Kennedy Space Centre is not an easy place to find on Thursday mornings. At least, that's what Joyce Scrivner and I discovered when we tried looking for it. Maybe it was the heat that led us astray, or maybe they shift the place around on Wednesday nights. I dunno. Anyway, driving out towards the East Coast all we could discover was mile upon mile of steaming swampland criss-crossed with featureless roads, every one of which led to Daytona Beach.
We got very hot and very lost. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere I saw an armadillo shamble across the road like an armoured pig. Civilization had obviously broken down. Alligators, elk, bears, and wild Indians lurked in the swamps. Was there really such a place as the Kennedy Space Centre? Probably not.
But eventually we found it. Something concrete drifted briefly through the heat haze and we made a lunge through the gates, diving in before the swamps closed up again.
For a Space Centre it was kind of disappointing. Where were the gleaming towers, the great ramps, the sleek star cruisers, the lean figures of space-tanned battle pilots?
Gee whiz. None to be seen. Just a fat cop chewing gum, a bunch of tourists, and kids running around.
Still we booked in for a coach tour and had a quick look round, though there wasn't much to be seen. We visited the shop and I bought some postcards of the moon. We also had a look at the second-hand space capsules which were lying around on the lawns outside. One contained a swarm of little red ants. I stared at them for awhile and felt sort of philosophical. It didn't last long.
Back in the building we examined the space shuttle exhibits and had a go in the booths where you could hear commercials for the US space programme. Each booth had a different tape and a different label -- 'shopkeeper', 'serviceman', student', and so on. I went into the 'executive' booth and sat in there solemnly, giving Joyce a violent fit of the giggles. I told her to shut up and sit in the 'housewife' booth. I don't see what's so damn funny about me being an executive...
The coach eventually turned up and we drove off towards the main buildings, somewhere in the distance. Much of the trip was taken up with a tour of exhibits -- capsules and space gear, control rooms and stuff like that -- all complete with information and sound tracks and winking lights. However, I was still suffering the aftermath of Disneyworld -- the persistent belief that everything was a fake, the constant fear that plastic parrots would pop out of nowhere and start chatting to me. As a result, I couldn't shake off the feeling that the Space Centre was just a continuation of the previous day's programmed trips.
Even the giant Titan shed looked less impressive than the Disneyworld Contemporary hotel. When we went inside, our guide leaped in front of us, spread out his arms like a born-again Christian, and told us we were standing in the largest room in the world.
Well...yeah...maybe we were. But despite our guide's earnest cavortings, nobody really believed him. I guess we were looking for a space age cathedral -- not an outsize barn.
Still, things got better when we drove off again and cruised past a monstrous rocket-carrying crawler before circling a genuine launch pad. This was more like it. This was honest-to-god spaceport stuff. Staring at the gigantic metal hulks, black scorch marks, vast concrete blocks, and oddly angled pits, you could lean back and let your imagination take off.
Mine, predictably, went off all wrong. Out there in the Florida wastelands, I got the feeling we were visiting some kind of temple -- a concrete and metal Stonehenge, rather than a monument to modern technology. In fact, the more I looked at the place, the more it looked like a relic of some Atlantean age.
Ho hum. Guess I'll never make a proper sci-fi fan.
Anyway, we got back, and I had a close encounter with Mike Meara outside the gents.
We exchanged surprises, and Mike and Pat showed Joyce and me their impressive collection of mosquito bites gathered during a trip to the Everglades. Disneyworld has a cordon of insect-traps (no kidding), so Joyce and I had nothing to show them in exchange: but we swapped travel notes and left the Mearas -- who'd already done the Space Centre tour -- en route for the Magic Kingdom.
So that was that. Back in the car, Joyce and I compared plans and decided to head north -- Joyce back home, her Suncon holiday over, and me up to Jacksonville...and the beginnings of a long trans-continental pilgrimage to the mythical home of West Coast fandom.
Jacksonville, when we got there, looked like a lot of other non-descript American towns, and was hot and humid and less than attractive. Joyce, acting on expert instincts, headed for the seediest part of the city and immediately found the Greyhound bus station.
Plucking up courage, we parked nearby, locked and manacled the car, and hurried off to the bus depot, dodging through a dismal picket line of drunks, derelicts, and shuffling down-and-outs, all drawn to the station like muddled moths to a flame.
A bus was leaving at 9.30pm, bound for San Francisco via the Gulf Coast and Texas. I studied the timetable in astonishment, adding up the hours. Twelve to New Orleans, twelve to Houston, another twelve to El Paso, twelve more to Phoenix, twelve again to Los Angeles, and a final twelve to San Francisco (give or take a few hours either way).
So I booked up and picked on El Paso as a nice-sounding name. Since I had a two month go-anywhere ticket, bought with some excitement back in Exeter, it didn't matter too much where I went, though I wanted to get to Albuquerque by the weekend.
Anyway, it was only about six o'clock, so we had a few hours to wait. Finding the car still in one piece, we did a quick tour of Jacksonville and ended up in a bar somewhere, where I bought a pitcher of beer in a large lemonade jug and met a Birmingham barmaid. "Have a noice day, duck," she said.
Back in the station, saying farewell and thank you to Joyce -- who should come sidling in but Mike and Pat Meara? Bloody hell, we said, mutually. Is there no escaping British fans?
Apparently they'd been obliged to give Disneyworld a miss through pressure of time and had come up by bus from Orlando. They were about to continue northwards, but this unexpected encounter meant they could now travel with Joyce, who in any event hadn't been much looking forward to a lonely drive into the night.
So that was that. We said farewell again, with me half-nervous, half-excited. The night and the heat and the milling people, the revving engines and the petrol fumes gave the dismal old depot that charged feeling of long late-night journeys about to begin.
Shivering slightly, I clambered aboard the San Francisco coach, found a seat at the back, gave a final few waves, and in the electric half-light started on the long haul west.
Every Greyhound carries regulation passengers...a compulsory nun, for example, plus a standard issue serviceman -- at least two lonely young mothers with wriggling infants, a batch of solitary old ladies, one cowboy, several dubious-looking blacks, a couple of students, a bored Indian, and a twitching loony.
The coaches themselves are built like insulated battle-tanks with tinted windows and a perpetual chemical reek from the toilet at the back. After a few thousand miles, that pale blue light and antiseptic stench eat permanently into the mind... Become, in fact, the essence of Travel...so much so that I reckon I'd get a Pavlovian reaction if they were recreated, and start rocking slightly to a non-existent rhythm, leaning back and staring blankly out of blackened windows.
Locked into a Greyhound, you're completely cut off from the outside world. The body adapts to the steady cruising, the eyes become accustomed to the passing landscape projected on the inside of the coach. Every three hours, day or night, you're released for a disoriented twenty minutes at an identikit station or some godforsaken truckstop. Two or three times a day there are meal breaks -- the same meals, coast to coast -- and a chance, perhaps, to readjust to reality...even go Outside, to inspect a nameless roadside town or the devastated centre of some sprawling city.
Anyway, back in the Florida darkness, with the bus almost empty and nothing to be seen outside, I settled down for a night of intermittent dozing. One of the dubious blacks eyed me from a deeply shadowed seat; somewhere just in front the regulation loony muttered and rustled, and the bus cruised into the limboworld of night roads and timeless travelling.
Periodically the bus would lurch or whine, or a murky shape would brush past the seat, and I'd groggily come awake and peer into the darkness. Outside the Okefenokee oozed and dribbled...Live Oak flashed by...the Suwanee River rolled down to the sea...
Sometime past midnight we rode into Tallahassee and a quick stop for a hastily swilled coffee and a soggy doughnut. All night Greyhound stations can be eerily desolate -- cold lights, the echoing clatter of games machines, a bored cop talking to the station staff, the sudden guffaws of a clique of bus-drivers, the dead shapes of passengers waiting for distant connexions, sleepless faces staring at torn notices and grimy schedules, mindless foot-rappings and nail inspections, yawns and tired shiftings...a strange borderland waiting-room world, deep in the centres of darkly sleeping towns.
Leaving the coffee dregs, I got back onto the bus. We switched from Eastern to Central Time, and rolled off again into the night...
Dawn brought in a new day, a new state, and the long long road to the desert, El Paso, and Mexico.