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Opening Moves

Monday, 25th June, 2001

Technically the start of my millennium roadtrip started in the throes of routine.

No plane trip could match the drama and novelty of the previous year; flying was passe to me now. 1999 had seen my first ever flight, but by the time 2000 arrived I was already in double figures. There was no novelty to be found along Telegraph Road either: the journey from Detroit to Waterford brought back wonderful memories, but the only thing noticeably different was the process of turning 3D roads back into the flat ones we prefer.

All in all, the first few days of settling back into the aura of the United States were enjoyable but humdrum. The adventure would start when we hit the road; for now it was all about Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' and tube socks and Jiffy Lube.

I got to experience my first Big Boy's, another of the myriad cheap franchise restaurants that dot the States like pepperoni on a pizza. Tracy, my best friend and driving companion for the summer, had worked at one of these back in her dim and distant past, which was partly why we chose it. It was nothing to do with the fact that we couldn't find a Pizza Hut in Tracy's hometown, even though we'd eaten at a few the year before. Perish the thought.

In many ways, Big Boy's kickstarted again the learning process that helps me to absorb the methodology of the United States and understand some of its ways. Even the Golden Eagles of Pontiac eat here. I can't speak for them, of course, but I doubt that bikers in this country would be seen dead in public at a restaurant called Big Boy's. Then again, this is the same American consumer culture that enables people to ask for Goo Goo Clusters without embarrassment.

Another reason for us to eat here was the full salad and fruit bar available for a mere $5.29. I really cannot underestimate how much I love the concept and the reality of cheap buffet restaurants. I can see myself getting seriously overweight in the US, to fit in with half the patrons of these places. I couldn't help but notice that I had to lean too far forward from my fixed seat to the fixed table in order to eat. Form fits function, of course, as common sense decrees; but I'm not used to having it inconvenience me as someone not particularly close to the common form of the locality. A quick glance around confirmed that.

So I got to balance delicately on the edge of my seat with a couple of plates worth of salad and a friendly argument. I'm a very argumentative person, though I don't prejudge or postjudge anyone on their views. I just enjoy lively debate, especially if I can learn something from the proceedings.

Today's debate was on the strange colonial use of the fork. America grew up with a fork in its right hand and nothing in its left. How its people manage to shovel away more food with one hand than we quaint English with two is a matter open to argument. So argue we did. It was good to be back.

Finally the routine passed and the adventure began. The first day on the road meant radio, something that England has forgotten how to do, with nothing but interminable chart stations and inane chatter.

We spent an enjoyable hour or so listening to Dee Snider's 'House of Hair' radio show, which spotlighted the music I grew up with. Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Aerosmith, WASP: the glam bands that ruled the metal scene until thrash loosened its grip and grunge finally relegated it to the underground. Snider broadcasts out of New York but his syndicated show reaches much of the nation. He keeps a flame alive that is extinguished here. I miss American radio diversity with all my heart.

Throughout the trip, I never ceased to be amazed at the range of stations and styles of music so easily accessible on US radio. The variety changed as we found our way to different parts of the country, but remained a wide and enjoyable choice. Like the previous year we stuck to classic rock for almost the entire trip, due to Tracy's aversion to anything remotely akin to country music. Classic rock was a safe bet for the both of us.

There's a psychological process called 'cut up technique' where you cut up information and rearrange it in a non-logical order so that any meaning is discovered subconsciously rather than intuitively. I remember a character in Alan Moore's astounding graphic novel 'Watchmen' dictating his impressions of world trends, all gleaned from a wall of video feeds that changed randomly through global television channels. I got to do the same thing with American radio (and to a lesser degree American tv) through Tracy's penchant for changing stations every few songs. It must be a nervous tic.

I'd planned out our route through three months using Yahoo directions and they started off like a dream. We easily found our way through an initial maze before reaching the interstates that would carry us most of the way round the country. Soon, however, they fell apart. We followed them for the sake of accuracy but it seems that Yahoo took us off I-75 to head through the Toledo hood and back onto I-75 after a few mere miles. Hmm.

At least for a little while, the need to keep our nose in the right direction interrupted a few vague wordplays with pithy epithets. The sun has got his hat on, but that's a hell of a brim. God is a woman but she bitchslaps. We had fun on the way south into what Tracy's mother describes as God's Country.

Ohio is the birthplace of the Wright brothers and hence lays a solid claim to also being the home of the entire aviation industry. Of course, even with such a short history as the US, there is room for plenty of interpretation. The Wright brothers may have born in Ohio but they flew from Kitty Hawk, NC, leading to a rather obvious conflict on state licence plates: North Carolina boasts 'First in Flight' and Ohio has 'Birthplace of Aviation'.

Ohio's case is bolstered by also being the birthplace of both Neil Armstrong (Wapakoneta) and John Glenn, later state senator (New Concord). Batavia is the centre of the civil aviation industry nationwide and the US Air Force Museum is here too, northeast of Dayton. Michigan is a golf and boat state, but Ohio flies.

While I-75 is a wide and busy Interstate, US 33 is merely a US Route with one lane each way. It's like a straight Roman road through farmland with fields of varied crops right there on both sides. In fact America, being both new and spacious, has used the opportunity to plan its cities and roadways in a manner rarely done since the days of Roman military expansion. It does make a certain amount of sense, but is a very strange experience to someone used to the winding roads of Yorkshire whose placement is mostly defined by the contours of the land.

The towns here including Neptune are very small, and if you blink you miss them. It seemed only right that the sun should partly reappear out of the usual Ohio overcast sky to accompany us through a town named after a planet. The lack of sun amidst abundant cloud was the only thing to really remind me of home.

It was somehow refreshing to gaze at the myriad dilapidated and abandoned barns. In this sort of area it becomes less an eyesore and more a living piece of art. At least in Ohio, that is - the further we drove south the more this changed. Kentucky introduced red roofs to the sundrenched wooden sides and it just altered the effect from artistic collapse to mere rust. Such barns started to get more and more infrequent throughout Tennessee and they disappeared almost entirely by the time we reached Georgia.

Brenda, who we knew from our online gaming community as GreatEyes with good reason, and her charming family made us very welcome and fed us well, making sure we even took some of the food with us. Those cream puffs were delicious.

Brenda seems to be the quiet one of the family, a great contrast to Tina (Lady Ti) who we would meet next. Her husband, Chuck, was talkative yet always interesting and has a presence that seemed to me very American in that it was larger than he is. They have three children, all girls and all wonderfully mixed bundles of sweet politeness and youthful exuberance. Chicago would bring them totally out of their shells, but for now they were a little nervous to meet people that their mum knew only from the internet.

It took a lot of determination to leave only an hour late: We could have stayed here forever, soaking up such a warm welcome in this timeless rural atmosphere. We were, however, safe in the knowledge that we would be meeting up with the whole brood a month later in Chicago.

All this, and we were still on our first day. The plan would take us over 11,000 miles round the country in the ninety days allowed by my visa, but unfortunately we had to call it a day halfway round, due to news from home. One day in and life was very good indeed.

Next Chapter: I Slept with Your Boyfriend

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