As I mentioned earlier, I’m off on my travels now, heading up to the Scottish Isles and thence to Norway. I’ll be back at the end of June. I do not intend to blog while I’m away. Instead, I’ll be putting up a series of extracts from Toad’s Road-Kill Café, my account of a 5000-mile road trip I made in 2001, up the 100th meridian from Laredo, Texas, to the Canadian border and back. At that time the Great Plains were becoming the focus of my interest out west, and it seemed to me that such a journey would shine a light on an American heartland, and perhaps answer a few questions about the pioneers who settled those treeless, windswept lands. I planned the trip after I’d sold three or four travel pieces to the Sunday Times (who pay very well), and was looking to gather more material with which to tempt them. It didn’t quite work out that way - but what the heck: I got a 100,000-word narrative out of it. In July I’ll be publishing the entire thing as an e-book, but in the meantime I’ve scheduled ten extracts, amounting to roughly a fifth of the overall content. Here’s the first. I hope it will whet your appetite.
You’re Damned Right I’m Saddle-Sore
Close your eyes. This won’t take a moment. I want you to picture something. I want you to picture… a one-horse town. And I guess that’s all I really need to say, isn’t it?
Now, let’s suppose it’s midday, the sun’s blazing down on Main Street, there’s a guy sitting outside the barber-shop, and the mythical horse is grabbing some shut-eye under the hanging-tree. I dare say you now have a very good idea of the sort of scene I want you to conjure up. But just in case, let’s sling in a tumbleweed, rolling across the road.
Right, that’s the setting. Now for the stranger. You know he’s going to ride into town real slow. There is no other way, is there? You know too he’s going to be dusty and hot from the trail. And thirsty? Hell, his throat’ll be – what’s the word? Yep, you got it: parched. It’s the only word that’ll do. And just in case there’s anyone there to hear him riding up to the hitching-rail, we’ll give him a little sound-effect of some sort. Who knows, it might turn out to be his signature tune. You’re probably thinking of a little jingling of spurs; or maybe you want him to be playing a jew’s harp. Could be, but I need to step in here and say no, what the little old guy outside the barber-shop hears, as he wakes from his siesta and feels in his jeans for a pack of cigarettes, is a dry, rhythmic squeaking.
Ee-eek… ee-eek… ee-eek… ee-eek And as the stranger slows down, so does the noise - to his great relief. He’s had that darned squeaking all along the Republican River. Two hundred miles, and it’s just about unhinged him.
Finally he comes to a stop, and the town is silent once more apart from the chirruping of the cicadas. As he lowers himself stiffly onto the road and steps up to the boardwalk he grimaces. And the little old feller pauses with a cigarette between his cracked lips and a match in his hand, pushes his hat back on his head and squints up to see what kinda darned fool is out in this heat.
The stranger nods his head. “Fifty miles since sun-up.” And then, as he shakes the trail dust off his clothes he asks, “Say, is there anybody in town can help me? She’s in real bad shape. Needs fixin’.”
The little old feller rubs his chin, strikes a match on his boot-heel, and holds it to his cigarette. “We-ell,” he says, “there used to be a feller back of Main Street.” He holds the smoke for a moment, then lets it out in a long slow loving plume. “But he died.”
Then he casts a sceptical eye over the stranger’s trusty steed and asks, “Guess you ain’t from around these parts, huh?”
Okay, we can stop fooling around now. I will tell you precisely what happened next in the little town of Red Cloud, Nebraska (population 1204) sometime in the late summer of 1994. I said to the guy, “I wanted to take a little trip across the plains.” And he said, “Hell, I wouldn’t mind doing that myself – on a Harley Davidson.” And then he looked at my trusty steed once more and sort of snorted, and said, “But on a goddam bicycle? Hell no!”
You may as well call me Slim. The little old feller did, after he’d sent me to a guy who occasionally messed about with bikes in his spare time and I got a sort of running repair that kept me going three more days till I hit North Platte, a hundred and seventy miles to the north-west. He bought me a beer in the saloon and introduced me to his friends. “This here’s Slim. Come over from England. Riding a bike clear across the U.S. of A.” I tried twice to tell them, no, I’m just riding across the Plains, getting the feel of them; but they wouldn’t listen. Too busy trying to remember when they last had a bike come through town, and who that feller was who used to fix `em – and what he died of.
As I struggled west next day into a strengthening wind I knew that next time I’d make it a little easier for myself. I’d come by car. And, just for the hell of it, I would indeed cross the entire U.S. of A., except I’d do it south to north instead of the usual coast-to-coast way. I’d drive from the Mexican border clear to Canada, all the way up the central Great Plains. Texas to North Dakota along the Hundredth Meridian, the line that separates the well-watered country to the east from the land of inadequate rainfall to the west; corn from cattle, farmer from cowboy; what you might call the fault line between two cultures. I’d explore this land of slow-talking, friendly people, one-horse towns and broad treeless vistas. See what it’s all about.