and more tacky. The gaps between villages of beach condominiums get smaller, until eventually there are not gaps at all and the traffic slows to a frustrating grumbling speed. The site of the Wright brothers' first flight is subsumed into this strip of malls and general crap. But in my mind I see them taking off on somewhere as deserted as Ocracoke.

Onwards and northwards, I passed around the huge industrial port of Norfolk, through a somewhat scary tunnel, around Richmond, through some more crawling traffic (necessitating me pulling over and checking my engine for overheating...) and into Fredericksburg in time for dinner. Americans claim that oh, we have nothing old here, not like in Europe - but F'burg is old, totally picturesque and well-preserved - like an English Georgian town, except more perfect (at least in its downtown) than anything that really exists today in England. It has that self-satisfied air of an old county seat, with a healthy tourist industry by the looks of things, and obviously considers itself very classy.

After a decent enough dinner (I have got so far north that things like falafel start appearing on menus) I found myself a room and now am quite ready for bed, before attacking Washington DC tomorrow...

Today's pictures (click on them for bigger versions and descriptions)

The Driftwood Motel

Ocracoke beach

Ocracoke, Hwy 12

Roadscape, Norfolk VA


August 02, 2005 || 10:06 pm
Road trip day 2

423 miles, Savannah, GA to Cedar Island, NC.

Today's mileage is also not that impressive - I spent more time than I would have liked in slow traffic but it was more than compensated for by the last 100 miles.

From Savannah I went to Charleston, South Carolina, famous to me from 'Gone With The Wind' and all that stuff. I had very little expectation of what it might be like, apart from, presumably, very grand. It is that, but the smart, uber-restored downtown areas (all expensive clothes shops, lawyers offices and horesedrawn tourist rides, with what must be extremely expensive private houses) was much less interesting or surprising than the surrounding areas which also must be very old, but which are surprisingly run-down still in a beautiful-faded way, black neighbourhoods with people hanging out on the porches.

The urban structure (again, what a nerd I am) was quite amazing - long, narrow lots where, to make the most of the plots, instead of having a front porch they built verandahs on the long sides, facing a small yard. Such an ingenious way of making the most of the space, giving shaded outdoor space that is private and quiet but with a connection to the street. And achieving an incredible density of occupation while not having all the usual problems of overlooking and lack of outside space. Each apartment in these buildings had its own verandah and connection to the street without gating or direct overlooking of anyone else.

From Charleston I drove up the coast through the incredibly tacky sprawl of Myrtle Beach. Quite dazzling, even at this (for the States) relatively small scale, the crazy-golf courses, diners, beachwear shops, cinemas and so forth, all huge, all neon and enhanced with huge fibreglass representations of sharks, volcanoes, surfboards, animals or whatever might tie loosely into the concept of the establishment.

Despite living here for a year, I still have absolutely no sense of how to navigate these strips. How to distinguish a 'good' restaurant from a 'bad' one, when they are all in garish modern buildings with neon signs and seemingly identical menu 'concepts' - seafood, steak, mexican, oyster bar. There are probably no 'good' restaurants there, but people who visit must be able to make some judgement about which place most fits their idea of a 'good time' or their social class/pretensions. I have no idea how to navigate and decode the signage. And playing Hawaaian-themed crazy golf by the side of a six-lane highway?

I crawled through the traffic trying (unsucessfully) to capture the insane nature of the strip with my camera through my window. Finally emerged after the miles of this conurbation onto a relatively less crowded stretch, but only for a moment before hitting Wilmington. Going over a dramatic bridge into the city was quite a sight. I didn't stop, but the view from the bridge was worth everything, taking in the old 18th and 19th century docks, the huge new cranes and seaport, and the river estuary. The scale of the rivers here - in Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington - is so extraordinary - huge and meandering, you don't know whether you are seeing the sea or the river.

An hour or so later, I got off the highway onto a smaller road, and for the first time switched off my iPod ot enjoy the quiet. Thank goodness, I thought, for the army - for the first, and hugely beautiful, quiet stretch I had was through Camp Dejeune army base - a huge tract of beautiful sandy pine forest, rather like Dunwich forest or North Norfolk, but of course covering an area that was so much greater, with no houses to disturb it. But this was only a taster of what was to come, when I emerged out onto the coastal plain of the Carteret peninsula.

Here, stretching for miles and punctuated only by tiny settlements, is mile after mile of the most breathtakingly stunning natural scenery - for once those words are deserved. Endless creeks and sounds divide the land up into a series of broad, semi-connected sandbars and islands, and the road loops along with bridge after bridge over wide, shallow waterways. The land is completely untouched, tough yellow marsh grass, like my Suffolk home but somehow lusher and more dense, covering the spongy ground, pine and cedar forests on the horizons, and the ever-present clear blue water, expanding out of the creeks to the sea, the boundaries undefined and the horizons endless. I drove for near-on sixty miles through this landscape, almost completely empty and astonishingly virgin.

This area was the very first to be settled (tomorrow I will go through the 'lost settlement' of Roanoke Island, where England's first colonists lived in 1585. I can understand why, when they filmed the 'brave new world' scenes of 'Shakespeare in Love' which presumably are meant to evoke this area, they chose North Norfolk because it is in some ways the nearest England has, but the scale of the land here is like nothing back home. It's so utterly impossible for me to describe (well, without taking more time than the medium of blog seems to suggest) but if anyone wants to come somewhere that feels like you have really discovered a new continent, this is surely it. Those early colonists must have been taken utterly aback - the seas teeming with food, the lush virgin soil, the forests of perfect lumber, the warmth and the light.

I drove on through the tiny hamlets of beautiful old clapboard houses (and their more modern equivalents), their paint peeling in the most picturesque way and their brick pier foundations exposed, to literally the end of the road - Cedar Island, from where tomorrow I will get the ferry to the Outer Banks, the sandbar islands that have been treacherous to ships for centuries and that protect the shoreline here, making the water I passed today so absolutely glassy and still.

Cedar Island had pretty much nothing but at the very end of the road, right by the ferry, it does have the Driftwood Motel and Restaurant, where I am now pitched up for the night. Unlike the Days Inn it does not of course have internet - I checked my email via dialup using their phone line but felt bad to occupy it for much longer so am writing this now and will upload it tomorrow.

A couple of photos from today:

Charleston row houses


Marshes on the way to Cedar Island, NC


August 01, 2005 || 10:51 pm
Road trip day 1

The first official day of my summer road trip saw me do a quite meagre 450 miles or so, from Newbern, AL to Savannah, GA, where I am now ensconced post-dinner in the glamour of the Days Inn, whose lack of charm is mitigated by its free in-room broadband.

It wasn't a bad drive, a mixture of smaller roads and interstate, with weather rather like April in England, only much hotter - scattered, sudden, violent showers interspersed with sunshine. I passed through Peach County, GA which strangely seemed to have at least as many pecan groves as peach orchards. I got to listen to lots of the new stuff I put on my iPod from Butch's CD collection, which was really fun - lots and lots of old-time music, folk stuff and old men singing ballads and playing clawhammer banjo and fiddle. Now is really the time when I will get to find out what makes up the 9.6 days worth of music that I apparently have on my iPod...

Savannah is really beautiful. I was most amazed by the (ach, I'm such a spod) urban structure of the waterfront area - the way the warehouses which are at water level connect to the rest of the town at a much higher level, with the little stairs, ramps, bridges and so forth criss-crossing in a really fantastic way. I have photos and will post. Although the waterfront area is really quite depressingly tacky in some ways - this is what 'regeneration' means - it isn't as bad as it could be, apart from the criminally hideous Hyatt hotel which somehow managed to get built right in the middle of this fine urban grain of the little bridges and lovely warehouses, plonked down with zero sensitivity to anything and making a horrible dark underpass out of what should be the continuation of the open, cobbled, trams/people/cars coexisting street. How do they get away with this? The garden squares for which the town is famous are also lovely. I was surprised to see a statue of John Welsey, but apparently he had a parish here or something for a while.

On a Monday at 6.30pm when I started my walk around the old town, it was quite amazingly deserted apart from the waterfront and the City Market area, which were relatively busy though still not at all packed. The main drag of Broughton Street was utterly empty apart from a few more indigent sorts walking around - amazing. Downtown flight must still exist, even with the major renewal of the historic district. Or maybe it was just a Monday thing.


8:59 am
Leaving Newbern

Yesterday's baseball game was a lot of fun, as usual, though less packed and crazy than normal due to the huge rainstorm earlier that left most people probably thinking it was rained out. I have a new digital camera (hooray!!) so I got to take pictures.

Newbern baseball

Afterwards, we went to buy beer (technically illegal on Sundays, but there's one backroads store that sells it) and came back via the back roads to see the beautiful sunset over the fields. This area really is one of the most beautiful places I have been to, just made for riding around in a car down the deserted roads, no people, just fields, a few cows, catfish ponds reflecting the light. It is quite overwhelming to come back here after an absence and see it and smell the air, falling in love with the place all over again. It's so impossible to photograph well (at least with my meagre level of skill and equipment) but somehow you still feel compelled to try.

Sunset clouds

I was up early this morning to get my old landlord to let me into Beacon Street so I could find a couple of things I had left there. On the way I took this photo of one of my favorite ever views - sitting at the stop light just coming into the downtown in the early morning, seeing the buildings ahead over the crest of the little rise. And again, it looks so banal in a photo.

Main Street, Greensboro

After I had got my things, his friend who had rode in with him, who was another preacher, decided to try to convert me. At 7am this was quite surreal. Although this area is so religious, and people have tried to get me to come to church a lot (including my born-again preacher landlord) no-one has ever, until today, tried to question me on my religious beliefs, let alone attempt to save my soul. The conversation went roughly thus:

'Hana, do you go to church anywhere'

'Um? Well no, actually I hold firm to my agnostic beliefs.' [I said agnostic rather than atheist hoping it might sound a little less bad.]

'And what might those be?'

'Well, I believe in right and wrong all right, and good and evil. I'm just not too heavy on the dogma side of things.'

'Do you know we have two choices in life?'

'And what might they be?'

'To live in Jesus or not to.'

'Well, really I don't think this is going to work on me.'

'Do you believe in Jesus, that he lived and died on the cross?'

'Oh yes, I believe he existed, I think he was a very wise man.'

'Do you now, well you know what Jesus said? In John 14:6 he said 'I am the Way, the Truth, the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."

'Really, I'm sorry, this isn't going to work for me.'

'Well, God bless you anyway baby, he looks out for you and loves you anyway. Safe journey!'

'Well thank you, good-bye now!'


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