Thursday, 31 August 2017

Child prodigy

I took a melatonin tablet last night, which has done wonders for my jet lag. Whether tonight will find me tossing and turning all over the place I've no idea, but I woke up feeling very perky at 11am after twelve hours' sleep.

Being back in London is a trial. It's done nothing but rain and there were autumn leaves on our car bonnet. I knuckled down to admin, applied for a job and moped about feeling a bit flat before heading over to Michael's to pick up and go through some music. I'm singing in a synagogue on Saturday as part of a choir and because we're singing in Hebrew, I need to be as prepped as possible. There's a heck of a lot of material to learn. It's not like a Christian church with a couple of hymns and a few set numbers. There's pages of the stuff, some of which is written in old Hebrew so a number of the vowel sounds have shifted, which makes it doubly confusing! So I'm essentially learning the rules of a language as well as a shedload of dots which I think can only be described as a steep learning curve. Of course, the more I sing, the more repetition I'll start to notice, both linguistically and musically, but until that point it's all a little bewildering.

There's really not much else to say for the day. I've started a health and fitness regime and, after the rain, there was a glorious sunset which made me feel a little more positive. I was also not caught by a single traffic light or jam on the North Circular, which has to be some sort of record.

I listened to an interview earlier with a young girl called Alma Deutscher who is being described as a Mozart-like child prodigy. She plays violin, piano and composes, all to an exceptional standard. She's very sweet, but fairly odd. She seems to be English but speaks with a German accent. I'm told she wrote a violin concerto at 8 and an opera at 11. She's twelve now, and carries a pink skipping rope around with her for inspiration. She wanted to write an opera because she liked red, velvet curtains. The music all sounds very Mozartian but it is remarkable for her age. It's just all a bit freaky. How does a kid get like that with so few hours in a day? And how on earth will she develop as an adult?

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Trump chocolates

We were up astoundingly early this morning, and sat, for some time, at 4.30am, on the subway at 50th waiting for the train to arrive whilst two Malaysian forty-somethings snogged on the stairwell. They were really going for it and the noises they were making were preposterous. Hollow, salivary, slurping sounds. Hugely disconcerting.

Sam chatted to a Chinese bloke on the long journey to JFK. I tuned into their conversation at one point to hear Sam talking about James the First. We could have taken a taxi to the airport, but it seemed such an unnecessary cost after such a ludicrously expensive holiday. What's an extra half an hour if it saves each of us $50?

We reached Sutphin Boulevard, where you leave the subway system and get on the Airtrain to the airport. As Nathan topped up our Metro card, we were accosted by a man who told us we wouldn't be able to pay for tickets for the Airtrain using the card. It was, of course, a scam, because he then said, "so as you've no use for your Metro card now, can you give it to me?" Well cheeky! For the record, you CAN pay for the AirTrain with a Metro card!!

This particular monorail is covered in little posters of JFK himself, with a series of quotes which appear to want to paint him both as a martyr and a saint, "he saw a world where nature and science would work in balance." The quotes, of course, aren't attributed to anyone specific, and got more and more preposterous. I'm no great follower of American history, but I'd suggest that although JFK was an interesting, handsome, effective, popular, fresh and deeply charismatic president, he wasn't Ghandi! In fact, the Vietnam War pretty much kicked off during his tenure, and the Cold War got a heck of a lot colder.

They were selling Donald Trump chocolates in the Duty Free shop. I couldn't work out if it was meant to be a joke; an ironic gift you get for a friend back home who hates Trump, in the way that we used to buy my Dad pictures of Charles and Di's engagement so that he could deface them. I wanted to turn every single chocolate bar around on the shelf. Or run at the display with flailing arms like a toddler. Or stick a radiator in front of it so the chocolate melts and looks like that bastard's warped face with a Shredded Wheat shoved on the top. An airport seems a funny place to be celebrating that desperate lummox.

The flight was not the greatest time I've ever spent in mid air. A fair amount of turbulence royally freaked me out, and because we'd got up so early, I kept lolling off to sleep. The problem is that I've developed an insane tick which means that every time I drop off to sleep on a plane, I immediately (and violently) wake up again whilst punching the person next to me! Anyone who's ever done a long haul flight sitting next to me will attest to this insanity. And of course the bloke in the seat in front immediately pushed his chair back, so I was boxed into a tiny space.

So, I sat for some time, thinking about our trip and wondering if it could possibly have been any more magical. Again and again, nature provided us with perfect sunsets and sunrises. We had just two hours of rain in three weeks. There were magical mists in San Fran. And then that remarkable eclipse in clear, clear skies. We never missed an appointment. We always arrived in cities and at locations on time. There were no rows. It was the perfect trip in every way.

We touched down in Heathrow at 7pm. I can safely say that I've never crossed the Atlantic that speedily. Considering that the flight to San Fran was over eleven hours, we were really quite surprised when the captain told us that particularly good tail winds would see us back to Heathrow in under six. We were warned that we might need to faff a bit in the sky over London, waiting for air traffic control clearance, so were astounded when the "cabin crew prepare for landing" announcement came. Seconds later we felt the wheels hit the runway.

We were through customs and baggage reclaim remarkably speedily. Taking a morning flight out of New York is massively preferable to the night flight, when you arrive at Heathrow having not slept a wink, feeling like death warmed up. Yes, we were up supremely early this morning, but we'll be home about 9 o'clock, be exhausted by 10, and, with any luck, be able to sleep through the night and wake up feeling fairly refreshed. That's the plan anyway.

Could do without this epic tube journey home though!

Drag and Brooklyn

I woke up this morning with a terribly sore back. I think I must have slept in a funny position. I think I'm also knackered. My mind and body are telling me to stop over-stimulating them.

We got up early so that we could travel to 112th and Broadway, which is the corner of New York where Tom's Restaurant sits. We'd eat up there every day during periods when we stayed with Christopher and Kevin. Nathan was literally craving their banana and pecan nut pancakes. They actually fry the pancakes with the bananas inside, which makes everything go all caramelised, gooey and scrumptious. In our entire trip across America, we've never found another place which does them like this, so the pilgrimage was worth it. My omelette, on the other hand, was slightly tasteless, and the fried potatoes were dry.

Tom's Diner is famous for two reasons. Its neon exterior was used extensively in establishing shots for the show Seinfeld. It's also the Tom's Diner mentioned in the hugely atmospheric Suzanne Vega song:

"I am sitting in the morning at the diner in the corner. I am waiting at the counter for the man to pour the coffee. And he fills it only half way and before I even argue, he is looking out the window at somebody coming in."

Brunch complete, we took the subway down to Brooklyn, marvelling at the sound of the trains, which, when they leave the station, make a bizarre whistle which sounds like the opening four notes from Somewhere, from West Side Story.

A woman by the subway train door was chewing gum and making an infernal noise. She must have been squeezing the air out of the chuddy behind her top teeth because she was making a sort of cracking noise, like a mixture of the sound of bones shattering and an unwelcome dose of diarrhoea!

We changed trains at 42nd Street, and passed a number of street preachers, one of whom was rapping her non-sensical message in a monotone. She appeared to be in a trance. It was like some sort of Beckett one-woman play. Lots of people in New York seem to feel the need to stand on corners, extolling the word of the Lord. All are extremely aggressive and come across like compete nut jobs. Quite why they think this abnormal behaviour is "spreading the word" is beyond me. I can imagine Jesus up there in heaven thinking, "Seriously?! Team atheist get raconteurs like Stephen Fry and Sandy Toksvig, and I get this bullshit?!"

Nathan told me an hysterical story about his meet and greet up at Knitty City yesterday. At the end of the day, someone came up to him with a print out of one of his patterns which she wanted him to sign. As he signed it, she told him how much she enjoyed his designs, before somewhat dryly adding, "I watch your podcast with the sound on mute." Nathan, somewhat taken aback said, "what? Just the visuals?" To which she responded, "you're a little chatty!"

We were heading to Brooklyn to see my dear, dear friend Sharon whom I have probably had more fun with over the twenty one years I've know her than almost anyone else I know. She's had a rough five years. Her son, Edzie, is autistic, and life has been very complicated as a result. When I last saw her, about two years ago, I got the distinct impression that she'd lost sight of who she was. About a year ago, however, she reclaimed her life, lost a shed load of weight, went on a healthy eating and exercise regime and emerged, like a glorious butterfly, looking barely a day older than when I met her.

She met us at the door without a scrap of make up on, looking stunningly beautiful and we spent an afternoon laughing so much we wanted to wee. Edzie has come on in leaps and bounds since we last saw him, and was really good company. Sharon's made a very brave decision in terms of his schooling next year which we both think is an excellent one. If anyone can noticeably improve that kid's prospects, it's Sharon. God knows it must be tough on her, and I'm sure she must feel lonely and housebound, but she has positivity and tenacity running through her veins. I genuinely didn't want to say goodbye.

Jem told us a really funny story last night about the somewhat-deluded, am-dram extras you sometimes get in film, TV and theatre projects, who often try to make themselves seem a little grander by literally making stuff up about the work they've done. One women he worked with was talking obsessively about all the musicals she'd "starred" in, and mentioned being in Cats. "Oh? Who did you play in that?" asked one of the other extras. Puffing herself up as grandly as possibly she replied, "the tiger!" I suspect this is only funny if you know that there are no tigers in cats!

We left Brooklyn and headed to the East Village to look around the vintage shops with Cindy. I was slightly disappointed to find very few pairs of cufflinks. It turns out that "vintage" in New York is almost exclusively a girl thing. What made me very happy, however, was the sight of old lady in Washington Square Gardens, riding a mobility vehicle which had a giant pole coming out of the back with a rainbow flag on it.

I eventually found myself a rather nice brown vintage tie in a little place called Hamlet's, somewhere in the West Village. It'll be nice to have something which reminds me of this part of the trip. Our final day. We ate our tea in a place called Cow Girl next to an entire wall made out of brightly-coloured images of Frida Kahlo, plainly painted by local school children. One of them had drawn her with a moustache instead of a mono-brow, which seemed a little unfair!

We had a fabulously amusing chat about the differences between pumps in the UK and the US. In America, pumps are high-heeled shoes, which is about as far as you can get from pumps in the UK which are black, rubber-soled, children's gym shoes. Or at least they were at my school. Nathan tells me he called them daps. I eventually found a picture of a pair of British pumps and showed them to Cindy who couldn't believe why anyone would wear anything so repulsive... for any purpose.

We had a drink in Julius', which, it turns out, is New York's oldest gay bar, and the New York home of the Mattachine Society throughout the fifties and sixties. The Mattachines were probably the most influential gay rights movement in the history of our struggle and I felt rather excited to be in their gaff.

The night ended with a drag show at Pieces, which is a gay bar I haven't set foot in for about 8 years, largely because the last time I was here, I was with Nathan and Philip Sallon of all people. I remember vividly that Philip was wearing some kind of red and white checked 1960s waitress uniform underneath a floor length white fake fur coat. (Think of all the chemicals who died to make him look that glamorous!) As we left the bar, Philip went up to the doorman and said, "do you know what the best thing about this club is?Losing it!"

The evening was a competition designed to promote new drag talent presented by a hugely talented queen called Shequida who, by the sound of things, and the way she presented herself, has been on the circuit for many years. She's also an opera singer with a glorious, fruity, bass voice. The evening was won by a queen called Betty Bottom whose schtick was that she pulled a series of hamburgers out from her never regions whilst lip-synching her number, which she proceeded to much away at with an air of absolute innocence. A glorious night. An inanely wonderful trip.

Monday, 28 August 2017

44 1/2

I woke up feeling brutally hungover this morning. I was probably exhausted as well. As we reach the final days of our holiday, I've started to realise quite how tiring the experience has been! Every second of every day has been filled with adventure. San Francisco feels like it happened last year.

We had brunch in a lovely little diner called 44 1/2. It's called that because it's on Tenth Avenue, halfway between 44th and 45th Streets. We were there to meet up with Christopher Sieber and his partner Kevin. Nathan and Christopher were in Spamalot together in the West End and immediately became firm friends to the extent that Christopher actually spent Christmas with Nathan's family. Seeing them is always a treat. We've had some fabulous adventures together over the years. They live on an island, on a lake, in the countryside forty miles outside New York. We have spent many a happy hour out there, swinging on hammocks amongst the humming birds and chipmunks. 

After eating, we strolled down to the Hudson. It was a wonderfully sunny afternoon, and we spent some time running through a fountain like little girls. It was one of those unpredictable fountains, where different jets of water leap out at different heights in myriad patterns. Part of the joy of the game is knowing that you're going to end up soaking wet.

After a blissful few hours, they very kindly drove us up to Knitty City, New York's premier yarn store, where Nathan had organised another one of his "meet and greets." The store had done some publicity to let its customers know that Nathan was going to be there, and we were literally besieged by people as soon as we arrived. The store owners couldn't bring enough chairs out to seat the people who had come. Nathan duly held court, surrounded by a lovely-looking group of adoring lady knitters... and one bloke. There were maybe 30 or 40 of them. The store owner was thrilled. He's becoming quite the knitting celebrity.

I milled around the Upper West Side for a while. I bought a muffin and a cup of tea at a bagel bakery. This particular part of the city is full of wealthy Jewish people and the experience of walking into the cafe was something else! I panic-bought a muffin because everything was so fast-paced and noisy in there. There's a certain type of shouty, brusque New Yorker that you see in the films but don't often find in mid town or down in the village. They all seemed to be in that bagel bakery!

I found myself a bench on a pavement in the middle of the two lanes of traffic on Broadway, by the subway station at 79th Street and spent some time writing postcards whilst the trains rattled noisily underneath me.

After a brief snooze back at the hotel, I went to the stage door of the Book of Mormon to meet the lovely Stephen Ashfield, who's currently over here doing the show. I actually gave Stephen his first job, fifteen years ago, playing Boy George in the show, Taboo. I'm extremely proud of the way that his career has developed and it was wonderful to see him looking so well and happy. We drank in a cafe called Frisson on 47th Street, and were joined, briefly, by some of the others members of the cast, who seemed very jolly indeed.

There are many stage door Johnnies in the US. People take musical theatre so much more seriously over here. Huge groups of people gather at the stage doors to get autographs of and selfies with the cast. Musical theatre is revered in a way which almost makes me want to weep.

We met Ian from the stage door of Anastasia at 6pm and randomly popped into Joe's Pizza to cheekily use their loo. It was a huge surprise and an enormous thrill to bump into one of the waitresses there, who happened to be my old drama school mate, Lesley. I sometimes forget how many good friends I have in this city. I'm hoping to catch up with her tomorrow.

Ian led us back to his house in the very northern tip of the Borough of Queens. Jem and Ian live in a predominantly Mexican neighbourhood where the first language is Spanish and everyone is genuinely tiny! Ian, by contrast, is a very tall, blond man who literally couldn't look more different from his neighbours if he tried. He tells me that the locals are incredibly friendly. There was certainly quite a buzz on the streets.

Jem cooked an exquisite meal which included a quiche, sweet potato chips, a salad and a delicious homemade chocolate mousse with blueberries. I was in heaven for the longest period of time! Conversation flowed. We discussed musical theatre orchestration, Egyptian wigs, Dante's Inferno, Pompeii and call centres. It's hideous that we have to say goodbye to them again for goodness knows how long. Seeing them has done nothing but remind how much I've missed them.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Ground Hog Day

I'm afraid I'm a little pissed as I write this blog. We've been out at a piano bar all night and someone fed me Gin and Tonic. 

We had breakfast in a little diner on 9th Avenue this morning. It was the usual fodder. Pancakes. Waffles. Omelettes. Sam tried grits, an anaemic looking, corn-based mush, which look like porridge and are apparently fairly tasteless. I don't actually know whether to talk about grits as a plural or a singular.

The diner had English football matches playing on its television screens. Newcastle were playing West Ham at one point. English soccer is massive news over here, as it is all over the world. I am eternally astonished that we can't seem to put together a decent national team. Not that I remotely care about football. I find the game faffy and feminine and the fans are crude and aggressive.

We walked the length of the incomparable High Line this morning, which follows the length of a raised railway track, which fell into disrepair in the second half of the 20th Century. It reopened as a walk in 2009, and every time I come here, they've extended it a little bit further. It now stretches all the way from 34th Street down to Gansevoort Street in the Meat Packing District, which is over 20 blocks away. It's a very special resource. The raised walkway has some stunning views over the city, but it's also been really carefully planned with places to sit, paddle, look at art work, eat, play, meet people and contemplate. The trees they planted when they landscaped the walk are now looking established. I remember coming here some years ago and thinking how lovely it would all be when the trees were tall. I had no idea that this moment would arrive so speedily. The place keeps developing. There's always something exciting and new to look at. My favourite spot has always been the giant glass window from where you can look all the way up Tenth Avenue.

From the end of the High Line, we walked through that uniquely treacle-like New York Village light to Christoper Street, which is, of course, home to the infamous Stonewall Bar where, 49 years ago, rioting helped to put gay rights firmly on the agenda. The riots kicked off the day that Judy Garland died when police raided the bar and made a number of totally spurious arrests. I'm not sure there's any real connection with Judy Garland's death, beyond coincidence, but perhaps the people in the bar were in a state of shock after the death of their icon, and the raids simply tipped them over the edge. The romantic in me likes to think that this was the case.

The bars in the West Village were displaying a riot of different flags including the flag for men who like leather, the trans flag and the bear flag. Yes, there is a flag for hairy gay men! They've also started resurrecting the eight-colour rainbow flag in honour of Gilbert Baker, who died earlier this year. Baker designed the rainbow flag initially with extra turquoise and pink stripes, but this proved to be too expensive. From that point onwards, the pride flag was six-coloured. It was really rather lovely to see it as Baker originally desired. Around the village we saw a number of pictures of Donald Trump which had had their faces scratched out! Trump might love New York, but the feeling is certainly not mutual.

We dropped Sam and Matt off at Washington Square Gardens. It was boiling hot, so Nathan stuck his head in the fountain and got soaking wet. We then took the subway up to Midtown to discover that the whole of Eighth Avenue had been pedestrianised and turned into a giant street market as far as Central Park. We ate arepas. We'd never had them before. They're little sweetcorn fritters with mozzarella inside. The people selling them are all Latino. The women I bought mine from only spoke Spanish.

We went to see a matinee of Groundhog Day this afternoon, which was a show we both missed during its all-too-short run in London. It's playing here at the August Wilson theatre. Broadway theatres change their names so regularly that I have no idea if I've seen something in that particular theatre before. I've seen a lot of Broadway shows, so it's a strong possibility. We went with our friend Cindy and all three of us enjoyed the show immensely. The second half, in particular, really touched me, and got right under my skin. I guess I've felt rather trapped in my own life of late: slogging away at my career with absolutely zero financial reward and, as such, felt like I've been going round in ever decreasing circles. A piece about a day which repeats and repeats was always going to hit me hard.

I think the show must be appealing to men. I have never in my life seen such a queue for the gents loo during an interval. I think there were more than 100 men in a line which stretched up two flights of stairs. A bemused front of house staff member was standing at the top of the steps barking, "this is the end of the line for the men's bathroom."

After the show we went to a dive on Nine where we ate salad and I had a Gin and Tonic which made me a little squidgy. I've had two more since! Jem and Ian joined us between shows, and it was like old times again. God I've missed those two.

This evening we headed back down to the West Village. First stop was Duplex, a piano bar, two doors along from Stonewall, but it was incredibly loud to the extent that I had to put tissue paper in my ears! After a quick drink, we crossed the road to Monster Bar and propped up the piano in the corner, where a delightful pianist (an entertainment lawyer by day) was playing songs from the shows. We covered pretty much every major show in about two hours. I led the group in a rendition of Don't Cry For Me Argentina. Funny what you end up singing. The pianist explained to me that cabaret and open mic pianists used to refuse to play music by Lloyd-Webber because they didn't consider it to be proper musical theatre. I don't know whether that was more an anti British thing, or a stance against the perceived simplicity of his music. Anyway, apparently things changed when Sunset Boulevard came out. Pianists considered this show to be more worthy of their fingers!

The last time I propped up the piano in this bar was probably in about 2007. I was with Nathan and Matt Lucas and we were singing the whole of Little Shop Of Horrors. As we indulged our musical theatre whims, we became aware of quite a major commotion, and realised one of the queens in the bar had glassed another. There was blood literally everywhere. It looked like someone had dipped the poor bloke in red paint. After a while we continued to sing... the show must go on!

I was very moved when the whole bar broke into Somewhere Over the Rainbow. When you're sitting opposite Stonewall, that song has a deeper significance. We left the bar and sang a glorious rendition of Sweet Dreams on the street outside with a beautiful black drag queen.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of [sic]

Road Trip: Day Thirteen. Miles travelled: 3984. States visited: 17
(Plus Washington DC). Time zones covered: 4

It seems rather strange to think we woke up in Washington DC this morning and that we're now in New York.

The last leg of our epic car journey took us from DC to Philadelphia and through another four states. States come at you thick and fast on the Eastern side of the US. Delaware, it turns out, is tiny!

There's not much to write about this particular car journey. The Interstate took us through the middle of Baltimore, which seems to be a large, brutal and highly industrial city full of bridges. It's in Maryland, and Maryland, it turns out, likes to make a bit of money by charging people to drive on its motorways. In over three thousand miles of driving, we'd only come across one other toll road, and were fairly amused when we were only charged something ludicrous like 75 cents to drive on it!

Maryland knows it's the gateway to New York and Philly and seems to have no compunction whatsoever about fleecing its drivers. The tolls kept coming. The first was for $4. The next cost us $8. Minutes later we paid another $4. It all felt a little unfair.

Delaware doesn't have much going for it, or certainly not the bit we passed through. I'm told it's so small that it would fit into the Grand Canyon. It does, however, have a giant silver Jesus statue which stares over the motorway like an over-sized, foil-coated Christmas tree decoration. When on earth did religion get so tacky? 

A lot of the States are delineated by rivers in these parts, and going over a bridge often means you're crossing a state line. The impressive Delaware Memorial Bridge takes you into New Jersey, and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge takes you into

Pennsylvania. Philadelphia is literally just over the border and the views of the city's skyscrapers from said bridge are magnificent. I rather enjoyed visiting Pennsylvania because the state was named after William Penn, son of Sir William Penn, who was one of the two Sir Williams who were Samuel Pepys' bosses at the Navy Office in the mid 1660s. Pepys didn't have much time for either, but he does mention William Penn Junior in his diaries. I think he's suitably dismissive!

There are a fair number of beggars in Philly. The city of Brotherly Love plainly doesn't have quite enough love to go around. Many of the beggars stand in the middle of the busy roads at junctions where they know the cars are going to stop. Some of them are really laissez faire about what they're doing, almost as though they're willing the cars to hit them. I can't imagine life can be much fun in their situation.

An elderly black woman in a leopard print trouser suit, floppy straw hat and ruby slippers, smoking a cigar, was talking obsessively to herself on the corner of Market Street and Sixteenth. She looked incredibly glamorous but I fear her ranting was largely falling on the collective deaf ears of people passing by.

We weren't in Philly for long enough to get the slightest sense of the place. My instinct tells me it's New York lite. Noisy, crowded, a bit touristy, but ultimately the city is not as exciting or interesting as its bigger brother. There are lots of fat people on the streets, many of whom wear trousers with elasticated waists, and, in the area where we were, an abnormally high number of people were wandering about in hospital scrubs. There were also a lot of men wearing somewhat boxy, rather ill-fitting 1990s-style business suits. That seems to be the way that Americans like to have their suits tailored. It looks old-fashioned to my eyes. They're a bit more European in their tastes in New York.

There was a huge mural on the side of one building, which closer inspection revealed to be a mosaic. That was kind of cool. Underneath it, a young girl sat on a wall with a pout which said "look-at-me, how-dare-you-look-at-me!"

We wanted to see the Liberty Bell. Nathan was determined to lick it like Barney does in How I Met Your Mother. The queues were insane, so we had to make do with looking at it through a bullet-proof window. Nathan had to imagine licking it.

And then, almost as though the road trip had never happened, we dropped the car off at the car hire place next to the train station. Nathan had single-handedly driven 3894 miles, which, to my mind, is an astonishingly feat.

The last ninety miles of our journey happened by train. At Philadelphia train station you're offered something of a Sophie's Choice: Take the fast, expensive Amtrak train to New York, or the slow, cheap Septa one. Neither company talks to the other, or seems aware of the costs associated with travelling with the opposition. Ask at the "neutral" customer help counters in the middle of the train station and you're told they don't know the costs for either company.

It turns out that Amtrak are the ones taking the mic. It may only be an hour into

New York on their trains, but for $162 dollars - one way, per person - they're instantly in the world of "fuck right off." To put things in perspective, an Uber from Philly to NYC is $120, so getting a taxi door to door for the four of us would have cost us five times less than Amtrak! We ended up taking the slower Septa service for $26 dollars each. It chugs along somewhat, and the total journey is 2 1/2 hours, but it's comfortable and relaxing.

A lot of the train station names in these parts seem to be Welsh. Bryn Mawr. Cynwyd. How on earth would the locals tackle these pronunciations?

We arrived at Penn Station in New York and wheeled our suitcases fifteen blocks up Eighth Avenue to our hotel. The Amsterdam is fine. The rooms are as small as you'd expect in New York. I was slightly perturbed, however, to find we had to pay for wifi. It's the first time wifi hasn't been free for our entire trip across America, and it feels a bit naff to be charged $10 a night for the privilege, particularly as wifi is now free on most of the streets in this city.

We went to the Top of the Rock, a viewing platform at the top of the Rockefeller Building. It's the best place to see New York from. Sam and Matt have never been here before and it's a fabulous place to find ones bearings. It's like looking at a three dimensional map. You can point to the left of Central Park and say, "there's the upper West Side..." The other joy about the Rockefeller is that it gives you a perfect view of the Empire State Building. If you're up the Empire State, you can't actually see it! I think it's Central Park, however, which has the greatest impact because you realise quite how large it is. A massive expanse of green stretching into the distance.

It's so peaceful up there. You're so far above the city that the sound of sirens and the general Mid-Town hustle and bustle merely vanish into the gentle breeze.

We watched the sun setting. It was a little crowded up there, but the sun went a joyous red-orange and literally melted into New Jersey, morphing into a most peculiar shape as it sank. Its disappearance prompted a big cheer from the crowd. You can't beat the drama of the natural world.

That said, when the myriad lights of New York come out to play and start twinkling magically, nature gets quite a good run for its money. It's like looking at a galaxy of colourful stars.

The building itself is Deco heaven with great blocks of glass like giant ice cubes on many of the internal walls.

We met our dear friend Jem at an Italian on about 50th called Maria Pia. We had a delicious meal, which was made all the more delicious by his delightful company. We caught up on several months' worth of gossip and, for some reason, spent about half an hour discussing death. I was rather grateful when Jem very deliberately changed the subject. We talked about musical theatre instead.

We decided to take Sam and Matt to Times Square, which, for people who have never seen the place at night, needs to be seen to be believed. Every time I visit, it seems to be slightly more over the top. More and more of the buildings are sporting giant video walls, and the place is so full of light that it feels permanently like day. As Nathan said earlier, "the eclipse meant that we saw midnight during daylight, and Times' Square means we're seeing daylight at midnight!"

Jem's partner, our other dear friend, Ian, is currently in the Broadway show, Anastasia, so we met him afterwards and were delighted when he suggested he give us a backstage tour of the theatre. It was utterly fascinating to be shown the revolves (which they call turntables here), the flying bits of set and the places where the cast do their quick changes. It was also quite a treat to stand on the stage and look out at the empty auditorium.

Anastasia is running in a theatre opposite the one showing Kinky Boots, a musical set in Earls Barton, a little Northamptonshire town which is no more than ten miles from where Sam and I grew up. The show has a huge billboard outside which announces that it's been on Broadway for five years and is now running in the U.K., Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea and Germany. All that for a story about a shoe factory back home!

The night ended at Roxy Diner where we were seated on a huge upstairs table in front of a massive window overlooking Eighth Avenue. The yellow cabs and the odd horse-drawn carriage heading up to Central Park streamed and clip-clopped past. That's the genuine New York experience if you ask me!

Friday, 25 August 2017

George Town

DuPont Circle is the home of countless embassies, all of which have been attracted by the huge Victorian properties around here. It always feels a little peculiar to call American architecture "Victorian," although I'm pretty sure I've heard San Franciscans describing buildings in those terms. They probably think it sounds older or quainter.

DuPont Circle itself is a large roundabout surrounding a park about the size of Soho Square - except round. I'm pretty sure the Americans describe the few roundabouts they have as "circles". There's a gleaming white fountain in the middle of DuPont decorated with carved, somewhat Grecian imagery. It's a charming place to sit and think. I believe DuPont was a naval something or other.

We followed P Street from DuPont Circle into the ancient George Town district this morning. It seems a little brutal to name roads alphabetically, but I guess it's no different from using numbers. Because I've never considered letters before, I made Nathan cackle by mistakenly referring to P St as P Saint! It reminded me of my sat nav when it referred to St Paul's Street at "Street Paul's Street."

We passed a church on our way which was flying a massive "black lives matter" banner and a huge rainbow flag which said "all are welcome." It strikes me that if more churches were like this, religion would be a great deal more popular, and the world would be a far more tolerant and happy place.

George Town is my kind of town. It's full of tree-lined streets and stunning architecture; a blend of brick built Victorian buildings and delightful New England-style clapboard houses. It is incredibly charming. The people there seemed very friendly as well. A sign in someone's front garden read, "no matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbour." It was written in English, Spanish and Arabic. I got a sudden and overwhelming sense of familiarity which made me feel somewhat ashamed. I've travelled the length and breadth of this country and it was only in a deeply middle-class, bohemian neighbourhood that I felt I'd come home to roost!

The further into the area we got, the older the houses seemed. I'm not great at dating American houses, but I assume they were from the 1820s. In some places there were old tram lines on the road.

Wisconsin Avenue bustles with cafes, boutiques and art galleries and is remarkably similar to Hampstead. There's a very charming stretch down by the Potomac River, where people are encouraged to sit, eat, feed ducks and watch the world go by.

We visited the Old Stone House, which, built in 1766, is the oldest house in Washington DC. These days it's a museum and a bookshop. The museum is pretty bog standard, with a few rooms set up to look as they might have looked when the house was built. I didn't learn much from my whistle stop tour of the place, but did learn that 18th Century Americans used to sleep in two four-hour blocks. 8-12pm and 3-7am. Roughly. The time in the middle was known as "wakefulness", and was used for chatting, praying, reading and romance! The more I think about this, the more it makes sense. 8 hours' sleep has always been the recommendation, and we know we sleep in 4 hour cycles...

We were fighting the urge to do any more touristy stuff today, but decided a trip to DC wouldn't be complete without a jaunt to the Library of Congress. We took an Uber up there and were relieved to discover that it's not just all Uber drivers in London who are called Mo.

The Library of Congress is a masterful building with the most extraordinary entrance hall which is lined, floor to ceiling, with murals. The reading room is spectacular. I understand it's the largest library in the world. Visitors can stand on a gallery, behind glass, and look down on the scene of academic tranquility below. As a card-carrying member of the British Library, it felt a little odd to be an outsider looking in. When I'm researching my projects, those studious people sitting at the long benches are people like me!

We took an underground tunnel (slightly more romantic-sounding than it actually is) to the Capitol Building, which is one of the finest pieces of architecture I've ever seen. It is built out of shimmering white stone and is like a cross between St Paul's Cathedral and the Greenwich Maritime Museum. A pair of freaks were sitting outside with a full-sized mannequin of Jesus, complete with gowns rustling in the wind. All around Jesus were badly-written, anti-abortion signs: "Faroh [sic] kill the babies. Herod said kill the babies. Hitler said kill the babies..." A little doll was sitting on the signs in case anyone was wondering what a baby looked like. One assumes they couldn't find a foetus doll!

I deposited Nathan at a yarn shop this afternoon, which I was surprised to learn is the only yarn shop in Washington DC. Nathan had let his knitter fans know last night that he'd be there between 3 and 5pm and when we arrived, a small gaggle of women were waiting to meet him. I was the first to enter the room and a woman threw her arms around me, saying "Benjamin Till." It's amazing how much they've learned about me as a result of Nathan's regular podcasts!

I left him to it for a while, and by the time I'd returned, he'd attached himself to some sort of knit night. The yarn shop was full of very interesting looking people knitting - a surprisingly large number of whom were men. They were, of course, eating out of Nathan's hands. He was measuring a half-knitted jumper and liberally offering pearls of wisdom.

As I walked back to the knit shop, I had to think very hard about which city I was in. When you're in a different place every day, it can get somewhat confusing. Now I know how people feel when they're on tour, and they pull out of a town and can't remember where they've been. Backstage at the Sage in Gateshead and a sign reads, "you are at the Sage Venue in Gateshead." I guess it means bands don't rush onto the stage and shout "good evening... um..."

We ate our tea at Zorbas', a delightfully shambolic restaurant where I ate my second Greek Salad of the day. It's blissful to be able to eat salad vegetables again.

The night ended at Kramer Books, just up from DuPont Circle. I'm told it was the first bookshop in Washington to have a cafe and bar attached. It's got a really lovely vibe, and it stays open til 1am, which should appeal to the insomniac book lovers in the city. The back bar is full of cool, young, multi-racial Washington DC types. The cafe is called "Afterwords." Perfect.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Oh Shenandoah

Road Trip: Day Eleven. Miles travelled: 3700. States visited: 12. Time zones covered: 4

We stayed in a terrible hotel last night. It was a last-minute, knee-jerk booking, because there wasn't a place we wanted to see between Nashville and Washington DC, but the journey was too far to drive in one go. We essentially stuck a pin in a map, came up with Roanoke, and booked the Days Inn because it was cheap!

It resembled a car park: one of those low-level, three-storey ones you get in Midlands towns where space is not an issue. It smelt of wee, damp and alcohol. Our room was specifically sold as a non smoking room, but it stank of fags, and the bed sheet was covered in cigarette burns. Sam had something creepy written on the mirror in his room which appeared to say "soul you guys," and we had claw marks on the bathroom door like someone had been locked in there and desperately tried to escape. We all decided it was the start of a horror film. A group of backpackers turn up in a town in the middle of nowhere and get picked off one by one. Sadly all four of us meet the profile of the first person to get killed in any horror movie. To live to tell the tail, we'd need to have donned a bikini!

In the night someone was violently banging on the hotel room doors. It was disconcerting to say the least! None of us slept well.

We were on the road by 9, and made a snap decision to visit the Natural Bridge, which, it turns out, was one of the first tourist destinations in the US for East Coast "civilised" types who wanted an experience of the Wilderness. The Natural Bridge is a 150-foot high rock formation, which, unsurprisingly, resembles a huge bridge. As early as the 1830s, adrenaline-junky tourists were paying a dollar to be lowered from the arch of the bridge into the valley below in a metal cage. I'm thrilled to report that they were accompanied, as they dangled perilously, by a violinist! We're told a young George Washington climbed twenty feet up the side of the formation and carved his initials. They're still there today.

During the Civil War, it was used as an ad-hoc shot-making tower. Hot lead was dropped from the bridge into the cool waters of the creek below, thereby doing away with the expense of building an official tower.

The valley which leads up to the bridge smells verdant and mossy. Strange birds squawk. Crickets hiss and chirp in curious sonic waves. Butterflies the size of British bats flutter about. It's really very lovely.

The area was the traditional home of the Monocan indigenous people, and there's a reproduction village down there where descendants of the tribe wander around spoon-whittling and growing sunflowers. A huge sign informs visitors of the things not to say, which include telling any of them that they "don't look Indian" or calling them "red skins, squaws or half breeds". It's astounding that people need to be told this stuff. It's rather dangerous as well, because it puts these words into people's heads!

We poked our heads into a saltpetre mine and saw the entrances to a few mysterious underground rivers before arriving at the end of the trail, a charming waterfall which glides down a smooth piece of rock jutting out of the hillside at a 45 degree angle. The water splays out across the rock like a rather fine and frothy table cloth, which is, no doubt, the reason why they call it the Lace Falls.

What is a visit to Virginia without seeing the famous Blue Ridge Mountains? I only discovered today that they're actually part of the Appalachians, so, as we have annual membership to all the US National Parks, we thought we'd swing into the Shenandoah National Park, curtesy of the Skyline Drive which snakes its way through the entire park.

Shenandoah is known for its wild flowers and we stopped alongside a wonderful meadow filled with bees and butterflies. The silence up in those mountains was glorious. Not a car or plane to be heard. The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia really do look blue from a distance. The hillsides are all covered in dense, deciduous trees which, from afar, look like moss. Actually, it's not dissimilar to a rain forest, when you peer down into the valleys. You half expect to see howler monkeys jumping about in the trees!

We pulled into Washington DC and immediately got stuck in the middle of the mother of all traffic jams. That'll teach us for timing our arrival in the capital of the USA to coincide with evening rush hour!

You only really become aware of the city as the freeway ushers you across the epic Potomac River. At that point you catch sight of some of those white, gleaming, iconic monuments and realise you're somewhere really rather important.

We're staying in an area called DuPont Circle, which appears to be a fairly happening part of town, possibly like a younger, cooler version of Mayfair. A sax player seems to be a resident busker on one of the corners. When we arrived he was playing upbeat songs to a backing track. When we returned at night he was crooning unaccompanied jazz to the moon!

My first sense of Washington DC is that it's a fast-paced city, quite like London in that respect. Unlike London, it's spotlessly clean, and, as a result, a little like a giant film set. The people feel like they're trying too hard, and taking themselves incredibly seriously. Walking down the street is like walking around a live TV studio. It's like people are screaming "look at how busy and important I am!" Working in politics could well be responsible for that. I was somewhat horrified to come across a well-dressed woman earlier, waiting at the bus stop, who was actually doing press ups on the sidewalk! There's a time and a place.

This city, with its somewhat aloof residents, has unveiled a somewhat awkward contradiction. The people we've met in the Middle America - the Trump voters, the ones I was wary of or dismissed as homophobes and rednecks - have been delightfully polite to us. We haven't encountered the merest jot of homophobia and everyone has been friendly and very helpful. But in a so-called Liberal city, where everyone is learned, everyone's far less polite and far more self-important.

Our hotel is lovely, but we were instantly forced to changed rooms on account of our neighbour having two yappie dogs who barked in irritating little high-pitched voices constantly from the moment I entered the room. Imagine bringing dogs like that to a hotel and leaving them unattended in a room?

We frog-marched ourselves down to the ceremonial part of town as the sun set. Quite a lot of the government buildings look like buildings on Whitehall. There's a fairly large police presence down there and when we arrived, a lot of the public spaces had been cordoned off. A low-flying helicopter screeched over our heads at one point and we wondered if it was President Cunt because, after it had cleared, the cordons were lifted.

We went to look at the White House, which is disappointing. In order to get there, you have to walk across a muddy grassy field with no footpath. It looks like a ludicrous zombie pilgrimage. People stumble across the field to pay homage to Trump (and I suppose the building) like elderly women head for the stage in an Alfie Boe open air concert. Upon reaching the White House, you're confronted by cheap-looking security fences which have "restricted area" written all over them, blocking out the view. Buckingham Palace must be every bit a terrorist target and yet the people who go there are treated with far more respect, and offered much better views.

As we walked around the large, somewhat pompous monuments, I found myself realising that the election of Trump has spoilt American politics for me. If the checks and balances weren't present to stop that man from being elected then my respect for the system has to dwindle. I felt that very strongly as I walked about.

I also realised that my interest in history has always been about the people rather than the rulers. I am much more fascinated by the lives of the ordinary Yankee soldiers in the American civil war than I ever have been in what Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address. That said, this trip has also made me realise that I am woefully under-informed when it comes to all American history. Sam is far more well read, and was like a dog with two tails wandering about this evening.

The George Washington monument is impressively large. That's the great big obelisk you see in the pictures. I assumed, it might be the size of Cleopatra's Needle. It's twenty times larger.

The walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial is deeply impressive. The two areas are linked by a reflecting pool. The buildings, all flood lit, shimmer on the surface, and a peach and lavender sunset and a tiny crescent moon were also screaming for attention! It's very lovely but the brackish water down there is a Mecca for mosquitoes, and we all got bitten to death.

I learned today that 404,800 Americans were killed in the Second World War (which I was sad to see they merely refer to as "The War"), but that 620,000 died in the American Civil War, which feels like an enormous number.

People seem to treat the Lincoln Memorial as a bit of a shrine, and they can get a little fanatical up there. I made the mistake of inadvertently wandering into a picture one woman was organising. She grabbed my wrist with some force and shouted "wait" in my face. Not a whiff of an "excuse me" or a "thank you" as I waited. "Less of the aggression next time..." I said as I walked away. It was destined to be an awful picture anyway. People like that just need to get more adept at taking pictures in crowded places!

We ate at Panera this evening, courtesy of my brother-in-law who got me a gift token for my birthday. It was rather lovely to be able to treat everyone for a meal. So Sascha, if you're reading this: many thanks.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Nashville and Danny Boy

Road Trip: Day Ten. Miles travelled: 3480.
States visited: 12. Time zones covered: 4

We arrived in Nashville at 7pm last night, considerably later than expected, after getting caught up in the mother of all tailbacks whilst fleeing Carbondale. I don't know where this particular world and his wife had gone to view the eclipse. It certainly wasn't where we were!

The biggest issue I have with Nashville is that I can never remember it's name! I keep calling it Memphis, and more recently Knutsford, which is plainly just disrespectful!

Our old, dear friend, Dan Carter lives here and came to the hotel to meet us. And what a ray of blissful sunshine that precious lad is! It was utterly delightful to see him. We handed him the reins, said "show us Nashville", bundled into his car, and ended up at Wild Cow, a vegetarian restaurant which, for the first time since we left San Fran, actually smelt of healthy food rather than cooking fat, grilled cheese and meat! The restaurant is in a hipster area of the city, which is apparently on the up and up ever since a twister pretty much destroyed it, thereby allowing town planners to start again.

Vegetarians panic in vegetarian restaurants. Choice is not something we're used to. We spend our time looking for the v on the menu, checking it's not got coriander in it, and ordering that. Thy had a full eclipse in Nashville as well, so the place was full of excited hippies. One came up to me to admire the rhyolite bracelet I'd bought for six dollars in a ghost town somewhere back in Nevada. Apparently rhyolite is a very powerful stone. I was half expecting her to do some reiki or aura-cleansing on me, and I'm sure she would have done had I not needed to go.

From the vegetarian restaurant, we drove to the downtown district.

I really like Nashville. It's a genuinely interesting place which feels very comfortable with itself. Kids are out on the streets late at night, which is a sure indication that the place is safe. It's a fabulous blend of old and new. We entered the area via the Shelby Street Bridge (built in 1909), which was a road bridge until it started to fall down. Instead of allowing it to crumble, which is almost certainly what would have happened in a place like St Louis, they renovated it and turned it into a pedestrian bridge. It's lit up beautifully at night, and the air above it is thick with night hawks. At first we thought they were large bats. I'm not used to seeing flocks of birds so active after dark. One assumes the birds are drawn to the insects which have been drawn to the flood lighting.

A tiny snake slithered about in the lift which took us to the top of the bridge. We thought it was sweet, but could hear the people who got in the lift as we got out screaming all the way down! When we returned at the end of the evening, the lift had been closed! Maybe a giant mummy snake appeared to work out what the yelling was all about!

We walked down Broadway, which is the street where all the live music bars are situated. Most of the buildings in this part of town are from the turn of the twentieth century. Some look how imagine the French Quarter in New Orleans to look with ornate balconies. All of the bars have old-school neon signs outside, many of which are from the 50s and 60s. There are so many of them, all at different heights and different sizes, that the place seems to shimmer. It's really rather magical.

Buskers play music on the streets, the sounds of live bands reverberate from the clubs. The street is a riot of light and noise. The people there seemed rather un-American, somehow, with few of the grotesque fatties who were so prevalent in the Midwest states, or any of those plastic, over-tanned, over-skinny freaks you get on the Pacific coast. Everyone seemed very real. I might have been in Manchester!

Dan took us to Robert's, which was described by the lead singer of the live band playing there as a "honky tonk." I've never heard the word used in the context of anything other than pianos, but he seemed authentic enough, so I bow down to his greater knowledge! Dan tells me that honky tonk can also be used as a verb. You can go honky-tonking - meaning to go from one honky tonk joint to the next. Whatever the case, Roberts is a charming bar with a charming vibe. The walls are lined with cowboy boots and dusty pictures of the great and the good of country music going back decades. We were treated to a six piece country band, including a steel guitar and a highly talented violinist. The players were all in their fifties and sixties and had that old-school effortless pro vibe about them. They barely broke a sweat as they played the most complicated licks and improvisations. The whole point of county, or so it seems, is to appear as laid back as possible. What I particularly loved was watching people in the crowd dancing. Proper pairs dancing, having a wonderful time without feeling the need to take the mick or appear really cool.

The band's front man described the band as "proper old country boys, playing real traditional classic country, like Nashville was built on." You can't say fairer than that! The singer was also able to do multi-phonic steam train whistles with his mouth, which made me very happy. The bar smelt of beef being barbecued.

Much as I was enjoying the vibe, there comes a time with me and all bars where I have to leave. I get very claustrophobic in and I'm one of those people who always ends up standing in the place that everyone wants to use as corridor. I get buffeted about. Then I worry about my ears and the loud music. Then I worry I'll damage my voice again by shouting. At that point, I know I just need to exit at speed!

On our way home, just as we got back onto the pedestrian bridge, we saw a less pleasant side of the city in the shape of a woman, plainly high on crack or alcohol, in a terrible state, emptying dustbins, screaming, ranting and wailing. She then started throwing bricks at the windows of a nearby building. Glass was shattering all over the place, so Dan was forced to call the police. We stood on the bridge and watched as a copper nonchalantly arrived. As he walked towards her, he put on a pair of black latex gloves before casually cuffing her and leading her away. It was all rather sad. She went passively. I guess she wanted to get arrested. It probably meant a decent meal, a good bed and a chance to sober up, or perhaps she just wanted something tangible to match the pain she was feeling.

We woke up early and met Dan at the hugely noble house he's lodging in, which, built in 1800, is considered to be the oldest home in Nashville. It was part of a cotton plantation which has subsequently been swallowed up by the city. We went in to meet the charmingly eccentric owner of the house, Amy. She has the most extraordinary art work across her walls and lives in a world of bohemian clutter which reminded us all of Anna Madrigal in Tales of the City. It was fairly astonishing to be in an American house which felt like it had pretty much witnessed the birth of its country - certainly its infancy. Tennessee itself, I believe, only became a state in 1797.

Speaking of the inauguration of the state, Dan took us for a little jaunt in Centennial Park, which was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Tennessee (whose capital, incidentally, is Nashville.) The park's crowning glory is a full scale replica of the Parthenon in Athens, and it's a great deal more impressive than the replica of Stone Henge we saw two day's ago! It was built in 1897, so it's got some age, and it feels like it was built to last, despite, somewhat bizarrely, being covered in a form of pebble dash. They sometimes refer to Nashville as the Athens of the South because of all the seats of learning there. (Dan tells us it's a now centre of excellence in the field of medical research.) So giving the city its own Parthenon felt appropriate.

The park is full of little freestanding wooden hammocks, which take the place of benches. You can propel yourself backwards and forwards on them by pushing down on a platform with your feet. It's all very quaint, as they say here. The park also has a F-86L jet plane suspended on a stalk and the engine of train from the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis railway. I wondered if that made it the Chattanooga Choo Choo? We sang the song, obviously, and it's been caught in a desperately irritating loop in my brain ever since!

Humidity in Nashville is quite intense at this time of year. They say it's only bad like this for a few weeks, but it was certainly making us all sweat profusely. One of the things Dan likes most about the town, however, is the climate. He says they get four proper seasons there. Autumn is apparently the best time to be there. The trees all turn shades of copper and red, and the breeze is fresh.

We went to a cafe where everyone was looking at pictures of the eclipse. It's certainly captured everyone's imagination down here. Dan tells me a cloud passed over as totality struck, and I suddenly realised quite how lucky we'd been - particularly when you consider what the forecast had been for Carbondale.

Service in the cafe was slow like you wouldn't believe. At one point the woman behind the counter stopped what she was doing, emptied out her tips jar, slowly counted all the coins inside and exchanged them for notes from the till. Surely, I thought, this was something which could be reserved for the end of a day when there's not a massive queue. It was twenty minutes before we got served and then another lifetime before the drinks arrived! There's a very different pace to life down there. Probably due to the heat.

Our time in the city ended in Elliston Place Soda Shop, where we ate a hugely sickly chocolate cake covered in a big dollop of meringue (inedible after one mouthful) and an Orange Frosty, which had a curiously high dairy content (also inedible after one mouthful!!) I find food with a high cream content - particularly when it's synthetic cream - utterly foul. I think the others enjoyed their food.

We were on the road by 1pm for a six hour drive to Roanoke in Virginia which became a nine hour marathon during which we all went mad in our little tin box in a series of traffic jams. We saw on the telly in the diner that a heavy storm was predicted and were pelted by frighteningly huge quantities of rain within thirty minutes of leaving the city.

At 3.18pm, midway across Tennessee, we entered Eastern Standard time, and suddenly it was 4.18 and we'd entered the time zone that would accompany us all the way to New York. We're now only five hours behind the UK.

We got stuck in heavy traffic in Northern Tennessee, which gave us an opportunity to look at more road side advertising hoardings. Our favourite (in a disturbing way) was "Machine gun rentals. Stop. Shop. Shoot." Another said, "Jesus is Lord. We buy guns. Trump." The poster might as well have said, "we are mad. We are mad. Mad."

We passed into Virginia, our twelfth state, at 7.20pm. And almost as soon as we did, we were greeted by a whole hillside covered in Virginia creepers! It really is a thing here! It glues itself to quite a lot of trees and creates the most astounding shapes. Human forms. Dark green mythical animals. Mystical buildings. I'm sure it looks wonderful in the autumn. But equally sure it's not that good for the trees!

Monday, 21 August 2017


Since coming on this road trip I've not been able to sleep beyond 6.30am. Today, despite being in a deeply comfortable bed, I was awake, and bolt upright, at 6.30am on the dot. I sat on a balcony, watching the sun rise. The crickets were scraping. The birds were chirping. There are very few song birds in the States. The birds they have over here seem to be more interested in emitting little squawks and noises which sound like lorries reversing. A couple of deer ran past. A humming bird swooped down. Everything was delightfully misty.

This part of the world is incredibly humid. Not humid like Tel Aviv, but after the dry heat of the desert states, it's been quite a surprise.

Today was the day we've all been waiting for. The day we'd organised our entire road trip around. This morning, we sat by Little Grassy Lake, just outside Carbondale, and witnessed a total eclipse of the sun. A total eclipse of the sun. It's still sinking in.

We'd chosen this place, and detoured like crazy to get here, because it's the point at which this particular eclipse, as it makes its way in a giant arc across the States, experiences the longest duration of totality. Lights out for 2 minutes and 46 glorious seconds.

We thought we'd never manage to park our car. The news over here has been filled with warnings of potential traffic chaos, and as we exited Carbondale where we were staying, we instantly got stuck in a tailback of cars waiting to park in an officially designated area.

We did try to visit the exact point where scientists had suggested absolute greatest totality would take place, but it was slap bang in the middle of a farmer's field which said "no trespassing" in huge letters on the gate. Besides, we decided it was going to be much more fun to sit somewhere beautiful, surrounded by other people experiencing the same thing. An eclipse should be shared. To hell with the 0.2 seconds of darkness we missed out on!

As it happened, we chose incredibly well. The majority of eclipse chasers in this area went to local towns and sat in parks where people were no doubt selling hot dogs and eclipse glasses for astronomical prices. Our lake was off the beaten track and had 360 degree panoramic views all the way to the horizon. We didn't even need to pay to park!

Most of the people around us by the lake were middle aged men. Perhaps there's a tendency for older folk to think they might not get a chance to witness an eclipse again. And perhaps an eclipse is a bit of a boy thing? Whatever the case, everyone was highly charming, very jovial and great fun to be around.

Nathan and I were brave enough to go swimming in the lake. It was a bit murky, but terribly refreshing in the insanely brutal heat. More crucially, it filled another half an hour during the long, long wait!

The moon started to creep across the sun at 11.52am, imperceptibly nibbling away at the top right-hand corner. We had spare pairs of eclipse glasses and made a couple of old guys very happy by passing them on. One of them sounded like Peter Griffin from Family Guy. Over the next hour or so, we put our glasses on from time to time to check the progress of the moon's shadow. It looked like a pitted olive to begin with.

Perilously dark clouds started to pass over the sun at 12.12. Bad weather was forecast for the afternoon, so we got in something of a panic. How dreadful to have come all this way and not ended up with the ultimate eclipse experience - or, worse still, experienced the eclipse in a thunder storm with the windscreen wipers on. The sun reemerged after a few minutes, however, by which point it looked like Pac Man. After disappearing behind another black cloud, it looked like a half moon, and from then on we weren't troubled by clouds.

The intensity of the sun's heat had vanished by this point and a slightly eerie wind was rising. A few minutes later we became aware that the light had started to fade. It wasn't like sunset. There was no orange or red tint in the sky. Everything just felt dimmer, somehow. It wasn't the light you'd associate with the sun going behind a cloud because the shadows were still very present. It merely felt like the sun was somehow giving up, and as such, was an incredibly moving experience. As the light dropped, the strangest shadows started to emerge. I was trying to take a picture of Nathan but realised his face was much darker than his chest. It was just a weird, weird light. The sky was loosing its blueness and turning grey. It was like someone had used a filter to desaturate the world. And all the time, the temperature was dropping, the wind was strengthening, and nature was getting quieter and quieter.

By 1.10pm, ten minutes before totality, nearly all the colours had drained out of the world. A group of people in the far distance started howling like wolves. It was an utterly eerie sound to hear over the silvery lake. Shadows started to grow. People about us were struck dumb.

And then, just like that, it happened. Sudden darkness. A three hundred and sixty degree sunset. Orange and purple clouds billowing up behind the blackened trees in every direction. Stars started shimmering in the deep mauve sky. Stars! I didn't expect to see stars. The world fell into silence, and then suddenly the crickets started shrieking. Terribly loudly. They'd declared night time!

At that point it was safe to look up at the sun without glasses. It was a perfect black disc in the sky surrounded by a beautiful bright ring of white light. Uncontrollable tears started to roll down my cheeks. I didn't know what to do with myself. I didn't know where to look. I just tried to take everything in. Totality lasted two minutes and forty seconds. Two minutes and forty seconds of absolute magic. Nature's mystical gift to the world.

And then the diamond ring... A flash like magnesium in oxygen as the first rays of sun burst out from behind the moon. The crowd yelped and gasped spontaneously. It felt utterly primal. You can shove what you like at us on a cinema screen, but when nature decides to put on a show, we lose all words. The sunlight flooded back in, seemingly faster than it had left us, and fairly rapidly, we were back in a world I recognised again.

We returned to the lake for a swim whilst the eclipse subsided. There are few people who can say they've swum during an eclipse. I feel utterly blessed to have been there and experienced an eclipse the way that we experienced one. I'm an eternal pessimist, and had assumed that it would in no way be able to live up to my expectations, but, without a word of a lie, it surpassed them all. Feeling blessed.

Meet me in St Louis

Road Trip: Day Eight. Miles travelled: 2799
States visited: 9. Time zones covered: 3

We woke up in Tulsa this morning in another dreadful motel. I've been looking for stamps for some time, and asked the man behind the counter if he sold any. He looked at me like I'd asked him to supply me with a whore! Actually, in the motel we were in, this would probably have been more acceptable than asking for a stamp!

As usual, we were on the road by 8am, tearing, yet again, along the Historic Route 66, which has accompanied us for a surprising amount of this journey.

First stop, at Cartoosa, just outside Tulsa, was the Blue Whale, a hugely beloved landmark on the road. It's made out of fibre glass, and is probably about 60 feet long. He sits, merrily, in a dirty little pond, which is full of turtles. He's got a big smiley face and a jaunty little cap, and you can walk through his mouth and stand on his back. He was apparently made as part of an animal themed park in the 1970s which almost immediately fell into disrepair. The whale was recently restored by the family of the man who'd made it. It's a really charming little spot, which is surrounded by painted concrete picnic benches with legs which have been shaped to resemble little whales.

It's free to enter but they ask for donations. It's their dream to restore the giant wooden arc next door, which was also part of the original attraction. I sincerely hope they manage to do so.

Further along Route 66, at a place called Foyil, is a hugely eccentric totem pole garden which was created by a retired violin maker and folk artist called Ed Galloway. There are all sorts of wonderful, colourful, wooden structures, the tallest of which stands at more than 90 feet. It's such a peaceful, atmospheric spot. The only sounds you can hear are the whistling of birds and the distant rattle of freight trains. At both the Blue Whale and the totem pole garden, I was thrilled to hear my first ever American-style train whistle. It's such a haunting, eerie sound which instantly made me think of On The Road.

We passed from Oklahoma into Missouri on the interstate at 10.18am: our eighth state on this road trip. Today was a day where we needed to hoover up the miles, so we've had our heads down and our feet on the accelerator. We stopped at Springfield, Missouri, which is another Route 66 town. Sam had read about a diner called Steak 'n Shake. It's a chain restaurant, but the one in Springfield had retained a great deal of its 1960s fixtures and fittings in a way which simply wouldn't have happened in the UK, where places like that are routinely, blandly and cheaply refitted every five or so years.

There must be more Springfields in the US than any other town name. Maybe the Simpsons live in a town called Springfield to represent everyman.

On the Interstate out of Springfield we saw the type of sickening, right-wing billboard I'm seeing all too often on this road trip: "I'm proud to be American. If you're not, leave." Not being proud of where you're from is certainly not a reason to leave ones country. I used to be terribly proud to be British until we voted Brexit, when I became utterly ashamed of my nationality and every single person who voted for it. Furthermore, I believe that Brexit was a contributing factor in Trump's victory, and this makes me doubly embarrassed. Patriotism isn't something which can be demanded. It is not unpatriotic to have issues with your government. In my view, patriotism is sticking around to fight until the lunatics are either thrown out or see sense. Just to compound my issues with USA citizens, we then pulled into a service station and came face to face with the "Jesus Barn and Grill Restaurant." The word Jesus was written on the restaurant roof in 10-foot high lettering.

The next stop on our journey was at Rolla, where they apparently have a half-sized replica of Stone Henge, made in 1984 to showcase the capabilities of the local university's High Pressure Water Jet Lab. I was expecting an exact replica of the landmark. Something excitingly realistic. It turns out that Rolla's Stone Henge is no such thing. It's really just a heap of evenly-cut granite blocks arranged in a circle, in a science park, by the side of a busy road! It is, in short, wildly disappointing. But amusingly so!

Missouri is full of flattened armadillos by be side of the road. Either there are countless armadilli in the state, or Missouri armadilli are particularly stupid. I was trying to find a portmanteau which would be appropriate for the massacre of innocent armadillos, but the best I could come up with was Arma-geddon!

We rolled into St Louis at about 3pm. I think all of us were keen to see the place. It's a fairy iconic American city which has played a considerable roll in shaping the country. For some time it was considered an outpost of civilisation: the gateway to the Wild West. In recent years it's fallen on hard times. In the 1950s it had way over 800,000 citizens. Fewer than half of that number live there now.

The freeways go right into the centre of the town, so we didn't get an opportunity to see the varying neighbourhoods. My gut instinct is that it's a very mixed place. There's a lot of graffiti in the riverside district that we were in, and some decaying art nouveau buildings, which, in the London, would have been turned into fancy apartments. Here, they're just falling down.

We parked up and headed down to the banks of the Mississippi River. I don't know what it is about that particular river which has gripped me throughout my life. It has a sort of mystique. A hint of the Deep South and an entirely "other" way of life. One of the first American TV shows I regularly watched and enjoyed was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It just seemed so exotic and exciting.

We paddled in the river. It was a somewhat eccentric thing to do because I'm sure the river is incredibly dirty. I'd never go down to one of the beaches on Thames and have a paddle there, but I think Nathan and I both had a sense of wanting to be at one with the river somehow. Nathan was singing Old Man River softly to himself.

There are many bridges over the Mississippi in St Louis, which vary in style and age. None stand out massively, but all are attractive in their own way. Paddle steamers packed full of tourists glide up and down. One is called Tom Sawyer, as you might expect. They play Dixie jazz and I'm sure it's a lovely way to see the city. They also emit the most incredible noises in the form of a deep, evocative, horn-like sound, which echoes across the Mississippi. They run helicopter rides over the city which take off from moorings by the river, so there's a fair amount of chugging as they pass, daringly low, over head.

Of course the big draw in St Louis is the Gateway Arch, which, at 630 feet, and made of gleaming stainless steel, towers above the city, glinting like an exploding angel. It is deeply impressive, particularly when it starts to reflect the sky. I could have sat for hour looking up at it but the temperatures were so high, I got into a bit of a panic. I was squinting just to avoid looking at the light coloured pavements around the structure which were blazing in the sunlight.

The state border in St Louis is actually the Mississippi, so as we crossed the river to leave the town, we entered our ninth State in this incredible journey. Illinois. Because everything feels so rooted in the Deep South here, it's quite difficult to comprehend that we're in the same state as Chicago.

We drove south to a place called Carbondale as the sun set. This part of the country is full of maize fields. The drive was charming. The sun was strobing through the trees and lighting up the paddocks and glades in lime green. Red wooden barns with mansard roofs rubbed shoulders with clapperboard houses wrapped in little white verandas. Every so often, we'd pull up to a railway crossing and see the tracks heading west. It's all rather lovely and affluent - dare I say twee - but I'm not sure it would be the best place to be gay! I have seldom seen so much evidence of religion.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Get your kicks on Route 66

Road Trip: Day Seven. Miles travelled: 2300. States visited: 7. Time zones covered: 3.

When you do a road trip like this, all the hotels start to blend into one. I often find myself walking to the wrong spot in the wrong, bland corridor and trying to force myself into the wrong room.

Last night's hotel in Amarillo will stand out as being a particularly bad one. It's not so much that it was cheap and cheerful, there was just no love or pride coming from the staff. Everything was broken and tatty.

That aside, the Texans certainly seem to feel a great deal of pride for their homeland. The waffles we had for breakfast this morning were Texas-shaped, and all the steak houses and eateries have Texas in their names.

Everything in Texas suddenly feels expansive. It's a massive state, and it knows it. Buildings seem larger. Space around the buildings seems larger. It would be impossible to walk around Amarillo. You have to drive.

We went to Bar 212 last night, which is Amarillo's premier gay bar. What is a trip to Texas if it doesn't include some Texan drag? The whole evening was an education. The first thing we noticed was quite how much smoking goes on in Texan bars. It's been a long time since I've sat in a bar, choking on other people's cigarette smoke. There were three drag queens. I'd name them if I'd have been able to hear anything at all through the dodgy sound system. In the States, the drag tradition is built on fierce, glamorous and highly feminine performers who lip-synch like daemons to classic pop and country tunes sung by women. The British drag queens, by contrast, do comedy and sing live, but often look like the proverbial cock in a frock...

So these girls WOULD have spent the night lip-synching... had the sound system not packed up half way through the third number! With the absence of music, they were forced to wander about in the crowd, inanely chatting, whilst trying to crack jokes which got increasingly desperate. One went up to every man in the audience asking if they were rich and then walking away in disgust when they said no! This somewhat mortifying scene did, however, give us a chance to find out who watches drag in the States. The audience turned out to be largely straight with lots of people on date nights, which felt somewhat curious. One woman had brought her teenaged daughter to the club for her eighteenth birthday. The Mum was a hard-faced, sallow-cheeked woman who must have been considerably younger than me. The drag queen got chatting to her and asked why they were there, "well it's her eighteenth birthday" said the Mum in a deep Texan drawl, "so we've taken her to get her first tattoo, had her nipples done, and now she's good to go!" I instantly imagined my Mum taking me to a drag club at the age of 18 and saying something similar! Only in the States! I guess at least she was taking her daughter to a gay bar and expanding her mind a little!

Drag queens here are tipped as they mime. People stand up, walk to the performance area, and hand the girls a dollar, which usually gets them a little peck on the cheek. It was a bit gross to watch the old, creepy men standing waiting for their kisses. Their lips quivering and salivating. Their palms sweating with excitement.

Oh yes... and the vast majority of Texans are obese!

The Panhandle of Texas, where we were passing through, is deadly flat. You can look out over vast expanses of plain with only a distant factory or a wind farm to break the monotony. It's the first area of the States we've encountered where there's been evidence of large-scale farming.

We set off at 8am and fairly rapidly turned off the I-40 at Groom, which is famous in the area for its 200-foot high, white, stainless steel cross which you can see for miles. There's a curious juxtaposition going on in the area because the cross is now surrounded by a wind farm, so there are tall white structures jostling for attention as far as the eye can see! As Nathan said, "I think these wind turbines are graceful and elegant and a great force for good, whereas this cross seems to me to be just graceful and elegant."

At the foot of the cross is a deeply uncomfortable and rather nauseating statue of Jesus weeping whilst holding a foetus. A stone plaque reads: "dedicated to the sanctity of life. In loving memory of the innocent victims of abortion." There are times when I simply despise Christianity!

Far quirkier and more interesting is the Leaning Water Tower of Groom. The water towers here are more like water butts: large canisters elevated from the ground by metal structures. Groom's water tower leans at a preposterous and perilous angle. Two of the metal structure's legs are actually off the ground, suggesting the water tower is just one heavy wind away from toppling down.

Further down Historic Route 66 is McClean, which is about as evocative and charming an old town you're likely to find. Yet again, the I-40 has done for this town and very few businesses remain. The high street - Route 66 itself - is filled with the usual assortment of garages with trees growing though them, and sad-looking, boarded-over diners. But the locals have obviously started to realise there's money to be made from Route 66 tourism. The town feels legitimated entirely unchanged since the 1950s. You can walk down the middle of the empty street and let your imagination soar. It's entirely silent but for the sound of signposts creaking in the wind. What dramas, comedies and tragedies were played out on this tarmac when this town was in its heyday? Did it witness the pitiful scene of countless refugees escaping the dust bowl in Oklahoma migrating to California?

The only place open in the town, apart from a lone garage, was the Barbed Wire Museum. Again, only in America - and probably only on Route 66! It houses the most peculiar selection of objects. There were collections of sad irons, cruet sets, nautical knots and thimbles. There were photos of the dust bowl, of huge clouds of dust as high as a three storey building engulfing people, cars and homes. I realised today how little I know about this period of American history and immediately bought a book from the museum to educate myself.

The back section of the museum was dedicated to barbed wire, and there were samples of every known type of the stuff displayed in case after case. Who knew there was so much to learn about barbed wire? Dotted about the museum were sculptures made of the stuff. Rabbits, armadillos, a scorpion, a cowboy, a little urban scene... it was charmingly eccentric, and I was a little sad to see that its total number of visitors last month was just 658. How on earth does a place like that survive? It's apparently been there for 27 years, however, so it's doing something right. The lovely lady behind the counter tells me the museum is the product of 12 different barbed wire nuts pooling their individual collections. The building it's housed in used to be a bra factory. One type of under-wiring to another!

40 or so miles out of McClean, we left Texas and entered Oklahoma, our seventh state on this journey. Our first mini-stop was in the ghost town of Texola, which sits on a very charming section of the Old Route 66. Texola has an official population of just 36, who live in the few buildings which aren't blowing away into the prairie. We sat, for some time, outside a ruined gas station. There was an old rocking chair which we positioned in front of a rusty truck. Nathan did some knitting whilst he rocked.

From Texola, we drove along Route 66 to a town called Erick, where we visited Sandhill's Curiosity Shop, which is not actually a shop. People go to the place to meet a rather wonderful eccentric called Harley, who is a sort of modern-day troubadour who lives within an assortment of Route 66 ephemera which he collected with his wife over a 30 year period. His wife, Annabelle, is sadly no longer with us. Harley is utterly warm-hearted and wears his red neck status as a true badge of honour. Anyone who comes into his shop is invited to look around, sit down and listen to his pearls of wisdom. He's a hill-billy guru. If you're lucky he'll treat you to a little performance. After gargling a huge swig of Jack Daniels, he sang "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" and "Crazy" for us. He's an amazing guitarist, a true showman and he performs with an astounding amount of feeling. I was really quite touched by his version of Crazy.

He took to calling me "Baby Boy Benjy" and went on at length to Nathan about his lovely speaking voice, "you're such a sweet boy. I could make a hellava woman out of you!"

We asked him at one point what his favourite item was in his collection. He responded that it was actually the people who came to visit him. What a legend!

In Oklahoma, the countryside becomes greener and more rolling. The sky feels rather wide, and the earth is bright orange, but, if you don't look too carefully, you could trick yourself into thinking you were in the UK. Until, that is, you see some of the billboards by the side of the road, the most hideous of which simply said "Christ" on one side, and, on the other, the words "right to bear arms." Desperate. Road kill is the other thing which separates this area from the UK. There seem to be a plethora of dead armadillos, raccoons and skunks. It's worth pointing out that the smell of a dead skunk is almost identical to the smell of the drug skunk. A little research reveals that this is actually the reason the drug is called skunk.

We stopped off at Oklahoma City in the late afternoon for lunch in the (locally) feted Bricktown, which seems to be a set of Victorian warehouses sitting on an old canal, whose water is bright green. We ate in a lovely little restaurant called Jazzmos.

As usual for this part of the world, there was almost nothing for vegetarians on the menu, but I did ascertain that the Caesar Salad didn't have an anchovy dressing, so it was somewhat blissful to finally have a plate of food which felt healthy.

We stopped off at the memorial park to the 168 people killed when the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building was bombed on April 19th 1995. The monument is very well thought through, incredibly dignified and really very moving. The most poignant part is almost certainly the Field of Empty Chairs, set out in nine rows to represent where each of the victims was located in the nine floors of the building when the bomb went off. 19 of the chairs are half-sized to represent the children killed in the blast, the large majority of whom were in the building's day care centre, which, by the situation of the chairs , had to be on the second floor.

They have kept a small section of the original building's wall, upon which a list of survivors is printed. I was rather touched by the inclusion of the names of survivors, whom I think are fairly often overlooked.

It's a beautifully calming spot. Bells from the church opposite echo on one of the monument's gates, creating an intriguing sonic wash.

The fact that such a huge amount of attention was poured into the sight gives an indication of quite how shocking this kind of act of terrorism was for Americans in those (all too recent) days. I'm sure no one could ever have imagined what was to come...

We drove back onto Historic Route 66 to visit Arcadia and a garage-cum-diner called Pops, which has a 66-foot-tall pop bottle-shaped sign outside. The garage sells over 500 different types of soda, so we bought a variety for a taste test which we sampled sitting by a red, round barn which has, apparently, always been an iconic pit-stop for those riding the Free Road, as it's know around here. All of the drinks were disgusting. I don't believe a single real piece of fruit made its way into anything we drank.

We drove Route 66 to Tulsa as the sun sank in the sky. Oklahoma is such a green state, and the coppery light on the trees was magical against the blue sky. I never thought I'd travel to America and find that it was Oklahoma which reminded me so thoroughly of home. What with the pinky-red earth, the rolling vistas covered in oak woods, the deep green pastures and glorious tree tunnels, I could have been back in Warwickshire, to the extent that I started to feel a little homesick. Funnily enough, five miles down the road, we entered a town called Warwick. I wonder if the person who named it also felt the place was reminiscent of Shakespeare's County?

As the shadows started to lengthen, we drove through the delightful town of Chandler - probably one of the most beautiful, and best-preserved towns on the old Route 66. It's literally like stepping out of a car into the 1950s. I should have worn my suit and two-coloured brogues today! Towns like Chandler and Stroud, further up the road, feel like they've really embraced, and are maximising on the tourist potential of Route 66. I think perhaps this area of Oklahoma is more opulent than New Mexico and Texas, and is therefore in more of a position for money to breed money. And just as I was beginning to fall in love with Oklahoma, we rounded a corner, and there, painted in huge letters all over a stunning Victorian building, "Trump: Make America Great Again." Bleughhh.

I got chatting to a line of very oddly-shaped people in a gas station in a place called Sapulpa, where petrol only costed $1.94 per gallon. I think they were intrigued by my accent and wanted to know if I was "doing 66." We had a lovely chat and they introduced me to a newspaper on the counter called "Just Busted," which is filled with the mug shots of people who have recently been arrested in the state. It seemed to be hugely popular with the people I was chatting to. They really enjoy looking at the pictures of nut-jobs and hearing about the crimes they've committed. Yet again... only in America!

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Is this the way to Amarillo?

Road Trip: Day Five. Miles travelled: 1838

States visited: 6. Time zones covered: 3

I was up at 7am this morning. Our hotel room last night was a palatial suite with a bed the size of a van. I didn't sleep very well, however. I had a dry, tickly cough and the black out curtains in the room disorientated me. Today's journey took us from Santa Fe to Amarillo along Historic Route 66. We'd designated it as a day of Americana and quirkiness, and decided to soak in as many of those old-school roadside attractions as we could possibly find.

We set off through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where we experienced a few drops of rain. Our first on the trip. The aroma of rain in the desert was one of the most pungent and alluring smells I've ever experienced. We passed through a highly charming village called Madrid which bills itself as having "ten unique shops." All the buildings in the town are ramshackle and wood-built. The shops are filled to the rafters with bric-a-brac and curios. It felt a shame to be passing through without stopping, but we had Tinkertown to visit!

Tinkertown sits in a secluded, green and tranquil spot in the hills somewhere above Route 66. The wooden buildings are lined with glass bottles which glow in the sunlight. It was set up by a married couple, Carla and Ross Ward. Ross was an artist who specialised in painting carnival rides and attractions. He died of Alzheimer's a few years ago, but his wife continues to look after their legacy.

And what a legacy! Tinkertown is an exploration into all things tiny! It started its life as a Wild West exhibit which they toured, in a trailer, as a portable attraction. The Wild West exhibit is about ten metres long and features a street of houses - a saloon, a photographer's gallery, a shop selling ice cream, a blacksmiths - filled with carefully carved wooden figurines dressed in nineteenth century garb. Some of it is automated. Couples dance. A steam train rolls forward. Mary Poppins flies out of the roof of the ice cream shop. (So random!) Everything is utterly whacky and anachronistic, but that is its point.

And you go from room to room seeing circus scenes, automated fortune tellers, photographs of freak shows from the early 20th Century... It's part penny arcade, part art gallery. It feels like the life's work of two eccentric artists, with an eye for the bizarre, rescuing quirky objects from skips, fair backlots and hotel clearances. It's an earthier, more shambolic version of Small Small World at DisneyLand.

Everywhere you go, little painted inspirational quotes fill the walls: "Invention consists of imagination and a scrap heap" - Thomas Edison.

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds" - - Albert Einstein

"You don't stop playing because you grow old... You grow old because you stop playing. " And so it goes on.

My favourite part was a small collection of white, inch-long porcelain children wrapped in blankets, which were apparently known as "Frozen Charlotte Dolls," based on a Victorian ballad of a young girl who died in a Christmas blizzard!

Otto's fabulously tuneless One Man Band was also a highlight.

When we left the building, we came across a couple of elderly photographers who were patiently sitting in front of a humming bird feeder, attempting to get the perfect image of a broadtail humming bird. And they were spoilt for choice really. The birds were everywhere, dive-bombing the feeders, dive-bombing each other, hovering inexplicably in mid-air as they fed. The rushing, flapping sound they make as they sail past your face is quite extraordinary. The male birds are particularly attractive: green with bright red spot on their chests. It was really quite magical.

Next up was Santa Rosa, City of Natural Lakes, largely famous for its Blue Hole, but, for Nathan and me, also the name of a very early ABBA song... so early, in fact, that it predates the arrival in the group of Agnetha and Frida!

We left Interstate 40 and took the historic Route 66 into Santa Rosa where we caught our first glimpse of the road side America I'd been so desperate to see: the bright, tatty signs, often neon lit, stretching ever higher into the sky in an attempt to attract passing drivers. Some of the signs are broken. Some of the letters are missing. Former garages and diners collapse and rust into scrubland. A truck load of water melons is parked by the side of the road...

The Blue Hole itself is magnificent. It's situated in a completely unremarkable area on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. It's actually a natural spring which has probably been a quarry at some point and it is a wonderful spot for a natural swim. The "hole" is 60 feet in diameter and 81 feet deep. The water is freezing cold, crystal clear and bluer than robins eggs. The sunlight dances on the surface and creates beautiful lined patterns, like bright yellow lasers, deep into the watery depths. It's massively popular with SCUBA divers. You see little groups of them disappearing into the blue and then reemerging twenty minutes later, having, no doubt explored a series of underground caves.

We took the I40 to Tucumcari, which is known locally as "the town that's two blocks wide and two miles long." It was a major stopping-off spot for travellers on the Mother Road and once boasted 2000 motel rooms. The locals are doing their absolute best to re-invent the town as a Historic Route 66 tourist destination, but they have a heck of a long way to go. Most of the motels along the stretch of Route 66 are either boarded over, falling down, or in great need of repair. When the I40 was built, the bottom dropped out of the town. A lot of the fabulous old signs still exist, and, I've read that all the neon looks quite cool at night, but there's a whiff of desperation about things. One of the motels has a huge sign which reads "Clint Eastwood stayed here!"

We stopped off at an empty little souvenir shop which sold Route 66 memorabilia and were served by a charming old lady with a somewhat fragile perm which I wouldn't have wanted to put near a naked flame. She suggested we have our lunch in a motel called Del's, where the waiter was so dry and deadpan, we felt quite scared!

For the next 50 miles we drove along the old Route 66 which runs parallel to the I40. There wasn't a car on the road with us, so we ended up travelling faster than vehicles on the Interstate... until we hit an un-paved, dirt-track section of the road, at which point we slowed to 30mph. Everything along that stretch of road was utterly devastated. Burned-out garages, bashed-up trailers, fabulous ancient signs turning to dust and fading into the plains. Painted onto the side of a semi-dilapidated building, in proud large letters, were the words "modern restrooms."

We stopped off on an entirely empty section of the old road, where a motel was slowly returning to the earth. The noise of crickets was utterly deafening. It was like no sound I've ever heard before. If you approached an area of grass, hundreds of the little critters hopped and flew in the opposite direction. We explored the ruined motel, wandering into some of the bedrooms to see mattresses rotting on threadbare carpets and various magazines and books scattered on the bedside tables. The one I picked up came from 1978. It was a truly eerie experience. A snapshot from the past. 28 Weeks Later. The now defunct Mother Road stretched out into the distance.

And then suddenly we realised we were in

Texas. Texas! How on earth did I ever end up in Texas! To prove we were in a huge American State, the first thing we saw was a wind farm which stretched for what had to be twenty miles.

On the outskirts of Amarillo we visited the Cadillac Ranch, which is another one of those somewhat quirky "attractions" you only get in America. The ranch dates back to 1974 and features 10 whole Cadillac cars, half-buried in mud in the middle of a field. The cars date from 1949 to 1974 and demonstrate the design changes of that particular make over that period of time. It was done by an artists' collective from San Francisco. Of late it's become a popular pastime for people to spray graffiti on the cars, and they are literally thick with layers of paint. The ground around is scattered with cans. Nathan was quite keen to add our initials somewhere and found a half-used can of red paint. We proudly added our initials over the top of a crude picture of a pink penis. We stepped back to admire our work, at which point, someone stepped in, and sprayed a pink penis over our initials! Charming!

Every sign on the outskirts of Amarillo advertises a steak house. Amarillo is the home of the cattle industry in America, so I suppose it's hardly surprising. Our hotel is a bit dire. But we'll sleep well tonight.