Down the I95
It was a long drive down from Washington DC to Athens, Georgia. We were 12 hours on the road, including three rest/food/toilet/gas stops. 600 hundred miles, the longest drive we were ever on. Up and down the middle of Ireland twice.
Those huge signs on poles higher than pines. Waffle House, McDonalds, Subway. Holiday Inn. Chicken Filet. Adult Store.
Really shiny trucks overtaking us. The chrome sparkling like you could eat your dinner off of it. The unestimable power of the engines, pulling loads up and down this great country, north to south, south to north. Up and down. Interminably. How busy the road was, how many people on the move, including little old us.
That feeling of being hemmed in when trucks overtook either side, inches away. Like when I was a child and watched that episode of The Man From Uncle. And the walls of a small room were closing in from both sides on Illya Kuriakan. That image pulsed through my dreams for years. The worst possible of human feelings: being trapped. But not only being trapped, the trap closing and closing and me helpless against it. I still get chills recalling it. And now, here I am in a car with my wife, as two of these 21st century behemoths get ready to drift closer and closer to each other and crush us and the flimsy car we’re travelling in. And we helpless, unlike Kuriakan who always had an unlikely escape plan.
Somewhere in North Carolina I said to Ciara: ‘We haven’t see any churches, yet.’ As if God heard me, one appeared, then another. And they have been appearing since. In Georgia and South Carolina, too. Modest, mostly. Isolated, mostly. With a sign outside indicating the religion or faith system. A spire maybe, but maybe not. Some no larger than a mobile home. Some with a message on that type of sign you can change the letters on. Each one with its own preacher and its own faithful. Is there another country in the world with this phenomenon?
The contrasting colours of the tall old dark pines and the young. fresh broadleaves like reaching children between and beneath them. Trying to remember that word that Robert McFarlane tweeted, that German word, I copied on my phone: Maeinschein – the green gold sunlight that falls through the young trees and woods in May (literally ‘May-light’ or ‘May-shine’). What a beautiful word.
That deep and fast thrumming the wheels make on the breaks between slabs of concrete on old parts of the highway. Redolent of some drive in my childhood, maybe a small bit of road around the beet factory, or some small part of the old Cork road. It took me back to that time after I got over the fright that it could be a flat tyre/tire.
The sun setting ahead of us as we continued to head south west. Getting tired now as the day settled itself down to forget itself. The traffic showing no sign of easing, my God the amount of cars in both directions. How this country is nourished by the flow of cars and trucks up and down its highways like blood corpuscles flowing up and down our veins and arteries, keeping us alive. If the military and the flag, and the gun are religious cults in the US, the car is too, that’s for sure. Although I’m not sure if all the huge pickups, their massive engines exploding by us left and right can be called cars – motorised beasts, more like.
Then darkness and tiredness and roadworks after Charlotte, and again around Spartanburg. Interminable tailbacks. The road a narrow two lane, with barriers on either side and everyone hurrying now to be home of wherever they needed to be. And me driving, trying to keep a straight line, a 50 million ton truck with 150 axles on my left, 3 inches away and a tall concrete wall on my right 2 inches away, ready willing and able to fling me under the 60 wheels of the truck or how many ever the fuck it has.
That bizarre feeling that on the other side of the white line to my right was grass, or some kind of waste ground. Not six feet of hard shoulder, which I knew was the case but in my anxiety I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. So I was certain that if I did drift in there, we wouldn’t get out again. The mind has mountains.
Thankfully, eventually, eleven and a half hours later, off the I85 and due south for Athens, approaching midnight, the traffic quieting down, even allowing me the luxury of putting on my full lights from time to time. Small, sleeping towns. Coming into the city and into the car park of the hotel, tired and satisfied and alive. After 12 hours of driving on US highways and byways, ready for a bed and a new city and a new day to follow.
Alive, thank Jesus, still alive. The 50 million tonne trucks with the 150 axles didn’t squash us between them like bugs; Illya Kuriakan lives to fight evil another day.
From Athens to the South Carolina Coast
Outside Athens we came across trailer parks and the smallest of houses in remote areas. In little clearings in the woods, or at the corner of fields. That’s one of the things about the US, the huge levels of disparity. We’d see a house in Charleston a few days later, wherein the furniture was valued at $10 million. And it’s the houses you can’t see that are really something. That’s just the way it is.
In her book, South and West, Joan Didion writes about having her hair done by a young woman whose dream was to work in a salon in Biloxi. Currently she was living in a trailer home in some small town, but with ‘conditioning.’ ‘Hotter out than in,’ she said. And Didion is somewhat dismissive of the dream, but what right does she have to be so? We can only, any of us, dream what we can imagine.
Small towns at junctions, with quaint stores bedecked by Stars and Stripes.
A train eking its way past, by the road. We reckoned the train was about a mile long. Joan Didion says that: ‘Maybe the rural South is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.’ Well, a train a mile long, with carriage after carriage and container after container is awesome. As it goes on, and on, and keeps going on – so improbable as to appear mirage-like. One thinks of a never-ending train, straining through the vast tracts of land, on a thin line of rail, narrowing away before it in the distance.
A huge tyre dump, maybe forty high hills of tyres on concrete. A few miles down the road, a pile of car wrecks. Rusting, with weeds growing up through and around them. As though in conversation, the used tyres (or tires as they say here), and the cars that rolled along over them, in their prime, once. Being driven home proudly by owners, maybe men keen to show them to wives and children: ‘look what I can afford, look what I can do, what I can be: your husband, your father, me.’
Vast forests, mile after mile after mile of them. Hard to get one’s head around the scale of it.
Fields with irrigation rigs set up to water crops, what looked like corn. Others with bales of hay drying in the heat. Huge things.
A gathering of vultures in the distance having at some dead mammal in a field by the road, maybe roadkill. Black, bent to their purpose, their rippling movements like a shudder.
Driving through Augusta. Azalea Drive. Wandering into one of the Augusta National entrances, playing the eejit. ‘Is this open to the public?’ ‘No, sir, you can turn around here.’ ‘Grand.’ Ah but the grandeur. Augusta National, mind you.
A dirty and unkempt McDonalds outside Augusta, 11am. A line of black men waiting to be served their breakfasts. A means to an end. Toilet, wifi and coffee, three essentials of long distance car travel.
We join the lines of cars heading onto the big ramped bridge for Hilton Head, 5 hours and 230 miles behind us. Grateful to be under the quiet and beautiful shade of the palmettos and the live oaks of the island.
To Weaverville, North Carolina
We’re sitting in our lovely cottage now. It’s late. Dark outside, and the birds and the frogs have quieted themselves down. We are surrounded by broadleaf trees and thunder is drumming out over the mountains on the other side of the town and back to the west where the Smoky Mountains wait for us.
We’ve made it up through South Carolina and into North Carolina and on through Asheville and into Weaverville (313 miles, five and a half hours) where we’re staying for a few days to check out The Smoky Mountains and Asheville and Cherokee and the famous Biltmore Estate.
We had a cold mezze for dinner in the cottage and great it was. We bought our bits and pieces in an Aldi (pronounce Ahldi in USA), of all places, in Weaverville, and drove around and the little town was busy with a celebrator Friday evening feel. There was an event in the school and children and parents were wandering out with those narrow balloons shaped into animals or hats. People were enjoying dinner outside a few restaurants and the buzz of the end of a working week was palpable and it soaked its goodness into us.
The girl who served us in the Ingles store (American owned, the sign proclaimed, proudly) asked Ciara how has our day been so far. Great, Ciara said and how about you? Oh, fine, the girl replied, except maybe for school and work. (She was a young little thing with long fair hair and glint in her eye, a ringer for Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter films, whom I’ve always had a soft spot for. Ginny is the quiet but resolute girl who loves the high-achieving boy and doesn’t quite feel she’s good enough for him, but of course she is and if he’s smart he cops that on – and Harry, in fairness, is smart). But her smile belied any problem with that and she was a dotey little thing in fairness, but with spirit and intelligence, and we wished her well. She’ll be fine.
We had left and hit the long road north west early after a lovely breakfast with the lads in Harbour Town in Hilton Head, and a scove around South Beach and the Salty Dog Café, where we bought a T shirt and a hoodie.
Heading off the island we met rain. Not Irish rain, this is South Carolina rain. Thunderstorms and torrents. At best, you can see 10 metres ahead to the next car. But the spray makes it difficult.
Your wipers are going goodo, but it’s not enough. There’s condensation on the driver’s side door so you can’t see the next lane over in case you need to change. The car in front doesn’t have his lights on so you’re not quite sure how far it is ahead. You can see maybe 20 feet. It’s loud with the wipers and the hammering rain, and there’s cars all over. Fuck, it’s nerve wracking.
Then pickups and trucks pass you either side and throw up a deluge from the half inch or so of water on the road. Now you can’t see anything at all, you’re driving, maybe 40 miles an hour, on blind trust, and hope and experience, and the fucker in the car ahead doesn’t have his lights on and you brake but not too much in case the pickup behind hits into you and you put on your blinkers in the hope that he sees them, and it’s enervating, terrifying, and very very interesting. Terrifying, for the most part.
And you get there. On blind trust, mainly. If you don’t know what you’re doing, almost all the others around you do, and they’ve done it a thousand times before and nobody wants their day to turn to utter shit so everyone behaves and the miles pass by behind you, one and another and another, there ’tis: gone.
It clears up after a couple of hours and thank God, the traffic eases when we pass the city and head north west.
We stop for gas in a Pilot, west of Columbia. We get drinks and a toilet break in its store beside the McDonalds. There’s a choice of about 1 million drinks in a vast fridge and I choose a diet Coke and Ciara chooses a sweet tea. You can buy almost everything, I notice, except a newspaper.
Do you know any shop or garage in Ireland that doesn’t sell newspapers? Anyone? Not here, not in South Carolina. And, I expect, all over the USA, which says a lot, I think, about where information comes from these days, so-called news. And what people believe and why.
Bobbi, who serves Ciara, has a badge that says: Bobbi. Fuelling life’s journeys. And, you know what? For us, he is.
We pass a truck with a load of bees. I’m not joking, bees. I count 240 beehives on the back of this truck. They are stacked three high and four wide. And 20 long. Surrounded by some kind of mesh. And I can see the bees, flying inside the mesh. Coming out and going into the hives. 240 beehives on a truck, on the I26 in South Carolina heading north west. Could you make it up?
We stop at a Hardees and change drivers again near Spartanburg. We need to eat. We are served by a startlingly beautiful young black man. Keen eyes, and he doesn’t falter at my thick Irish accent.
I order a chicken filet. It’s gas that the Americans don’t call it a fillet, but a filet, with the soft French t at the end. There’s even a chain of restaurants called ‘Chick-Fil–A’.
‘You want just the sandwich or the combo?’
‘Just the sandwich.’
Gas that they call it a sandwich. Not sure what John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, would make of that.
The coffees are hot and strong and fresh. 49 cent each, what’s that about? But we’re glad to get it into us.
The toilet at Hardees leaves a lot to be desired. And the Americans, for some strange reason, have the walls around public toilet cubicles begin around a foot above the ground. So you can see and hear a lot more than you’d prefer to. I think of Japan, where not only were the cubicles hermetically enclosed, but there were – among the many buttons and options at the toilet, included heated seats – the distractionary sound of fake birdsong. This ain’t Japan, baby. Hell, no, buddy.
The road is busy again around Asheville, it’s a Friday, late afternoon, but we’re nearly there. We turnoff after the city and head into the country around Weaverville and find the winding path up to the cottage and we meet Jamie and she’s lovely and we’re sorted for another few nights in the middle of this wonderful land. In mountain country, on the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway where we’ll spend the rest of our holiday, for another week, please God.