This excerpt from the US edition of Top Gear really brought my US Road trip back to me.
This excerpt from the US edition of Top Gear really brought my US Road trip back to me.
Liberty House Restaurant to meet my East Coast support team for brunch and take the metaphorical chequ(ck)ered flag.
KA and Mrs KA were there; among my longest-standing and best friends. He is the best construction project manager in the world, with millions of square feet delivered on time and budget and a man from whom I have learned a lot about getting things done under pressure. Mrs KA was one of Mrs P's closest friends during and since our days in Poland.
Mr Julius and his wife (who is above suspicion) had selected this perfect location and organised today's event. As a young lawyer in London I watched and learned as he negotiated the deals on which I worked for him. He is simply the best business negotiator I have ever seen in action. Mrs J is a delightful lady with whom I share odd tastes in vintage television. She has kept him well grounded.
One of their sons, an entrepreneur in the e-books business, was on hand to lend his support and circulated a list of "Tom-isms" from the road trip blog posts. It was odd to be quoted to myself but satisfying to know that my late night labours along the way had been read so closely.
Mrs Olympus was a friend to Mrs Paine and me in Poland when she was even younger and much more single than she is now. Her husband is one of my newest friends. He has been offering travel tips via Facebook along the way. Their five year old son, a confident young chap, ably represented the youngest generation of Americans and they were accompanied by one of Mrs O's grad school friends with whom I didn't have nearly enough chance to chat.
I made my entrance in "Tom Paine US Tour 2013" T-shirt and trucker hat and a blue candy striped blazer that finally justified its place among my baggage today by lending a tone of English eccentricity to the occcasion. All this was accessorised (as the ladies say) with the Ford Mustang shoulder bag containing precious trip documentation that I have kept close to me for weeks. From that hung the jangling cluster of "trophies" I have pictured here as it grew to its present ludicrous size.
If I cut a strange figure on arrival, it didn't matter much. Just showing up in a British-registered RHD Ferrari already marked me out as an oddity, as it has throughout. It will seem odd to blend in back home.
We had a splendid brunch, enjoying great views of the Manhattan skyline and - of course - the Statue of Liberty. It was, dare I say it, an awesome way to end my adventure. In the end, journeys can only be fully appreciated in retrospect; talked over with friends and, when I get back to England, family.
All that remains is to deliver Speranza to the shippers tomorrow morning. She and I have spent so much time together I don't know how I shall manage for a month without her. It will be strange not to get up every morning and drive hundreds of miles to the music of her V8. Winston, whom I met weeks ago near Yale University, asked me incredulously "Is this what you do? Travel around in a Ferrari?!" For a while, the answer was "yes". In consequence, man and machine have become one. I can only aspire to be worthy. For she is Speranza, conqueress of continents, the little car that could; a Grand Tourer in more than name.
BA has kindly begun to acclimatise me to the disservice culture of England by holding me on the phone for over an hour this morning before refusing either to change my flight (booked for July 1st) or cancel it. So I have booked a new flight with another airline on Tuesday to get me to London on Wednesday. If I could avoid using BA again, I would. It sucks royally and has for as long as I can remember. Were it not for its historic control of the best slots out of Heathrow, its competitors (and its bolshy unions) would have despatched it to the innermost circle of Business Hell long since.
What I lose in unexpected flight costs I save on hotels and speeding tickets. I budgeted $1,000 for the latter, and have received none. That, perhaps, is the biggest surprise of the trip. The Q picked up two when he joined me for just one section. Better, as my father says, to be born lucky than rich. I shall be framing and displaying the formal caution I received in Wisconsin.
Would I do it again? Yes, if I had the chance. America is vast, beautiful and full of interest. And it is set up to make road travel easy, with roadside hotels and restaurants for every budget. Her people (and most I met on the road were hard-working minimum wage employees) never fail to reset my optimism. Faced with a problem, their first thought is to help themselves and each other. I will never forget sitting on the Interstate in Moore, OK as listeners to the local radio station phoned in one after another to offer personal help to those affected by the tornado. It has been a delight not to have heard for so long the poisonous English chorus - "the government should do something".
The situation here is not all rosy. Their government has indebted Americans beyond all reason. My friends here point out that I have only met working Americans and have had no exposure to their "welfare culture". But if most Americans keep the self-reliant attitudes I encountered, I believe they will do fine. I could not wish them more well and I am grateful to the many who helped me along during this journey with practical help, advice, service and endless words of encouragement.
Much as I want to see my home again, I am sorry to leave. God bless America.
I can't find any information online about it, but it seems from Google to be a fairly regular occurrence. I made my way back to my hotel, disappointed at having seen neither the Liberty Bell nor Independence Hall. I guess I just have to go to Philly again, which would be no hardship.
I had set myself a very small programme for today, to give a safety margin in case of any last-minute problems. All I planned to do was visit the only house Tom Paine every owned, in Bordentown NJ. I knew it was a dentist's office and there was nothing to see but the plaque outside, but it was my only way to pay my respects and a fitting final destination for my tour.
Poor Tom is not nearly as well remembered as the other authors of the American Revolution. He was worth five Jeffersons and a Washington in contributing to its success, but suspicions about his religious views cost him popular affection and he was all but forgotten for many years. The town has made no attempt to cash in on the connection. There was not so much as a Tom Paine keyring to be bought. The local historical society conducts a monthly walking tour, apparently, and the town celebrates his birthday but that's not quite Mount Rushmore, is it?
I arrived to find the centre of town closed off for its annual classic car show. I was just figuring out how near I could park to his old gaff in these circumstances, when the lady womanning the barriers waved me through. It did not occur to her that I would come to Bordentown in such a car if not to display her! Once more Speranza, whom certain doubters warned me scarily would get me robbed or worse in America, had opened the way. A steward waved me into a display place, but I told him it was all an error and parked her discreetly around the corner - still within the exclusion zone and within sight of Tom's place. I used to judge concours d'elegance competitions at classic car shows years ago and neither wanted her to suffer the humiliation of her road-soiled appearance being critiqued, nor to put in the hard graft to clean her up to concours standards for judging!
Truth to tell she looked better than most specimens there. I don't understand nostalgia for the enormous, tail-finned, aesthetic horrors that almost killed Detroit. Still less do I enjoy "hot rods" - especially when made from real classics that could have been beautiful.
These were mostly not the classy American cars I saw at wonderful Gilmore or the splendid Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum. There was a pretty little MG TD however, slightly modified by the owner to make it possible for a big chap to sit in her - which he allowed me to do to my great delight. There were some cool and well-presented muscle cars - I do like those, as you might guess. There was also a Jaguar XK120. And, though I would not personally have given a second of my life to their preservation, let alone the years of skilled toil deployed by their owners, I did enjoy seeing some of the "Hot Wheels" cars I owned as a boy at full size.
Mostly though, I will remember the day for standing by the original and best Mr Paine's front door and walking around his town, imagining him there. Bordentown has kept its centre alive with a good variety of small shops. It is a pleasant little place and I could imagine living there - an idea I toyed with over lunch, having noticed that Tom's old house is up for sale. How cool would it be to move to America and publish "The Last Ditch" from Tom's house? It's just a dream however. I would not want to live so far from the Misses Paine, my family and friends. The Thomas Paine Societies on both sides of the Atlantic should raise the funds to buy it though and make a fitting memorial to him. I would donate time and money to that project with great pleasure.
Over coffee before setting off to New Jersey I had an interesting chat with a USAF chaplain and his wife who had a rather splendid muscle car in the show. The reverend gentleman had a dark view of the future, fearing not only for the Euro, but economic collapse in the United States triggered by its unsustainable debts. Having prepared personally for the worst, he is hoping for better - as must we all. I tendered the more optimistic view that the economic consequences of the debt crisis will finally let the politicians of the Western welfare states off the vicious hook of "free lunch" voter expectations. He didn't buy it and, in darker moments, I am not sure I do either. Still that's all the more reason to seize life by the throat and live it as well as we can, while we can. Despair is not a useful option.
I like writing that I drove the New Jersey turnpike today. I know it's just a road, but it seems so cool to a Sopranos fan. So I will write it again. I drove the New Jersey turnpike, thinking sadly of the late, lamented James Gandolfini who died this week at the age of just 51. His portrayal of Tony Soprano was the keystone of that magnificent show and now we can never hope to see him in a Hollywood movie based on it.
On arrival (after a lot of sitting around in traffic jams caused by road works) Speranza drew her usual crowd of admirers. I had the pleasure of telling them about the New Jersey to New Jersey via 47 other states trip that she and I had just completed. Though the doubters had told me I was mad, the assembled New Jerseyites thought it "awesome" and told me that they wished they could do the same. I am inclined to agree. Part of me is nursing the mad idea that I should get Speranza serviced here and do it all again!
Perhaps not. Family, friends and home beckon now, but man what a bad-ass ride it has been!
I drove first yesterday to Gettysburg. After passing, bemused, a uniquely American combination of patriotic song and dance, I went to the Military Park visitor center. I watched the movie about the battle narrated - as seems inevitable now if the subject is grave - by Morgan Freeman. I knew, in general terms, what happened there but I think I began to appreciate the emotional weight it carries for Americans.
The most impressive part of the day was actually the "cyclorama" - an enormous circular painting - enhanced with 3D landscaping and objects in the foreground - by French artist Paul Dominique Phillipoteaux. He and his team of assistants painted it in one year and it was first displayed in Boston in 1884. It has been recently restored at a cost of $13 million and located in the new Gettysburg visitor center in 2008. In all the years since it seems that no-one has devised a better way to present the story of that three day slaughter of Americans by Americans. My only suggestion for improvement is to ask Morgan Freeman to record the narration. It's hard to take anything seriously now in the States without the voice of "God" behind it.
I started on the motor tour of the battlefield in brilliant sunshine. The heat was a little excessive for my top-down tour, but I enjoyed the drive and the conversations with people I met along the way. I offered to photograph a family group in front of the North Carolina monument (sculpted by Mount Rushmore's artist, Gutzon Borglum) where they had been taking pictures of each other. When I asked if they were from NC, the father replied "No, we are from Oregon, but we appreciate what they did."
This neatly illustrates the odd approach that I had already noticed at Vicksburg. The "line" at these Civil War sites is that the soldiers on both sides get credit for the outcome. Of course their bravery in their respective causes is to be respected but, were those soldiers from North Carolina (one of them depicted there is the designer of the Confederate flag) to come back to life, I think they would find the remark strange. History, of course, is constantly rewritten to serve modern purposes - good and bad. Many historical figures would be astonished at the uses to which they are now put. America's national unity is not a bad cause for which to twist reality but like the real Tom Paine I am an admirer of truth for its own sake. He died in disgrace and isolation for that attachment, poor chap and I love his memory all the more for it.
I didn't have time to complete all 16 stations, but I saw six before I set my sat nav to Delaware. For all the reverence for the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg (and Americans are, rightly, great respecters of their fighting men) the truth is the only good thing that happened there was Lincoln's beautiful speech.
It was still too hot for top-down motoring but I have driven so much in the open air that it seemed fitting to arrive that way in my 48th state. I was rather surprised by my own reaction as I pulled into the Delaware Visitor Center (not the usual polite public sector offering, by the way, but a highly-commercial set of restaurants and other businesses with a small kiosk offering the tourism leaflets). In less than two months - and without a break - I have driven to every state on this continent-nation. I planned to do it. It was hardly news to me. Yet I felt enormously excited and pleased - in a little boy on Christmas morning sort of way. I bought a Delaware keychain to add to my trophy collection in a smiley daze and celebrated with a cookie and a Diet Coke before driving on to Philadelphia.
On arrival at my hotel, my excitement spilled over and I told my receptionist and all the staff present that I was here to celebrate the completion of my mission. They responded with true American enthusiasm and helped me get my childish excitement down to more seemly levels, for which I am grateful. Papi, the Colombian bartender (well-trained in London) finished the job later and fixed me the best margarita of my tour. To my surprise then, prim Quaker-founded Pennsylvania wins my personal "All States Margarita Challenge". I was so stoked (as the local expression has it) by then that I didn't even take a photo of the winning drink. Or so I thought until I examined my phone this morning. It seems my habit of documenting the tour is stronger than the alcohol I consumed last night.
Today's mission is to stroll around Philadelphia a little, to see it in the bright sunshine currently hurting my eyes through my hotel window, and then on to Tom Paine's old home in Bordentown. That will complete my New Jersey to New Jersey circuit of America and allow me to pay my personal respects to my hero; the great man whose name I hubristically borrowed for blogging.
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
When DNA evidence confirmed the story long-denied by his family; that he had fathered children with one of his slaves, my view of him wavered. I try to avoid the error of judging historical figures by modern standards, but enslaving your own children was unnatural in any era. That Jefferson freed them and sent them out into the world at the age of 21 with $50 is something - but by no means enough.
The guide at Monticello said "the central contradiction of Jefferson's life was not paternity, but slavery itself." It's a nice turn of phrase but it's nonsense. Men of his era believed black people to be less than human and that this justified keeping them as slaves. I don't believe they were right, but I can accept that's what they believed. Jefferson had reservations about slavery but he himself said that to liberate someone who had lived a life as a slave was like abandoning a child.
If Jefferson believed Sally Hemmings as human as himself, he should have set her free. If he believed her less than human, how could he take her to his bed? If he really believed her reason was that of a child, then to do so was statutory rape. And whatever the truth of his relations with Sally, the fact is that his own children - children every human is programmed by Nature to cherish and support - were reared in his house as slaves.
When our guide told us that he would have liked to free his slaves but was trapped in dependence on them, I found it hard to sympathise. He was massively extravagant; constantly remodelling Monticello and twice building an enormous collection of books - a luxury in his day. He failed to patent his inventions, saying all men should benefit from his creations. It sounds high-minded, but his creditors would not have agreed. If he had wanted to do the right thing, he could have moderated his life, shown a little financial prudence and done it. He didn't. He may have been a great man, but he was clearly not a good one.
I sat a long time in his garden after the tour of his house, pondering these questions. The simple truth is that we are all flawed and that our achievements - if we have any - should be judged for what they are and not who we are. Jefferson's achievements don't make his behaviour right, but his behaviours don't mar his achievements either. There is comfort in that for all flawed humans - and I have never met another kind.
From Monticello I drove on through the Virginia countryside towards Washington DC. It was as if I was being prepared to return home as I motored through winding country lanes and familiar looking farms with English names. Virginia, or at least the parts I have seen, is more like England than New England. Virginia may even be more like England than England!
In the evening I met old friends from my Poland days for dinner at their beautiful home in Mclean VA. It was good to renew old acquaintance, to be with people who remembered Mrs Paine in her prime and to talk about our families and mutual acquaintances from "the old days".
Today, it's on to Philadelphia via Gettysburg and my last new state; Delaware.
I picked Lewisburg WV to visit on purely logistical grounds. I couldn't spare time to explore the state more and just wanted to visit a town near the state line. It proved an inspired choice. It was voted the coolest small town in America in 2011 and you may well laugh. There is, after all, nothing less cool than being the coolest before last.
There are cutesy touristy bits and some flagrant attempts to cash in on not very much history, but it had parks for strolling, cafes and bars for hanging out in, little town squares with "play fountains" and historical (by American standards) buildings. Maybe it was just the sunny weather, the pleasant chats I had or the variety of places to "hang out" on main street, but I bought its coolness.
I visited the swish visitor center and interrogated the staff as to why the tourism promotion facility for one valley in West Virginia was more lavish than for whole states. The answer was suitably public sector in tone - all to do with the cleverness of the local congressman in wangling funds, apparently. I had an enjoyable chat with people from nearby Huntington in a local bar. I took a stroll down main street to observe the various attractions recorded above. Then I fired up Speranza's engine and set off eastwards.
Virginia is greener, lusher and more like England at its most beautiful than anywhere I have seen on this tour. It is aesthetically the opposite of Arizona and Nevada, but as attractive in a less rugged way. I stopped at the Welcome Center and had a chat with a family who had followed me there for a close look at the car. I took photographs of them with Speranza with their own cameras and then took the picture shown here.
I then pressed on to my destination for today; the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton, VA. This was recommended to me by an old college friend of an ex-client from Poland with whom I plan to dine tomorrow. I had a pleasant evening in the company of said old college friend and his wife.
I wish I had known that Staunton is home to The American Shakespeare Center. It is good to know that the work of the greatest Englishman is loved here to such an extent. Staunton has a replica of the Blackfriars Theatre built from the original plans and puts on a full programme of the Bard's works.
Staunton also has at least one first-class restaurant. My new friends treated me to an excellent meal there and I have promised to match it when next they come to London. I shall have to give serious thought as to how.
This morning, before setting off for Thomas Jefferson's old gaff, I had breakfast at a cafe recommended to me last night (excellent grits) and then took a stroll around Staunton. It is really very pretty and unusually has varied shopping downtown, rather than the mobile phone shops and law offices that have replaced the businesses relocated to shopping malls in other towns. I visited a rather splendid "museum" in a local camera store, which was the owner's private collection of old cameras, but entirely out of control! Collecting is a disease and I always feel for my fellow-sufferers.
I apologise unreservedly for the cheesy driving video but what else can you really expect from a middle-aged man happily driving his convertible through West Virginia?
Today started with a disappointment. Rain and mist had descended on our part of South Carolina and the flight in my friend's plane that I had been looking forward to wasn't possible. It would have added another dimension to this tour to have been able to post aerial photographs but it was not to be.
I had wrestled in the early hours with planning the next stages, sadly concluding that I couldn't spare the time to divert East a little to visit another old friend from my Eastern Europe days, now living in Charlotte, NC.
So I set off with a heavy heart. The time pressures are building and sacrifice after sacrifice has to be made. On the bright side, Speranza is performing well and the time saved from the hoped-for flight could be expended visiting the Biltmore Estate - a lavish Vanderbilt home. It is a rather good rendition of a French Chateau on the outside and an English stately home on the inside, the gardens and the estate. Ironically it ended up, by marriage, in the hands of English aristocrats; the Cecils.
The third disappointment of the day was that photography is prohibited inside Biltmore. The management has inflicted a collective punishment on customers for the misconduct of a few amateur photographers too stupid to know how to turn off their built-in flash. If you go to football matches, you know those people well. They are the idiots pointlessly firing their little flashes into the blaze of the floodlghts.
So I had carried my enormous bag of gear from the distant car parks to the house in vain. In disgust, I didn't bother to go inside but took a walk in the gardens instead. I was cheered up by one of the best lunches of the trip in the cafe there - a selection of Carolina specialities, including my first (delicious!) grits. During my visit, the sun came out and I was able to drive through the estate with my roof down. That was a great way to experience it.
When I resumed my journey however I was soon forced to pull over and raise the roof again, I then made slow progress towards Kentucky in the intermittently heavy rain. I shall never complain about rain in England again. Such feeble sprinkles as we have are scarcely worthy of the name. When it rained on me in San Antonio, it was as if God were emptying an enormous bath on my head. I was driving through a wall of water. It was not quite that bad today, but my visibility was severely restricted. At Speranza's ride height, I am directly in spray from the wheels of bigger vehicles. I could only jockey for a position where I could maintain a safe speed wthout being rendered blind the the spray.
I took a break at the Tennessee Welcome Center just to recover my powers of concentration before returning to the ordeal. As the afternoon progressed, however, the weather cleared and I was able to enjoy the countryside of Tennessee and Kentucky. I arrived in Pikeville in bright sunshine, parked my luggage and Speranza and set off in search of good local food. I found it too, at the desrvedy fashionable Blue Raven. Set in a converted car repair shop, it seemed an appropriate place for a travelling motorist to refresh himself.
I stopped at the South Carolina Welcome Center to add a waypoint to my map and use the wifi before heading off to find some lunch. My satnav offered a list that included Hooters in Anderson, just off my route. I have never visited one of their restaurants and decided to do a little research. After all, it is odd is that this particular business concept should have originated in America; a rather prudish country by European standards.
I had a surprisingly pleasant chat over lunch with Hooter Girl, Kristi; hearing all about her modelling career and her ambitions for the future. Though feminists may fulminate about a hiring policy that is openly based on female sex appeal, I have to say I found the place completely harmless - and had a really good salad too.
The experience finally proved to me (and if my course organiser from the National Geographic programme in New York is reading this, I am very sorry) that I am too shy ever to be a people photographer. Hooters encourages customers to take photos of the Hooters Girls - even offering prizes for the best published on Twitter. Kristi would - I am sure - have had no problem with being photographed. Yet I couldn't bring myself to ask her. If I can't ask a photogenic Hooters girl with a modelling background to pose for a photo, then I am clearly never going to make it as a street photographer.
A little later I found my way past impressive security to my friend's home in a gated community on a South Carolina mountain. Amongst the trees that formerly concealed the activities of local moonshiners, a novice developer built a very beautiful place for over 300 people to live, complete with wellness centre, golf club and other shared facilities.
Before dinner we went up to the pavilion at the top of the mountain where there's a barbecue area for residents and a spectacular view over the local countryside. A couple of families were having supper together in the sunshine. My friend introduced me, explained my bizarre mission and I received the usual words of encouragement. I shall miss American enthusiasm when I get back to miserabilist London.
Back home with my friend and his wife, it was good to reminisce over dinner and drinks about the very similar happy times we both had building our respective practices in Eastern Europe; he in Moscow throughout, and I in Warsaw and Moscow. It was good too to be in a home. Hotels are all very well, but much as I am loving my life on the road, I am beginning to think fondly of my own modest apartment!
Before that, however, there is still much to see. This is the revised routing to the end of my tour. Only just over 1,000 miles to go. After covering almost 14,000 miles so far, it seems a trifle.