A Sociological Autobiography: 46 – Back Across America, Eastwards

The view of the Pacific from our motel on this twelfth day of our drive across the USA was expansive but disappointing. There were palms and blood-red blossoms but the Ocean’s greyness could have been that of the Atlantic. A couple of Californians with long blond hair cycled past, he exclaiming to her: ‘Gee, your hair looks great blowing in the wind honey’ and she replying: ‘Why thank you!!!

We drove to downtown San Diego where I purchased one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten. It re-elasticized the muscles of my mouth. In a seafront café I wrote and dispatched another clutch of postcards, precisely at this point losing track of the number ‘on the road’ I had sent to my father in Worthing. Then we were back on the interstate, leaving the sand dunes of California for Arizona. It was 460 miles before we stalled at Tucson for the night

Tucson did not detail us, besides which Annette had alerted me to Tombstone, the old western outpost, which our interstate skirted. We decided to investigate. Turning off the interstate at Benson, an old 1870s mining town, we entered Tombstone close by the cemetery, the “Boothill Graveyard’. Most of its incumbents had been killed by apaches, shot, taken their own lives or, in one case, been ‘hanged in error’ (only two had died natural deaths). We took lunch at the Grand Hotel once patronised by the Earp brothers. A blues guitarist played. Down the street was the Old Bird Cage Theatre, a notorious bordello from 1881-1889. The first-floor ‘bird cages’ were used by local prostitutes and their clients and overlooked the gambling tables below. Recently re-opened, it was exactly how it had been when Wyatt Earp was marshal and he, his brothers and ‘Doc’ Holliday placed their bets a century ago. Earp met his third wife in one of the cages. The OK corral survives too, but more as entertainment than historic site. Wyatt Earp died as late as 1929.

Back on the road we found ourselves driving into an electric storm. The sky turned black; sheet lightening bonded it to the horizon. The rains came and went. We had drove a mere 360 miles before calling it a day, fortuitously at El Paso, where we knew we could traverse the border to visit Mexico’s Juarez.

We calculated that if we took time out to walk over to Juarez and hang around a bit we might well be a day late to pick up our Emory classes. So be it. We rang old friend Dick Levinson to pass on a message. Parking as close as we could to the Santa Fe Bridge we paid our 50 cents and exited the USA. The contrast with El Paso was stark. Juarez was more than poor: its roads were pitted, its buildings pock-marked, its buses ancient and limping. Failed lottery tickets littered the pavements. Only the churches and their icons were rich and polished. Here’s a moral: churches and lotteries peddle cruelly fantastical hope and tax the poor respectively. We sipped cool(ish) beers. Back in El Paso we booked a hotel in San Antonio for the next night ($119 + tax). Eating economically, we were obliged to listen to a dire Mexican wedding band in an adjacent room.

Sunday 15 March proved a long day. By 10am we were quitting El Paso and starting out across Texas. Fort Stockton was disappointing so we barely hesitated. The I10 took us in the straightest of lines towards San Antonio. Serendipitously, we reached our hotel, another Holiday Inn, by early evening. It was called the ‘Crocket Hotel’, not without purpose. A mere stone’s throw from the hotel was the Alamo! The Fess Parker films of my childhood re-emerged from my subconscious. But this was for the next day. For our evening mean we strolled to the Riverfront, a superbly inviting modern development replete with restaurants and cafes. We had done another 570 miles.

The Alamo had been respectfully reconstructed. It was here that the Texan ‘martyrs’ and their associates, including a dozen Englishmen, yielded to Santa Anna’s Mexican army in 1836. Jim Bowie certainly died in its precincts. Davy Crockett, scholarship now suggests, may have escaped only to be put ignominiously to death on being recaptured. Only the church and a section of barracks survive: a few artefacts, like Crocket’s rifle, were on show. Like Tombstone, it had real resonance, at least for this babyboomer

We meandered back to the Riverfront in the evening, having pre-booked a meal at a promising jazz club. The jazz was better than the food, and the beer; but local maestro, Jim Callum, lead an excellent sextet, including an exceptional young trombonist. Chatting to them between sets I told them of Ronnie Scott’s recent suicide. Jim: ‘Guess what? Ronnie’s topped himself!’ It was a good evening

Aware that time was running out we recognised we needed to make haste. New Orleans was our next stop: an Old American city, but actually younger than our house in South Street, Epsom. We drove straight into the French Quarter, as we had done several times in the past, but found it full to overflowing and left via I10 to search for a reasonably priced motel. It was St Patrick’s Day! With a Best Western as our base, we then looped back into the city to eat (we had promised ourselves a special meal). Cars, floats and beer-soaked revellers drew complex circles round Bourbon Street. Necklaces of green and yellow beads were tossed down from balconies, Annette capturing three. We ate at nearby Pierre Anthonie (I had blackened tuna steaks), then meandered to Jackson Square and Café du Monde, where we complemented our coffees with ‘beignets’. We were late to sleep.

It rained as we left New Orleans the next day. As we quit Louisiana for Mississippi I lifted my foot from the accelerator slightly, having picked up a speeding ticket in a previous existence. We drove through James Lee Burke country. Through Alabama into Georgia and eventually back to Turner Village, our home for the semester. A further 475 miles had been clocked up on this, our last day’s effort. In all, we had driven 5285 miles in 13 days; and we had ‘learned’ the USA in an entirely new way. ‘Home’ on the Wednesday, we resumed teaching on the Thursday. Mad dogs and …

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