across America by bus, train, foot and car

March 1st, 2009

It’s snowing in Memphis. Not very interesting unless you know that it snows for one day a year here – that being today and I’m flying out of Nashville tomorrow morning to New York via North Carolina, hopefully. As an Englishman, it’s my duty to discuss the weather, however this week I think it bears mentioning that on Tuesday it was 84 degrees in Mexico and now on Saturday it’s below freezing in Tennessee…I guess I’ll struggle through.

So, I left San Francisco and hospitality of Katy & Justin last Saturday lunchtime on a bus bound for Oakland across the Bay Bridge where my mighty Amtrak train would be waiting to take me to Bakersfield, and from there a 3 hour bus ride to Union Station, downtown L.A. Only 9 hours through the least attractive parts of California, how hard can it be? Easy, but boring it turned out…the next day would test my ass-padding and general can-I-amuse-myself skills.

After venturing to the Mexican market across from Union Station in search of fruit – banana + apple = $1, credit crunch fans – I hung out in the coffee bar until I could legitimately sit by the departure gates for the Sunset Limited Amtrak over-nighter to Del Rio, Texas 28 hours away through California, Arizona, New Mexico and most of Texas.

That’s probably a long way, but when you walk up and down a train, talk to interesting random travellers – almost all American, young, often “minorities” or old and white – read your book and listen to appropriate tunes on your iPod, it’s not so bad. Trying to figure out how drunk the young bucks in the lounge car are gonna get was fun, being woken up by Tuscon police at 2.30am asking if a convicted murderer is in your cosy roomette not so much. He got off the train apparently, either that or he hid well.Quote from train attendant the next day: “When you travel in America you have to expect to rub shoulders with criminals”. Thanks for that then, Rick!

I was the lone departee at Del Rio, Texas. A woman from Oklahoma hugged me and said “Be careful” as I explained my stop here was solely to visit Mexico the next day. I was a bit worried. Squeaky bum time. “The drug wars have not touched Ciudad Acuna yet” I was assured. It was fine. A bit of a long walk down a hot bridge into Mexico. Some amazement and amusement in the immigration office at Acuna when I explained I just wanted a stamp in my passport to prove I’d been. A transaction in stumbling Spanish to buy water and a (really fast) walk round the first block in town and before I knew it I was sat in Homeland Security explaining where I’d just been, where I had come from, where I was going, where I lived, what the hell I wanted to go to Mexico for and I was on my way to San Antonio and the Alamo…

Very hot here. Wouldn’t want to take part in a 13 day siege of a small monastery/church here in 1836. No, thank you. Lots of Englishmen seemed to though. My knowledge of the Alamo is hazy, I should’ve paid better attention but suffice to say Davy Crockett was involved and nowadays there’s a motel next door to prove it!

On to Austin where I was shown the sights and sounds of 6th Street and treated to an excellent Texas meal by Lorra from Alaska (met on the outback tour in Oz) – thanks Lorra! And Liz her 5th Generation Texan friend, the Catfish Po-Boy, Mustard Greens and Black-Eyed Peas were delicious and nutritional too, I wouldn’t wonder…

Back on the train for what turned out to be a 17 hour journey up to Little Rock, Arkansas. This was saved jointly by Tom from Canada and Samuel Adams from Boston. Tom and I “shot the breeze” and looked out at darkness from Dallas to Little Rock whilst Sam Adams lubricated my larynx and made everything a bit easier to deal with.

Little Rock is named after a small pebble found in 1840. That’s a lie but there ain’t much there except the brand-new William Clinton Presidential Library and PR Exercise Building – very nice too. Everyone very friendly again though, as in Texas, and so drove the World’s Most Boring Route to Memphis.

I like Memphis. A lot. I went to Sun Studios (Geoff, I’ve got your T-shirt!) – home of the first recordings by Johnny Cash & Elvis Presley, Stax Museum of American Soul – home of the recording of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes and Booker T. & the MGs among many more, Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum housed in the motel where Martin Luther-King was shot dead…and I ate alot of BBQ, thanks Jen & Mike! It was 80 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday, and now it’s 30. Last night karaoke – “Suspicious Minds” by the King of Rock’n’Roll since you ask – and too much Jack Daniels on the rocks made the cold go away, but today’s snow has made me get the long johns ready for New York and Boston…only 8 days left, but they’re gonna be good ones.

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