USA 2009: Introduction & Prologue
The following is collated and edited correspondence both with my American friends and with friends and relatives at home, emails hurriedly typed in internet cafes in cities, or on borrowed laptops in friends’ houses, journal entries from the time. I have added commentary with the benefit of hindsight, and intercut some of the photographs I took along the way.
The journal in question was a black leather journal cover embossed with a Frank Lloyd Wright design, a present from my mother a couple of years previous, holding 7×5 refills ordered from Barnes & Noble in the USA because Europe doesn’t do 7×5 notebooks.
Inadvisable as it is when air travel is involved, I can’t be parted from my fountain pens for long. Weapons of choice for this trip were a Parker 65 Flighter filled with Waterman Green and a Sheaffer TRZ-70 with Waterman South Seas Blue. The former was an eBay purchase, the latter a Christening present miraculously still functional after juvenile abuses, A-levels and an undergraduate degree.
As for the photography, a Canon EOS 40D with the (at the time hot-off-the-drawing-board) 18-135mm IS lens. I’d been weighing up a DSLR before I left, but the coming together of my old Fuji with a heavy object made the decision necessary.
Is this account coherent? Just about. Is it exhaustive? Far from it. It is, I hope, interesting.
Some parts of the plan fell into place very easily.
I knew I would fly American Airlines. Quite apart from their shiny planes (I cannot be the only one who has an irrational love of AA because of the way they leave the aluminium bare to glint in the stratospheric sunshine, right?), there’s something exotic about flying with the airline of your destination rather than your home; flying BA would have been British, whereas to have American emblazoned down the side of the plane is much more interesting.
Equally, it would be the train rather than the bus. As I said to my Texan friend Kellie (another of my American friends who is in fact some sort of hybrid due to years spent in England) the day I drove M1-M25 and back again to spare her exactly this, friends don’t let friends travel National Express. After a sleepless midnight Heathrow service when catching my Chicago-bound flight in 2006 (complete with now-hilarious and anecdote-worthy moments including a toddler with a paranoid fear of the toilet door closing, thereby forcing his mother to wedge it open and share the sounds and smells of all that passed), I knew I wanted to start my journey at St Pancras.
And I’d be heading for Heathrow. Well, Manchester was never going to cut it somehow.
JFK; see above but replace Manchester with Newark, NJ. But more than that, my Kennedy fascination meant that the trip would become a pilgrimage, and it seemed fitting to start out right.
And where to? New York made sense, both as a destination in its own right but also because of its traditional, historical role as gateway to the nation. If one is going to go looking for America, New York is the place to start. From there, out into Middle America to see two old friends; the college towns of Boulder, CO, and Denton, TX were my small-town destinations.
My plan, such as it was, ended when I stepped off the plane at Dallas/Fort Worth. There, I would rest, recuperate and plan the second half. I loved the freedom. Like everything else on this trip, it was calculated to appeal to me only; just enough freedom to be exciting, not so much to be scary. I had crafted this idea, and it was mine. Equally, there were no early morning flights, no more youth hostels and lots of going to obscure places that no-one else would have cared about, following my instincts and taking the time to get lost and wander through places. Self-indulgence? Perhaps.
My inclination prior to setting foot in the country was with taking Greyhounds up through Arkansas and Tennessee, through Ohio and towards Philadelphia before returning to New York. That it didn’t turn out that way had much to do with the thinking space I had in Texas, and in that sense it was all part of the plan.