Monday, 5 August 2013

Now let us drink the stars, it's time to steal away. Let's go get lost right here in the USA.

I hope my lack of blog entries can be a testament to how busy my first year at Ole Miss was. Luckily, I’ve been keeping notes, so while I still have a few study-free days left, I’m going to write several entries. I hope you enjoy them!

[Written September 2, 2012] Hello, finally, from Oxford, where it truly is a dark and stormy night. Outside it is a cacophony of rain fall, thunderclaps, wind and rustling branches. Inside, I’ve had several cups of tea to calm myself down as the dog roams around barking (the kitten is completely unafraid and smug). I have five (!) books still to finish in time for this week’s classes. I have an essay about a truck contest to write. But I have been in America almost a month and, apart from a few scribbled notes, have not had a chance to write about it yet. I figure I will never be any less busy, so now is as good a time as any.

Of course I want to write about Oxford. I’ve been dreaming of the Faulknerland since I was nineteen; it’s amazing that I’m actually living here. It is a wonderful place for so many reasons, but best of all it already feels like home. The thing is, I have the next two years to bore you all with Oxford-related gushing. And it just so happens that I have other stories to bore you with first. I flew to San Francisco on August 8, and drove* for five days to get to Mississippi. So first of all I want to take you through some musings related to that. Please, no hatred from any Brits about putting the month before the date, I need to get in the habit!

*And when I say “drove”, I mean sitting in the passenger seat eating Rainbow cookies, worrying aloud about Ole Miss and taking pictures of billboards and cornfields whilst my boyfriend sat behind the wheel the whole time.

08/08: London, UK to San Francisco, CA
During my ten hour flight, I came to a conclusion: airplanes bring out the worst in people. Cramped, tired and always enduring the screams of children, airline passengers must be the worst customers ever. Everyone is so demanding and unfriendly in a way that I feel sure they would not be in any other setting. Fellow passengers were especially demanding and unfriendly due to a malfunction with the entertainment sets, which meant no TV or music for the first two hours of the flight. I, of course, came prepared. I sat reading Bill Bryson and tried not to laugh out loud. I’m sure I must have been quite a sight, grinning widely in a crowd of frowns and pursed lips. If I am ever even a fraction as good as Bill Bryson I will die happy. Also, I’m not entirely convinced he and my dad are separate people.

I was more cheerful on this flight than usual – as it happens I’m afraid of flying. A lot of my positivity has to do with Virgin Atlantic. They truly are the best airline I’ve ever experienced; the staff is helpful, the entertainment selection is usually great (when working!) and I actually really like the food. And they were very nice to me that time I fainted in the middle of the aisle back in January [2012]. Now, if they would pay me for endorsing them publicly I would like them even better. Graduate school is expensive!

My cheeriness was waning by the end of the flight, however. Someone had rapped on the bathroom door in a most demanding and unfriendly manner as I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I am as courteous as possible on a plane, and this, I felt, gave me the right to take the tiniest bit longer in the bathroom. But apparently not. I harrumphed back to my seat and was then slumped on by the people next to me for the remainder of the flight. It is very odd to constantly have a child’s feet or head in your lap when you do not know them. I vowed to never let my own future children loll about like that on a plane, and squirmed Britishly for the last hour.

After queuing for another hour and a half, I somehow still had the adrenaline to ignore my coccyx injury and haul my own at-the-weight-limit suitcases off the conveyor belt. I was thankfully still awake enough to recognize my boyfriend at the gate rather than absentmindedly trying to board a plane to Canada or something (“Must. Be. In. Commonwealth.”). We got in the car, drove through San Francisco, and for some reason covered the topics of drugs, drunk driving and guns within the first hour. I shifted in my seat and fought the urge to run, on foot, back to the airport to go home. I stayed awake through the evening, which I spent with Chip, his roommate Marie, and Tar Heel friends Katie, David and Amanda. We ordered Chinese, which was a huge amount of food for a small amount of money. Ah yes, I’m back in the USA.

08/09: San Francisco, CA to Elko, NV
Chip and I set out in the car the next morning, circling back five minutes later to collect the coolbox. (But not, as it turns out, my Topshop sandals, which still reside on his bedroom floor.) Then, since we had delayed ourselves already, we decided to go grocery shopping. I was very pleased about this, as my greatest hang up about doing a road trip (or being in America generally!) is not having adequate access to fruit. Since we were running late already I didn’t get a chance to dance around the grocery store exclaiming over every item. Don’t worry, that blog entry will come.

I was sad to leave San Francisco so soon. It’s one of my favorite cities where I have made such great memories, and I still dream of living there one day. However, we drove over the Bay Bridge, northeast to Sacramento, Lake Tahoe and Reno. We listened to only a little bit of Rush Limbaugh. And what can I tell you about Nevada? We left the greenery and rivers of California for dusty, open space. We drove for hours without seeing much of anything. We had no radio or cell phone coverage. We passed gas stations, each one looking the same, except sometimes with the addition of a casino. I was surprised by how many bits of tyres (or tires!) there were on the road. Then, just as I was starting to get bored, actual tumbleweeds rolled in front of us on the highway.

We reached Elko in the evening, passing a small roadside community on the way in. The little part of Elko we saw had chain restaurants, an RV park and some surprisingly high-priced hotels. Interestingly, Elko has a “boom and bust” economy based on the price of gold; a large amount of Nevada’s gold is mined there and the town has many abandoned mining camps. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his short story, Fear and Loathing in Elko, “The federal government owns 90% of this land, and most of it is useless for anything except weapons testing and poison-gas experiments.” But clearly there is more to it than this. Elko hosts the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering every January, and has done for almost 30 years. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a good time to me.

The hotel we stayed in was much the same as many I’ve experienced in the US. I always wonder how they came to decide on the exact same breakfast:  a waffle iron with batter next to it, cold hard-boiled eggs, cheap muffins/donuts, white bread with peanut butter or jam in plastic pots, yoghurt, questionable-looking fruit, cereal in dispensers and some juice, tea and coffee. I’ve seen the same selection as far-flung as Georgia, Texas and Colorado. You could see the same America in any given hotel. I don’t know whether that’s comforting or creepy.

08/10: Elko, NV to Laramie, WY
Back on the road, Nevada continued to be flat, dry and empty. We were cheered up, however, by a lady waving at us from a neighboring car; we understood as they passed us and we saw their South Carolina license plate. Southerners unite! We eventually crossed into the mountains of Utah, and I became engrossed in the selection of billboards at the side of the road. The billboards gave me a number to call if I was in debt, informed me that evolution was an evil myth, praised the immigrant population and encouraged me to “hail to the beef” at a local restaurant.

But what you really want to know about is Salt Lake City. We drove around it for a bit out of curiosity. It is a big place: spacious, beautiful, and more than a little bit freaky. It’s impossible to be in Salt Lake City without constantly thinking, “Is that person over there a Mormon? Do they know that I’m not a Mormon?! Oh, there’s the North Carolina license plate. They probably do know I’m not a Mormon. Maybe they don’t mind. Are they looking at me?” I’m not really speaking to Mormonism or Mormon people. It is not something I’m particularly educated about, unless you count Angels in America and Mitt Romney. But sometimes the reputation of something gets under your skin all the same, and that’s how I felt there. Not a mature or informed approach of course, but a truthful one if nothing else.

We exchanged the close-range mountains of Utah for the endlessly wide feel of Wyoming. The spaciousness and high altitude made me nervous. You absolutely cannot get that same feeling in the UK, that you are in the middle of nowhere. It was like being on another planet. I was relieved when we finally arrived at our hotel in Laramie, with lots of buildings and people surrounding us. I know that plenty of people were shocked that I chose to move voluntarily to a place as different as Mississippi, but I will take humidity and DFE (Deep Fried Everything) over high altitude, headaches and nosebleeds any day. No offense, Wyoming – you’re just out of my league and I know it.

Laramie is home to the University of Wyoming, the only university in the state. It is also home to Kirsty Callaghan, fellow UEA American Studies graduate and the recipient of the BAAS award in 2011. Since we knew we would be passing through Wyoming anyway, Kirsty and I arranged to meet at a microbrewery called, fittingly, Altitude. We talked cowboys, attitudes to land and the upcoming election. Kirsty had been volunteering for the local Democrats (apparently a caller once complained about her English accent and the fact that they were clearly outsourcing) despite the fact that Wyoming is typically a Republican state. I’ll get into this another time, but the Republicanism in Wyoming seems to be based more on living far from Washington DC and wanting freedom to do what they wish in their huuuuuge open spaces, compared to those in the South who think much more about social hierarchy and staying true to tradition. It is interesting to think of how in a country of this size, political parties have to appeal to people of so many different cultures.

08/11: Laramie, WY to Kansas City, MO

We left Laramie in the morning, looking out for the golden Abraham Lincoln head that Kirsty had told us about. Despite its size, I wasn't able to get a picture of it in time, so here is a link if you're curious (and I know that you are).

[Continued Jan 17, 2013] After this, there really didn’t seem like anything better to do so I fell asleep and when I woke up we were in Nebraska. Go back to sleep, right? Absolutely not! You see, one of my favorite books is Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I even have an audio book in which the narrator sounds suspiciously like Reverend Lovejoy.

[Continued Aug 5, 2013] Okay, so admittedly I don’t have much more to say than that. We drove through Lincoln, which is the capital city of Nebraska and the second most populous after Omaha. I know that not everyone understands these whims, but I absolutely want to return to Nebraska and learn more. I am intrigued by its small population amongst the plains and prairies, and its historical and current race relations between Native Americans, African American migrants and European immigrants. It is also the home of both Warren Buffett and Kool-Aid, so there you go.

I have always been curious about these places that people turn away from, or tell me, “There’s no point in going there – there’s nothing to see.” It is said about many, many US states. If I feel strongly enough about a place, I will ignore the warnings and go anyway. Often I have been rewarded with some amazing discoveries of landscapes, buildings and people. I think you can tell how much I took Michael Palin’s work to heart, especially his view that there is more that brings us together than divides us. I still believe in looking for stories in unlikely places.

We went through Lincoln without pulling over at all. As we waited for a light to change on the outskirts of the city, I rolled down my window, closed my eyes, and listened to the hum of locusts in the grass.

08/12: Kansas City, MO to West Memphis, AK
Two important things to mention about Missouri:

One. I damaged my camera in a town called St Joseph. I was busy puzzling over a billboard (yes, again) about a blood drive boasting about its “FREE AIR CONDITIONING.” I’ll let that one sit with you.

Two. Half of Kansas City is actually in Missouri, half is in Kansas.

Okay, so I know that second one wasn’t really a surprise to most people but I totally didn’t know. I also didn’t know much about Kansas City other than a refrain from a Stray Cats song, but I am always curious and Chip is a barbecue fanatic so we took some time to explore.

I’m going to take a moment to teach some BBQ 101. Settle down, settle down, I know there are disagreements about this. In England, “barbecue” has several definitions. It is first of all an event, reserved for any day that there is the slightest hint of sunshine (“Darling, the Manfredjinsinjins at number 43 are having a barbecue, do we have any Pimm’s?”), a piece of outdoor cooking equipment that you swear at when it refuses to light properly, and an action describing how you cook your beef burgers, sausages, chicken, salmon, corn-on-the-cob or bananas.

In America, barbecue is the food itself, and the culture that surrounds it. Americans do not have a neighborhood barbecue, they have a cook out. They also do not barbecue their food – they grill it. What we call grilling is called broiling here. Stay with me! Anyway, more interesting is the discrepancies between different regions of the US. (I apologize if I butcher several of the details in this explanation.) In North Carolina, barbecue is pork, and the sauce changes by location: vinegar in the east, tomato in the west, a blend in the middle. The pork is shredded (or pulled as we might say) and often served in a bun topped with coleslaw. In Texas, barbecue is beef, and there are many regional differences of technique and sauce within the state. In Kansas City, barbecue can be pork, beef or chicken. That’s about as much as I can condense the topic of southern barbecue without doing a full essay, so please try it if you visit the South or its fringe states. I have sometimes considered becoming a vegetarian, but the thought of barbecue prevents me.

Despite these differences, there is one thing that Americans and Britons have in common when it comes to barbecue: both insist that their definition is the correct one.

08/13: West Memphis, AK to Oxford, MS
We should have learned from Missouri/Kansas that just because a city seems like it’s probably in a certain state doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. We wanted a cheap hotel in Memphis, to check out the closest city to Oxford and have some time to relax before moving me in to my new place, so we didn’t book one right in the center. We booked one in West Memphis, and then became thoroughly confused that our GPS (British: SatNav) couldn’t find it at all. Well, that is because West Memphis is not in Tennessee, like Memphis is. It’s in Arkansas. Go figure.

A question I get asked a lot at home is, “Why is it pronounced Arkansaw?” You lazy people, don’t you know how to use Google? It’s okay, I did it for you. The root of the name is Native American, a Quapaw/Sioux word akakaze meaning “land of downriver people” or “people of the south wind” respectively. The pronunciation is French. Apparently, the pronunciation was a matter of such debate that it was made official in state legislation in 1881. But unfortunately that did not solve all of the problems in Arkansas. It took until 2007 for the state to pass a resolution that the possessive form of the name should be Arkansas’s. Scandal! Scandal!

I didn’t have a chance to see much of Arkansas, but as a neighboring state to Mississippi I hope to do so in the future. When I think of Arkansas, my mind goes to Bill Clinton, the violent desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, an amazing MFA program at the University of Arkansas, the arming of teachers at Clarksville High School and the headquarters of Walmart. On our drive through Arkansas, we stopped at the most antiquated gas station we had encountered so far. We also drove behind two horse-drawn buggies. I had never connected Amish culture to Arkansas, but later research revealed that there is in fact one community in Sturkie, which we must have been near.

But back to the journey. We left Arkansas, and West Memphis, for Memphis Proper in Tennessee. I always think that southern cities are somewhat of an oxymoron, which was made apparent as we waited f-o-r-e-v-e-r for pedestrians to cross the street. No one is in a hurry (unless they’re on a highway). Chip, a native of North Carolina who had been in California for a year, sighed and said, “I have missed the South so much.” Our last meal of the roadtrip was in IHOP (International House of Pancakes, which I always want to stylize as iHOP) where we were served over and over again with more coffee and more Dr Pepper. IHOP is one of those restaurants that is pleasantly unprofessional, with consistent food and harried-looking waiting staff. I still have ambitions to visit IHOP on Cox in North Carolina, where, I am told, they receive more prank phone calls than legitimate ones.

I was extremely anxious on the drive from Memphis to Oxford, feeling my stomach flip as we passed the Welcome to Mississippi sign. Now, I have passed that sign and done the 85-mile drive several times. I have many stories of my first year of Oxford, but for now, as pretentious as it is to quote myself, I will leave you with a Tweet from the first day that I arrived:

My hair is huge, my skin is bitten, my belly is full of fried catfish and hushpuppies. It feels so good to be back in the South. #olemiss

And this is a whole 'nother story.