Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Six guys, a train and an ill conceived plan Chapter 8

I left camp sometime around the end of August, armed with a 45 day Amtrak pass and a loose plan to get from the east coast to the west coast. My mind was overflowing with places that I simply had to see. New York, New Orleans, Vegas, Frisco, Miami, the list went on. The Amtrak timetable and my imagination were the only limits to where I could go. This was going to be an empirical lesson in American geography.

Over the course of the summer it had been decided that six of us would travel together, although by the time we got to the west coast it would just be Ian and I. Ian, if you remember was my friend that had coincidentally taken the same life pattern as me. Remarkably he'd even been placed on a summer camp in the same region as mine, and I'd bumped into him on my first visit to the local mall. The rest of the group comprised of Nick from Liverpool, Dave from Bradford, Hugh from Totnes, and Jude from Coventry.

The first stop was
New York. Having recently read "Catcher in the Rye" I had a very clear picture in my mind of what to expect of the city, and it certainly delivered the goods. Take your average mega city add some bells and whistles, then cram it with the nostalgia of all the films that you've ever seen that are set in New York, and you wouldn't even come close to replicating it. I've since travelled to Tokyo, and this was the only city that shares anything like the same energy level. New York felt like it had electricity flowing through its very core. Maybe this is why steam can be seen flowing out of the sewers.

Although I had more money than I'd actually set of with, I made the decision that this trip was going to be on a budget. This meant drinking from water fountains and eating anything cheap. Our lodgings in a nice hotel close to
Times Square may not seem to have fit in with this philosophy but we only paid for two people and six of us crammed in there. Using our imagination to find cheap or free places to sleep was to become our theme for the trip. 

On our first evening together the six of us met up in Times Square, and shared an enormous pizza. This was our treat for finishing camp and surviving Al's intimidating behaviour. From here on in it was bread and water with the odd McDonalds dinner to keep us sane. At 29 cents a burger it seemed like the best option. 

The next day our group split into two groups of three, with one group electing to go up the World Trade Centre and the other group deciding to go up the Empire State Building. I was in the group that ascended the Empire State Building and I found the view from the top to be breathtaking, I can only imagine how wonderful the view from the World Trade Centre would have been. One things for sure, I'll never find out. 

I would have enjoyed the view from the Empire State building far greater had I not been approached by a Chinese lady, who asked me to take a video of her and her family standing next to a guy in a King Kong outfit. By the time I had worked out how to push the start button, the family thought that I had finished filming. As she approached me I smiled and handed the video camera back to her before making a quick dart for the lift. I can only hope that her meeting with King Kong was not the highlight of her trip.

We accidentally bumped into a very irritating girl from the camp while we were in New York and she rather awkwardly asked if she could join us on our trip. None of us had the balls to tell her no directly to her face so we ended up arranging to meet up with her the next day. This would have all been good and well had we not already arranged to leave New York that evening. Yes, I know that this seems terrible but if you knew her you would have done the same thing. I still wonder to this day how long she stood waiting for us at the meeting point.

It was our intention to go directly from
New York to Boston but during the train journey it was decided that we would head to Salem instead. At the time I knew nothing of the 1692 witch trials, my desire to go there was based solely on the 1970s film Salem's Lot. The scene with the dead kid scratching on the window scared the shit out of me for many years after I watched it. To enhance our trip even further we decided that a night in a graveyard was a must. We weren't fussy though any graveyard would do.

By the time we had found our graveyard it was dark and pretty damn spooky. The spook factor was increased even further by our bed time ghost stories. As it turned out it wasn't garlic or crucifixes that we needed to aid our safe sleep, but insect repellent. We spent the whole night being attacked by sortie after sortie of mosquito raids. As the sun rose the next morning it became apparent that Dave and I had taken the brunt of the attack. The others counted 87 bites on my face alone. We must have looked a terrifying sight as we left the graveyard the next morning. With my severe lack of sleep and my lips, eyelids and cheeks swollen I could easily have been mistaken for a zombie.

By the time we reached Boston Common we were all exhausted. So we made a circle of sleeping bags, threw our possessions in the middle and slept until late afternoon. Later we checked out the picturesque harbour, had a beer in the Bull and Finch, otherwise known as the Cheers bar, and headed out to the Cambridge district of the city to check out Harvard University. And that was it for Boston. Our trip was turning into a real whistle stop tour of America's finest cities, and most dire accommodation.
We took our first overnight train from Boston to Buffalo. The reclining seat was not quite long enough for me to stretch my legs but I found that if I lay on my back and slid myself under the seats I could get a great nights sleep. This was to become my plan for all the night journeys over the next six weeks. As long as I can stretch my legs and I have a makeshift pillow I can sleep anywhere - now ain't that the recipe for free accommodation!

We arrived in
Buffalo at some ungodly hour which meant that we had to try and get some more sleep on the station floor. The first bus to our destination of Niagara Falls wasn't until 7 am. Unfortunately the cleaners at Buffalo station were not keen on our plans and made it their job to wake us up every half an hour or so with a jab to the ribs with their brooms. By 6 am we could take no more of this torture and elected to get two taxis to Niagara Falls instead.

Niagara Falls has to be one of the most famous landmarks on Earth right? So you'd expect that a nice city had sprung up around the falls right? Wrong! Niagara Falls is a god awful little town full of casinos, run down hotels and sleazy night clubs. Or at least it was in 1992. I passed through there briefly in 2012 and it didn't seem to have changed too much.

We found lodgings in an extremely cheap hotel that agreed to let six of us cram into a room designed for two. By now we were all desperate for a good nights sleep in a place that we didn't have to worry about being moved on or being attacked by insects. We dumped our stuff and headed for the falls to escape the flea pit that we'd checked into. We'd have to drink more than a few beers to make the place seem comfortable.

It's easy to see why so many people decide to use the falls to commit suicide each year. The sheer power of the water draws you in. As I stood at the top of the falls with only a flimsy fence between me and certain death, I was almost tempted to jump myself. Not because I wanted to die but because it seemed like such an exciting thing to do. I guess that's why so many people choose to go over them each year in a whole manner of objects from barrels to jet skis. Fortunately my mind overpowered my heart and I chose to go on the Maid of the Mist instead. The Maid of the Mist for those who don't know is a boat which goes under the falls and allows the visitor to experience the raw energy of this natural wonder while getting incredibly wet. A blue rain jacket was provided in the fee to help protect against the wetness. This proved about as useful as an umbrella in a hurricane.

The next destination was to be the nation’s capital,
Washington DC with a train change in New York. However Ian and I decided to make an impromptu supermarket stop when the train briefly paused in Albany. This proved to be a bad idea. As we reached the platform five minutes later we saw the train disappearing around the corner. Luckily for us the other four had the foresight to get our bags off in New York and waited for us on the right platform. This was in the days when mobile phones were something that you saw on Tomorrow's World (TV programme). These days such a calamity would cause but a minor irritation.

When we eventually got to
Washington DC we were faced with the difficult job of finding cheap accommodation in the city centre. As we stood and mused over this quandary I was suddenly struck with a fantastic idea. "Why don't we climb the fire escape of a hotel and sleep on the roof?" The verdict was split. Ian and Dave were against it whilst the Jude, Hugh, Nick and I were totally up for it. Within half an hour we had found a suitable hotel with accessible fire escape and the four of us had successfully sneaked past the receptionist whose window was right next to the ladder. The other two meanwhile paid to stay in the hotel. They missed out big time because this was to be one of the best nights of the entire trip.

Once on the roof we laid out our sleeping bags and had the most wonderful picnic. The view was to die for. From our vantage point we could see all of the main sites of the capital, including the White House, Capitol Hill and the Mall. All this set to the backdrop of a gloriously orange sunset. I can confirm that the best things in life, on this night at least, were indeed free. This undoubtedly had to be the best view in the whole of DC.

The next morning Jude was grabbed as he descended the fire escape. He was the last one down and the receptionist caught him and called for the police. As is often the case with foreigners abroad he played the ignorant card. He got away with a warning and a recommendation to leave the city. His punishment from the police may have been soft but his punishment from the rest of the lads was much harder. For the rest of his trip we constantly reminded him of his capture.

Next up was
Florida or the Sunshine State as it is also known. It was only a matter of weeks since the worst hurricane in American history had struck. How ironic that it was called Hurricane Andrew. It sounds pretty sick but we were all kind of excited to see that destruction that it had caused. I guess that morbid curiosity is human nature, so it really wasn't our fault.

Rather disappointingly we reached
Orlando without witnessing any destruction at all. It was business as usual when we visited Disney World. Mickey Mouse and chums showed no signs of the sorrow that was being witnessed in the bottom half of the state, as they greeted us to their kingdom of pleasure.

Disaster almost struck Dave and I as we drove our hire car back to the rental centre the next day. We were inches from being wiped out at high speed as we rushed to get the car back on time. We did this in record time before rushing to
Orlando railway station to get the train down to Miami. Here we were met by the others minus Nick, who we were informed had decided to leave in a hurry. Having recently perpetrated a travellers cheque fraud he'd been a little nervy for a few days.  Dave and I were convinced that the others were playing a practical joke on us and he would pop up from his hiding place at any minute. It was only when we'd reached Miami and he still hadn't made an appearance that I was inclined to believe them. 
And so we were five.

A couple of hours outside
Miami we were rewarded with our prize. At first we noticed a few trees tilted to one side and leaves scattered around the place. Soon we were seeing trees totally uprooted and roof tiles displaced. By the time we reached Miami we were to witness whole houses destroyed and luxury yachts strewn casually across the highway. A major relief operation was in place with helicopters dominating the skies. It seemed that each time we turned on the television we were faced with Gloria Estefan appealing for the nation’s money. To me this seemed like a double disaster, hadn't these people suffered enough?

Destruction or no destruction it was business as usual on
Miami Beach. I couldn't help being struck with how weird it all felt that rich teenagers were driving their convertibles up and down the strip with their music blaring, while all around emergency crews were trying to clear up the mess caused by Hurricane Andrew. I can only assume that the rich were less affected because their homes were constructed better. Miami it has to be said held very little appeal to me. I was happy to leave and so was Jude who decided to go it alone in search of his favourite band REM, who he informed us lived in the city of Athens, Georgia. And so we were four.

New Orleans would have been relatively straight forward to reach from Florida had there been a direct train line. Although we could see the proposed line on the Amtrak map, it wouldn't open until later that year. This meant that we had to take a 48 hour train journey that would take us first back to Washington DC and then down to New Orleans. Strangely we weren't really bothered by the awkwardness of this detour, we saw it more as a way to save money on two nights accommodation. Indeed one of our group had earlier spent a night repeatedly riding the train between Philadelphia and New York, purely to save on the cost of a night in a hostel.

When we finally arrived in
New Orleans we booked into our first hostel of the trip. The hostel was called Big Al's and was named after a rather large cat that hung out on the front porch. The hostel was a traditional style New Orleans house and was located somewhere in the suburbs of the city. We spent the day checking out the voodoo museum and taking in the sights of the French Quarter with its characteristic Victorian houses, each sporting ornately designed iron verandas.  

Everything was going swimmingly well until we headed to a bar and I was introduced to a drink called the Hurricane. This lethal cocktail is a mixture of rum, fruit juice and grenadine. By 7 pm I had quite literally lost my mind on hurricanes, which resulted in a drunken altercation with Hugh.

The back streets of New Orleans, I had been warned, were not a place to mess around. But what exactly did this mean? I wanted to find out, and nothing was going to stop me. Not even the big black guy who approached from behind as I was taking a piss against a pile of rubbish.

"Hey man, you want to buy some crack?" he asked me, as I struggled to get my dick back in my pants. Then rather disturbingly he pointed at my flaccid member and started to laugh uncontrollably. 

"I'd ask you if you wanted a whore but I don't think you could handle her," he chastised.

This was more than my drunken mind could take. I simply had to react.

"I'll give you $50 for your sister," I replied with more drunken bravado than sense.

As the words slipped out of my mouth I instantly knew that they were a really bad idea. The guy was positively raging and immediately demanded my wallet. I could do nothing but concede. In the hopes of appeasing him I took a $50 note out and handed it over. Before I could say "that's for your sister" he turned around and started to run, prompting the most ridiculous response from yours truly. I lunged out and grabbed the plastic bag that he was clutching in his hand. Fortunately for me he didn't pull out a gun to give me a real taste of the
New Orleans back streets. As I stood there with his bag in my hand he ran off into the distance. Eagerly I checked the bag unsure of what I would find. His toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and deodorant were a million miles from what I desired to discover. I threw it on a nearby roof to at least derive some pleasure for my $50.

The drama was far from over. In my drunken state I wandered over to a car that was stopped at a red light, and I let myself in. The poor driver seemed mortified for a while until he realised that I was a drunk English idiot who hadn't got a clue what he was doing. It turned out that the guy was himself a tourist on his holidays from
Germany. Somehow I managed to tell him where I thought Big Al's hostel was, and he drove me to it.

We said our "auf wiedersehens" and he drove off.  I then mistakenly convinced myself that I was in the complete wrong end of town and I decided to walk back in the direction I'd just come from. This little charade went on all night, an hour in one direction and then an hour back again. Until I finally realised that he'd dropped me off in the right place to start with. With my legs as heavy as lead I walked into the hostel room expecting to see the other four sleeping. The room was empty, they were all still out.

Fortunately, the next day Hugh didn't bear a grudge and my bad behaviour was put down to my consumption of hurricaines.

From New Orleans we headed to Memphis. Although, at this stage in my life I only had a passing interest in Elvis Presley, it still felt pretty cool to be visiting his house. We exited the train station with no clue how we would actually get to Graceland. Within 30 seconds however we were had boarded a bus and were on our way there. The bus simply said Elvis on the front of it in the place usually reserved for name of a town. I could only imagine being that famous

There was no doubt that Graceland was cool. I could almost feel the King's presence as I made my way around his house. His opulent decor was certainly not to my taste but they gave me an insight into his character. Like most people, I was eager to see the toilet that he allegedly died on but this was sadly out of bounds. His opulence also was reflected in the amount of vehicles that he had, which were housed in museums within the grounds. Even his plane "Lise Marie" was on display.

After Graceland we headed to Sun Studio to see where it all began for such legendary figures in rock and roll history, as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison among countless others. I only wish that I knew then what I know now about the importance of the places I visited on that day. At the time I was an ignorant tourist.

Last up, on this part of the journey at least, was Chicago, or the Windy City as it is sometimes known. Chicago was going to be the end of the line for our little group. We'd all be heading off in different directions. Only Ian and I would be left. Hugh and Dave were heading off back to England for their second year of university. As we wandered around the metropolis that is Chicago we randomly bumped into Jude. He'd been to Athens but had unfortunately not met up with REM.

I enjoyed Chicago. It felt a little like New York to me. All built up with skyscrapers in every direction. We passed the Sears Tower which was the highest building in the world at the time. Even looking at it made me feel dizzy. On our penultimate day together we went to the waterside to check our Lake Michigan. The sheer size of it made it difficult to see it as a lake. It seemed more like the ocean.

I was feeling sad on our last day together, and the weather seemed to share my pain. As we were about to say our goodbyes the sky turned black, the heavens opened up and there was an almighty thunderstorm. We all rushed to Wendy's (burger restaurant) to escape the downpour. It felt like an appropriate way to end our happy union. One by one the boys left the restaurant for the railway station, until only Ian and I were left. We turned to each other, raised our mega-sized cokes and toasted the rest of our journey.

No comments: