May 31st 1981

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Once again, a reasonably comfortable night – the Caddy seats are certainly comfortable, though I could do with an extra few inches.  We washed, and then set off for Chattanooga, Val driving.  We stopped off en route in order to make our daily purchase of groceries, and to try to phone Vicki*, only to be told by some rather drippy female that Vicki had moved, and no, she was sorry, but she didn’t know where to.  Great.  Another good idea up the spout. 

So we carried on into Chattanooga and finally managed to navigate our way to the Incline Railway.  However, just as we got out of the car, it started to rain, and then pour.  Val spotted an ice-cream parlour across the street, so we ran across there and ate a banana split while entertaining the girl behind the counter with our accent.  We then trotted back to the railway + boarded.  We had to endure some American brats, but the ride was fairly remarkable – up an 80% incline.  At the top we walked along to Point Park, the scene of the Siege of Chattanooga, an important Civil War battle.  The park had been laid out well, with cannons, wagons etc, and a good view over the river.  We were looking around the small museum there, when the rain started again, with a vengeance.  A ranger came down to tell us and the party of schoolchildren there that we were in a dangerous place, and should go back.  The rain that started bad got progressively worse – I have never known anything like it – we were blinded, could barely walk, and felt as though we were being pelted with gravel.  We were totally drenched, head to toe, and still had to wait for the railway to take us down.  However, back home (the Caddy) we changed into dry things and drove off south, eventually finding a place to rest our heads in a good old rest area, 20 miles north of Mobile.

Vicki was another of our contacts, an almost relative I had met in 69, when she visited England with her family, vaguely related to my aunt.  We had remained pen pals for a while, but had not had any more contact for years, so it was no surprise when the address Mum had found for us was no longer any good.

P.S. from Val: Much singing of Chattanooga Choo Choo while driving this stretch.

May 30th 1981

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By no means the most successful day.  I drove from the lot to the highway, and then Val took over – she was fine.  She drove to a rest area, where we stopped to wash.  Disaster no. 1 – reaching for a towel to dry my face, I pulled my glasses onto the floor and smashed one lens.  Fortunately, I’d brought my other pair.  The rest area was pleasant, and we breakfasted there with provisions bought that morning. 

As we continued our journey, I was able, using map and guide, to work out a slight detour to our route which would take us through Shenandoah National Park, doing a road called the Skyline Drive.  It cost us $2, and was well worth it.  It followed the crest of a ridge of mountains, with great views on either side.  We stopped to buy some postcards – disaster no. 2.  I finally discovered how to get the trunk open, so packed some stuff in it, and closed it.  Yes, right, keys inside.  After much worry, and the slightly amused interest of various people, a resident mechanic was able to throw the switch some power and open it – great relief, and only an hour wasted.  We stopped again at a parking spot for some falls, and walked down there.  Really nice, tho’ the walk back was hot + tiring.  A mini-disaster, I suppose, when my sandal broke – ho hum. 

Val resumed driving, down to a town called Marion – we ate a hamburger in Marion’s diner.  I drove from there, but started to get tired, driving in the dark, and it was with great relief that I spotted a rest area, and pulled in there for the night.  The rest areas we’ve seen so far have been excellent places – clean, well-equipped bathrooms, no hassles about parking overnight.  And so it was with this one.  We re-filled the water bottle, and then to bed.

May 29th 1981

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By no means the best of days.  Woke up early and set off into NYC.  Everything was going fine, route was well signposted, till suddenly we found ourselves presented with a straight choice between Long Island and New England, with the traffic pulsing all around us.  We disappeared down a side road or two, and pulled in at a gas station for directions.  The guy there insisted on telling both of us the required route – nonetheless, we got lost again, and found ourselves in an extremely run-down area – the Bronx, I think.  We asked again, gaining the corporate opinion of a bunch of warehousemen.  This time we were lucky and found ourselves heading down Manhattan, down Lexington Avenue. 

Dropped the car, walked to AACON, grabbing a small breakfast en route.  Good news when we got there.  The car we had been assigned was a white Ford Maverick, 1970, in perfect condition.  A Mr Walker had bought it new for his wife, and now that she had died, was now sending it to his daughter.  He was also giving half a $50 bill, the rest to be received on completion, if the car was looked after!  However, he wasn’t in yet, so we left our bags and went for a walk.  We returned – he still wasn’t there – we took another walk (and another breakfast).  When we tried again, still no Mr Walker – another walk, a look at a park.  It started to rain, so we decided to go back to the office and just wait.  And wait.  And wait.  And wait.  People came, and people went, but we stayed ever on.  To be fair, they were very busy, but occasionally someone would notice us and say – are you still here? 

Eventually, they decided to try and fix us up with another car.  They couldn’t find one going west, so they got one to Texas where they hurriedly arranged another to SF.  So we were presented with our car – a large Cadillac.  It took a while to check it over and work it all out – everything electronic – but finally we were off!  Moi – excessively nervous.  On the road, out through dreadful Jersey Turnpike, sandwiches at a diner, then time to stop.  We asked at a supermarket in Hamburg for a suitable place, they called the cops, who guided us to a parking lot, and later checked we were OK.

Spot the typical office setup of those days – no computers, complicated dial telephone with transfer buttons, lots of paper.

May 28th 1981

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Woke up at 7 from a fairly restless night, and tucked into breakfast – tropical oatmeal (porridge with pineapple in it) followed by a home-baked bagel.  Then we set off for a Rockwood Pond, where we could go swimming.  Unfortunately, the route there was marred by the attention of hundreds of mosquitoes – hungry ones at that.  We jogged a few times to get rid of them, only to run into their companions.  When we got to the lake (it wasn’t really a pond) I took my shirt off. The results of their meal were apparent, since the top of my back, as well as my forehead and elbows, were covered with red and white bumps.  Nasty!  The swim was worth it though, since once again the water was perfect.  The return journey was better, from my point of view at least, since I was wrapped up in a towel like a skeikh, and then with Dennis’s jacket.  When we got back, Val dabbed me with Mariann’s herbal remedies, first aloe, and then slippery elm tea – very successful. 

Dennis returned to work, and we sat around for a while, bought lunch, said goodbye and left.  We took a long way around, through Vermont and then down, that was more interesting, before getting to Peekskill, where Dennis had given us three addresses we might try for a bed for the night.  Unfortunately, none of them turned up trumps, despite several efforts and sitting in a car park by a phone for some time.  So we bought some beer (with some hassles) and set off to find a spot to park the car + sleep.  It proved a little tricky, but eventually we found a place behind a nuclear power station.  We played a couple of games of cards while listening to the Beatles story on the radio, but it got dark quickly, so we set the reclining chairs and went to sleep.  Val was like the proverbial log, and I wasn’t too bad, except for being disturbed by a policeman, who must have thought we were a courting couple who should go home, he told us it was 4 o’clock.

A couple of firsts here – first time we camped out in a car, first time we had a (relatively harmonious) encounter with the police. Both a prelude to many such.

May 27th 1981

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Consciousness dawned at some unearthly hour – 4 or 5 or so.  We had both just crashed out completely from the night before – no return call to Dennis at 10 or anything.  Anyway, that was swiftly done and managed to get through.  Apparently, journey to Troy rather tedious, so decided to hire a car in NY.  Rang up Hertz + booked one, showered, packed, and set off to pick it up.  Val was feeling pretty rotten.  Caught a bus to 48th Street + Americas, but then had to walk all the way across.  Quite a friendly guy there – funny yet helpful, and we were able to pick up a Ford Mustang despite having no return ticket to UK.  He also gave us directions for New Hampshire out of NY, which proved excellent – very easy to follow.  I still felt very nervous pulling out of the garage.  However, journey went very well indeed, though it was quite boring – till the last 12 miles or so, when the road just seemed to peter out into tracks.  I got very annoyed* – with myself, with the roads, and with Val for not asking the way.  Despite this, we got there eventually. 

Gap Mountain Breads turned out to be a converted house.  We met Tim and Mariann – Dennis was out running – and they gave us delicious wholewheat bread and butter.  When Dennis arrived we went swimming – a local disused quarry – it was fabulous – diving in and playing on a log.  Unfortunately, I’d left the camera behind in the bag we left in NY – tho’ Val went to the car to look for it.  When we got back, we ate a whole food meal at the table, and then went to see Sidne, a (lady) friend of Dennis.  She was very nice, gave us beer, and it was pleasant and relaxing, sitting in her room drinking and listening to classical music.  We came back and Dennis (being something of an astrologer) read Val and my charts, by consulting his book.  It was interesting, without being stunning.  And so to bed.

*The first of many times when I refer to my mental state; I was clearly somewhat frazzled by the demands of travel… which at least moves the narrative away from the merely functional.

May 26th 1981

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We woke up really early – unbelievably so, in fact.  The TV told us it was 7.00, and we didn’t believe it.  We strolled around the Village for quite a while, mainly looking for somewhere to have breakfast, but weren’t able to find anywhere.  Eventually made do at a Burger Ville, with its breakfast special offer – it was OK.  Rang up AACON*, and got vaguely encouraging noises, so went back to the hotel room, changed, and caught the bus up-town.  In their office, we filled out a couple of forms and then waited for ages for Marsha – everything seemed to have to go through her (including a long call from her daughter.)  However, eventually we saw her, and were speedily fixed up with a 1970 Ford to drive to San Francisco on the 29th.

We went to see the Empire State Building, which was OK – took the usual sort of pictures.  The main advantage was to get us up out of the heat – it was incredibly hot in the city.  Then we caught the bus back to the Village.

Bought some bread, cheese, milk and apples and had a very pleasant lunch sitting in the Square.  Then (sorry, too many thens) the walk to Battery Park to catch the Staten Island ferry.  It was a long, long walk… too long.  I got blisters on my feet, and it seemed to take forever.  However, the ferry was cheap, and we managed a couple of snaps of Liberty.  On Staten Island, we bought some beer but then couldn’t find anywhere to sit down and drink it, so we had another walk, eventually finding a small square with benches which we shared with some drunks.

We took the ferry, then subway back to the hotel, arriving totally shattered.  I tried to ring Dennis, but he wasn’t in, so said I’d call back around ten.  Then we lay down on the bed and that was about it for Tuesday.

*AACON was the name of a “driveaway” car delivery company – no idea what the letters stood for – that we were signing up with. And Dennis is one of the relatively small number of contacts we had when we set off; I had worked one summer at a US summer camp, and met him there, as a fellow counselor, and we had stayed in touch since.

May 25th 1981

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Leaving Heathrow

A really long day the first day.  Up at six, brief breakfast, bye-byes and onto the airport with Pete in the car – scared me a little bit.  Good news when we arrived at Heathrow and flight confirmed straight away.  So, checked in, relaxed – coffee and sandwiches.  A couple of pix, bye-bye to Pete, then 4 or 5 hours sitting around.  Finally called to plane – Val making us go through the security scanner twice because she had to go to loo – ho-hum.  Nice meal on plane – salad, beef and mustard sauce, choc gateau, coffee, wine.  Movie – Mirror Crack’d – very silly, but it did kill an hour or two.  Moved to window seat – much better, more like flying – clouds moving away, showing us coastline.  Took pictures as we came lower  – bad on my ears though.

The zappiest time through customs and immigration, without even the barest murmur – about 15 minutes total.  Onto a bus and then train from JFK to Manhattan for a mere $4 each.  Got off the expressway at Greenwich Village, and once again, almost immediately found a hotel from the guide-book – the Hotel Earle.  Guy was going to charge us $30 but for some reason (altruism?) dropped it to $20.  Really excellent – a telly (dreadfully poor, but still), double bed – what more?  Weather really warm, so got changed and strolled around in T-shirt and (for Val) shorts.  Took a look around the village – nice, non-hostile atmosphere, was offered dope twice, but turned it down and bought pizza and beer instead.  Ready to crash now – we’re lying here in shorts and t-shirts – it’s still hot – watching TV.  See you tomorrow.

And so, the journey begins. As you can see, the account is transactional, for the most part – went here, did this, ate that. Pete is Val’s brother, who drove us to the airport in return for us handing over our car – a battered old LH drive Volkswagen Beetle.

Innocents abroad

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With more than a year gone by since my last blog entry in March 2020, it seems time to address the current situation, and end the silence.  Like most of the rest of the world during Covid-19, we have been confined largely to home, our only venture out being to take advantage of a brief lull last summer, to go to Scotland and walk the West Highland Way.  Other than that, Life has been… restricted.  We don’t complain.  We have a large enough house, a larger than enough garden.  Food continues to arrive in the shops, and Val’s business has continued online throughout.

Nor does it look as though things will change any time soon; in my bleaker moments, it seems they will never return to what we used to think of as normal.  No imminent prospect of foreign travel easing any time soon, and with that goes any chance of venturing abroad for theatre projects.

Forced to stay pretty much at home, I have decided to focus this ’40 years ago’ blog on a very different journey altogether. If the past is a different country, this is a trip to visit it.  Partly, this is inspired by the fact that it was pretty much exactly forty years ago that Val and I set off on an extended trip, first heading west to America, and which, over the next three years, was to carry us around the world.  Throughout that period, I kept a detailed diary, and I have decided to transcribe each day’s entry and post it on the blog, alongside some comments from now – explanations, clarifications, apologies, whatever.  That, at any rate, is the plan.  I remember thinking at the time – as referenced within the diaries – that I was giving myself a difficult task; keeping a diary requires the sort of organisational discipline that is not always my strength.  So wish me luck, and you are welcome to come along for the ride, for as long as it lasts – if all goes to plan, this will carry us all to December 18th, 2024.