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I Slept with Your Boyfriend

Tuesday, 26th June, 2001

I-75 South was mostly uneventful for miles on end, just another featureless interstate. Ohio landscape is pretty consistent and contoured land didn't appear until the hellish maze of Dayton. I'm still not sure just how Tracy kept on track with exit after innumerable exit heading out on the left and right like the arms of some demented octopus. In England all exits from motorways are on the same side of the road. That's all of them: you physically can't ever turn right off any motorway anywhere, and now I understand why.

Tina (LadyTi) had searched round for a cheap hotel for us and we rang her on arrival. Almost immediately we got to experience the patented Lady Ti squishy hugs. She may have arrived in a car but I think she flew in. Ti is a lively and quick-witted character who has a joie de vivre which is almost tangible. Her husband was pleasant and courteous but doesn't really understand the way in which people can coexist in a community online.

After all, technically the world wide web doesn't physically exist at all. It has all the trappings of real life, to the point at which places to meet are called chatrooms for very good reason, but it lives on the spacious hard drives of servers all over the world. People who live online understand that it is a world all of its own, but those who don't often have difficulty understanding how two people can communicate on any level beyond typing. In reality the online world often communicates on levels deeper than real life. It's a place where emotions and characters and personalities are all that are seen - the common real life distractions of voice and looks and body language are absent.

Ti's husband was courteous and friendly, but the four players present circulated separately to him and the other guests. We had more than just a common interest; we had a common way of thinking.

I've found it a truism that people used to living online act in similar ways to their usual behaviour in real life. The web can be a place to exaggerate your character, but the more exaggerated the less believable. In our community, the trivia game known as Cosmo's Conundrum, many players have multiple handles: I know players who display, often subconsciously, different aspects of their character under different handles. It would be an interesting case study to take.

Tracy is always quiet around people she doesn't know and she's often quiet round people she only knows from the online world. Lady Ti is much more bubbly, as indeed she is in the game. Our fourth was another player from the Cincinnati area, a quiz addict who has found his way to yet another world, that of television game shows. A few players from our online quiz game have done so, with varying success, but the most successful of the lot is Tubaman2.

When we moved on as a group to playing Cosmo from Lady Ti's PC, with all four of us contributing and me at the keys, we did very well, winning most of the games we played. We'd set up a special handle to reflect all of us - and some new players didn't know who we were. After all there are always new players; Uproar attracts 50,000 unique new people every month to its games. One such newbie pointed out that we ought to be on Jeopardy because we were doing so well. It was hard not to laugh when I was sitting right next to Tubaman2, who not only won Jeopardy and became a five time champion, but also won the Tournament of Champions in his year.

He is down to earth, obviously intensely proud of his performance - and rightly so - but modest enough not to let it go to his head. We watched a few of his performances, which was especially wonderful for me. Ti had watched them as they were broadcast, sharing his agony and ecstasy on the way to the top, but Jeopardy is not shown in England, and I therefore had to rely on reports of his progress passed on in the game.

And so to a late night and an early start south out of Ohio. We aquaplaned our way down I-71, bathing in the spray hurled back by myriad trucks with the precision of a showerhead; but the sun nevertheless continued to find a way to peer through the Kentucky cloud and shine brightly.

Soon a big angular water tower appeared out of the weather painted in red and white stripes like some sort of carnival candy, proudly advertising: 'Florence Y'all'. These towers seem to be the standard method of advertising the town's name, something that we in England are far less poetic about.

The States does seem to have its brain in gear when it comes to signs: we English could learn plenty. There are signs on the highway, of course, but not just for the road that we were driving along but to identify roads that we cross too. These, combined with the mile markers and the exits numbered by distance from state lines, help to pinpoint location very easily. England has none of this. Regardless, the quickest way to identify each new town is to look up at the water towers... they appear ahead to presage each town, defiantly striding the landscape like HG Wells' Martian fighting machines.

Being the fourth of July weekend - Independence Day to the Americans, Colonial Liberation Day to those latterly colonialised ex-pats, it seemed very strange to listen for a while to a radio station advertising itself as 'All American', yet broadcasting an all Brit weekend. I'm not sure where they got justification for that one, unless it was demonstrating subversive Kentucky humour.

The weather continued to hammer us for a long way down I-75. Through hyperactive windscreen wipers and the sheeting rain we saw odd sudden flashes of lightning punctuate the skyline and pound the countryside ahead of us. As the rain paused occasionally in its blitzkreig, we watched steam billow up from the construction lanes. Nature in action is always stunning.

We headed south into the sun, ever closer to the blazing Florida summer. Much of the landscape reminded me of Yorkshire, in a sharp contrast to the relentlessly flat contours of Ohio. The road undulated and the countryside flowed in hilly stretches across to the horizon at either side. The one immediate difference here is the ground between opposing halves of the highway: in England you'd see a barrier, here just a grass verge angled so as to discourage cars from swapping lanes but leaving it a teasing possibility. I kept my eyes half open for a black Trans Am swerving across in front of me with a smiling Bandit winking at my pretty travelling partner.

As the rain came and went dancing do si do with the sun, the road wound ever more sinuously until the misty surroundings seemed almost a living entity. The vistas were rarely far seeing but ever changing. Now open fields, now a sprawling wooded hill or six, now a hillock bare but for a lonely tree or billboard hoarding. The dilapidated barns didn't have quite the artistic style of their Ohio equivalents - maybe it was the red roofs or maybe we were just getting used to them.

Lexington came and went without any sign of a horse, though Tracy pointed out stables and racecourses and plenty of horse boxes. It may be the racing capital of the States, but it kept it effectively under its hat.

And so to Knoxville at last and Rose. I've known Rose for a couple of years, though we talk rarely. Her picture in my gallery of players is only a few years old, but nevertheless when she opened the door to her apartment I didn't recognise her at all. I have a terrible memory for faces and I can confuse people I know well, but Rose looked very different.

She's part Indian (only a small part) but is nonetheless fascinated by the subculture of the Native American and does much to aid their causes. She's a lively and talkative character with views on everything and the knowledge to back them up. I'm sure we could have carried on talking for weeks on end. We met up also with her daughter Jess and Jess's boyfriend, Matt, who is equally fascinated by a wide range of subjects. The pair of them kindly marked our good timing by showing us Gatlinburg.

Gatlinburg has the first 4th of July parade in the country: it starts at the stroke of midnight, as the 3rd becomes the 4th. It's a thoroughly well attended parade with the whole range of trailer trash wandering around: twelve year old girls looking eighteen and ladies with a, shall we say, fuller figure unselfconscious in halter-tops and cut off shorts. One young lady, no doubt looking far older than her years, proudly sported a shirt emblazoned with the message: 'I slept with your boyfriend'. It summed up the timbre of the event.

The parade itself was long and lively, with huge inflatables and sophisticated floats with live musicians or fire explosions. Local businesses paraded along with Elvis (who cleverly met a carbon copy of himself in the crowd) and uncountable beauty queens - Miss Cherokee, Miss Pre-Teen Cherokee, and so on - yet another reminder of the competition that underlies all American culture.

On the way to Gatlinburg was Pigeon Forge, a razor straight strip of land seemingly transplanted right out off the Las Vegas Strip. Gatlinburg is the wedding chapel centre of the east, but Pigeon Forge is its amusement centre, probably most famous for Dollywood. Everywhere was neon and fibreglass. It appeared as if from nowhere and disappeared as quickly into overhung country roads. It encapsulated the otherworldly feel to the whole escapade, which would be subtly replaced the next day by subtle rural peace.

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