America at Last – Part 7
By Parson Thru
Roanoke – Nashville: 482 miles
Wednesday morning broke new and fresh. We looked in at the breakfast area, but decided not to waste time at the motel and checked out. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining. We’d slept like the dead and woken remorseful about our fallout the day before. We made up over packing and ablutions and swore to recognise when the trip was getting to us and not take it out on each other - after fifteen years, we knew our weaknesses. As our spirits and the weather had both improved, we decided to check Roanoke out over breakfast, and set off walking the mile or so back to the centre. We chatted about nothing in particular as we trundled our cases along beside the highway.
I had begun to form some impressions from our first few days. There’s a tendency towards anti-American feeling back home, but let’s get something straight – no nation, no society, no person is perfect. Society is an aggregation of something deeply flawed, namely human beings. We build into it all our own contradictions and defects. The US isn’t perfect whether you’re looking from the outside or the inside – ask any American. They may cite different reasons, but I reckon they’ll all agree with the point. But I’ve yet to meet an American who didn’t love his or her country. They may not like the Government, they may not be happy with the system, they might hate their neighbours, but they love America. Perhaps it’s the hope that America embodies. We seem to have lost that in Britain and Europe – if we ever had it. We don’t know what to believe in. We don’t even know what to call ourselves. Do we live in the UK, Great Britain, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England or Yorkshire? Who knows?
Natasha and I had been chatting about the prominence of the Stars ‘n’ Stripes. Old Glory is everywhere you look. Every New York bus has one on the side and the flag is on every Subway carriage. It flies proudly from prominent and modest buildings. In Britain, any house flying a Union Jack is assumed to be occupied by a Nationalist lunatic. There is something very different going on in the US. So many questions and maybe no real answers.
We crossed broad streets and entered the centre of Roanoke. It wasn’t a thriving breakfast location. After trailing up and down several roads, we returned to a “Subway” café that we had walked past earlier. We just needed somewhere to eat before heading for the 10:00 bus out of town. The cafe was almost empty, but filled with sunshine by the lady who served us two small bacon muffins from the tail-end of breakfast. She was a regular Mom and by the time we left we had more than bacon muffins and OJ fuelling us. We hauled our cases down to the bus station, which seemed much nearer in the morning sunshine, and joined the queue for the Nashville bus – guarding our place in the line. This time, we sat closer to the front which, together with the daytime vibe, made for happier travellers than we’d been the previous night. We hadn't had time to explore and, as we rolled out of Roanoke, I quietly shelved the idea of searching for my banjo emporium.
The bus made a couple of short stops as we passed through Virginia and we ate a hamburger at a truck-stop, hanging with the smokers in the car-park. We passed time on the road reading and looking out of the window, swapping seats to take turns. I started to enjoy the view down the aisle and out through the windscreen, watching the long centre-line stretching out towards Tennessee and reeling us in like a big catfish. At one point I looked out to the right and saw a wood full of splintered trees, like a flail had gone through a hedgerow. Then the woods gave way to a mess of wooden houses laid open like flat-packs. Blue plastic sheeting covered missing fronts and gaping roofs. We guessed that a tornado had ripped through, but the man across the aisle told us it had been a flat wind that blows through on a wide front, blasting everything in its path. The small town was shattered. Then, more wrecked trees and in less than a mile it was all over. We’d seen reports of storms here before leaving Britain, but it’s something else to see the aftermath. The buildings were a pretty sad sight, but more so the people wandering among their flattened homes, picking up what they could find. The next town along was untouched, made up of painted clapboard houses with verandas in front. Each porch had a different ensemble of bicycles, bits of hardware and flowers.
I watched the driver inside his rattling cell of yellowed Perspex. He was holding an intermittent conversation with a woman in the seat behind him. Every now and again she giggled at something he said. This is a hard way to travel, but it’s the only option for those who haven’t the money to do it any other way. I wondered what proportion of the population was between towns on a Greyhound at any one time. We’d slipped into long journey mode - almost hibernation - and just looked forward to making Nashville at around 21:30. In the meantime, we watched the world go about its business. We entered the state of Tennessee at Bristol, TN and pulled off the road at a small Greyhound office. Letters were missing from the sign in a message that read “Keep Moving”. All the same, I couldn’t resist thinking of my colleagues hard at work in Bristol, UK and knowing where I’d rather be.
As the day wore on I thought every turn through the hills would reveal Nashville. I saw hazy mirages of it up ahead, but we still had a good distance to travel. The next decent-sized stop was Knoxville – hometown to Dolly Parton and site of the Dollywood theme park. Across from the bus station was the Knoxville County Sheriff’s car. I was so busy daydreaming about the Knoxville Sheriff that I almost missed him climbing on our bus and apprehending his man. A humiliated middle-aged man was hand-cuffed as he stood up from his seat and manhandled from the bus into the car. As he was driven away, I heard a lady on the bus tell a neighbour that she had called the sheriff to report the man for drinking alcohol – this must be Southern “tough love”. Our bus had to wait for a connecting service. When it arrived, it took Natasha to point out to me that it was a prison bus. Six or seven men climbed up the steps and made their way, without speaking, along the aisle to find a seat in the rear. They carried no luggage, just a small bag each.
The driver resumed his seat and the door closed with a hiss. The big Greyhound lurched backwards into the road and we were on our way again. It was evening, but this time we were oblivious to what was going on in the rear seats. I didn’t go back to use the toilet - holding on till the next break. As we rolled on, the ex-cons kept themselves quietly to themselves. I expect all they wanted to do was get home – wherever home was. Natasha and I leant against each other and slept. We were beginning to get used to the rhythm of the ride. Even the smell of bodies had lost the edge it'd had only a day ago. Maybe we smelled that way now, too. I don’t remember the approach into Nashville. I just remember waking as we turned through flat, open streets and swung into the terminal. We shuffled down the bus with everyone else, recovered our cases from the side and grabbed a cab over to the Music City Hostel.