Contact On The World Love Jam to The Crane Wife 3

In the kingdom of the blind
It’s said the one-eyed man is king
And in the kingdom of the bland
It’s nine o’clock on ITV
Corgi Registered Friends – Half Man Half Biscuit

TRAVELLING souvenirs come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of tackiness.

Barring the odd bottle of ouzo or Metaxa brought back from Mediterranean beach holidays – which never taste quite the same after spending months or years in a suburban sideboard – not many of them have resurfaced at the back of a cupboard during a clean-out before moving out of a flat.

But one of the more memorable keepsakes of my London to New York overland trip popped up in just those circumstances (the others being a surprisingly large collection of shot glasses from a cruise liner and a selection of T-shirts providing a guide to our progress across the USA – and where we were running low on clean laundry).

Three-plus years past its sell-by date may be, but it was still tempting to use it while cooking, such were the memories it brought back and the impact it had on a succession of meals.

Certainly far more than we thought likely when it was thrown, almost as an afterthought, into a Latvian supermarket trolley.

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Multi-Purpose – The pepper which made any number of train meals palatable

And while most of what we brought that day has been forgotten – not all, some of it evokes some less than tasty memories – that magical bottle of pepper has gone down as one of the stars of the trip.

The magic pepper bottle fell into our hands in a scamper around a Riga supermarket on the lookout for food during our upcoming stint on the Trans-Siberian Express.

And… nope, absolutely no idea where this was going.

Written more than 10 months ago, those first few paragraphs were supposed to start the final entry in the A-Z Challenge before heading off on my travels around Africa but time sort of got away from me.

As tempting as it was, listening to loads of music and writing an article about it could never really take precedence over packing, jabs, the chance to buy shiny new things (which, in one case, had broken in the first couple of months) and the need to move out of my flat, unearthing the magical Latvian pepper in the process.

Think the intention, given the opening Half Man Half Biscuit quote and the mere fact a picture of the pepper was taken on my phone, was to recite a few tales of the meals we rustled up on the Trans-Siberian – essentially, anything we could make by just adding hot water to (lots of Smash, noodles and soup, often combined) and spray pepper all over.

It sort of worked, especially when washed down by a fair amount of vodka.

Thankfully, the food our revolving cook groups created during the past 10 months on the road was, mainly, better. Surprisingly so, given the limited budget to feed up to 22 people with three meals a day over an open fire in whatever the elements could throw at us at whichever remote bush camp we had pitched up in.

A lot of eggs, a lot of veg (leaving meat out altogether can be easier and cheaper when you have to do a veggie alternative anyway), a lot of potatoes (especially from our cook group, even for breakfast), a lot of stir fries (anything thrown in a wok and stirred about a bit), a lot of stews (anything thrown in a pot and stirred about a bit) and a fair amount of curries (anything thrown in a wok or a pot with some spices and stirred about a bit).

There was only one truly inedible meal – and that merely down to too much (way too much) spice – and a few that failed to deliver, mainly down to personal taste (one which had peanut sauce sticking my tongue to the roof of my mouth for much of the night).

Everything Everything
Everything Everything

But any complaints about to the food were mainly down to our shortcomings as cooks and, on the whole, my diet was much better than back home (even without the magic pepper) as it finally featured breakfast on a daily basis, regular ingestion of green, healthy stuff and much less snacking – courtesy of a self-imposed rule not to stockpile food on the truck.

Admittedly, my consumption of fizzy drinks crammed full of sugar rose – some achievement given how high it already was – but the outcome of all this is the need for a new wardrobe, particularly trousers, as all my clothes are now too big.

The jeans bought this week are four inches smaller than the ones which went round Africa and needed holding up well before the end and that flat clearout just before the off included throwing out any clothes which were deemed too small and never likely to be much use again.

D’oh!

One thing which has not shrunk – nor, until a mass catch-up of stuff missed over the last few months, grown – has been my iPod collection, which remains at 11,638 tracks.

And until today, the trek through those tracks from A-Z had not progressed any further after the decision to put it on hold while away, given the difficulties in keeping up with one blog while away, let alone a second subject.

Before the off, Public Enemy kicked off this latest section which also rattled through Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, a couple from Half Man Half Biscuit (Corgi Registered Friends and The Coroner’s Footnote) and rounded off with Cough Cough by Everything Everything – owners of possibly the poshest and most-inept moshpit in history.

The Decemberists, Cambridge. 03/10/07
The Decemberists

In the unrealistic hope of actually finishing the C tracks before departure, there was a catch-up on the then newly-installed ABC tracks which had joined the collection, mainly from Johnny Marr, more HMHB, Weezer and some Gaslight Anthem.

And then it stopped… until a couple of bus rides (still to replace the car scrapped before departing) got things up and running again through the 1900 mark with Cousins by Vampire Weekend, followed by the excellent Jason Isbell – whose latest is high on the list of catch-up albums – with Cover Me Up.

The Decemberists then took over. Totally. Their three-part The Crane Wife opus – based on an old Japanese folk tale and forming the backbone of the album of the same name – goes on for a fair amount of time in its own right.

Throw in the live version of all three parts and it will take you all the way from Cheltenham to Gloucester and beyond.

But after 40 weeks around Africa and with close to 10,000 tracks still to go, that’s not really very long.

And at least there will be no trying to remember what I was going on about.

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Wow Moment

Lake Baikal Sunset
Wow Moment – The sun sets over Lake Baikal

 A version of this article originally appeared in a travel company’s e-newsletter in November 2010, explaining a concept which became common currency on the London to New York overland adventure – and just some of the reasons travel got under my skin.

IT was the first or second day that the term ‘Wow Moment’ surfaced. We would, we were told, recognise one when it arrived and everybody’s would be different.

Rule number one: Drink it in. Savour it and bottle it away in the memory.

Rule number two: Respect everybody else’s ‘Wow Moment’. Let them get on with obeying rule number one.

As the days and weeks wore on, we all remembered that phrase and those rules as, individually or in groups, we had our ‘Wow Moments’ and began to recognise the signs of a new believer – the fixed grin, the sparkle in the eyes and the way they chattered on afterwards at least one octave higher than normal.

Mine arrived about as far from what many of us would know as civilisation and on part of the trip that had failed to stir my imagination before departure.

Wrapped up against the cold on a headland on Olkhon Island, stuck in the middle of the frozen Lake Baikal in the empty expanse of Siberia, one of those perfect moments appeared.

Four days from Moscow to Irkutsk by train, six hours on less than smooth roads and a two-kilometre walk across the frozen lake was more than worth it.

We’d spent an exhilarating day in jeeps on the ice when somebody suggested a post-dinner stroll to the headland to watch the sun set.

Which is how half a dozen of us found ourselves dotted along the cliff in the peace, watching the sun set over the mainland and shadows fall between the reflected glare from the ice. Quite, quite magical… the perfect example of a ‘Wow Moment’.

Well, it was mine and could have gone on for hours – if it wasn’t so cold as the sun dipped away, forcing a rapid retreat to the warmth of our homestead.

That was my ONE moment, but there were others that produced a similar reaction or gave my travelling companions the same feeling, those places and events to savour as we wound our way around the globe for three months.

The whole trip split into five six distinct legs, divided by a change of transport or geographic switch and each packing in enough highlights and memorable experiences to provide a remarkable trip in its own right.

First up was the European leg and its series of fascinating cities – Bruges, Heidelberg, Prague, Krakow, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn – before crossing into Russia and the twin giants of St Petersburg of Moscow.

There’s plenty of history to explore from St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, the memories of the Soviet Union in Red Square and the horrors of Auschwitz – a ‘Wow Moment’ in its own, macabre way and certainly a day trip which will leave its mark – plus the burgeoning cities of the Baltic States and the charms of Prague along the way.

The second leg began in Moscow when we boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway, a travel experience in its own right, which would carry us all the way to Beijing.

En route we stopped off not just in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, but also in Mongolia, where we were provided with the friendliest welcome imaginable and another contender for moment of the trip – a night in a toasty, traditional ger in the middle of a national park. The most relaxed night of the entire journey.

A lot of time has been spent trying to explain the third leg of the trip to people. A bewildering assault on the senses – all of them – it provided a completely new dimension to the whole trip.

There is just one way to describe it – China.

From the moment we arrived in Beijing, China started working its way into our affections and never really stopped during our 10 days there.

Beijing provided some remarkable sights to tick off the traveller’s must-see list – Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, the Birds Nest Stadium – Xi’an gave us the Terracotta Warriors, the ancient walled city of Pingyao a taste of old China and, of course, there was the Great Wall at Badaling, not to mention the precipitous Hanging Temple at Hengshau Mountain and Yungang Grottoes.

But China is more than its sights. To truly experience this magical country, get down the hutongs (side alleys) and into the markets to get among the people, the sights, the sounds, the tastes and the smells.

If arriving in China was a culture shock, leaving it provided another on the fourth leg as we climbed aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship – two weeks to kick back, relax in relative luxury and do as much or as little as you want. With stops in Korea, Japan and back in Russia at Vladivostock thrown in.

Leg five began as we stepped off the boat and onto American soil for the first time in Whittier, Alaska, and another major change – from luxury cruise liner to the Green Tortoise sleeper bus. Believe me, you have never travelled quite like this.

The Tortoise, our home from sea to shining sea, whisked us north through the wildlife and dramatic scenery of Denali National Park to the treat of Chena Hot Springs and midnight sun within reach of the Arctic Circle, before turning east into Canada and through the Yukon back to Alaska and a series of ferries down the Inside Passage and to the Canadian border again – all the while focused on the mountains, lakes, rivers, bears and moose which make this such a spectacular place to travel.

The final leg across the Lower 48 States of the USA actually started north of the border in Vancouver before we rejoined the USA at Seattle and crossed from west to east via the quite stunning splendour of its National Parks – the beauty of the Grand Tetons, sheer scale of Yellowstone and desolate wilderness of the Badlands – the charm of smalltown America and bustle of Chicago and finishing point New York.

Throughout all that, of course, was the sheer joy of sharing it all with a bunch of people who turned from strangers to friends, confidantes and a temporary family as we clocked up the miles.

Experiencing all these wonderful places was one thing, experiencing them with these people elevated it all to another level.

This select band of people who understand my love for Chicken, Alaska (permanent population, ‘err… about nine’) and who shared my 40th birthday celebrations in Arcata, California.

And each one of them has their own tale to tell, their own ‘Wow Moments’, their own travel story.

It’s out there for you to write your own as well.

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Guitars, Pontiacs, Hillbilly Music etc etc

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 23, 2010

IT is, with some regret, that this entry begins with some sad news. Not quite a death, more the very serious, soon to be upgraded to terminal, state of health of some constant companions throughout the journey.

Yes, it is with great sadness that this article has to reveal the rapidly deteriorating health of the pair of shoes which have carried me around the world.

Until they finally fall apart completely, they will still be worn – unless it is raining, when the water pours through the increasing leaks through the worn-through soles and disintegrating sides. They are, quite literally, on their last legs.

My feet became a bone (or collection of bones) of contention on the trip, but their perilous state through the mosquito-nibbled, infected in-growing toenail, blister-ridden days of North America cannot be blamed on the shoes.

Not even the less than pleasant smell can… oh hang on, maybe that one was down to the shoes. Or my socks. Or me.

Whatever, we went through a lot together since that joyous day we met in the Go Outdoors shoe department in early March.

Sad to report, the relationship was not totally monogamous. There were other shoes.

There were occasional flirtations with a brand new pair of ‘smart’ shoes bought simply for wearing on the boat and spent most of the journey rammed into the bottom of my rucksack.

A pair of sandals captured more of my attention, but we had a messy, painful break-up in a welter of cheese, recriminations and blisters after an unscheduled walk back to camp in New Ulm.

There was even, oh the shame, brief liaisons with Phil’s ‘jangles’. But that was purely because his were always easy to find at the front of the bus and were the only other ones that fitted me.

But, despite those dalliances,those size 12 grey and black Regatta Isotex shoes stayed loyal and carried me through the town squares of Europe, the less than salubrious back streets of St Petersburg, the wilderness of Mongolia, Beijing’s Forbidden City, the sun-drenched city walls of Xi’an, the ice and snow of Hengshau Hanging Temple, the decks and basketball court of the Diamond Princess, the sodden streets of Vladivostock, the trails of North America’s National Parks and the streets of its big cities. And into a few bars.

For the final five weeks of my trip, the right shoe spent endless hours on the accelerator pedal of a little white Pontiac, clocking up 6,000 miles in a five-week trip which rattled through some of the big cities, musical hotspots, small towns and scenic drives of the eastern half of the United States.

Not going to bore you with the full inside tale of every stop, but after two weeks of goodbyes in New York, Boston and back again my route took me, sweltering the entire way, to (deep breath):

Washington DC, where the temperature gauge hit 106 and at least six bottles of water were consumed walking up and down the National Mall; Front Royal, Virginia. which is merely the front door to The Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, between them more than 550 miles of twisting, sloping tarmac draped along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains and providing the most fun you can have in a car with a top speed limit of 45mph; Greenville, South Carolina, scene of a quite spectacular thunderstorm; the extremely big Clemson University Stadium (known as Death Valley); the extremely cool college town of Athens, Georgia, and the extremely hot Pensacola Beach, Florida, thankfully with an extremely welcome, and welcoming, beach bar just yards from both the water and my room.

From there it was back through Alabama, flying through Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery, while stopping at the US Space and Rocket Center (sic) at Huntsville (Rocket City, USA – home to Space Camp) and over the Tennessee border to the town of Shelbyville. They were in the middle of celebrating their 200th anniversary and while there were plenty of vintage cars and a chilli cook-off to savour, there was no sign of a lemon tree. Or any bars within walking distance of the motel.

That carried me to a 10-day reunion with Nick which saw us play football for England against Ireland in a hostel match alongside the Parthenon in Nashville (where we did OK for the oldest players on view) before savouring the music, Sun Studios, Rock n Soul Museum, a Barry John lookalike and Minor League baseball in Memphis and racing through Mississippi to New Orleans.

And let’s stop the whirlwind tour just to catch our breath, mainly because New Orleans deserves more than being dismissed that quickly and you really can’t sum up this  city in just one paragraph.

Admittedly, our three-night stay was not packed full of sightseeing. Partly because the thought of paying more than $40 to be bussed out to see the areas left desolate by Hurricane Katrina just seemed a bit wrong and partly due to the weather which kept me in the very friendly, very comfortable hostel for most of Sunday.

Venturing out once before dark that day, to make the less than 10-minute walk to the local Wal-Mart for supplies and to solve an emergency underwear situation, nobody has been so glad to get inside an air-conditioned building.

It was not just unbelievably hot, but it was remarkably heavy and steamy – the muggy air a hangover of Hurricane Bonnie, which was downgraded first to Tropical Storm Bonnie and then, kid you not, to Tropical Disorganised Collection of Showers and Thunderstorms Bonnie, which had dumped what seemed a pretty organised collection of showers on me in quite violent fashion on the run (yes, it was that bad) from the Charles Street Streetcar back to the hostel the night before.

But, of course, we did get out and about around the French Quarter.

Both of us were surprised at quite how tawdry Bourbon Street was with strip clubs promising live sex shows (we didn’t go in) intermingled with the countless collection of bars (we did go in) offering live music and a bewildering array of drinks offers with which to enjoy it all, most of which a waitress in The Famous Door poured down my neck from a series of test tubes.

Hangover notwithstanding, going back in the daylight was equally as eye-opening. Wandering off Bourbon Street and around the side streets of the French Quarter gives an insight into a fascinating, vibrant, unique piece of Americana at odds with much of the rest of the city, let alone the rest of the country. Definitely one to go back to.

While Nick headed back east on a Greyhound, the Pontiac was pointed across Lake Pontchartrain, through Louisiana and into Texas, stopping for a couple of nights in Austin – another extremely cool college town boasting a university stadium which dwarves anything in this country, a bewildering selection of bars with live music and friendly locals with which to enjoy it all – and onto baking Dallas, where they really should clean up that white cross on the road next to a grassy knoll. It is clearly visible from the sixth floor window of the neighbouring (ex-)book depository.

From there it was time to start heading back east, through Arkansas, which saw the start the ever-changing collection of bracelets and bangles hanging from my right wrist in the cute, biker-ridden town of Hot Springs and wandering in Clinton’s steps in Little Rock before haring back through Tennessee, into Kentucky.

Finding Elizabethtown virtually shut on a Sunday – and sadly bereft of Kirsten Dunst – it was north through Louisville, via a visit to the Louisville Slugger baseball bat factory, and shot up to Cleveland and the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame Museum, which while still a fascinating few hours of anyone’s time, hasn’t really been freshened up from my last visit four years ago.

The final few days took me across Upstate New York, via the excellent Baseball Hall of Fame in leafy Cooperstown, roads shared with horse-drawn Amish carriages and down the Hudson Valley to New York and one final weekend with Phoebe, which ended – almost inevitably – sometime around 4am in Greenwich Village.

And that, a host of small town stops apart, is the abridged tale of the five-week trip – bar a few key points and tips which will be addressed in the next couple of entries.

Well, actually no – that’s not quite it.

It appears my right shoe is refusing to go quietly after spending so long wedged down on the accelerator pedal. It opted to end the trip in style, judging by the post which arrived this morning (via two redirections) with a Tulsa postmark, addressed to Cardiff, England.

It was with a mixture of confusion (never been to Tulsa and have never met anyone from Tulsa) and annoyance (the rent cheque from my tenants redirected with it a week ago has still not turned up) that opening it the Alamo car hire logo popped up at the top of the letter.

It was almost binned as the standard ‘thank you for your custom’ letter it appeared to be, until the dollar signs lower down caught my eye.

For the last 50 or so miles, after the only major missed turn of the entire trip, was some sort of felony.

Instead of merging from the New York State Thruway onto the New Jersey Turnpike and enjoying a simple run down the Interstate to the Lincoln Tunnel and into Lower Manhattan, I ended up paying $10 to cross the River Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge, got lost in Yonkers and sat in a nose-to-trail traffic jam through the Bronx for more than an hour with a horizontal petrol gauge.

That was not news, but it also appears missing that turn meant not going through the right toll and a fine (with Alamo’s $10 admin fee) of $24.16. That’s about £16.

It all raises one simple question: How do you miss an entire toll booth the width of an Interstate?

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The Mosquito Manifesto

First appearing in a July 2011 travel company newsletter, this is the second and, sadly, to date last in a series building up to a now cancelled trip from London to Sydney…

A FEW weeks into serious preparations for the off and, without wishing to jinx anything, it has all been going pretty smoothly.

There was a brief stomach-dropping moment when my Indian visa application was returned unprocessed – courtesy of their need for a 2in x 2in photo, not the standard passport shot optimistically attempted to sneak past them – but the second attempt was successfully returned inside a week.

Nepal, who require much less information, was just as quick and the online Australian application was granted in just a few hours.

That just leaves the Iranian visa, which means playing the waiting game. Details and copy of my passport have been sent off, now it is just a case of waiting for the Foreign Ministry to provide authorisation to apply. Then it is a trip to the Iranian Embassy in London to file the actual application – thankfully without having to be there at 6am to queue up now they have altered their opening times.

Vaccinations have gone as smoothly, just a couple of boosters needed which were wonderfully pain free until waking up in agony having slept on the arm that had received them.

And the malaria prescription is on order – something high on the must-have list with my propensity to attract any nasty little buzzy creature within a few hundred miles (the evidence of which is written in marks on my forearm due to an even greater propensity to scratch any bites).

My mossie magnetism was welcomed by fellow travellers on the London to New York trip when we hit Alaska as they were left largely untouched as word went out around the local insect population about the meal on offer.

It all earned me the nickname Honey Boy, courtesy of tales from exclusive golf clubs where rich golfers were kept free from mosquitoes by the presence of a poor local paid pennies to follow them round the manicured fairways covered in honey.

Honey’s definitely not on the packing list, but malaria tablets and the strongest anti-buzzy thing spray most certainly are.

The rest of that list keeps growing – at least it would if written down. ‘Write Packing/To-Buy List’ has been on the to-do list for days without being done. Instead, it exists merely in my head and grows every time a new travel website pops into view.

A new rucksack definitely needs to be on the list (courtesy of an irreperably broken zip on my last one), along with a smaller laptop/day bag (the current shoulder strap is about to give way in spectacular fashion), three months supply of contact lenses and a new camera, unless some technical wizard can mend either of the current ones which steadfastly refuse to even turn on (to say nothing of the smudge on the lens of one of them).

Clothes-wise, it is a case of working from the feet up as the ultra-comfortable all-purpose outdoor shoes which saw me round the world once are consigned to history – at least on wet days, even falling apart they are just too comfortable to dispose of altogether.

Two hunts for replacements have so far proved fruitless – these are old friends that need to be replaced, not any old pair of shoes. It’s an emotional moment. Less so replacing the pair of sandals which did not get on that well with the soles of my feet last time, judging by the way they repeatedly rubbed each other up the wrong way.

At some point, there’ll be a rifle through the wardrobe to see just how many clothes are suitable, still fit, will stand up to life in a rucksack for three months and are not likely to be pulled out somewhere near the first laundry opportunity to be met with the phrase: “Why on earth did I pack that?”

At least one top will be consigned to the bottom of the rucksack never to be worn – at least not after the first week or, on London to New York, the first day – or only as an emergency to signal the urgent need to do some washing.

Only then will the list be completed and the mad dash round the shops squeezed in, at which point the intended clothes for the trip will be laid on the bed and the realisation that there’s way too much there to qualify for the intended target of packing light.

It’s an admirable aim and one that is being strictly adhered to, right up to the point where temptation takes over and that bout of just-in-case seeks me out like a persistent mosquito.

If only there was a spray for that.

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Left Of The Dial

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 9, 2010
 
Passin’ through and it’s late, the station started to fade
Picked another one up in the very next state… I’ll try to find you, Left of the dial’
Left of the Dial – The Replacements, 1985
 

THINGS have changed since Paul Westerberg sketched that classic picture of trying to tune into a friend’s new band on the American alternative/college radio stations, tucked away on the left of the dial.

It still holds true about stations fading out on you and the need for constant re-tuning to pick up something worth listening to.

Actually scratch that, they don’t seem to fade out as such, more magically retune to a default setting which is guaranteed to be playing John ‘Cougar’ ‘Soddin’ Mellencamp. Altogether now: ‘Little ditty, about Jack and Diane…’

Sod the fact that Jack has long since left Diane with four kids in the trailer park and even a last-ditch attempt to save their relationship on Jerry Springer ended with Jack facing charges of assault and the eldest child being recognised as the ring leader of a cow-tipping ring. They still play that song everywhere you bloody go in a perpetual medley with The Black-Eyed chuffin’ Peas.

No, let’s not get this party started. Let’s play something people might actually want to listen to as they hit the open road in sweltering heat…

Sorry, but these are the sort of things which get to you when you drive 6,000 miles in five weeks around the USA in a little white Pontiac, playing the twin games of seeing if the temperature gauge tops 100 degrees Centigrade again today and desperately trying to find something worth listening to on FM radio.

Left of the dial these days seems to bring you just two things – God-fearing bible-bashers, paranoid their listeners will rush over to the dark side (that’s the Devil, not AM radio) if they don’t mention Jesus at least once every 10 seconds, or right-wing talk shows raging against Obama and calling for him to be impeached, either for having the cheek to win an election or just because it’s too damn hot.

Occasionally you’ll get right-wing God-fearing talk show hosts going on about Jesus and Obama, but best not to hang around on those channels long enough to find out how close they got to comparing the President with the Devil.

Apart from that, your choices are local sports phone-ins (wildly entertaining in a ‘are they really having a half-hour debate about the third-string wide receiver at the local high school?’ sort of way), national sports phone-ins (much the same, but debates about the third-string wide receiver of the Cincinnati Bengals. Or Lebron James. Or Brett Favre) or, eventually, some music.

Music radio comes in three distinct categories – country, rock and pop. Wait long enough and all three of them will eventually play Jack and Diane and you are pretty sure to get Don’t Stop Believing thrown in as well.

The country stations are not just kept to the South, although down there it is hard to find anything else (unless it is country rock), but crop up all over the place and ram the dial from left to right.

Occasionally they will pull in unsuspecting listeners with something that’s only vaguely country, but it won’t be long before someone’s warbling about their lost love running away with their pick-up truck on the same day their dog died by throwing itself off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Actually, that’s a bit harsh from someone a bit partial to the odd bit of country (more the alt-country, American variety than the populist Grand Old Opry stuff) and did stumble across two little gems which will always bring back good memories of the trip – check out Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer by Billy Currington and Drinkin’ Bone by Tracy Byrd (which we first stumbled on performed by a drunk Canadian at a karaoke in Banff). You may notice a link…

The rock stations differ only in their interpretation of the term ‘rock’. Some opt for anything with a guitar which is not necessarily, but not totally excluding, country. Others opt for the heavier, metal-based form of the genre, although even they get dragged back to more mainstream fodder – presumably to please the advertisers. All of them will, before too long, play Journey and that bleedin’ Mellencamp bloke.

Which leaves us with the pop stations. Like their rock brethren, they do have the excellent habit of running about 45 minutes of consecutive music together each hour before a big lump of adverts. Sadly, most of the music will be shit.

The odd station will veer more towards the vintage market and throw you the occasional bone of a good tune to get you interested and ensure you stick with them for the next few miles in the hope of another one.

Instead, you will get anodyne rubbish, mixed in with the hourly ritual of Don’t Stop Believing, Jack and Diane and those really, really annoying Black-Eyed Peas. At least they come up with recognisable intros. “I’ll change that tune in…”

All this ended up with two outcomes – enough time listening to ESPN Radio formed firm opinions on the Cincinnati Bengals third-choice wide receiver, Lebron James, Brett Favre (shouldn’t have come back Brett) and whether the Tampa Bay Rays can stay the distance in the AL East title race (Go Sox).

Secondly, it meant that by New York honed back into view, I knew what was going on in the charts, could sing along to not one but two Katy Perry tracks (much to Phoebe’s amusement) and had even downloaded a couple of tracks making waves in the ‘hit parade’ (Eminem and B.o.B if anyone is interested).

But amidst all of this, every so often the spirit of Paul Westerberg was summoned and something more akin to his words would spring from the speakers as the radio sifted through the left of the dial.

First of them came climbing towards the highest point on the staggeringly gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway – a 450-odd mile ribbon of sinuous, breathtaking road through Virginia and North Carolina (which we would have got to it this in this entry but for getting sidetracked by the rant about American radio).

Given the gradient, the succession of sweeping curves, the onset of rain and clouds as the road shot up (even with the temperature gauge way up in the 90s) and the steep drop off to the left, perhaps playing with the radio dial should have been replaced by fully concentrating on the road.

But it was worth it for that unmistakable, slightly distorted rhythmic opening, the first thumps of Bill Berry’s snare and straight into Michael Stipe’s very personal murmur, all sounding like it was recorded in somebody’s basement.

Never has Radio Free Europe sounded so good as, cranked right up, the Pontiac careered (as much as you can do with a 45mph speed limit) around the last few upward bends and pulled into the car park at the viewpoint.

Those already there were torn between watching the, supposedly, glorious view disappear as the clouds rolled in to engulf everything or the strange-looking bloke sat drumming (badly) on the steering wheel of his hire car and singing along to whatever was blaring from his stereo.

After taking in what was left of the view and used the facilities, not only was it sheeting down with rain and the cloud cutting visibility to mere yards, but all that was coming from that station was a despondent hiss – never to be heard from again on the, very careful, way down the other side of the hill, back to glorious sunshine and, probably, Don’t Stop Believing.

Refusing to stop believing produced, just once more, my reward while heading south down the interstate through Alabama from Athens, Georgia to Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Fed up with the completely humourless, know-it-all host of a sports phone-in centred on the football rivalry between Alabama and Auburn Universities, the dial was turned full left in search of something worth listening to.

And, somehow, heading south on the I-85, up popped the Cocteau Twins, followed by The Cure, followed by… actually, can’t quite remember. But Auburn University college radio had somehow transported me back to the late 1980s with their Old Time Lunchtimes – akin to a re-run of a vintage Annie Nightingale Request Show from a Sunday night in my teens, without the letters (written in purple) from lovelorn goths.

Which is why, pulling into a service stop to stock up on cold drinks, The Sex Pistols were blaring out of my car, Pretty Vacant attracting the sort of looks it hasn’t engendered since 1977.

With high anticipation and having scurried back to the car, starting the engine only found… distortion and the eerily familiar sound of a radio station going out of range.

Sadly, pulling out onto the interstate, Johnny Lydon’s sneer was replaced by the inevitable…

‘Little ditty about Jack and Diane, two American kids growin’ up in the heartland…’

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