Monday, November 11, 2013

Straight Up The Middle

From Texas the logical and reasonable thing for me to do would have been to hug the southern states up until the coast before heading north to New York, so as to stay in a band of temperate weather for as long as possible. Logic is not my strong suit and so instead I headed, more or less, straight north cutting through the much-neglected Midwest. This large, flat expanse, right in the middle of America, is oft-overlooked by visitors to the country who tend to gravitate to the coasts. for me that was reason enough to visit as I was curious to uncover (if only a small part of) the hidden heart of America.

For many towns around the world 4pm on a Saturday afternoon might be considered the busiest time of the week, but not so in Lufkin, Texas, which resembled a ghost town. In the 2 hours that I walked its streets I literally saw less than a dozen other people walking.

There was a snag, of course. Transport. It's a well known fact that in America the car is king. From motels, to wide freeways, drive-ins, drive-thrus and RV's, the primary focus when building in America is to make things as convenient as possible for drivers. The automobile appeals to the national sense of individuality and freedom, as well as the big car manufacturers and oil companies. The problem is not simply that priority is given to automobiles, it's that everything else is ignored. The idea of actually walking to or between destinations is not just rejected, but seemingly discouraged. In several towns I have walked through the centre, only to find that there is no pavement (sidewalk) and so been forced to walk on the road. And it's not as if there is a lack of space, as roads are often two lanes in both directions and there are wide, grassy verges. But to construct some sort of space for people to walk is firmly out of the question. In smaller towns I rarely, if ever, see other pedestrians, as people storm past in their enclosed, vehicular bubbles. You are well and truly a second-class citizen in the US if, for whatever reason, you do not have a car and/or drive, and live outside one of the few large cities with decent public transport. In fact public transport seems to me to be one of the areas where America's pernicious racism has found a new home. It is no longer acceptable, and rightly so, to be openly racist in public. So instead policies are put in place that disproportionately disadvantage minority populations, usually by targetting the poor. This became abundantly clear when I hopped on Kansas City's buses and the racial demographic reversed from being 90% white to 90% black and latino. Forced to rely on public services minorities are then hostage to inadequate route coverage and patchy schedules.

A nice, wheelchair-friendly pavement ramp ... that peters away after a metre. For those who cannot drive to to health or financial reasons the USA makes life hellishly difficult for them.

If America is the land where cars rule, it is also the country that invented the concept of hitchhiking (or at least marketed it better than anyone else). And I am certainly not alone in having, as a youth, read Jack Kerouac's On The Road and been inspired to dream of hitting the open road with a vague idea of where I'm going with nothing but my backpack and my thumb. America's roads hold a hitching allure that few places can match. Not only that, but the dearth of public transportation in the country, especially in more rural areas, means that if you don't have a car then thumbing a ride may be the only really viable option for getting to where you want to go.

Unfortunately the halcyon days of hitching are well and truly over. The creeping paranoia of the mass media has made everyone fearful of trusting others and unwilling to stop to help out their fellow man. Even my special hitching preparations didn't seem to be of much help: I had got my mother to bring out my kilt to Mexico in the hope that people would be more tempted to stop for a man in a kilt, not an everyday sight on America's roads. Despite my disarming (and disarmed, because how can you conceal a gun under a kilt?) appearance rides were not always forthcoming. Indeed, I spent an entire day at a truck stop at the edge of Lufkin, Texas asking people as courteously as possible whether they could give me a ride, but to no avail. In the end I hopped on the one daily northbound bus that night.

I found it especially telling that when I did get picked up almost every single person that stopped would not have been considered as part of the mainstream of society, but were, instead, on the fringes: minorities, the poor, metalheads, veterans having trouble reintegrating, etc. One morning in Arkansas I was standing on the edge of Little Rock, at a good hitch spot, trying to head north. I waited for over three hours before someone pulled over in a beat up pick-up. When he did I asked him where he was going he said Conway (about 20 miles up the road) to see his parole officer. It turns out he had done some time (twice) for running a garage crystal meth lab. Nevertheless he not only took me to Conway, but he went out of his way to drop me off somewhere where I could easily hitch from again (America is a big country and even its small towns are ludicrously sprawled out, so that it may take an hour to walk to the edge of a settlement of only a couple of thousand people). I found it particularly interesting that here, in the heart of the Bible Belt, where churches line every roadside and people take their Christian faith very seriously, that it was the criminal who was able to show the most humanity and help out a stranger in need. I don't think it would be possible to get any closer to the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Whilst hitching from Austin to Huntsville I got picked up by the guy in the vest on the right. Goatee, piercings, tattoos all over his arms, messy pick-up and a redneck southern drawl. He was only heading a few miles up the road to a bar for after-work beers. Shortly after dropping me off the bar girl (centre) came out with a beer and said the guys inside wanted to buy me a drink. Although many Americans would have been afraid to step inside the bar (it was called The Beer Joint and wasn't too appealing from the outside) the clientele were all extremely friendly and generous and several of them offered to let me stay the night (which I would have accepted if I hadn't already arranged to meet someone that evening).

In films hitchers always get rides from truck drivers, but that avenue is also firmly barricaded as insurance companies have strict policies against unregistered people in truck cabs. Today truck drivers run the very real risk of losing their jobs if they're found with unlisted passengers.

Yet despite this nationwide paranoia towards strangers in general, and hitchhikers in particular, I managed, with a little perseverance, to get a number of rides throughout the South and Midwest, and I was struck by the generosity of the people. The barriers to other people may be high and difficult to breach, but once on the other side I found Americans to be exceedingly hospitable. A couple of hours after being dropped off by the felon I was only some 50 miles from where I had started my day, not particularly impressed with my progress with dusk approaching. A middle-aged guy pulled up and said he could take me to Harrison, most of the way that I had been planning to go that day. He was quite a talker. I wasn't surprised given the number of empty red Bull cans strewn about and the packs of cigarettes. He told me about his time in the special forces, about his taekwondo, and about how his great grandfather was Red Cloud, one of the main Sioux chiefs who fought against the Americans. People tend to exaggerate when they have a captive audience that can't question their veracity, and I just politely nodded along. He was a nice guy after all even though he didn't really look native American. Then he said that on second thoughts, maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea to leave me in Harrison after all, as it's where the Ku Klux Klan have their headquarters, and would I like to come over and stay at his house. Why not? I thought - in for a penny, in for a pound.

It turned out to be a cosy house near a lake. Along the way we stopped off at the taekwondo dojo to say hello, and when we arrived at his house, his mother and brother didn't bat an eyelid and offered me dinner. After that he brought out the family scrap book with pictures of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill. I was speechless. By the end of the evening they were telling me that I could stay for as long as I wanted. Although it was a tempting offer, especially as it would give me a chance to see some of the beautiful Ozark scenery in all its autumnal splendour, I had to move onwards and northwards.

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