America is going by in a blur.
I’ve hit Civil War overload. It has become all-consuming and I am now missing other aspects, important aspects, of the trip as I travel south.
I have decided to loosen the straps of conflict, of the battles and the soldiers, the weapons and the reasons why or why not, and the overwhelming statistics that are all right now threatening to take over my story.
It’s time to leave the numbers of dead behind for a while, to put aside the number of bullets used or the amount of bread and fodder consumed by the opposing armies.
It’s time to look around and taste something of the countryside through which I am traveling. After all, this is where I have set my story; I need to see what, even if it is 150 years later, it is like to live here.
I am driving south through North Carolina and I have decided that I am going to let the somewhat dormant reporter in me bubble to the surface, for a couple of days at least, and ‘report’ on what I see going on around me.
When I headed off to the battlefields, I listened to a book on 22 CDs called General Lee and his Army. This got me into the right frame of mind for the history I was about to witness. But now, I have switched off the monotone voice, found a satellite radio station playing non-stop American rock from the 1980s and pointed the car south along Interstate 95.
With music from the likes of Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams and a group called ‘Golden Earring’ as my sound track, I let America unfold before me.
Immediately, I noticed the farmland as it varied from county to county and from state to state. From tobacco and corn to peanuts and peaches, the different regions changed with every mile I traveled.
I switched off the GPS, left the interstate behind, got lost, found my way again and, for the first time since I got here, began to really see something of the country.
I stopped at lonely diners where truckers mixed with farmers as they drank their coffee and ordered their biscuits and gravy or their eggs and grits.
Now, for all you ‘grits’ virgins out there, grits is, and my American readers will forgive me here I’m sure, flavourless porridge … well, that’s what it tasted like to me anyway.
I eavesdropped on the conversations of fellow diners, which ranged from the cost of animal feed and diesel to baseball and football. One subject that I found repeated from Lancaster to North Carolina is the division that there seems to be between blue collar America and, as one gentleman in White Hill, NC, called them, “those damn environmentalists”.
It seems, according to the guys at the counter of the White Hill Diner, that any of these groups that obstruct ‘real’ American jobs, are unpatriotic.
“We all need ‘real’ jobs. Not jobs for computer jockeys or call centres but real American jobs,” one man told his fellow diners as they drank their coffee.
While he didn’t expand on what ‘real’ American jobs are, I assume these jobs involve heavy machinery, power tools and digging.
I drove on, back to the interstate, and I began to notice the wonderful advertising billboards and signs that are dotted along the roadside.
‘Grandma’s Gun Shack, for all your shooting needs. Take Exit 13’. Or ‘Finger lickin’ KFC, we’ve got livers and gizzards, Exit 21′.
The billboards advertise everything from dog grooming to Viagra, insurance to plastic surgery but my favourite was, ‘Arrested? You need to call Joel at Criminal Lawyers for U’, this with a picture of Joel smiling (or is it sneering?) down on the highway.
Then, of course, there are the patriotic signs that manage to advertise the goods or services on offer but also remind the passing drivers that it’s good to be an American.
‘Dodge Trucks, the trucks that built America’. Or ‘Lions Den, adult boutique. America’s favourite playground’. Yeah, I’m not sure about that one…
On my way here (to South Carolina), I stopped off at Hampton Roads in Virginia. This expanse of water, which sees the James River empty into Chesapeake Bay, is the site of a famous Civil War naval battle (sorry, but I had to see this) and it was here that the world’s navies were changed for ever. This was the site of the first-ever gun battle between metal or ironclad warships.
Anyway, when I arrived, I walked out on to a wooden pier that was the viewing point for many of the locals who turned out to see the battle over 150 years ago. Today, the pier serves as a lovely spot to walk your dog or to catch some fish.
As I made my way to the end of the pier, I noticed a little boy, about 10 years old I’d say, excitedly fighting with the reel on his small, light fishing rod that was almost bent over in a perfect loop.
“I’ve got somethin’, I’ve definitely got somethin,” he shouted at his father who was standing next to him.
As I watched the little boy ‘fight’ his fish out of the water and on to the pier, other fishermen called out encouragement and as the fish – it looked like a plaice or a flounder or some other species of flat fish to me – was lifted clean out of the water and on to the pier, there was a big round of applause from all present.
The little boy was clearly delighted with his catch. His father got his camera out to take a photo and, as the boy stood there proudly displaying his fish for the camera, he said:
“Take that, Mother Nature!”
Clearly, not one of those unpatriotic environmentalists then.