Tennessee to DC

Memphis was described to me as being a more compact New Orleans; big on the blues, but smaller on the stag dos. It has a strong claim to be the birth place of rock and roll, thanks to Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston (actually Ike Turner’s band) being recorded at Sun Studio in 1951. In light of this, the place is teeming with museums to blues and rock and roll, and bars promising live music.

My first stop of the day was to visit the old Lorraine Motel, scene of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. The building is now the National Civil Rights Museum and charts the struggle of African Americans from slavery to today, via Jim Crow, MLK and Obama.

Slavery was described by my Washington tour guide a few days later as being one of the three blights on the American story (the others being the genocide of Native Americans and the internment of Japanese Americans). The slavery exhibits made clear that it is not only the southern states that should feel continuing shame for this crime: the northern states happily profited from trading the product of the southern slavery, and major UK cities like Liverpool and Bristol grew rich from the slave trade.

If the slave trade feels too historically distant to resonate today, segregation should not. Although the legal segregation of buses, theatres and public services (“separate but equal” – it was never equal) was outlawed in the 1950s and 1960s – a shockingly recent time – de facto segregation continues today across America.

Next I headed to the Rock and Soul Museum, which tells the story of – as you might guess – rock and roll music and soul music, beginning with the music sung by cotton pickers (black and white) a century ago, and progressing to the pioneers in the 1950s who began to merge black music (the blues) and white music (country). Obviously, Elvis gets a mention or two as well.

A free shuttle bus took me to Sun Studio, the recording site of Rocket 88 (the first distorted guitar sound allegedly coming from an attempt to repair a damage amplifier cone using newspaper). Sun Studio’s owner, Sam Phillips, discovered and recorded artists including Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

The same shuttle bus then took me on to Graceland, the mansion owned by Elvis Presley from the height of his fame until his death in 1977. It is now an enormous tourist destination, charging anywhere between $44 and $160 per person to visit. I bought an ice cream ($5) and took some photos over the wall (free), then boarded the shuttle bus back to downtown Memphis.

The Lyft driver who had picked me up from the station the previous evening had told me about the Peabody ducks. In the 1930s, the owner of the Peabody Hotel had gone on a hunting trip, got drunk and accidentally returned to Memphis with his live decoy ducks. As a joke, he put them into the lobby fountain. Guests loved them, so they became a permanent fixture.

From 1940 to 1991, Edward Pembroke, a bellman who had previously worked as a circus trainer, took on the role of Duckmaster. Every morning, he would ceremoniously march the ducks from their rooftop home, down the elevators and along a red carpet to the fountain, all accompanied by Sousa’s King Cotton March. In the evenings, the ritual is reversed as the ducks go off to bed.

I arrived 30 minutes before the 5pm duck march and the lobby was already packed with spectators. Bang on time, the Duckmaster gave a little speech and then marched his ducks into the lifts. Memphis has a rich history and culture, but this was my favourite thing.

In segregated Memphis, Beale Street was at the heart of the African American community and grew famous for its blues bars. Today, it is a tourist trap (though nowhere near as bad as Bourbon Street in New Orleans), with bars competing for business with their live music, BBQ ribs and cold beer.

I went to BB King’s Blues Bar, which I later discovered was part of a national chain. The music was nothing special, but they did serve me an excellent plate of pork ribs, macaroni cheese and BBQ beans.

***

From Memphis, the Amtrak line heads north to Chicago, but I wanted to go northeast to Washington, New York and Boston, so I headed to the airport to pickup a rental car. Car rental in Tennessee is eye-wateringly expensive – around four times more than in Texas – so I decided to upgrade to a sports car. In for a penny etc.

Hence, I drove away in a Dodge Challenger, a car apparently famous from Dukes of Hazzard and the new Fast and Furious movie. The woman in the exit booth looked at my paperwork and said “Yo’ drivin’ this mutha all the way to Washington?! Sweet!”

I pointed the Dodge in the direction of Nashville and pushed Go. Actually, I headed a little south first, across the border into Mississippi, then Alabama via Shiloh, site of a civil war battle. There is an enormous, unbridgeable gulf between the kind of people who find historic battlefields exciting and the rest of us. This one had some fake cannons to liven it up, but really it was just a field.

I then picked up the Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs for 444 miles across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, roughly following a Native American path. As I would later learn from Bill Bryson, the parkways were developed in the early 20th century as scenic driving routes with protected scenery on either side. Many have now been consumed by cities, but some – like the Natchez Trace – remain as originally intended.

***

After a night on the outskirts of Nashville, I began the long drive to Washington. From the horrible town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee west of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the northernmost tip of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, via the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina there is a continuous scenic road that runs for 600 miles.

This is an awfully long way – further than London to Inverness – and the views are consistently very nice. However, they are not *that* dramatic – think English countryside mixed with low Alpine meadows – and driving through them for two full days gets quickly quite tedious.

Thankfully, I had some audiobooks to divert me: On the Road by Jack Kerouc and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I struggled to get engrossed in On the Road, as exciting and fascinating as Kerouac’s tales of travel around the US in the 1940s are, his stream of consciousness can grow quite tiresome. I did enjoy hearing about San Francisco at this time; he found himself there repeatedly, always a source of distant wonder for a New Yorker.

I was reminded of A Walk in the Woods when I stumbled upon the Appalachian trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. The book describes Bryson’s attempt to hike the 2,200 mile trail from Georgia to Maine. It was particularly fascinating as he walked through many of the same places that I was now driving, although I was covering his daily distance every 15 or 20 minutes.

***

I emerged from the top of Shenandoah National Park and looked to see where my motel for the night was. It turned out I’d messed up and booked one at the bottom of the Shenandoah – presumably yesterday me had been less optimistic about the likelihood of me completing the second half of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah in one day.

It would take me as long to drive back to the motel as it would to drive to Washington, so I cancelled the motel and booked one just west of the Potomac.

***

Washington is a significant point on this trip for three reasons. Firstly, it’s on the east coast (more or less), so I’ve crossed the continent. Secondly, it is the border between the north and the south, so I was hopeful that mutually incomprehensible accents would no longer be a barrier to communication. And finally, this is the first city I’ve visited on this trip that I’ve been to before.

Because of this, I only planned to stay for one night. After checking into my AirBnb and saying goodbye to the Dodge, I walked straight onto the National Mall. The mall is huge – much bigger than I remember – so I immediately joined a Segway tour. Not only is this a faster way of getting around all the sites with a tour guide, it also gave me an excuse to finally ride on a Segway.

It was a lot of fun and they really are very easy to ride. They aren’t the future of personal transportation, as I suppose the inventor hoped they might be, but they are great for this sort of thing.

Everywhere you turn in Washington there’s a grand white building with classical pillars. The White House itself is relatively unassuming, much less impressive than the adjacent Treasury building. As the tour guide pointed out, this was a home built for a chief executive, not a king. This probably pisses off its current resident.

The architecture and the monuments also tell a story of America as a new nation founded in rebellion against the old world. The three separate but equal branches of government have their headquarters dotted around the mall, often with engraved slogans testifying to America’s founding ideals.

The journey of the USA from a loose collection of newly independent colonies to the world’s only superpower, and the resilience of the constitution on which it was founded is impressive. However, as I stood in front of the Supreme Court I was reminded of the lifelong judicial appointment stolen by Senate Republicans last year in a naked act of partisan cynicism. And the vast amounts of money that pour into campaigns and distort public opinion to support the desires of the wealthiest; a position defended by this supreme court, almost unbelievably, on grounds of free speech.

Anyway, as I type this I am riding a bus across the Hudson and into Manhattan, 200 miles north of the Washington swamp.

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Seattle to Portland

After a delightful weekend in Seattle visiting my friends Tim and Jen and their newborn Jack (joined also by Tim’s parents, over from London and meeting their grandson for the first time), I hit the highway in a rented Jeep. My road trip back to SF is to snake along the west coast of the US, through Washington, Oregon and northern California. I will visit the Mount Rainier, Crater Lake and Redwood national parks, as well as the city of Portland.

First glimpse of Mt Rainier, from the Bainbridge ferry

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Mount Rainier’s white peak is visible from Seattle, 100 miles to the north-west. Rain was forecast and, since my experience with a snowy interstate on the Donner Pass the previous weekend, I didn’t fancy getting stuck in a blizzard. This is my excuse for renting a 4×4, although nostalgia also played a role.

The Team America 2007 monster truck, and its spiritual successor

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I entered the national park from the north-east, heading first towards the visitor centre at Sunrise. However, being late October, the road to it was closed, so I made my way around the south side of Mt Rainier to Paradise. Paradise was exactly as the name would suggest: cold, windswept and deserted. Large heaps of snow had been pushed to the edges of a car park surrounded by wooden structures – hotels, restaurants, visitor centres, ranger stations – all of them with signs that basically said “We’ll be back in the spring.” Still, there were some excellent views across the mountains, even if Rainier itself was enveloped in cloud.

This lack of any open facilities was of increasing concern. It was late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, apart from half a bag of chocolate M&Ms and the free mini pretzels from my flight north on Friday. I was heading west to leave the park in search of sustinence, when around a forested bend I saw an oasis: an open inn. 

30 minutes later, satiated by a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese, I left the inn. As I did so, I overheard the advice given to another traveller to be careful driving at twilight, as this is when the deer come out. Sure enough, around the very first bend I encountered a gang of deer scattered across the road. Apart from a chipmunk that I may or may not have hit with my car earlier that day, this was my only encounter with wildlife in Mount Rainier.

As I made my way to the western exit, the park began to live up to its name, as the weather got rainier and rainier. This was my second visit to a US national park; Mount Rainier didn’t live up to the expectations set by my August visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park. While Lassen had weird geology and sulfurous discharges, Rainier was just a little barren. This was at least partly due to the season and partly to the weather, I guess. One cool feature I did find was Narada Falls, where I did what every other visitor with a camera did and took a slightly long exposure photo.

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I spent the night in a Relax Inn near Interstate-5, before heading west on the Washington-6 towards the Pacific coast. Nine years ago, on the east coast, I had lamented the death of small towns. Every town centre was dead, with the only viable businesses being located in the strip malls of chain stores, motels and fast food at either end of the town. Along this particular stretch of western highway, however, small town America was alive and well. I passed through towns with names like Pe Ell, Pluvius and Menlo, each one sporting a general store, a small post office (sometimes just a portakabin) and a gas station with prices 50% higher than normal. Not a chain to be seen, apart from the old fashioned Pepsi signs outside the general stores. I looked around my car to check for a flux capacitor.

Even the people sitting on their porches watching the traffic go by looked like they could be from the 1950s. In one town, a window was draped with the confederate flag. Considering the western states were never a part of the confederacy, I think we can conclude that this was just one guy wanting to make clear to passing motorists that he is a racist asshole. This at least made for some variety from the ‘Make America Great Again!’ yard signs that are usually used to convey this message. (The exclamation point at the end of that slogan tells you everything you need to know about Donald J Trump and his Comic Sans campaign.)

The three contiguous Pacific states are all solidly Democratic, but I have seen a total of zero signs for Clinton since beginning this trip. Even in liberal Seattle, there were plenty of Trump posters – and even a handful for the Libertarian Gary Johnson – but none for Clinton. In rural areas there are, however, thousands of signs for the election of local sheriffs, commissioners, fire chiefs and judges. If there’s one thing Brexit has taught me that it’s not necessarily a good idea to hold a popular vote for a fire chief, as an arsonist is likely to win.

I reached the US-101 road, which runs from northern Washington, through Oregon and all the way down to Los Angeles (entering San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge). I followed the road for about an hour before crossing the Columbia River into Oregon over the magnificent Astoria-Megler Bridge. Astoria was the first US settlement on the Pacific coast, and is now a charming (but not self-consciously so) seaside town with a boardwalk and (seasonal) boardwalk streetcar. I dropped into a colourfully-painted and empty cafe to eat a hearty bowl of clam chowder, with a side of garlic bread in which the garlic appeared to have been substituted for salt. It was lunchtime and I was the only customer, yet the chowder was good and the whole bill came to only $9.

After lunch I strolled along the boardwalk, soundtracked by the mysterious animal noises coming from a warehouse I passed. I’m pretty sure a flock of geese was using the warehouse to host an illegal bare knuckle fight between a pig and a sea lion, but it may just have been an abattoir.

I headed east along the Columbia to Portland, a city I know nothing about other than from watching Portlandia on Netflix. I was disappointed not to find any feminist bookstores, although I did find the huge statue on the Portland Building after which the show is named. The most Portlandia thing I did come across was a designated route through the city for skateboarders.

#portlandia

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I would’ve finished this blog post last night, but I stumbled across the American answer to the Great British Bake Off. Called ‘Forged in Fire’, it pits four men and women against each other to forge knives against the clock. When their knives are finished they are tested against various criteria, including ‘killability’. As I prepare to head south towards Crater Lake I will leave you with this inspirational quote from a contestant who had suffered a minor setback while attaching the handle to his knife:

“Thor himself punched me in the chest and said ‘You can do this’.”