The Middle Ages were a big non-event as far as America was concerned. You can tell by the roads. They just don't come up to good mediaeval standards -- no twists, no turns, no halts at country villages, no fords, no cobbles, no hump-backed bridges, no curves, no bends to avoid cottages, no detours around fields, no following forgotten paths through vanished forests and long-drained marshes. American roads go straight ahead, oblivious of the landscape around them. Even a modern British motorway looks like a meandering folly beside a US highway. The Americans must have taken small maps and big rulers and drawn bloody great lines connecting the cities. Then they simply went out and built roads where the lines were marked. It didn't matter to them what was there: valleys, hills, forests, rivers -- they ignored the lot.
I know I live in Devon where the roads are little more than tangled mazes of high-hedged lanes; but I reckon any European takes it for granted that no road is straight for long and that even the ill-natured motorways will do a little bit of twisting and curving and disappearing into hollows. A proper road is part of the countryside -- it follows a natural course; it blends in with the landscape. But in America the roads are startling asphalt slashes cutting straight through the land and the result is thoroughly unnatural.
For one thing they emphasize the emptiness of the land. Cresting a hill, you can see the highway stretching straight in front of you till it's lost in the blur of the distance. And on either side of you there are tracts of land. Not countryside -- just empty land. Great belts of forest, desert, grassland, or swamp, without fields or hedges or cottages or anything. Mile after mile of empty land and ahead there's always the same damn road heading straight for the horizon. It's unnervingly desolate and unchanging. After a while you start wondering whether you're actually getting anywhere at all or whether you've driven into some strange limbo state where the landscape repeats itself like a cheap cartoon and the road never ends.
Certainly the roads weren't made for human beings. There's no chance of a US highway stopping at a village inn for tea or taking you the pretty way around a lake. They're just made for machines, mechanically cruising along straight lines. The lines don't even lead anywhere after a while -- they just head North or South or wherever. The whole thing becomes quite dream-like: the traffic flows steadily at 55 miles per hour and your mind becomes detached and blank. After a while hardly anyone seems to speed or even overtake. All individuality is lost in this weird constant cruising on highways without an end or a beginning.
As a passenger, whether in a coach or a car, I found myself hypnotized by the roads. I'd just sit there blank-eyed and slack-mouthed, brain completely vacant. Only rare and remarkable events like a change of gear or a hint of a curve would rouse me from this zombie-like state. I noticed it was the same with other people -- there'd be some sort of unusual movement and everyone would suddenly snap awake, look around, shift in their seats, start a conversation, blow their noses, or yawn.
Still, there were breaks in the flow. Every three or four hours we'd stop off for a coffee and a bite to eat. On the Greyhound this meant grubby little bus stations; but travelling down the East Coast by car we stopped off at the restaurants that clustered round the freeway and turnpike exits. In Britain the motorway services are doled out to single companies under licence; but in America, as might be expected, it's all free enterprise and a batch of restaurants, motels, and garages tout for trade at each exit point. These service complexes form strange little villages, leeching on the traffic for their existence. They're all virtually identical -- the big companies favouring similar styles for all their buildings, so that mind-numbed travellers can recognize them at a glance. The brand dictates the architecture so the architecture reflects the brand. For the less sensitive there are enormous signs identifying each motel, garage, and restaurant in giant letters and garish colours. For the illiterate, the signs are grotesquely shaped, each to its own distortion. These vast totem poles rising high above the complexes are visible for miles along the road. And at night they're a riot of neon; flashing, winking, electronically whirling, calling the entranced from the roads and into the brash little villages with no names.
Back on the road again you can stave off boredom for a while by looking at the billboards. These aren't the stunted little hoardings occasionally seen in Britain, but tremendous great things erected all along the freeways in desert, forest, or farmland. Most are illuminated, some have moving parts, and all are designed to catch the eye, either by violent colours and vast lettering or by jokes, jingles, odd pictures, and strange shapes. Most of the billboards are concerned not with products but with services or roadside attractions. On the tedious eastern highways where the scenery consists of a 2000 mile row of trees, the billboards provided reading matter and occasional light relief. But elsewhere, in the desert and the hills, these cheap and nasty hoardings with their cheap and nasty messages were a profound irritation and an ugly curse on the landscape.
If you get tired of billboards, and that's easily done, you can always stare at the traffic. Most of it is as tedious as you'd expect, except for the trucks; I never tired of marvelling at these massive machines steaming past in groups and convoys. I know we're supposed to call them 'lorries' in Britain and not 'trucks'; but 'lorry' is somehow too ineffectual and weak-kneed a word. These American trucks are solid and big; British lorries are tinny and frail in comparison -- even the giant articulated things, the juggernauts that cross over into the European mainland, are somehow too slender and elongated. American trucks are heavyweights. Seen from a car, a truck overtaking you is like Armageddon approaching -- the sky darkens, reeks and stenches pour in, smokes and fogs fill the air, and there's a roar and rumble like hell opening its gates. Somewhere up in the iron and steel above the clouds there might be a driver. And at night the trucks are outlined with patterns of dull red lights on front, rear, and sides -- mechanically steaming on like the never-ending highways themselves.
Anyway, we travelled on south from Washington, Joyce Scrivner and Rob Jackson taking turns with the driving whilst Gary Farber and I dozed or stared at the billboards. Or maybe Gary was thinking great thoughts -- unlikely, however, in that heat. And it was getting steadily hotter, though Washington had been bad enough. We had to have the car windows fully open, which meant a constant flutter of wind and hair flying everywhere. Occasionally this produced a brief diversion when Rob was driving. he'd mutter something that was lost in the wind, Joyce would lean over to hear better, and suddenly there'd be a frantic swirl of long hair and a moment's panic as Rob spluttered and lashed out, fighting off the strands like a swarm of gnats.
This relieved some of the monotony of east coast highway 95 which was notable for its featureless, tree-lined flatness. The heat, the clatter of the wind, and the everlasting road didn't stimulate much converstaion; I'd exhausted my fund of interesting and seldom-heard facts about trees after the first hundred miles or so and there wasn't anything else to be seen except American cars, which look like American cars, and asphalt.
The first day out of Washington we stopped at a nameless exit somewhwere in Virginia and pulled into a Howard Johnson's for lunch. We seemed to attract some slight attention whenever we stopped and I suppose we were a wild-haired and improbable bunch. Our restaurant entrances were probably worth a look. There was Joyce, by no means slender but with a quick and potentially dainty step that was spoiled by the toe-hold sandals; Rob was a stolid but indecisive mover; Gary a rapid, mouse-footed lightweight; and myself, a slug among men. Joyce would get through the door first and would advance rapidly on a table in a sort of flopping skip; Rob would reach the door, pause to let Gary through, and then himself stalk uprightly in before halting as if totally mystified by his surroundings and quite unable to detect any sign of Joyce, or even Gary, who'd furtively managed to reach the table unseen. They'd all seated themselves, read the menus, examined the sauce bottles, and been served iced-water before I'd reached the door and begun my long, stately slouch towards them. Anyway if we seemed peculiar to Howard Johnson's that afternoon, the feeling was mutual. Here we were in the thick heat of Virginia and there was this restaurant, looking like a cross between a church and a Swiss chalet with a brilliant orange roof, steeply angled to keep off the snow. I've a suspicion it might have had a bell-tower as well. I don't know what restaurants are supposed to look like, but it's certainly nothing like a Howard Johnson's.
Still, the food was good (or at least, a hell of a lot better than a comparable place in Britain), though I was distracted from the main meal by overpowering thoughts of ice-cream. When the time came for dessert, however, I got into difficulties. The items labelled as ice-creams in the menu bore tempting, but incomprehensible names, so the waitress patiently described each one, with Gary and Joyce giving secondary descriptions of the equally incomprehensible ingredients. Whenever I said yes, great, I'll have one of those, the waitress said she was right out of them and we'd all move on to the next one. We played this game for some while till eventually somebody asked what she did have and she said Butterscotch and I said yes, great, I'll have one of those, and we actually got somewhere. Very nice too. I asked for cigarette papers, but they didn't have any, so we ambled and flapped out and were soon back on the road again.
At some stage in the afternoon we crossed into North Carolina and stopped at the information centre on the border. The others went off to look for free maps and water fountains, whilst I chased a couple of magnificent butterflies into a woodland area, neatly laid out for picknickers. I made a vague search for poison ivy, an all-American plant which for no very good reason I'd become anxious to find. Unfortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, I didn't know what it looked like and Joyce and Gary's descriptions dwelt more on the gruesome results of touching the plant than the actual appearance of the thing. Anyway I hopefully picked a posy of assorted undergrowth (which turned out to be harmless) and peered into a slovenly little brook where something had audibly but invisibly splashed -- undoubtedly an alligator.
Having satisfied my curiosity, I thought I'd take a leak. This may not seem quite the sort of momentous event which TAFF reports normally dwell on; but, hell, fans are human too -- even me -- and I've always had a firm belief that serious works of literature shouldn't shy away from these things. That's why I gave up reading Enid Blyton. The Famous Five never went to the toilet once during adventures that lasted several days or more. As a kid I used to get really worried about that. It seemed like I wouldn't stand a chance of being an adventurer myself, should the day ever come.
Anyway, I looked around for a toilet. Most of the places I'd been to previously had handy little silhouettes on the door, for the benefit of illiterates and foreigners. However, I'd had a look at the Howard Johnson's earlier and hadn't found anything -- just a door marked 'Private' and another marked 'Rest Rooms' (presumably for long-distance truck drivers). This place was just the same -- 'Private', 'Rest Rooms', 'Information Office', and that was all. So I asked at the information desk and the woman said that the rest rooms were next door. This wasn't very helpful, so I asked again, only to get exactly the same answer. I gave her a dirty look and went out. Now, if the toilets were inside the rest rooms, it'd be a question of disturbing the truckers and whoever else was trying to sleep there; the alternative was to find a few bushes out of sight of the picknickers. I walked off with this in mind, till I noticed that gangs of kids were playing hide and seek amongst the poison ivy and alligators. So I gave that up and went back to face the wrath of the dozing truckers. And of course it was then that I found out that 'Rest Room' is no more than a misleading euphemism for toilet. All of which should go to prove something -- either about the occasional unexpected prudishness of Americans, or the gullibility of Cornishmen, or the strangeness of the world in general. I don't know.
Before heading off again, I picked up a pamphlet which proudly stated that North Carolina was famous for its Virginia peanuts, which seemed pretty daft. I also tried to get some cigarette papers, but they didn't have any.
I entertained the others for a while by reading out the pamphlet's unlikely and disgusting recipes for peanuts, until I made myself and everyone else slightly nauseous, then lapsed into silence and stared out at North Carolina. North Carolina looked much the same as Virginia, which in turn had looked much the same as Maryland, which hadn't looked a lot different from Delaware, and so on. We looked at the trees and the billboards.
Somewhere in South Carolina we started passing a series of vulgar and fatuous hoardings advertising a place called Pedro's. They must have subliminally influenced Rob, since, after a couple of hours' driving, when the place eventually came in sight, he unexpectedly pulled over and we found ourselves parked in a mess of mock-Hispanic buildings dominated by a gigantic statue of a comic-book Mexican, presumably Pedro himself. We all looked at Rob; he was in a state of severe billboard shock and was still mumbling jingles to himself. Anyway, we accepted this unseen twist of fate and walked up to the first building. The first building was too cheap -- an ultra-fast food bar that stank of disinfectant. We left it and walked on to the second building. The second building was too small -- just a confectioner's. I asked for cigarette papers, but they didn't have any, so we walked on to the third building. The third building (this is beginning to sound like a fairy story) was almost just right -- a restaurant in fact, though it looked rather bilious and bright. Indeed after a glance at the menu (which contained such well-known Mexican dishes as Southern Fried Chicken and cheeseburgers) we were inclined to give Pedro's a miss. Rob, however, was still suffering from jingles and, moreover, had worked out that we had to be in Georgia that night in order to reach the Suncon by Wednesday. I forget why that meant we had to eat in Pedro's, but Rob was in one of his no-nonsense doctorial moods, so we all did as we were told and made our usual ragged entrance. We sat down under a canopy of authentic signed sombreros from Pittsburgh, Detroit, and other Mexican cities and were briefly surveyed by a tv camera that was keeping an eye on the knives and forks. After a mere half-hour or so a female wrestler disguised as a waitress lumbered over to us and barked out some trite litany in a remarkable, thick Southern drawl, just like something out of a Civil War melodrama. I'd always thought it was a bogus accent invented by Yankee novelists, but here we were in South Carolina and the 'you-alls' were tumbling out after every other word, despite the fact that we were supposed to be pretending we were in Mexico. Anyway, she moved on from the ritual greeting and asked Joyce for her order. Joyce ordered (Big City Americans can be stunningly blunt in restaurants) and the waitress grimaced visibly and glowered at Rob. Rob, not noticing any of this, started asking questions about the menu (the Anglo-American language gap is at its worst in menus). The waitress, already irritated and now confronted with an obvious illiterate, snapped back answers -- inasmuch as it's possible to snap and drawl at the same time. Rob, of course, not being a dialect enthusiast, didn't understand a bloody word she said. Things got rather strained. In the end Gary and I ordered the simplest meals in fear of our lives and we all ended up eating something vaguely unpleasant before clearing out as rapidly as we could. So much for the pernicious effects of billboards on tired doctors.
Sometime after dark we had a real adventure (even though I'd been to the toilet at Pedro's). Joyce, entranced by the flow of fascinating fannish conversation ('What do you think of X?' 'He's ok.' 'What do you think of Y?' 'She's all right.'), managed to run out of petrol in the middle of nowhere much at all. The car spluttered to a halt.
There was supposed to be an exit some five miles ahead, so, leaving Rob to guard the car, the rest of us got out and started walking. It was pleasant enough: a warm South Carolina night, with the moon hanging low over the trees and the insects buzzing and chirping in the dense tangles of vegetation alongside the road. The walk had a strange dream-like quality -- I mean apart from the fact that we now seemed to be heading for the Suncon on foot. Here we were in this deep rural landscape, miles from anywhere, and yet a few feet to the left of us strange, disembodied lights purred past and disappeared, whilst occasionally, on our right, vast hell-bright placards rose mysteriously out of the undergrowth, offering us good eats, prime building lots, and happy retirement homes. [See footnote.] The hoardings hummed electrically to themselves, flickering with the rapid shadows of night-flying moths.
And then a police car appeared. We wouldn't have panicked much more if a herd of buffalos had suddenly charged out of the shadows. American cop cars are intrinsically evil things -- low, sleek, and menacing, bathed in their revolving blue lights. This one passed close by us. There was a sharp red flash of rear-lights, and the thing stopped.
Well, I don't know. Two long-haired Yankees and a long-haired foreigner in the middle of the night well south of the Mason-Dixon line found walking along a freeway. Obviously hippies. Obviously full of any old drugs you could care to mention. Christ. I had my Easy Rider sunglasses on as well. I could see it coming: a big fat Southern Sheriff in a cowboy hat, sweat-stained and looking for trouble. Joyce had already reached the car and was talking through the window. It was a brief exchange and she looked up and beckoned us on. 'He says to get in,' said Joyce. We got in. And it was just about as bad as it could be: he was a sheriff, and he was wearing a cowboy hat, and he had a shotgun strapped to his seat, and it was a hot, humid, South Carolina night. Great.
Anyway, the sheriff said he'd drop us folks off at the gas station along aways and then take us right on back to the car. And the sighs of evaporating tension damn near blew his hat off. So I sat back and enjoyed the ride in the cop car and the sheriff chatted away and we admired his shotgun and he said, hell, he'd got two rifles in the back as well and they weren't gonna catch him with his pants down. We got to the garage where an evil-looking extra out of Bad Day At Black Rock lurked around staring at us and spraying bat-sized bugs with an aerosol can; a second cop appeared and asked who was out on the road now and our sheriff said no one, they can do what they damn well please, and we looked at the cop cars, and found out we were in Florence, South Carolina, which has a municipal badge consisting of a palm tree with a couple of dates on it (1776 and 1828, actually), and shortly after we were driven back to find a worried-looking Rob who'd apparently been visited by truckers and had got himself on CB radio. We asked him if he was ok. Ten four, said Rob. Let's roll.
And that was just about all the excitement for that night. We stopped at a motel somewhere north of Statesboro (Statesboro, Georgia, that is) and all sneaked guiltily into a double room, since Gary was as broke as ever and the rest of us didn't exactly have money coming out of our ears.
Next morning I had grits for breakfast. Outside again the sun was fierce and the Spanish moss hung in thick strands from the trees. I asked for cigarette papers, but they didn't have any, so we drove off.
Sometime during the day the main highway petered out and we went off onto some sideroads with buildings and fields and people alongside them, instead of the endless rows of trees that had stretched all the way from New Jersey. I saw peanut fields and real, genuine, white-flecked cottonfields, and began to sing Leadbelly songs about boll-weevils and suchlike, to the annoyance of everyone else. The south, however, was listless and dusty in the heat of August and the buildings and hamlets looked ramshackle and uncared for. No Gothic mansions lurked in lush plantations; just sheds, shacks, and low little houses.
One interesting thing about the Deep South is that it stinks. I reckon it's probably natural -- it certainly stank like a hundred dead possums when we passed the Okefenokee Swamp. There you are; that's an interesting fact to throw into any conversation. Did you know that Dixieland smells, vicar? Fascinating, Mr. Roberts.
After lunch we crossed into Florida and stopped at the border for our free glass of grapefruit juice. People in Florida take their grapefruits very seriously. Some of them were hovering around the juice-drinkers, smiling a lot and looking very earnest, like grapefruit missionaries. While the others were given pamphlets about grapefruits and why they're so good for you, I disappeared and plunged off into the swamp, alarming the picnickers eating grapefruits in their neat little glade. The swamp stank and gurgled contentedly to itself. The plants were looking strange; I stared at a bright scarlet lily growing in the ooze and thought of jungles.
Back on the road the long line of trees had eventually broken; they'd decayed under the weight of the hanging moss somewhere back in Georgia and had given way to long vistas of grassland, dotted with shallow lakes and steaming wetlands. As we moved deeper into Florida, the landscape changed again, clumps of palms and pines breaking the flat expanse of grass and scrub. You could see vast distances just from the car, which didn't seem at all right. I mean, it's fair enough if you're up on top of a hill; but we were down at sea level and weren't supposed to see that far away. I fell to wondering whether the earth mightn't be flat after all, just like Herbert W. Haydon once told me. Herbert W. Haydon (1 Back Street, Weston-super-Mare) is a Professor of the Cosmos and knows about these things. He once claimed that the Americans faked all the moon-shot pictures in their Hollywood studios. He also gave me a signed photo of himself and Miss Solarian (1964) clad in silver gravity suits.
The air was thick and humid, and sometime in the early evening lightning forked down around us and it began to rain. Not ordinary rain, but a subtropical downpour descending on us like a mass attack of waterfalls. I've never thought of rain as frightening before, but this stuff hammered on the roof of the car, thundered against the windscreen, and cut out all vision, even through the open windows. One step outside and I reckon I would've drowned just trying to breathe. It seemed a bit dangerous to shut off the engine, so we steered blindly through the cataract at a walking pace.
The rain belts only came in patches, so we still made quite good time, and around about eight in the evening we reached Miami. The road turned into a ten-lane freeway and rose up over the darkening city, carrying a great band of traffic in from the suburbs. This was an American vision I'd dreamed about since childhood -- a strange dream of entering some futuristic city on high raised roads at dusk -- and I felt nervous and ill at ease. It had been a fearsome vision as a child, and as the vision came to life, so did the old forgotten nightmares. But someone spoke, it passed off, and we cruised over the bridge and on to the island of Miami Beach. And there squatted the hulk of the Fontainebleau Hotel, and the beginning of the Suncon.
More of which next time.
Footnote. Following Marilee J. Layman's comment that the directions seemed to have been 'Britishized' in this paragraph, I've swapped 'left' and 'right' as the simplest way to make sense of orientations in US terms. Joyce Scrivner rather thinks they were walking south along a wide median strip, with car lights and (further off, over the highway) billboards on both sides. Gary Farber has great difficulty in remembering anything but the several thousand times he'd warned Joyce that the gas was running low, without effect.... Dave Langford