USA 1981

What are Americans like? A voyage around America

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

What are Americans like? “A voyage around America” explores the soul of America. How I met a convicted killer, a Cortez barmaid and two Mexican con artists.

Long before I became a British ambassador, I took a seven-week hitch-hiking trip around the United States of America. In this text, you can read how a convicted killer introduced me to his tragic girlfriend, or about the lawyer who took me back to his office in Brooklyn. I describe running out of gas on the New Jersey Turnpike and Soviet statues in Washington DC.  Why was I charmed by Mexican con artists on the Redwood Highway in Northern California?

Read on in “A voyage around America”, or click on the links above.

What are Americans like? Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus

The first thing I saw were his butcher’s arms: broad and sheened with sweat.  Next, I saw tattoos and a square jaw, thick with stubble, set in a sullen half-smile.  A broken six-pack of Schlitz was wedged between his thighs on the driver’s seat.

Schlitz – the beer that made Milwaukee famous.  What made Milwaukee famous made a loser out of me.

What are Americans like: Interstate 40, 1979

Heading west on I-40, 1979  

Was it dangerous to enter the cab of the old Ford pick-up?  Standing by the roadside outside Durango in the cooling evening, I had the usual split second to decide.  I weighed contradictory feelings: fear and an urge to keep moving.

‘Where are you heading?’ I asked.


The next town.

‘OK.’  I got in.

The cab smelled of camphor.  In the gloom I saw a shambling bear of a man, swarthy, sunken-eyed and seedy.

It was July 1979.  Jimmy Carter was President.  Donald Trump was a 33-year-old real estate developer in Manhattan.  I was 21, fresh out of college, soaking up America on a seven-week road trip which, although I didn’t know it yet, would cover 27 states.

When summer was over I would start work, at the Department of Transport in London.

The Department of Transport, right.  Maybe a road trip made some kind of sense.

When I arrived in New York City to begin my journey, even the coolest kids told me it was a suicide mission.

‘Hitch-hiking?’ they said.  ‘No-one does that any more.  You’ll be raped, castrated and sold for medical research before you reach New Jersey.’

Leigh Turner in 1981

My second US road trip was in 1982

With what seems now astonishing nonchalance, I set off anyhow.  When did I lose my what-the-hell mojo?

Maybe the Department of Transport has a lot to answer for.

I made it beyond New Jersey.  By the time I reached my disturbing ride in Durango, open-hearted Americans had driven me through 13 US states in 14 days of hitch-hiking, without one night’s paid accommodation.  I had experienced gas shortages and generosity; Jayne Layno, Johnson Fortenbaugh Jr. and Candy McCarthy, of whom more later; Washington DC, Emerald Isle, Nashville, Amarillo and Los Alamos.

What are Americans like?

I had met many Americans: diverse by accent, history and geography.  Many seemed languidly confident, calm beyond reason.  Some were as insecure as anywhere else.  But I was astonished  how many were in love with their dreams.  Always, in love with their dreams.

I ask myself what their dreams are these days.  Maybe it’s time to go and find out.

I, too, was calm, back in ’79 – about people, time and possessions.  Maybe I was living in the moment and didn’t realise it.  Hell, living in the moment hadn’t even been invented yet.

‘Not long now before I have to be back in New York City,’ I would write later, in John Yetman’s lean-to by the rail tracks half-way up Mount Baldy on Vancouver Island.  Having made this observation, I would then spend days partying, in Victoria and Vancouver, my non-refundable, non-amendable, air ticket in a pouch around my neck, moving not one inch closer to my destination on the other side of the continent.

Maybe my relaxation gene went the same way as my what-the-hell mojo.

Could exploring my US road trip can help me rediscover both?  Maybe my calm is hidden somewhere in the pages of my road-trip diary.

‘Killed a man with a pool cue’

‘Here you go.’  The driver nudged me with a beer.  ‘The name’s Ray.  The seat-belt’s broken.’

‘Thanks.’  I wound down my window and took a sip.  ‘Long trip?’

‘No.’  He tossed an empty bottle on the floor.  I heard a clinking sound.  ‘Just out of prison.  On parole.’

‘What were you in for?’  It seemed polite to ask.

‘Killed a man with a pool cue.  Judge said it wasn’t premeditated.  Sure wasn’t.  Just kinda happened.’

I gazed ahead and took another sip of my beer.

So far as I could tell, Ray liked having me in the cab.  The likeliest way to upset him would be to ask to get out.  What would I do then anyhow, on a deserted roadside next to the Ute Indian reservation?

What are Americans like: Kayenta Arizona

Kayenta, Arizona July 1979

I decided to make conversation.

‘How long have you been out of prison?’ I asked.

‘Today.  I’m out today.’  He gestured around the car.  I wondered how many of the bottles littering the floor were fresh.  ‘It don’t look like much, sure.  But I’m OK.  I own silver mines.  In the hills, right here.’  He waved his bottle.  ‘I got prospecting rights.  And a woman.  She’s crazy about me.  She thinks I’m a stallion.  We’re going to see her now.’

Ahead of us, in the dusk, the Mesa Verde loomed.

‘She’s in love with me’

‘If you like, she’ll do you, too,’ he said.  ‘She’s beautiful.  She’ll do us both.  She’ll do anything I say.’

‘No, thanks,’ I said.

‘She digs orgies.  The more the better.’

‘Not my thing.  Really.’

‘She works in a bar.  We’ll go there.’


‘She’s in love with me.’

I peered at his face.  The dashboard lights were dim.  He had his beer in his right hand, and every time he gestured he knocked against me, sitting alongside.  His flesh was softer than I’d expected.

Usually I don’t hitch away from a town at night.  Towns are the place to be when you need somewhere to sleep.  But I’d fled Durango late in the evening to escape an invitation to share a motel suite with a Vietnam vet who sold power tools (‘We’ll have two double beds,’ he’d told me, ‘there’ll be no problem’).  So maybe I was feeling less secure than usual.

Maybe Ray’s girlfriend did love him.  Was that even possible?  Maybe he hadn’t a clue about women.  Who understands relationships, anyhow?

On steroids

Maybe that explains why what happened next was like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.  On steroids.

I didn’t try and discuss with Ray whether his girlfriend really thought he was a stallion.  As we rode through the night towards Cortez, the time never seemed right.  Nor did I try to discourage him from having more beer, or from rolling a joint for himself.  I listened, and tried to get him talking about the silver mines, and wrestling.  He said he was the light-heavyweight wrestling champion of New Mexico.

Ray was a raconteur.  To hear him tell his story, in a pathos-heavy drawl, you might almost have believed he was one of life’s winners.  Sure, he was down on his luck right now.  But he told me he had the prospects of limitless wealth from his silver mines.  Ray said he had a girlfriend who adored him.  He had wheels, some beer, and someone to talk to.  He was no longer in prison.

Some people might see in Ray a great gobbet of brittle boastfulness, brimming over with larger-than-life tales of heroism and bad luck.

But alone, in the night, I had to rub along with him.

He wasn’t the first out-sized, haywire personality I’d meet in the United States, or the last.  Maybe these days he would be in politics.

At the time, I thought: how do women deal with men like this?

I’ve decided to rewrite that chapter

I was about to find out.

By the time we reached Cortez, nestled close to New Mexico, Arizona and Utah in the south-west corner of Colorado, night had fallen.  We rolled into town on Route 160 and drew up in the dusty parking lot of a brightly-lit bar.

‘She’s here,’ Ray said.  He killed the engine and sat there for a moment, looking straight ahead.  ‘She’s here.’

When he stepped out of the car he was shorter than I’d expected: less man-mountain, more man.  He looked in the wing mirror and slicked back his hair.  He opened a suitcase and took out a clean shirt.  I saw more tattoos.  More flesh.

I was beginning to relax.  We were about to visit a bar.  Being in a town, I could find someplace to stay.  I was no longer in Ray’s car on a dark empty highway.

Now it was Ray who looked nervous.  More nervous than he should have been, if everything he had told me had been true.

We walked across the parking lot and entered the saloon.

I followed him in.  A woman stood behind the bar, polishing a glass.  She was slight, with a sallow face, sad eyes, thin, shoulder-length black hair, a white shirt and black jeans.  When the door slammed, she looked up and saw us.

Ray marched up to the bar.  ‘I’m back,’ he said.

‘So?’  She picked up a greasy cloth and began wiping the bar-top.  I saw her nostrils flare.

‘I figured you’d be pleased to see me.’

For a moment, she stopped her wiping and looked Ray in the eye.  ‘I’ve decided to rewrite that chapter of my life,’ she said, ‘and now it says, The End.’

She lit a cigarette.

She had loved him, once

Even as a 21-year-old unskilled in matters of the heart, I could see that Ray’s romantic reunion was not going well.  He tried to introduce me to her, but she wouldn’t even look in my direction.  She kept glancing at him, almost shyly, as if she was waiting for something to happen.

Then I realised.  Ray had not been lying.  She really had loved him, once.  Maybe he had cared about her too, in a monothematic, below-the-belt kind of way.  But as far as she was concerned, their two kinds of longing didn’t fit together any more.  If they ever had.

I wandered off to check out the jukebox.  It featured a couple of Tammy Wynette songs, but I figured that would be a bit heavy-handed, so I put on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, which I’d heard five times in a single night driving through the Appalachians towards Nashville a few days before.  When I looked round, Ray was gone.

The time was 10 p.m.  I needed a place to sleep.  I was determined not to hassle what I couldn’t help thinking of as Ray’s woman, who was standing behind the bar staring at the exit.  What was the real story between them?

When she saw me coming, she sighed and picked up her wiping cloth.  But she served me a beer.  I wondered how to ask about Ray.  I felt a bit shy.

But in 1979, barmaids in the US seemed happy to open conversations with out-of-place foreigners, even if they had arrived with out-of-favour boyfriends.

“It’s true he killed a man”

‘It’s true he killed a man, and was in jail.  We were lovers,’ she said.  ‘While he was inside, I waited for him.  I last saw him six months ago.  He told me he was through with prison.  He came to my house.  I thought everything was good, it felt like a new start.  In the morning, he said: ‘I have to go and change a tyre.’  He went out the door.  That was the last I ever saw of him, until today.’

‘Was he back in jail?’

‘No idea.  He told me something about a parole violation.  But I know he was living with another woman.  I guess she threw him out.’

I thought about Ray telling me he was fresh out of jail that morning.  ‘Do you think he’ll come back?’ I said.

‘I hope not.’

I didn’t have an answer to that.  She didn’t have much she wanted to say to me, either, once she had finished talking about Ray.  So I picked up my red rucksack from its place by the door, and went out into the night.

In the parking lot, I saw no sign of him.  I felt relieved.  I turned left and starting walking along the sidewalk into town.  The evening had further surprises in store.

* * *

This is how the story begins.

A voyage around America: Fast Trip to London

The first stage of my journey to Candy McCarthy, Cortez and beyond began in Manchester, England.

I left home at 3.30 Tuesday June 26thwith my usual red rucksack and fairly light load, my diary opens.  Fast trip to London, as always.

Leigh Turner 1979

January 1979, Isle of Mull

On the third of May 1979, seven weeks before I wrote that diary entry, Margaret Thatcher had been elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  This event is not recorded anywhere in my journals.

I did note the fact of my attending a “Final Selection Board” for the British Civil Service in London on 11 April, 3 weeks before the election.  The first question from the intimidating, all-male panel, sitting in the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall, was: “If the Conservative Party were to win the general election and you were asked in to brief the Prime Minister on the UK’s foreign policy priorities, what would you tell her?”

But that’s another story.

As a 21 year-old in Manchester travelling to London to catch a plane to the United States the following day, it never occurred to me to take a train. That would have been ruinously expensive.  I stood by the road at half-past-three in the afternoon, and stuck out my thumb.

Not a good advert for hitch-hiking: Rutger Hauer in “The Hitcher”, 1986.  

The death of hitch-hiking

Mine may have been one of the last great hitch-hiking trips around the United States, although I would welcome evidence to the contrary.  After 1979, hitch-hiking faded in the US, much as in Europe.  This was not because of any change to the law, or increased danger (although Rutger Hauer’s The Hitcher, released in 1986 with the slogan Once you’ve met the Hitcher, you’ll never pick up another and The terror starts the moment you stop for the Hitcher may not have helped). I see two reasons.

First, came increased living standards.  My own adult kids could afford to travel by train, or long-distance bus, even when they were students.

The expanding network of motorways, or freeways, or Autobahns, played its part, too.  I remember in 1980, hitch-hiking through Germany from Mönchengladbach to Munich for the weekend to sample the Oktoberfest.  Coming back, the Autobahnkreuze (freeway intersections) around Cologne defeated me.  Where could I stand legally, or safely, to travel further?

The writing was on the wall for hitch-hiking.

The death of my mojo?

Looking back, my action in walking out of a house and relying entirely on the goodwill of others to reach my destination when I had in the security pouch around my neck a non-refundable bucket shop ticket on a flight departing from Heathrow the following morning and a clutch of sterling-denominated travellers’ cheques required an almost crazy optimism.  If no-one had stopped, I would have missed my plane.  Yet I didn’t even set off until the afternoon was half gone.

I was relaxed about time, and deadlines.  Looking back, it seems admirable.

These days, my grown-up kids send me jokey stories about a man getting his family to the airport 14 hours early, to be on the safe side.

“It’s funny how it brings you closer together”

Excerpt from my diary for 13 April 1979, shortly before I set off for the States, referring to a girlfriend called A.:

I’ve been reading a few good books – “Zuleika Dobson”, “The Good Soldier Schweik”, and “On the Road” – the last two in particular are magnificent in telling one how to carry on in an apparently indifferent world.  The main key to a cheerful existence is highly obviously either a massive faith, or else friends, to whom one can explain one’s problems and anxieties and get answers and suggestions – like prayers.  Anyone I make love to, I think, I really talk to – lying in the half-light.  Remember how A. was a different, infinitely wiser and more beautiful person afterwards.  “It’s funny how it brings you closer together,” she said, but it isn’t really.

* * *

We jump forward to a second episode of “A voyage around America”, under the title Leaving New York.  What happened to the mojo of my youth?  How about yours?

What are Americans like? Leaving New York

On Tuesday morning, Harold and Dorothy drove me from their house in Ardsley to the Major Deegan Expressway, heading south for Washington, D.C.  The road stretched out ahead.  First target was to reach the New Jersey Turnpike.

How was I not terrified?

Aged 21, my primary emotion was excitement.

How can I reclaim that boldness?

Looking back, I think: “how can I reclaim that boldness, that clarity of purpose, that focus on the present, that carefree calm?”

Things I was not worried about:

– my career.  It had not yet started.  I had nothing to screw up;

– money.  I had all my cash, for seven weeks in the US, in traveller’s cheques on my person;

– other people.  During my trip, I wrote several letters and postcards home.  I tried to make one phone call, reversing the charges because I had no coins, to Harold in Ardsley – I can’t remember why.  On the line, I heard him telling the operator he refused to accept it;

– information about the rest of the world.  The Internet did not exist.  I do not remember buying a newspaper.  I had a tiny transistor radio (thanks, Harold) but mostly listened to music;

– death, injury or other cataclysm.  Sure, hitch-hiking posed risks.  But what would life be like if it consisted mainly of avoiding risk?

Things I was worried about:

– how quickly will I catch a ride?

If living in the moment had been invented, I would have been doing it.

It was a suicide mission, they said

I had arrived at JFK the previous Wednesday. For six days, even the most laidback, doped-out, rock-lobotomised New Yorkers had told me hitch-hiking in the US was too dangerous to contemplate.  When I told them I planned a seven-week trip around the entire country, they predicted my rape, castration and sale for medical research before I’d crossed the mouth of New York Harbour.

It was a suicide mission, they said.  If I made it beyond New Jersey, it would be a miracle.

I tried to explain the intoxicating intimacy and knife-edge mutual trust of hitch-hiking.  I said Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise was inspiring.  ‘Jack Kerouac is dead,’ they said.  ‘He was a sad, sexist creep.’

Maybe they were right.

But I set off anyhow.

Looking back at my Rand McNally Interstate Road Atlas I am astonished not only by my courage, or calm, in setting off on an odyssey around the four corners of the USA despite the blood-curdling warnings.  I am amazed too to look at the map: a baffling spaghetti of expressways, parkways and freeways (“For New Jersey, see page 57”).

No Google Maps or GPS, my first time in the States.

How did I dare do it?  I just set off.

What are Americans like: Leigh Turner and Dorothy Berkowitz 1979

Dorothy Berkowitz seeing me off on the Major Deegan Expressway 

I just set off

My diary reads: I squinted into the sun for about 20 minutes (got to let the drivers see my honest eyes) before giving up and donning my ultra-dark smooth shades.  Within ten minutes, four cars stopped, all going to New York (ie not Washington direction).  The fourth, I took.

The fourth driver to stop was a swarthy, friendly guy in a limousine named Joseph L Belvedere, Attorney and Counsellor at Law in Brooklyn.  He gave me a business card.  ‘In case you ever get into any trouble,’ he said.  Would I like to come and see his office?  He could drop me afterwards on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, he said, well-placed for I-95, the New Jersey Turnpike.

Sure, I said.

We drove downtown.  He parked the car and we entered a tall office building.  I felt no alarm at anything untoward; only a nagging concern that I needed to get more miles under my belt and I was not yet out of New York City.

He showed me his office, panelled in dark wood, with a view over the city and a secretary outside who seemed unsurprised to see her boss appear with a total stranger toting a rucksack.  I felt as if I were in a film set.

‘I picked up a hitch-hiker on the Major Deegan,’ Joseph said.  ‘He’s heading to D.C.’

‘Won’t you stay for lunch?’ the secretary said.  ‘You have a wonderful accent.’

‘It’s a beautiful office,’ I said.  I was enjoying the air conditioning.  ‘But I have to get going.’

I waited forty-five minutes for a ride which only took me across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, then ten minutes for someone else who dropped me at the beginning of the New Jersey Turnpike.  My excitement ebbed.  Time passed. Anxiety grew.  Was hitch-hiking around the country an impossible dream?

A voyage around America: the New Jersey Turnpike

Then magic began.  Johnson Fortenbaugh, Jr stopped in his Ford Pinto, a compact car which made so much more economic sense than most of the two-ton lead sleds which populated America’s roads that it was wildly unfashionable and went out of production almost immediately.

He was heading for Oxford, Maryland, more than two hundred miles away.

Johnson Fortenbaugh, Jr seemed a liberal fellow.  The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania had happened four months earlier, leaking radioactive gases and iodine into the air of Dauphin County.  Ironically, the accident took place twelve days after the theatrical release of the film The China Syndrome, featuring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, about a nuclear accident at a fictional power plant.  The title came from the description of a nuclear meltdown which could cause a reactor to melt through its containment structures and sink into the earth “all the way to China”.

Subsequent investigations revealed a catalogue of errors in the operation of the plant.

I often wonder if the power station in which Homer Simpson “works” as a nuclear safety engineer was based on Three Mile Island.

By the time I arrived that summer, the anti-nuclear lobby in the US was glowing hot. Johnson Fortenbaugh told me he was worried about the risks of nuclear power, and concerned that President Jimmy Carter was not governing the country as well as he had hoped.

He also worried about the oil crisis.  The revolution in Iran had slashed that country’s oil output and world energy prices had soared, leading to panic buying in the US. New Jersey was one of several states which had implemented odd-even gas rationing, where only people with odd-numbered licence plates could buy gas on an odd-numbered day, and vice-versa.  This always seemed to me unfair on even-numbered plates, which got fewer days.

The Pinto had an even-numbered plate.

We ran out of gas on the New Jersey Turnpike.

What are Americans like: New Jersey Turnpike 1979

Johnson Fortenbaugh, Junior, out of gas on the New Jersey Turnpike

The “malaise” speech

Was it true, as people said, that America had lost its pizazz under Carter? Later that month Carter would give a speech, to which I listened in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in which he called on citizens to reduce energy use and improve energy efficiency.

Carter was later criticised for wearing a cardigan when he made what was dubbed the “malaise” speech.

Was this fake news?

You can watch the speech on Youtube.  He is definitely wearing a suit.

‘I want to talk to you right now,’ Carter says, ‘about a fundamental threat to American democracy… That threat is… a crisis of confidence… We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives.  And in the loss of our unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in our future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.’

A 2011 CBS commentary says ‘it has come to be known as perhaps the most politically tone-deaf speech in modern American history’.

You decide.

Johnson Fortenbaugh had been driving on empty for miles, unable to buy fuel, so it was no surprise when the car slowed and stopped.

He looked at me.  ‘You OK to stay with the car?’

‘You OK for me to stay?’  Was he really going to leave someone he had met a couple of hours earlier in charge of his Pinto?

‘Sure.’  He rummaged in the bulbous interior for a jerry can.  ‘I’ll hitch up the road.’

I waited with the car.  I have no recollection of being hot, waiting under a cloudless sky by the asphalt.  Nor was I impatient.  I was humming the New Jersey Turnpike Song, Chuck Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me, and watching the cars whizz by.  I was on the move, on the road, in America, heading south.

What Americans are like: are they still as generous as this?

Johnson Fortenbaugh came back in a tow-truck with some gas, and we were soon rolling south, leaving the freeway and passing through lush fields of tobacco, corn and soybeans.  We stopped at a gas station for ice creams, which he paid for to thank me for looking after the car.  He invited me to come and have dinner, and spend the night, at his house in Oxford, Maryland with his wife and children.

This was a fantastic offer.  Oxford (there is a Cambridge a few miles away) lies in a deeply indented coastline on the Lower Choptank River Sanctuary, rich with boats, water and pleasure pursuits of every kind.

In one day, I had been offered both lunch and dinner and had accepted an ice cream.  I did not yet know it, but I would not pay a night’s accommodation for another four weeks. Are Americans still as generous as this?

Back in 1979, I found them filled with kindness, quirkiness and originality, creating a brew of mindboggling unpredictability.

Is that still true?

Few people I met in those days were angry or fearful, although many were suspicious of government and the political establishment.  They seemed self-confident, phlegmatic, sure of their ability to cope with whatever might come.

Johnson Fortenbaugh was maybe the first American who drove me far enough that year for me to feel I knew him a little.  When he dropped me at the turning for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, I felt a pang of loss.

My first long day of travelling had not shaken my carefree calm. On the contrary.  Everything seemed possible.  America lay before me, waiting, in the pages of my Rand McNally Road Atlas.

Minutes later, a guy in a pick-up stopped, and drove me all the way to the heart of Washington.

White House, Washington DC, USA, 1979

The squirrel is the smudge on the left near the flowerbed.  Can you still get this close to the White House?

He did not run out of gas, but his vehicle did break down, directly opposite the White House.  Cars were less reliable in those days.  I took my red rucksack from the back of the truck and took a picture of the White House, where a squirrel was sitting on the lawn, with my Olympus Trip camera.

It was twenty minutes’ walk to where Chris and John Purinton lived, in the Watergate Apartments.

* * *

I have not yet completed my account of my short stay in Washington, D.C., but I have written an account of my visit to Arlington National Cemetery.  Here it is.

“A voyage around America”: Soviet statues in Washington, D.C.

I walked towards the bridge.

Two metal statues flanked the road: huge, muscular, nude, bearded men on huge, muscular horses, each accompanied by a naked woman.

The women were both on foot.

One of the men clutched a child.  Looking at pictures now, I am reminded of the statue of a Soviet soldier unveiled at Treptow, in Berlin, in 1949.

Also sculpted in metal on a titanic scale, the Soviet hero holds a child in one hand and an improbably large sword in the other.

The children which the men in Berlin and Washington are holding look eerily similar.

Super-sized statues rarely make great art.  These ones in Washington, D.C., a cross between the Epstein bas reliefs on the London Underground headquarters and the faux-antique stone sculptures at the 1936 Olympic Stadium in Berlin, were no exception.

I walked on.

I started to sweat.

The bridge was shade-free, and longer than I had expected.

Maybe that was why I was the only person walking across.

On each side, the waters of the Potomac were calm.  But the statues had unsettled me.

Weren’t they a bit, well, Soviet?

One of the themes of my 1979 journey was how many people distrusted the federal government in Washington.  The giant, ugly statues were not a great advertisement for the nation’s capital.

Goodbye, “Avenue of the Heroes”.  Hello, “Memorial Drive”

At the other end of the bridge, I looked for the “Avenue of the Heroes”, which according to my map would take me into the heart of the Arlington National Cemetery.

I couldn’t find it.

Instead, as I crossed from the District of Columbia into Virginia, I found myself tramping along Memorial Avenue.

When did they change the name?  And why?

Days later, catching up on my diary on Route 11 south out of Greenville, North Carolina, I wrote: Arlington National Cemetery – on my 1964 map the road there was called “Avenue of the Heroes” but this is now changed to “Memorial Drive” – pretty wet, huh?  America’s general lack of zip and loss of self-confidence since Vietnam have been huge. Someone who gave me a lift here said, ‘Vietnam was just another big decision for America, and they were wrong. Now they’re afraid to make any decisions about anything.’

Seems true to me, I concluded, with 21-year-old certainty.

This was before I had watched Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech a couple of weeks later.

Vietnam and American confidence

It was also before I had seen the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which when built in 1982 was deemed so sombre that pressure built up for a figurative statue, The Three Servicemen, to be added.

What are Americans like: Vietnam Memorial Washington DC USA 1989

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, April 1990

Did the renaming of the Avenue of the Heroes really have anything to do with a loss of collective confidence after Vietnam?

Or did someone question the degree to which it was right to speak, in the English phrase, of “The Glorious Dead”?

What makes a dead soldier a hero?

The first official US military death in Vietnam, for example, in 1956, was a US Air Force Technical Sergeant who was murdered by another USAF airman.

I once saw a First World War memorial in Berlin which referred to “Our heroes”.  It was accompanied by a modern explanatory text discussing whether those commemorated were heroes, victims or even murderers.

It is an awkward balance between commemorating, and honouring, the dead, and glorifying their actions.

Often, the winning side is keener on the glorifying aspect.

What are Americans like: Arlington National Cemetery

I climbed the hill into the Arlington National Cemetery.  Despite the heat, the trees, grass and dignified ranks of plain white tombstones calmed me.

What is the focal point of a cemetery?

I decided to try and find the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Before leaving Manchester to hitch-hike to Heathrow Airport in London a few days earlier, I had ransacked the house for maps.

These days, navigating with a paper map when you have a plan of the whole world in your pocket with your exact position marked on it at all times feels eccentric, verging on foolhardy.

In 1979, a map was a thing of value.  Something you bought when you visited a city, then hoarded in case you might one day visit again.

My father had visited Washington, D.C. in 1964; I borrowed his map for my trip fifteen years later.  After I had visited D.C. I carried it with me around a further twenty-one states and gave it back to my father when I returned to Manchester.

I do not know if that 1964 map still exists.

Now, paper maps are so cheap, they can barely even give them away in hotels.  You toss them when you leave the city.

I had been browsing my map at the Lincoln Memorial when I noticed the Arlington National Cemetery.  You couldn’t miss it: one of those huge, scantily populated features – like Roosevelt Island in New York – which blazed so enticingly from the map I could not resist exploring it.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The route to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier wound past thousands of gravestones inscribed with the victims of many wars.  These simple, standardised memorials, dignifying the dead with a name but in most respects identical, were similar to the graves of the World War 1 cemeteries on the Western Front, many in France and Belgium.

Looking around, I felt the kind of worthy melancholy I have felt in many military cemeteries, mostly run by the wonderful Commonwealth War Graves Commission, from Gallipoli to Klagenfurt to Cambridge.

What Americans are like: Arlington National Monument, Washington DC, USA 1979

The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I reached the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery to find the Changing of the Guard was about to take place.

Soldiers guarding the Tomb do not wear rank insignia in order not to outrank the “Unknowns”, whatever their ranks may have been.  The memorial contains Unknowns from different wars; but the designation of a “Vietnam Unknown” proved difficult as DNA testing led the individual being identified.

Irony – or warning – unintended?

Arlington National Cemetery was founded at the time of the American Civil War.  Reasons for choosing the site included the view; and the fact that the high ground would not be subject to flooding, which could unearth the graves.  It houses around 400,000 dead.

The cemetery has been expanded several times following large numbers of veterans wishing to be buried there from continuing wars.  Plans are in hand for further expansion.

Will Arlington ever be like the magnificent Central Cemetery of Vienna, where the 2.3 million dead outnumber the living population of the city by two to one?

I wonder.

When I watched the changing of the guard, I witnessed one of the soldiers telling someone to show respect by putting his t-shirt back on.

After the ceremony was over, I consulted my 1964 map again. The Headquarters of the US Department of Defence, also known as the Pentagon, was nearby.

In fact, the Pentagon was built in 1941-43 almost in the shade of the vast military cemetery.

Could any irony, or warning, have been intended?

Surely, not.

I set off to walk there.

* * *

Here is a fourth episode of my trip – a night in California and Oregon with two Mexican gentlemen – which I published on this blog earlier as Valley of the Rogue.  It took place roughly a week after my encounter with Ray, three weeks after my departure from New York.

What are Americans like: Valley of the Rogue

TC was too young.  Miguel was older, but didn’t like being asked to show his ID.  So when their ancient Chevy had wheezed into the gas station in Crescent City, we pooled six grimy dollars and I went to buy the beer.

What are Americans Like: Monterey, California, 1979

California coast near Monterey, 1979 

In California at 20 you can have sex, smoke dope, and die for your country, or someone else’s; but you can’t get a drink without a friend.  The two Mexicans and me, Oregon-bound, were old friends for the night.

Four weeks after I had arrived at JFK and Miguel and TC slowed the creaking, rusted Chevy outside Sebastopol, California, I was used to taking risks.  Dusk was falling, shadows growing.  I had the usual few seconds to check out the car as it slowed and stopped.

Miguel, in the driver’s seat, looked around forty, with  weathered, acne-scarred cheeks, a gold tooth, and the tranquil calm of a peon.  TC was younger than me, eighteen maybe, with a sense of urgency, a wisp of a moustache and a huge, charming grin I wasn’t quite sure about.

But I figured they looked safe enough.

Hell, they were driving all night to Oregon.

So I climbed into the car and settled thankfully amidst the litter of beer-cans that was the back seat.

How to break the ice hitch-hiking

Had ice needed breaking, the lukewarm Yukon Jack Canadian whiskey (was it really orange-flavoured?) would have done the job.  That and the close, warm darkness as we headed slowly north through Elk, Russian Gulch and the Grizzly Creek Redwoods.

TC turned out to be eighteen, a US citizen, Texan-born, and steel-hard.  Miguel was born south of the border and spread his hands helplessly as he wrestled with his English.  But he knew his White Album.  Riding north at a steady forty miles per hour, the three of us chorused verses of Rocky Racoon, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill and Happiness is a Warm Gun.  At misty mid-night pit-stops we watered redwoods, shouting our songs into the forest.

In Crescent City at 2 a.m. we stopped at the gas station.

‘Can you get us a couple more six-packs?’ TC said.  ‘You’re 21, you’re white, all good.’

‘Yeah,’ said Miguel.  ‘They mostly don’t like my face.’

When I came back to the car with the beer, TC said maybe he’d had enough and should stop driving.  Could I take over?  I had no driving licence, I said, and anyhow had enjoyed the beer and Yukon Jack.  TC and Miguel shook their heads.  Driving a car was easy, right?  You put your foot down and turned the steering wheel.  I, boringly, declined.

So maybe I was responsible for their first bust in Oregon.

A voyage around America: enter the Highway Patrol

TC and Miguel told me they had committed a string of driving offences in California and had to get out of the state.  So I shared a sense of relief as we passed into Oregon on Route 199, heading for Cave Junction and Interstate 5.

We didn’t get far.  At 4.30 a.m. in O’Brien, five miles past the border, a cop pulled out behind and flagged us down on account of a broken tail-light.  He stood at the window, conspicuously friendly, his hand on his hip, and asked whether TC, who was driving, had perhaps been drinking?

TC was deliriously intoxicated.   He admitted to the distant memory of a beer and was invited to step out of the car.  I witnessed a night ritual, lit by the lights of the police cruiser: an officer watching a man on one leg, eyes closed, arms outstretched, touching his nose with one forefinger, then the other.  All this TC did faultlessly.

But this was 1979, and although the police didn’t seem to have breath tests, they had a computer, somewhere at the end of a radio connection.  The friendly policeman discovered that TC was wanted in four states (not yet including Oregon, in which he had only been for fifteen minutes) for felonious and criminal offences; and that the car’s licence, issued in Albuquerque New Mexico, had expired four years before.  So he issued a ticket to appear in the settlement of Grant’s Pass – on our route, as it happened – on Monday.  TC and Miguel looked at each other and ground the wreck northwards.

The cherry-stone trick

In Wilderville, on the Redwood Highway, we stopped for food.  We were hungry: the guys ordered burgers and fries thrice.  After we had eaten our fill, TC ordered cherry pie.  Miguel’s eye caught mine.

Suddenly as TC munched his cherry pie, his face contorted in a rictus of agony.  I didn’t hear any crack.  But he was hurt, bad.  He let out a long, low moan and a string of oaths.

Only one young waitress was on duty, on the night shift.  She heard the commotion and came running.

TC nursed his jaw in his hand.  A shard of cherry stone left in the pie had fractured his tooth, he said.

The waitress shook her head.  At a loss what to do, she called the manager, fast asleep in bed.  He provided the name of a local dentist who’d be open in the morning.  TC shook his head bitterly, and cursed again, and ran a finger round the inside of his mouth.  Miguel, stony-faced, pushed his fingers through his black hair.  I gazed, and wondered, and put my wallet back in my pocket.

The meal was on the house.

In Canyonville, miles north of Grants Pass, dawn broke.  TC and Miguel said they were turning east towards Tiller, to look for work.  Someone’s sister had a place.  I should come and stay awhile.

I’d like to say I thought about it.  But I thought I was in a hurry, aiming for some friends in Vancouver Island, tied to different rhythms.  So I said I’d head on north.

As I lifted my rucksack from the back of the car, my knife – a black Kitchen Devils product made in Sheffield – fell to the tarmac.  TC picked it up, tried it, improbably, on his open palm and drew blood with a squeak of delight.  He weighed the knife in his hand.

‘Hey, man,’ he said.  ‘Can you turn me on to this knife?’

Miguel was already in the car.  I looked at TC holding the knife, blade towards me.  He looked back, and smiled warmly.

‘Sure,’ I said.  ‘It’s already yours.’

Author’s notes:

(i) If you enjoyed “A voyage around America” and felt it helped explain to you what Americans are like, you may like my up-date: The Americans: Return to California or my companion piece The Russians: Vladivostok.

(ii) If you enjoy fresh, original writing, feel free to sign up for my weekly newsletter (you can unsubscribe anytime you wish).  Check out the range of writing on this site via the sitemap and guide.

(iii) My thanks to the ever-perceptive Nora Fitzgerald for her editorial advice on “A voyage around America”.  A goddess of prose.

If you would like to explore my other writing, please take a look at my most recent books. Amazon reviews are always most welcome, too! Or you can follow me on Facebook.


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6 Responses

  1. Just noticed that typo below, highlighted in yellow – the wording on the blog itself is accurate ie says ‘him’. Pamela                                             

  2. Great story btw!  Pamela                                             

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