Round about 6.30am on Friday September 9th, 1977, I was in Mobile, Alabama, guzzling breakfast in a Greyhound station and beginning to feel ok. Florida and the Suncon were far behind. El Paso was somewhere in the future.
Breakfast was always the best part of the Greyhound day, with the strange long night of travelling over, the sun bubbling up into the sky, and a trayful of eggs, coffee, toast, juice, and hash browns to aid the return of life.
But weird things can happen at breakfasts. And that particular morning it was a visit from the friendly neighborhood dope pedlar.
I was getting into my third cup of coffee and wondering whether to keep the sachet of grape jelly as a souvenir, when he came bouncing over, asked if he could sit down, and started chatting happily about Alabama, Greyhound stations, sunshiny mornings, and the pleasures of long-distance travelling.
He asked me where I was from, where I was going. Expressed his lifelong regard for England and the English. Told me several interesting facts about Mobile, Texas, the desert, and El Paso. And then asked me if I wanted to buy any dope.
I sprayed coffee gently over the table and managed to shake my head.
'That's ok,' said the dope pedlar, beaming. 'Have a nice day!' And he bounced off to look for more potential customers.
When I reboarded the bus, I eyed the other passengers warily. The regulation nun smiled, the twitching loony twitched. I knew what was going on...
An hour or so later, we crossed into Mississippi, cruised along the Gulf Coast, rolled through Biloxi, and then headed somewhere that sent me asleep.
When I awoke, the coach was entirely surrounded by water. Had we taken a wrong turning? I rose up out of my seat and peered round. No land to be seen in any direction, just a thin strip of road running across a flat expanse of water. Someone said confidently that it was the Mississippi River.
Impressive. It was just as if we were crossing a large and placid lake, a fact I've proudly recounted to awed listeners ever since.
Trouble is, it was a lake. I just found out a couple of minutes ago when I checked up the spelling of Missipissi in an atlas. The real Mississippi was somewhere the other side of New Orleans. Bang goes another traveller's tale.
Louisiana was a disappointment. One day, real soon now, I promise I'll get back there, but the coach just sped on through. New Orleans consisted of twenty minutes in a downtown Greyhound station. Not a bayou or a jolie blonde in sight.
After that it was Texas. And then Texas. And Texas, and Texas, and Texas.
When people tell you that Texas is big, they aren't kidding. We travelled through Texas all afternoon, all evening, and all night. And in the morning, when the sun came up, there was Texas, still rolling past at a steady 55 miles per hour.
Texas is full of desert. Not the Sahara stuff with sand dunes and camels and oases, but a dry, stony wasteland with pick-up trucks and gas stations.
First time I had ever seen anything like it and I was dying to get out and have a quick look round. Especially when I saw some cactus. Runty little things, I must admit, but still -- it's more than you get in Devon.
When we did stop, of course, I got to see yet another distinctive and exciting Greyhound station.
The only thing that makes Texas Greyhound stations different from a thousand others across the continent is pink grapefruit juice. Texas is terrifically famous for pink grapefruit juice. I bought a tin and looked at the contents. It contained grapefruit juice and colouring (pink).
Everyone on the bus got very excited on Saturday morning because bits of Mexico could be seen on the horizon. We all peered vaguely into the hills.
Then we rolled down into El Paso, a sprawling desert town surrounded by giant graffiti cut into the hillsides in a bizarre act of municipal vandalism. If there were any fans in town, I didn't know them or their addresses. I was basically visiting El Paso on whim -- partly because it's a romantic sort of name, useful for dropping into conversations at the local pub ('That reminds me, when I was in *El Paso*...') and because it was right on the border and I might be able to take a peek across.
Only thing was, I couldn't find a motel anywhere -- at least, not in the centre of town, which wasn't surprising. And the Hiltons and whatnot looked a bit pricey. So, after a tour of inspection, I ended up back at the Greyhound station, where I accosted a cowboy-hatted businessman about to depart and asked him if he could recommend an hotel at a reasonable price.
'Seen me on tv, huh?' he said, and gripped me in a bone-crushing handshake.
Oh no. Trust me to pick the standard-issue loony about to check in.
But he was on the level. He'd been in some tv ads and was proud as punch about them, refusing to believe that I had somehow missed them. When I told him I came from Britain, he got really happy. He hadn't known his ads were showing Over There.
Anyway, he was a good guy and recommended the Hotel Grande El Norte with several emphatic jabs of his finger. So to the Hotel Grande El Norte I went and it was smashing: a comparatively aged hotel with a splendid entrance lobby featuring a domed and frescoed ceiling, with full accoutrements. The desk clerk, having written down my address as Dawlish, Devon, OK, totally disoriented me by asking how things were going in Oklahoma, and then ushered me up to a fine room with a colour tv, a comfortable bed, a shower and a bath, promises of breakfast, and everything.
I then faced an agonizing decision. Should I explore Mexico or have a bath? It seems kind of rotten now, but I decided on the bath and a quiet evening in -- the first simple-minded rest I'd given myself since landing in America.
I did go out for a short stroll -- just long enough to bump into the friendly neighborhood dope pedlar, who stopped me in the street and asked, with uncanny accuracy, whether I was from Florida.
'Wow, I've just come from there,' I said.
'Do you want to buy any dope?' he replied.
Alarmed by this death-defying non sequitur, I returned hurriedly to the hotel, wondering why I looked like a Floridan. Grapefruit stains on my t-shirt? Stains that weren't pink?
To wipe my mind clean, I spent the rest of the evening exploring the world of American television -- a world dominated by the kind of adverts we used to get in the early 1960s, where loud voices boomed out of nowhere, cartons were thrust in front of cameras, and people with hangovers sang 'plop, plop, fizz, fizz -- oh what a relief it is!' and smiled a lot. There were three commercial breaks during the weather forecast.
The next morning, I decided to catch a local bus into Mexico but couldn't find one and ended up on a coach tour, which was a mistake.
We seemed to go in by the back way, via marshalling yards, vacant lots, and anonymous warehouses -- a thoroughly unlikely setting for Mexico, at least the Mexico of my dreams. It's as if someone told you the forbidden city of Lhasa was next left after the gasworks. Still, there was the excitement of crossing the legendary Rio Grande -- a mighty obstacle to hundreds of Hollywood desperadoes fleeing across the border.
Not any more. The Rio Grande was a mighty three feet across at its widest point. It's cruel to have illusions shattered like this.
And then we were in Mexico -- and I hardly dared look. But, goddam it, it was ok.
Ciudad Juarez on the Mexican side of the border was the original El Paso del Norte and is still twice the size of its US twin on the north bank of the Rio Grande. Most of the day-to-day population of El Paso is Mexican or of Mexican descent, but it still looks like a run-of-the-mill office block and straight streets US town.
Juarez looked anything but. As soon as we crossed the border there was complete anarchy and chaos. Cars drove on both sides of the road -- oncoming cars took to the pavements. Police whistles shrilled. Dogs and children ran through the traffic. People ambled amiably about or sat on chairs at streetcorners. A band and a troop of uniformed kids wove their way through the melee -- and everybody leaned out of their cars and shouted.
Triffic. But I can't think why I ever took that coach tour. Whilst I was still gazing happily out of the window, the coach nipped through the traffic, did a couple of sharp turns, whizzed through a tumbledown area of adobe hovels -- at which everyone on the coach tut-tutted -- and drove to a brand new race-course on the outskirts of town.
We were invited to get out and look round.
Why? A race-course is a race-course. This one was ultra-new, badly built, and very large. It was thoroughly uninteresting.
We were told the times of the races and urged to be sure to come along and enjoy ourselves and bet on the horses.
Humbug. After that came a cruise around the upper-class suburbs of Juarez. Lots of big ugly bungalows. Prime real estate. Good place to retire. The coach passengers nodded and pointed.
Shit, I said, quite audibly.
The courier said if I didn't like it, I needn't have come. I said it was a bit late for that and he shrugged.
After that we stopped at a dollar-only store for souvenirs of our Mexican visit, followed by a trip to a souvenir factory to see the tourist industry at work. I wandered around outside and, not looking very Mexican at all, got accosted by balloon-sellers, cigarette sellers, trinket-sellers, and someone offering me the services of his sister.
We went back to the States. I had at least been to Mexico, but it's not something I boast about much.
Next time, I'll walk.