Sunday, 30 November 2008

Charleston – somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean (November 29)

Day 76

It had rained all night and continued all day. However, there was to be no more bike-riding and my hosts generously ferried me back and forth. We took in the heady delights of an IHOP (International House of Pancakes) except I only had bacon, eggs & toast. Kathy told me about the pranksters (or maybe anti-consumerists) who had gummed up all the North Charleston shops' locks with glue guns during the night preceding Black Friday. Then Peter hit upon the excellent idea of Kathy and himself posing for a photo in front of their house with a pitchfork, American Gothic style, and I wished I'd done it with everyone I'd stayed with. Bit of a hairy moment when Peter drove to a bike shop and his pick up started spluttering and making kangaroo hops, because it was almost out of gas – on the Interstate of all places. Luckily he was able to make it to a petrol station in time. They didn't have any boxes big enough and the next bike shop was too far to make it in time for my flight... Yes, I should have planned ahead. Fortunately we found a UPS store, where they sold me a sheet of cardboard for the princely sum of $21. Unable to remove the peddles with my meager adjustable spanner this time around, so we took it back to the shop, where the one guy there took the whole thing apart and packaged it all up securely for me in a few minutes. He said, “Usually I charge $35 to box a bike...” and he paused as if he there was going to be a sugary “...but...” No such luck. It was a good thing there hadn't been time to buy any souvenirs or presents. At Charleston Airport, which we reached with plenty of time to spare, we put the bike box and panniers (wrapped in black bags) in a trolley. Warmly shook Peter's hand, and metaphorically the whole of America.

A porter wheeled the trolley to the check-in desk literally 100 yards away, then asked for a tip! Evelyn, the slowest, densest check-in desk assistant in the history of the known universe, posed further problems. She tried to charge me $175 for the transportation of the bicycle in addition to a further $150 oversize allowance. Fortunately I was able to get through to her that one cancelled the other out. She wanted to phone British Airways to see what they charged for bikes (for my remaining two flights) but she couldn't find the number, and again I eventually rammed it home that a good old British company wouldn't charge anything for environmentalists such as myself. In the restroom, a toilet bore the sticker : 7'4”/520 lb max.

It was a good thing someone was sitting in my seat on the plane, because that might have been the only way I would have found out it was bound for Cincinnati. In my defence, the two planes were side by side and boarded simultaneously. Once on the right plane, I would have liked to be in a different seat because the man next to me was so fat he overlapped the armrests. It was only a short internal flight and I busied myself with the in-flight shopping catalogue. Wouldn't it be maddening if you had to choose between the 10 minute marinating machine for $149.99, or the Fling-arama-String Cat Toy, which flicked a piece of string through the air? Or how about the Nutcracker Suite March Porcelain Musical Egg? Or maybe the Time-Telling Drinkware is more to your taste? Or the Electronic Feng Shui Compass, a snip at $399.99? Well, surely I could interest you in The Night Sweat Alarm? No? Now even you must be tempted by the Square Root Clock, depicting the square of each number? What's the time? Why, it's the-square-root-of-121-O'clock. No, me neither. The Delta service was poor and there wasn't a smiling face on leaving the plane – or any face at all.

In Atlanta, or rather 'Atlan'a', the display screens showed details of a million flights, including a couple to Gatwick; neither were mine. My plane took off from Terminal N the print-out informed, but according to an attendant, they only lettered A-E. He said it would probably be E and that I should catch the train there. Luckily I had a couple of hours to spare in case he was wrong. No, he was right. It was here that I realised the pepper spray I had carried in my bum bag since Wyoming, might not be such a good idea if I was searched going on to an international flight, and discarded it.

No poor service with British Airways, although the flight to London was delayed by over an hour due to poor visibility; meaning no views until the city lights of the NE Seaboard. Maybe I'd be amongst them on my next bisection of the States... Had three seats to myself, which meant I could stretch out, but still only amassed a couple of hours sleep.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Charleston (November 28)

Day 75

Dick showed me pictures of their Florida island home, replete with outdoor kitchen, on the market for $1,000,000+. Then he, Candace, Sarah, Matt & Christian repaired to the gym to burn off the turkey dinner calories. I stayed at their place, typing up my blog and watching the tourists wander by their apartment in the heart of the historic district.

Later Candace and I walked over to Cat's 'Charleston Single' (one room width house peculiar to the city) for a few games of Scrabble. How odd that we should come across a bagpipe player (a teenage American boy) and on Wednesday I had passed a 'Scotsman Garage'. Cat (and her dog, a gentle old Golden Retriever) was a management trainer who had also recently narrowly failed to run for Congress, lived with her partner, Beth, who was out shopping, this being Black Friday (the busiest shopping day of the year and so named because it is the official start of Christmas shopping, when shops hold sales in the hope their balance sheets will go into the black). Another incredible abode, this time furnished with items befitting it's early 19th century origins. It was like a museum and I couldn't stop taking pictures inside, and outside where there was a pool, a hammock and rocking chairs (including a side to side one). Cat said I must be very fit and asked “Can I feel something?” It was very inconsiderate of them to lay on tortilla chips, peanuts, cookies and Peanut M&Ms though, all of which are unputdownable for me. Here we also hooked up with their friend Richard, and who, together formed the Charleston Scrabble Club. We played three four-player games and I felt a bit bad that I won all of them, especially as we placed $5 wagers on games two and three. Never have I made money out of Scrabble before and I think I'd like to continue. In game number one Candace played the pretty PETTY, adding the Y to MEAL, where the Y sat smugly on a triple letter and PETTY was doubled (54). However, my SCOOTER, although less creative, had the desired effect (75). Number two and I bingoed again with -EFACING off an R Richard had kindly just laid, and with the C on a double letter and the whole word trebled; that was 101 points and $15 thank you very much. In the last game Candace was the only person to bingo with BETTLES, but I challenged it as the nuts are spelt BETELS (and so was she for spelling them that way). During the games I learned the word 'snowbird', which refers to Americans who travel due south to Arizona or Florida for the winter.

Then it was back to Candace's apartment, where I packed up and took my leave of yet more delightful Americans and rode off to my last stop. It was fortuitous that I had locked up my bike in the ground floor garage space, as the door was wide open. It had only been the third time since arriving in Seattle that I had locked it, partly because America generally feels safe to me and partly because I'm shockingly casual about such things. My last day's ride was a mere ten miler in the delicious, balmy, night air, to North Charleston and the home of another Pixie Pitter, Kathy. The journey took me through poor, black neighbourhoods, like so much of South Carolina I had seen – and contrasting starkly with the downtown area and the luxury homes I had visited there. As Candace's sister, Linda, had observed during the Thanksgiving Dinner, all of us sitting round the table were very fortunate to have what we had.

And so to another stylish home; resided in by Kathy & Peter, a lawyer and a man of many occupations, including musician, respectively; and also four cats and a dog. The dog was very sweet and had an electronic collar, which let off a warning beep if he tried to leave the invisibly fenced perimeter. If he ignored this and went over the underground wire, a tiny electrical shock would be administered. When his owners took off this collar (leaving the regular one) he understood a walk was on the cards and there would be no beeps or shocks. He also only fetched sticks once; in other words if a stick was thrown twice, he thought the thrower wanted rid of it. There seems to be a correlation between Scrabble players, pet ownership and liberal attitudes in this country. In the aftermath of the election I haven't mentioned political affiliations, but since that time in St Louis I think just about everyone has been an Obama fan. As Paul, a poet, who joined us for dinner, pointed out, “How could a lover of language support Bush?”

Dinner was a Low Country speciality, called Beaufort or Frogmore Stew, a soup of prawns, sausages, potatoes and sweetcorn. This was as good as the Key Lime Pie that followed. Poor Paul picked terrible letters in our four-player game after the table was cleared. At one point he exchanged three of his six vowels for three more and later had seven vowels, when it was too late to trade them (there were less than seven in the bag). He hadn't played for years and probably wouldn't play again any time soon. Peter was a newbie too, and Kathy (who only played online) and I ran away with the fiercely contested lead. We were down to our last few letters and there was one point separating us, when Kathy was able to play her last letters (CUMIN with the M affixed to EAT) and the game was hers. Next Kathy and I played a two-hander and after I laid the only bingo (-EATINGS added to an S and leading to a triple word tile for 80) she was unable to bridge the gap.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving y'all! Charleston (November 27)

Day 74

I had planned to end my trip in Charleston, this being a beautiful, old city; and to finish at Thanksgiving, which is the most celebrated day in the American calendar. First up was the Turkey Day 5K to attend to. Not that I took part in it (I'm not doing anything more arduous than getting out of bed for the foreseeable future) but Candace's children did, and Candace and I waved them off at 8.30 am, then strolled around the city. What a place! The downtown area is so pretty, classy and old. There was no rubbish anywhere, everything was close together like in European cities AND there was very little traffic. It was sunny and well into the 60s as I saw a pelican skimming low over the estuary; and there are alligators too, skulking somewhere in the swamps. It had a Mediterranean feel with its palm trees, shuttered windows and narrow streets. We watched the runners go by, including some pushing prams, walking dogs – and one with a cat (with its own race number) in a buggy! Lunch was served early, to make room for the feast to follow, and featured hot dogs, potato chips and cookies (yes a light lunch and not the kind of food I can eat little of). Later we all reconvened for my first ever Thanksgiving dinner, this year held at the apartment of Candace's sister, Linda, and her partner, Vickie. It was possibly the fanciest home I have been a guest in – 250 years old, exposed brick walls (with patched up earthquake cracks) and ultra modern furnishing, hinting at Linda's architectural line of work. Here we also hooked up with Candace's parents, Grace & Glen (remarkable for being in their 90s); Matt's girlfriend, Jenna; and family friend Max (handily a chef). Here's what we ate :

Starter – salad of kohlrabi, mâche, capers & red onion
Main course – 21 lb turkey, mashed potato, plain sweet potatoes, 'white trash' sweet potatoes (not my name for it – with marshmallows, brown sugar, butter), canned cranberry jelly, homemade cranberry jelly (with cloves), carrots, green beans, scalloped oysters, stuffing, gravy & biscuits.
Dessert – choice of pecan, apple & pumpkin pie with double cream (I had the first two).

I had huge servings of everything, cleared my plate each time and every single ingredient was delicious. Thanksgiving dinner 1, British xmas dinner 0. The white trash dish and the 'mulled wine' cranberry jelly deserve a special mention. Just about all of the offerings were homemade and most of the dozen present had contributed (I peeled the sweet potatoes and apples). It was a heart-warming occasion too, with Glen's speech of thankfulness at the start and the way everyone stayed seated and talked for about three hours. They were a very loving family, touching and kissing each other frequently, knowing everything about everyone's every move and paying each other compliments. No one dominated or spoke for too long and we were all made to feel included. Unlike my experience of xmas dinners in the UK, this was stress-free, the mood was light and not one cross word was uttered. Grace passed round a sheet of paper with puzzles on it, only one of which I worked out (I'm a Scrabble player not a puzzle solver) :

24 H in a D
1000 W that a P is W
4 + 20 BB in a P
30 S over T
66 B of the B (in the KJV)

They were all interested in my adventure, but it was good not to be the centre of attention, take a back seat, enjoy the family occasion and soak up this quintessentially American experience. I also learned that the foul smell in Georgetown emanated from the paper mills, not the swamp. Later the younger members present (they let me come along too) went out to a pub called The Griffin, which had a British feel to it and I had a couple of pints of local IPA here, which were highly suppable, their cold temperature withstanding. I tried Jenna's Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka, which tasted exactly like iced tea and was therefore disgusting. American tea 0, British tea 1.

The next day another full plate was set before me, this time with grits (that had Parmesan cheese and were actually tolerable) along with eggs, bacon and toast.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Hallelujah! Georgetown - Charleston (November 26)

Day 73

Bumped into Anthony & Rachel in downtown Georgetown, which was quite swanky, where they bought me an Italian ciabatta and brownie (both were to die for) for my packed lunch. Shucked down my trousers and donned shorts for the first time in a fortnight, as it was in the upper 50s, or even 60. Sadly my 'farmer's tan' has been fading fast. Feeling a bit weird and trying to mentally prepare myself for a return to a non-cycling civilian life; living out of drawers, rather than plastic bags; enjoying my home luxuries, rather than other peoples, or the bare minimum of my own necessities; being able to eat, sleep and go to the toilet when I want; etc. I had a Zen moment; maybe this isn't the end, but only the beginning. Maybe cycling isn't a holiday for me; maybe it's the rest of my life, and the bits in between are the holidays. One long trip. Trip being the operative word. Journeying in my head, never arriving, just moving. Silver threads lighting up grey matter. Don't see my bike as a means of going, but a means of being; not metal and rubber, but a dream maker, a portal, an experience enabler, to take in the world's physical beauties and lap up the comforts of strangers. Meeting, sharing fleeting moments and then always moving on. Newness and differentness in favour of boredom and stultification. Packing things in bags, needing little and travelling with my home, snail-like. Life as a series of tableaux; impressionist paintings to be enjoyed but once.

Easy riding today on the last leg to Charleston, almost the entirety on straight and flat Highway 17. It started out relatively traffic-free (with two lanes for cars to cross to the inside lane as they passed) then it grew busier and busier. Approaching Charleston it was hellish; the worst section of road I have experienced in 4,700 miles. A nasty, shoulderless two-lane, with snarling traffic, in a mad rush to be home for Thanksgiving. Well, I wouldn't give them any thanks. Someone beeped at me, as I rode along a white line between the outside lane and a diverging exit lane, with rivers of fast-flowing metal either side of me. I can't make myself any thinner goddamnit! Where am I supposed to go? Ignorant, selfish b***ards in their gleaming tanks, behind armour-plated black glass. Where do they think they are anyway? In a war zone? Well, they're right. I'm going to write to Barack Obama as soon as I get home and offer my services as Secretary of State for Bicycles. I'd paint cycle lanes on every road in every state. Take away the right to bear arms except for cyclists, who can shoot to kill any drivers in their lanes. I'm actually surprised that some SUV's aren't fitted with gun turrets that could swivel and shoot down any pedestrians or cyclists who even give them a dirty look.

Thought I was safe when turning off into lesser Rifle Range Road, but the cars still shot past like bullets. I was pushed off onto the sidewalk for the FIRST TIME since starting out from Seattle two and a half months ago. There was no choice as the automobile must be obeyed. Gas is God. I had to put up with cracks, wait at intersections for bloody cars and make way for damn pedestrians. Why do cyclists come last in the pecking order? We're the good guys for crying out loud! There was a rarity in the form of a roundabout, at a simple crossroads, where there was a sign telling motorists that the road they were on continued straight ahead and not at a right angle to the left or right. How stupid could they be? Very, very stupid indeed. Only in The Land of the Free would you get a sign telling you the road you are on continues straight ahead. Except it's not the land of the free for the people who only feel safe in their private, gated residential areas or in their tanks.

Deep breath. Calm down. This is it; this the final destination, and I wanted to enjoy it.

Crossed a beautiful mile-long arching suspension bridge and I was in the city of Charleston, about which I had heard so many good recommendations and had looked forward to so much. I was also relishing the opportunity to be spending not one, but two rest days in a place – and they weren't really rest days, more like holiday, as it was all rest from now on. More difficulties finding my Pixie Pit host's address, as her street was split in three sections. I turned left and then right into the first section. I couldn't see any numbers anywhere, turned back onto the original road, carried on and turned left up to the section section. Here I found the apartment block where she lived, but no apartment numbers or way of how to gain access. I stopped and asked an inebriated man, who tried to help, but was unable to, before he climbed into his car and drove off. Then I found an intercom and punched in the room number. Candace asked me where I was, which seemed like an odd question, but actually the intercom rang her phone, so I could have been anywhere.

Candace was not only lovely and welcoming, but she had a very fancy apartment, which was modern in its construction, combined with old-fashioned furnishings – notably the gorgeous carpets. Candace was retired, and so was her husband, Dick. They had lived all over the country and also had a house in Florida. Soon we were joined by Candace's three children, Sarah, Christian and Matt, who all lived elsewhere in the Carolinas. Candace's lasagna was so tasty, that I had a second helping as large as the first, followed by black walnut ice cream and cookies. Dick retired early and left Candace, Christian and I to play two three-handers on the old Scrabble board. I had the great letters which had deserted me during the Anthony series and won comfortably after bingoing with UPSTANDS and landing my X on a two-way triple letter. In the second game Christian came to the fore with TATOOINGS, which neither Candace or I challenged, but should have done as it is spelt with two Ts and doesn't take an S. Sarah and Matt arrived during these games and helped themselves to a late dinner. All three children worked in or studied in the sphere of business. They were extremely friendly and polite, and permanently upbeat. I don't know how they did it. They were just so nice to each other, unlike the sarcasm and bickering that exists between my siblings and I. For example Sarah said to her mother, “I'm so excited you put raisins in it (oatmeal).” To which Candace replied, “Sometimes I even put toasted almonds in it.” This was over breakfast, following a night on an air bed in Dick's study.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Sumter - Georgetown (November 25)

Day 72

Anthony's last day of cycling and my penultimate one. Meanwhile Rachel drove to Charleston and chatted up lots of men. Approaching the coast it was very flat and a bit laborious, especially when we hit a dead straight section for 20 miles or so. We had lunch at 'Country Cravings', where I had 'The Craver Ripper Basket' (a hot dog) and Anthony gnawed at chicken wings. Other culinary highlights included pork scratchings, and iced tea in a can which didn't taste of tea at all. It seemed almost like a third world country in some parts of The Low Country (the eastern part of South Carolina) and I felt a bit uncomfortable at times. Along with the usual honking of horns, a few people shouted things at us, like the black girl who crooned “Ooh my!” (like a sarcastic wolf whistle I think) and the white man in a truck who hollered “Woo! Woo! What y'all doin'? Y'all havin' a good time? I'll beat ya'!” And sped off in his rusty jalopy.

For the first time on the whole trip I was run off the road. Or at least a truck coming from behind honked at me (as another vehicle approached from the opposite direction on a single lane road) and I did get off the road. I suppose I could have called his bluff, in the belief that he would slowed down, but then I might not be writing this if I had. Anthony had a rear view mirror in his helmet, so could see danger approaching; I do not have this luxury. I was also attacked by a dog for the first time today! Again this is a bit of an exaggeration, as it only bit my pannier, but it was a vicious looking brute and I had this sensation of being slowed down, which wasn't too pleasant. Another unpleasant experience involved a section of dirt track – I thought there would be no sandy roads after Kansas – but I was wrong. The feeling of your back wheel moving in a different direction to your front wheel is not something I care for.

Arrived in Georgetown in the dark, so couldn't appreciate that it was on the coast (or near it) although there was a nasty cabbagey smell, which may have been the swamp (which houses alligators). Tonight we dined at a touristy restaurant appropriately called Land's End - this being near the end of my land trip. I had the fabulously flaky crab cakes, and sweet potato with butter and brown sugar, and the three of us shared a Key Lime Pie. Rachel whet my appetite with tales of Charleston, which so many people have raved about along my route. Then it was 'eyes down for a bingo' in a continuation of our mini tournament. It would have been exciting if I had won the second game (after losing last night's opening bout) but when your opponent draws both blanks and all four Ss, the odds are stacked against you. Anthony played SPANIEL & ENGRAILS (I challenged the latter to my detriment) and I didn't get anything much at all. I should have gone to bed at this point, but can never say no to Scrabble (or anything else for that matter) and we played a third game, finishing at 12.45. Maybe we could make it the best of five I thought. I once played the best of nine games with him and it went down to the wire, with me triumphing in the last game by a few points – and we both scored 450+. This time it was not to be, as I had one of those horrendous games where I was 100 points to the good (after playing LOCATES) and then challenged a word (KEDGERS) lost my turn and before I knew it I was behind. I tried to crawl back into the lead on a congested board, but had no high scoring tiles and Anthony did, and he won by 30 points. I really don't like losing at the best of times, but losing all three games... and to my older brother... well it left a bitter taste. Oh well, you can't win them all... and it's only a game... I tried to tell myself as a lay awake in my pit... tossing and turning...

The next morning's free buffet featured donuts & bagels, and nothing else. Rachel and Anthony bid their adieus at this point, as they were driving back to Boston, via friends in New Jersey, where they would be spending Thanksgiving.

Leg 10: Columbia, SC - Charleston, SC

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Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Columbia - Sumter (November 24)

Day 71

Anthony and I rode 60 odd miles while Rachel drove again. I thought Anthony would really suffer today after the travails of yesterday, but again I was only slowed down a little, and he wouldn't let me carry his rucksack due to male pride or something. Soon after leaving Blythewood we saw the appositely named Hard Scrabble Road just slightly off our route. However, we took a wrong turning and ended up in a maze of streets which weren't on our map, thought we could get through and ended up going round in circles, through golf courses, and riding an extra 6 miles. At length we found the original road and went back on ourselves, then forward to the correct road. It had indeed been a hard scrabble to find it. We snapped each other in front of this road sign and then a few minutes later did the same thing on Bud Keef Road. Today we had lunch inside a fast food joint, where we had a sub even tastier than the ones at Subway. Once again my tale produced incredulous reactions from the staff here. It really doesn't feel such a big deal to me, It was good to have someone else work out the route and I could relax a bit, although the riding can feel a bit weird as I'm so used to being alone.

The scenery was much the same as yesterday; we stuck to minor roads and passed an interesting mixture of what Anthony termed 'McMansions' (huge and showy) as well as tatty trailers. It was overcast with a few drops of rain, but luckily it didn't come down heavily until we had reached the motel at Sumter. It was an 'America's Best Value Inn', the name of which is a little off-putting. Rachel particularly felt it to be shoddy and had some issues with the man at reception. Compared to some of the dives I've stayed in it was pretty classy. I especially liked the width of the bed and the three pillows side by side (for three people?) We dined at chain restaurant Ruby Tuesday next door (ie 400 yards in this country) and I had a burger and 'all you can eat' portion from the salad bar. Salad over here includes ham, bacon bits, cheese, and many other fatty foods and dressings. Over dinner Rachel discussed the film script she has completed. The working title is 'Like a Virgin', it's a romantic comedy and it sounded fantastic – and the kind of thing that would go down well with movie execs.

Anthony was gagging to get back to the motel for a game of Scrabble. Seeing as we were both from Britain and more comfortable with the SOWPODS lexicon, this is what we used for challenges, of which there were plenty. We played with the American challenge system (losing your turn for invalid words) but the trouble is Anthony is a better bluffer than me and I challenged a couple of his correct words, while he caught me out on a couple of incorrect plays. He was soon 150 points in the lead, with SINGLET and other high-scoring words. I made a dent in the deficit with LORRIES on a triple word, but it wasn't enough and he was still 100+ points ahead at the end.

The next morning we had another free breakfast, although this time only cereal and donut type things were on offer. Rachel tried to explain to the man at reception about how it was not a good idea to say a women's room number out loud when there was a male stranger present, but he didn't seem to get her point.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Greenville - Columbia (November 23)

Day 70

Anthony and I rode together to Columbia, while Rachel drove. We left at 10 am, arrived at 8 pm and clocked up 110 miles in the process. Anthony barely slowed me down, which is incredible considering he hadn't trained at all and only rode seven miles for his daily commute, with the occasional twenty mile jaunt at weekends. Apart from the distance, all the other ingredients were in place for a perfect bike ride : blue sky, no wind, gentle undulations, twisting roads and pretty scenery. It was cold, but this only served to chivvy us along in order to keep warm. Anthony had mapped a route, which was fairly direct, yet also took us along quiet roads, through a densely wooded landscape. The earth is sandy in these parts and it's fairly dry, but there's a rich mix of trees, including coniferous varieties. We had our lunch by a pond slightly off the road and then saw a 'No trespassing' sign. There were a couple of women standing outside their house across the road, so we thought it best to ask if we could sit there. They were friendly and chatty, and they said it was OK. It's funny to me how people own several acres of land around their houses, but don't seem to do anything with it and there are usually no fences. It grew much colder when the light failed and we had a few tricky turnings to make on minor roads. Luckily there had been an AT&T cell phone shop right next to the motel and I had bought some urgently needed credit for my phone, so that we could keep in contact with Rachel and ask tonight's host for directions.

We were both exhausted when we arrived in the suburb of Blythewood a little after eight, where Scrabble club director Peggy, a nurse, lived with her two dogs, and two cats - one of whom was deaf. Here we were reunited with Rachel, and also met up with Peggy's sister, Sue, another nurse (who Peggy referred to as her 'Sue Chef') and her Scrabbler friends; Cathy, who would soon graduate to become a Doctor of Nursing, and Mike, who worked for a telephone company. They all had lilting Southern accents and I could have listened to them all night. Anthony and I were embarrassed to have arrived so late, as they had waited to dine with us. Tonight's sumptuous Southern celebration included : pork loin, fried rice, creamed sweetcorn, asparagus, fruit salad served in little sweet baskets, beer and 'Red Bicyclette' wine! Scottish-American relations were improved further with shortbread and Scottish flags.

Cathy and Sue had to leave after dinner, which left four of us to play two games of one-on-one Scrabble, while Rachel played with the lively little dogs. I managed to win both my encounters, against Peggy and Mike, largely due to being the only one to bingo in each (UNVOICE & SIGNAGE) and the free 50 points makes it hard for the other person to catch up. The game against Peggy was very close though, because she picked up three of the four 'power tiles' (J,Q,X,Z) and used them to good effect. The last few moves were very tactical and tense on both our parts, as neither of us wanted to open the board up. I told myself I was going to win and I really believe that can make a difference. Anthony had never played with a clock before and neither had he played with the American word list, even though he had resided in the country since the early nineties. Like me, he uses SOWPODS, and played a few erroneous two letter words. He acquitted himself well however, being naturally competitive, just like me, and with the unchallenged phony SHOALERS, he won one of his games.

Anthony & Rachel headed off to the motel at this point, while I slept at Peggy's house. The next day she had half a day's holiday and took the three of us to a local restaurant called 'Lizard's Thicket', where in addition to my usual bacon & egg, Peggy was adamant that I try 'grits', which is a bland porridge-like substance and I didn't see what the fuss was about. Peggy had travelled extensively, to Europe and Australia, and also belonged to a skiing club that skied in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. Anthony was surprisingly keen to get back in the saddle, although he found getting in and out of the car quite an ordeal! Peggy said goodbye with a bag of South Carolina goodies, which was very nice of her, and it contained : guide book, cookbook, penknife, bookmark, teabags, tea strainer, 'peanut crunch' and... grits mixture...

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Pendleton - Greenville (November 22)

Day 69

I only had 40 odd miles to cover today, so visited some friends of Eliza & Colin round the corner. They proved that Americans can actually put one foot in front of the other repeatedly to perform a motion known as 'walking'! Yes, we actually walked a couple of blocks! Not only that, but Aidan, the three year old, had taken a shine to me and he offered me his hand. Both he and Molly were adorable. Neil & Sue had moved from England 10 or so years ago and also taught at the local university in Clemson. They introduced me to a game called Bananagrams, which is actually a similar version of the 'Pick up two' game I played in Salt Lake City. All the lettered tiles are turned over, each player takes 21 and tries to form a crossword grid of words. It's all about speed and once again Eliza illustrated her incredible gift for obscure words. Later she made me an 'omelette baguette' and I hit the road. Again in the 30s, although Neil had said it was unseasonably cold and could well reach the 70s any time soon.

Journeyed east to Greenville, the downtown area of which seemed pretty nice, although the outlying districts were the usual chain outlets and urban decay stuff that America does so well and ubiquitously. Tonight was special because I was meeting my brother, Anthony, and his fiancée, Rachel, and we would be staying in a motel together. Anthony & Rachel lived in Boston, where they worked as a chemist and sign language interpreter respectively. Anthony would be riding with me to Charleston and Rachel would be driving to each motel they had booked along our route. This part of America was as weird to them as America was to me generally, as The South is so far removed from the North East. They were disappointed that they had driven a thousand miles south in 24 hours (with a night's rest in Pennsylvania) and it was just as cold here as it had been in Boston. It was great to see them, talk about my experiences (candidly) and their forthcoming wedding. We dined at a nearby restaurant called The Flat Rock Grille, where I had a tasty tuna salad. Anthony and I didn't play Scrabble, as by the time we got back to the motel it was nearly 11 pm and we had a long day in the saddle ahead of us.

In the morning there was the most fantastic free breakfast in the lobby (pancakes, French toast, eggs, muffins, fruit, cereal, yogurt, coffee, orange juice, bagels, etc, etc) and I went to town.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Leg 9: Knoxville, TN - Columbia, SC

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Asheville - Pendleton (November 21)

Day 68

Some snow flurries; a word which makes me think of McDonald's; such is the power of advertising and Americanization. The sky soon blued, but it remained perishing, especially during lengthy downhill sections. I tried out a couple of hand warmers Trisha had given me, which were like big tea bags, and rubbing them created a little heat inside my gloves, although not for long. They turned my hands black as well. It's difficult to go to the toilet when you're on as busy road. You have to find a secluded turning, somewhere to prop your bike, walk off the road a bit so as not to be seen with a bright yellow coat and then try to find the requisite body part under all the tucked in, overlapped layers of clothing. I know I look pretty stupid with my leggings and too small helmet perched atop a woolly hat, which explains why men stare, and women smile, inwardly laughing at my nerdishness; it also explains why one girl pointed and laughed out loud. I'm ready to go home that's for sure – back to a life of being ignored and unquestioned in Britain. I saw a mock Scottish castle and the Charles Rennie McIntosh typeface on a sign, reminding me of lovely, damp and dingy old Scotland.

Today I headed in the wrong direction (not in error) because tonight's Scrabble player lived nearly a hundred miles south and a little bit west, rather than towards Charleston to the east. Crossed into South Carolina, the final state of my journey, when the wind almost whipped the bike from under me, a feeling akin to going down in a lift. Cars continued to honk at the audacity of a cyclist on their roads, which is a problem I didn't encounter in the West. Out of my way weird man on a bicycle, I can't bear to be delayed by one second. No, get out of MY way, I'm saving the planet.

Arrived in Pendleton and went straight past a sign reading 'WELCOME ADRIAN' in the dark and my hosts phoned me as I careered down the road. Eliza & Colin were in the middle of remodeling their house and living in a small part of it with their two small children, Molly & Aidan. There were also two pretty 'chocolate point Siamese' type moggies (one had chocolate points and the other ginger) called Rainbow & H-Vac (short for heating, ventilation and air conditioning – places he liked to hide). Both my hosts worked as math teachers at a local university, Eliza was from these parts and Colin hailed from California (where he used to cycle to the beach with a surf board under one arm). They cooked up a fine dinner of pork with apple & onion sauce, butternut squash, beans and carrots, along with oatmeal porter. Eliza did this neat thing where she asked the children what was the favourite parts of their days and encouraged them to ask others at the table.

Bill had already warned me that Eliza would “kick my ass” on the Scrabble board and that is exactly what she did. So often when playing someone better I get myself into this pathetic state of mind where I can't do anything right, my opponent gets all the luck and none of my bingos will fit. In reality I'm being outplayed and should accept it. Every word she challenged of mine was a phony (BAIN, GRONK + others) and of course when I queried her OUTDRIVE it was there. At times like this I hate Scrabble and I hate myself. In one game she picked up both blanks and all four Ss goddamnit! In the cool light of day, I know that it wasn't so much a question of luck, more that she made her own luck. In the third game she played GIANTESS & INTREAT (I knew better than to challenge) but I produced two back to back beauties (BINGERS & SCOOTING) to win by a few points and salvage4 a modicum of pride.

I slept in a bare room in what they called 'the other house' and the pretty kitties lay next to my legs. In the morning we sat down to blueberry scones, then went out to hear a church choir in the town square.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Dandridge - Asheville (November 20)

Day 67

Beautiful day – too beautiful in fact, as I kept stopping to snap scenery. I would see a gorgeous view, take pictures, carry on and five minutes later see something even more tantalizing. Part of the route, along Highway 70, took me through the valley of the French Broad River, and my, what a broad she was. She had everything : curves, foliage, rocks, rapids and gossamer sunlight caressing her soft surfaces. Meanwhile hairy masculine mountains muscled in on the background, the temperature rose to 50 degrees and I passed into North Carolina. This state greeted me with two huge uphill sections and it was like being back in Oregon's Cascade Mountains or the Immigrants' Pass in Utah. I got hot going up these hills, but then coming down the other side the sweat would cool, and I had to put on coat and gloves again. Did the glaciers and rivers ever stop to consider how their handiwork would impinge on us poor cyclists?

In Asheville a lady asked ME for directions and because she was looking for a road on my route, I was able to help her! Here I made my way into a suburb and the road I was on forked and the left fork was called Bear Left Road! Made my way to Bill's house and he came out to meet me because it was pitch black. A jovial chap with a soft voice that put me in mind of Jack Nicholson. He worked as a doctor and his wife, Nina, was an artist (her paintings adorned the walls) and she had pretty ornaments, and a collection of stones with the date and place they were found written on them. They had springer spaniels, and I also met two of their grown up sons, Wes & Martin, and they all seemed the embodiment of a good looking all American family. Nina had a social engagement to attend, so Bill served up the soup with pork and beans in it, and spaghetti bolognese.

I was already apprehensive about playing Scrabble with him, because he had showed me his 'study programme' on the computer. This programme displayed the top hundred most common six letter bingo stems (like study cards) and for each he had memorized a mnemonic with each of the seventh letters that could be added to make bingos. He had added cartoons and images to aid the memory process for some of the bingos. For example, with ADEINRS he had a photo of two men frolicking on a beach and an animated graphic of a tin of fish opening and closing (RANDIES, SANDIER & SARDINES). He wanted to send me email links for this stuff, but it reeked of homework to me and would put me off what is essentially a fun experience for me. I was right to be worried; he beat me 3-0. Admittedly he drew both blanks in two of these games and was able to use each for a bingo, but I couldn't play for toffee. I made one bingo in three games (TRANCED) which is hopeless for me, as I average over one per game. He played seven (ONANIST, LANNERS, STUNTED, SAUSAGE, GRATINE, TRAWLING & GRAINIER). To make matters worse I played heaps of phonies, each of which he challenged (QUAIR, AHO, VIZ, AES, NATTIES & SNATTIER) some of which I know to be SOWPODS words; however it must have been tiredness that caused me to play WARFE.

It snowed overnight and I was greeted by the first carpet of the stuff since western Kansas. Wes made me prepared a breakfast that could have graced any hostess tray, with slices of orange and kiwi fruit, beside eggs and bacon. He had to go for an interview with UPS and Bill had to get to the hospital. Martin was a college student and had taught English in Columbia for a year, where his girlfriend lived. Nina had left early to queue up for a new Blackberry that came out today (or Crackberry, as Wes called it). She was 14th in line and there were only 20 of them. When she got back her sons took it off her and she didn't get a look in.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Knoxville – Dandridge (November 19)

Day 66

At 8 am it was 18 degrees – not Celsius unfortunately. Again Trisha's work had given her the day off; she said that since the recession people were taking animals to the vets less. Made amends on the Scrabble battleground this morning, winning two out of three against Trisha. Scrabble is just about winning for me, especially in hard fought games like these, where poker faces are maintained, challenges are taken seriously and clocks are used (there's a 10 point penalty for every minute over time and I usually need every second). Challenged TEARIER to no avail, then came up with FIELDING on the triple in the nick of time to take the first game. In the second one three of my risky plays were removed (WOODER, WOOZE & BARNIES) and Trisha's SLANTING & DIAMITE (I should have challenged that) levelled the score. In the third I played the brilliant ARDENTLY astride two double words (98) and Trisha never caught up.

The temperature had reached a balmy 40 by the time I left at noon. Knoxville - which has had its soul ripped out by great, fat roads crisscrossing every which way - has a population of 300,000, yet I had clocked up 20 miles before leaving the city limits. By now I was on Magnolia Road, along which Routes 9, 11, 25 & 70 (take your pick) also ran. Americans sure go overboard on numbers. Tennessee's roadsides, like Kentucky's before it, are strewn with rubbish, and this together with unrestrained dogs and the hilliness puts me off this part of the States.

Arrived in purty little Dandridge early, so whiled away some time in the library (“Have a good fall y'all” a poster exclaimed on the door) and when that closed, at Smoky's Steak & BBQ – this being the edge of the Smoky Mountains. I didn't have an address for tonight's Couchsurfing host, so had to leave a message on his cell phone. After trying to make two cups of coffee keep the zealous waitresses at bay for as long as possible, gave in to the calorific delights of an Angus beefburger. I don't usually have desserts in restaurants, but listening in to other diners complimenting the waitress on the pumpkin cheesecake, I had to see what all the hullabaloo was about. The hullabaloo was well deserved. I also overheard a lady of advancing years say to a man of a similar age, “Hey big boy, how's it hanging?” I take it she knew him, or maybe such behaviour was part of this 'Southern hospitality' I'd heard so much about. Borrowed a phone book and looked up my host's surname in the hope he would be in there. There were several, but as one was round the corner, I thought there was no harm in knocking on their door, and if it was the wrong place I would go to a motel. It was his parents' house! His mother let me in, in the company of a one-eyed dog, a dog with funny teeth and a cat with no tail. Barbara was very friendly and tried to phone her son, Jobe, but she too had to leave a message and said I could stay put. It turned out he lived 10 miles from there, so I was secretly glad things hadn't worked out. She showed me round her big, hundred year old house, with many original features and wild wallpaper. Another collector of nicknacks, she also had some nice paintings and old furniture. She and her dogs had been eating popcorn when I arrived, she gave me a beer, told me all about her life and then led me to what she referred to as the 'smoking room', which was actually a veranda, and we shared a cigarette. A nurse from Illinois, with nine siblings, three grown up children and a husband who worked in haulage – he would be home very late. She was good company and said that America was the 'land of the free and the fat'. I was given one of the many guest rooms, decorated in blues, golds and greens, with similarly coloured floral wallpaper.

Barbara left before I got up, but her husband, David, who had returned late last night, was at home, and fixed me some pancakes and coffee with coconut creamer. He had a number of customers who needed things delivered at short notice, and he drove anywhere and everywhere at the drop of a hat. The tailless cat wasn't going anywhere however, and would be lapping up the sun's rays in a box marked 'kitty day bed' for the duration.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Knoxville (November 18)

Day 65

Stayed another day at the Knoxville menagerie with Trisha (the veterinary surgery had cancelled her shift). Picked up my bike, which set me back $116 (new chain, peddles, brake blocks, service) but it rode like a dream, and shot some tiles. It's weird how you can win every game one day and lose all of them the next. Couldn't do anything right in the three I played against Trisha, who played a tight game to begin and then closed down the board further. It was like some kind of slow, Japanese torture. In one game I willingly entered a vortex of pain, when I played a couple of vowel dumps (words with few or no consonants) only to collect more of the bloody things. This is called 'fishing' and I keep telling myself to go for points; but do I listen to myself? At least it was a pleasant atmosphere, in Trisha's large, well-lit living room, offering fine woodland views, in the company of her cat, Rasputin. Not so nice environment in Panera Bread, where I got beat by Trisha's friend, Ruchi. Mental note : never play Scrabble in an American cafes again; they are the noisiest places, what with the roaring espresso machines, thundering ice dispatchers (I saw people walking the frozen streets today sipping iced tea) and the PA system calling out orders. I have to admit that I am especially sensitive to aural abuse, which for me includes crisp-crunching, sniffing and, of course, mobile phones.

When Miles returned from a day of snapping fires and other diaspora, we dropped by a Mexican restaurant (I had an enchilada, burrito and taco combo, which all tasted the same) and took in The Secret Life of Bees at a cinema. Miles said to the man giving out the tickets, “Three senior citizens please.” The man didn't question my age and just smiled as me benignly as I walked past. Bloomin' cheek! Someone thinks I'm 31 one day and the next, 65+. We were the only people in there, possibly due to the film's lack of gratuitous violence, computer graphics and inclusion of 'acting'. It was a moving portrayal of a South Carolina girl's traumatic upbringing set against the racial tensions of the 1960s. Too schmaltzy for my tastes, although well done, and Trisha & Miles held hands. Back to theirs for a slice of Southern Red Velvet Cake, which is actually a chocolate cake with red food colouring. Miles said he was going to bake a blue version in honour of Obama's victory. There was a copy of the magazine, 'Garden & Gun' on the coffee table – and talking of guns – Miles had recently covered the court case of a man who had shot two people dead during a children's theatrical performance in a Unitarian church. Why did he do this? Because he was incensed by this church's liberal stance and acceptance of homosexuals, etc. But of course it's every American's right to bear arms.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Norris - Knoxville (November 17)

(Three posts at once)

Day 64

First stop : Jeff's school, where I played two games of Scrabble simultaneously with two trios of children aged between 11 and 13. In front of the children, who were very well behaved, Jeff called me Mr Adrian. They weren't too hot at Scrabble however, and they were easy triumphs. Or so I thought... In one game I was way in the lead, but there wasn't anywhere to put my Q & V at the end. When one of the children used up his last letters the Z, J and other high-scoring letters sat in the other racks, adding up to 38 points. This being America, the player who goes out has this total doubled and added to his score; ie 76 points; ie I didn't win at all.

There were no flat bits today, only ups and downs, and it was cold and windy. Only 24 miles to Knoxville, tonight's stop. As usual I made heavy work of it and 24 turned into 34. Why? Because the Google map directions took me an extremely fiddly route, so I had to keep stopping, remove my gloves, take out folded sheets of paper, unfold them, try to hold them still in the wind, put on my gloves and continue. Over and over again. Then of course Google doesn't take account of missing signs, one way streets, roadworks or new roads. Once you're off the route, you're lost and have to ask the dreaded locals for directions. One old lady in a gas station (“Look at that little jacket on his butt”) told me it was the next right. There was no sign, turned right, half a mile later it turned out to be wrong, came back, continued on the original road, it was the second turning on the right. And why do pick up trucks have such loud engines? And why are there so many churches and different denominations? Why do people have to form splinter groups and cliques? And wind chimes should be banned. And I hate dogs. Yes, I was in a bad mood today. I longed to be back in tranquil Scotland, where I knew most of the roads and even if I didn't, I could read the maps and understand people's directions.

Talking of dogs, tonight's Scrabble club host, Trisha, had three huge ones : a Great Dane, a Rottweiler and a German Shepherd. She also had a Maine Coon cat, several horses, about twenty emus and another twenty peacocks. She liked big animals, and she had a big house with a lot of land around it. Trisha not only loved animals, she worked as a veterinarian and she rode her horses in long distance races across country (when I arrived she was making up equine electrolytes for one such race). She lived with Miles, a photographer for the Knoxville Sentinel, who later showed me his pictures of fires, courtroom scenes and various other subject matter depicting human emotions.

Trisha made me a late lunch of pizza and salad, and took me to one of the Scrabble clubs she goes to, in Sevierville, an hour south east. En route we dropped off my bike for its last service on this trans-American journey. The club was held in a bookstore cafe, which was open till 11 pm. Although quiet, I didn't like to play amidst shoppers, who I imagined viewed us as nerds. There was only eight of us, I played five games and won every one of them! In the opening bout even though my VOM was wiped off the board I cleaned up with DENTURES & TIRADES. I don't know how I won the second game because I couldn't play BRAZIER, which looked so pretty in my rack and could have played SEVENTH – if only I'd seen it. Towards the end of this game, after my opponent put down JILTS on a triple word, I was about 30 points behind. To make matters worse I had all one-pointers, there was no bingo amongst them and no tiles left in the bag. Somehow I made those little ones add up and because I went out when my partner had a few tiles left, I clinched it. In the next game I had ZATI, EXHAILED & INSUREE removed, but got away with the misspelt ERODABLE, the correctly spelt REINSURE and the always pleasurable to play X on a triple letter making two words (OX/XI in this case for 52). In the bingo-rich fourth game, we played two apiece (MELODIES, GARDENER, LENDERS, and I should have challenged OUTBETS). Finally there was one each (INTONER & ORATION). I was well in the lead, but my opponent could have and should have won with two blanks in his rack + EEIRS. There was a D on the board with room to play a bingo beneath it. He had three attempts to play a word beginning DIS and he failed each time. I had dreadful letters, but played them out in ones and twos. He then found out he had missed a lot of simple words, like DISAGREE and countless others.

Keavy – Norris (November 16)

Day 63

Possibly the hardest ride so far; due to coldness, headwind, steep hills - and no energy to go up them. It could be because I was almost within striking distance of the Atlantic coast and so psychologically my body was preparing itself for the winter hibernation I would be treating it to when I got home. Densely wooded hills in Kentucky, and across the southern border into Tennessee, my twelfth state. It seemed even poorer here and outside every trailer a dog either chased me down the road or would have done so had it not been tied up. It's kind of nice to cause excitement, as it is when I go into stores and restaurants. All the women stared at my legging and day-glo cagoule-clad form in Subway today. In their dreams. One of these women ordered a 12 inch sandwich with all the works. How could she eat so much? I had already biked 30 miles, but a six inch one was enough for me. Then again Tom had packed some pecan and hazelnut chocolate cluster things (another of Becky's delicacies). He had also given me an emergency army rations meal, which would apparently magically transform into a hot meal with the addition of cold water.

Even with Tom's meticulous route drawn out on a piece of paper, I still had to stop and ask several people for directions, and still made a couple of wrong turns. In Norris a woman definitely gave me a bum steer, but once again a Warm Showers host came out looking for me. Jeff lived here with his wife, Jenny, and their two young sons, Nicholas and Eddie. Nicholas, the elder of the two, at five, had given up his room for me. His room was a visual feast, with fluorescent solar system mobile, wildlife posters – and real wildlife in the form of African something or other frogs in an aquarium. They were so warm and attentive (not the frogs) plying me with extra portions of tonight's scrumptious spaghetti bolognese, along with Banana Pudding (a Southern staple) and Earl Grey tea. Both from the very county they lived in, Jeff was the Principal of a school and was a keen cyclist. With his friend (who joined us for dinner with his wife) he had ridden across the country five years earlier and completed other long distance journeys. What was particularly impressive (and gave me hope for the future) was that Jeff's friend was in his late 60s. Both tall men, the two of them slept in a tiny two-man tent, and as Jeff's friend worked for a legal firm he had had a joke pre-nuptial agreement drawn up stating that Jenny couldn't stop Jeff from going on any long distance rides. They had also cycled in Holland, and Jenny & Jeff had done missionary work in Latvia. They told me stuff about Tennessee, including how an atom bombs dropped on Japan (either Fat Boy or Little Man) had been built at a secret location up the road. Jeff agreed with me that it was a poor state and that some families had lived on welfare for generations. Apparently some of the children at his school only had cooked meals at school.

Not serious Scrabble players, with only a tenuous grasp of the rules, it was nevertheless sweet of them to take on an a pro like me. Jenny played a blinder for a novice in MARK (39) with the M on a double letter and the word tripled, but I managed to produce CUM to seal victory.

Richmond - Keavy (November 15)

Day 62

Two families lost a beloved pet today, as I saw two dead dogs by the roadside. Added up I must have seen thousands of cadavers along this trip. I wonder how many millions are slain every year by the motor car? And where is the animal resistance? Even if a couple of vehicles could be taken out it would be something. Rain for most of the day and pretty cold too, but as I've said before, my gloves aren't waterproof, so my hands were soon numb. I tried to pull the cagoule sleeves over my hands a bit, but could only manage one at a time. I know my diet has flaws and I do try to get more fruit and veg, honest I do; yet on the road there aren't any shops that sell perishable items, unless you come across a fair-sized town with a grocery store. Chocolate is much easier to come by and although it doesn't do me much good, it sure hits the spot. A lot poorer in this southern stretch of Kentucky, where I noticed many tatty trailers the size of motor homes. A lot meaner too, if the shouting and honking were anything to go by. One woman slowed down to my speed and reached across to wind down the passenger seat window, just so she could take issue with me. She squeaked something I couldn't make out, but I made sure she clearly heard what was on my mind. I really believe that some drivers feel that cyclists have no place on any road. Expletives aside, I reached 4,000 miles on this, the two month mark since leaving Glasgow. There's another Glasgow here in Kentucky, as well as a London and Manchester. It felt like I was home and dry - even soaked to the skin – as I was sure there wasn't another thousand to be covered.

Another difficult address to locate tonight, in the rain and pitch black country roads. Had to ring a doorbell to ask for help, where the occupants were not only able to direct me – they knew my Warm Showers' hosts. Tom came out looking for me too and ushered me down to the end of the cul de sac where he lived, which he had renamed in honour of himself! He and his wife, Becky, had built their pretty house twenty years ago on several acres of secluded woodland. Tom had lived in Suffolk for two years in the 70s, whilst in the air force, but now excavated gas locally. His wife, who was out for the night, worked for a phone company and part of her job was to climb up telegraph poles! Becky had prepared a mouthwatering lasagna in advance (made with cottage cheese mixed in with the beef) and also baked Boston Cream Cake, which consisted of sponge, custard filling and chocolate icing.

After this fine feast we repaired to the gentlemen's basement for pool (Tom kicked my ass) and Scrabble (I kicked his arse). With both blanks it wasn't difficult to play GROUPING and as Tom didn't know the two letter word list, he was at a disadvantage. What an amazing room, with a roaring fire that heated the whole house, stuffed animal heads, pelts, fish in acrobatic poses, fishing paraphernalia, old metal signs, etc. The toilet paper in the restroom sat in a fishing net and each of the restrooms had telephones by the toilets!

A few flakes of snow were falling en route to another Cracker Barrel breakfast in the morning, followed by a tour of the locality, including Colonel Saunders original restaurant in the town of Corbin, and then I was introduced to Tom's boisterous boxer dogs, Jeep and Bowser.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Leg 8: Bloomington, IN - Knoxville, TN

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Lexington – Richmond (November 14)

Day 61

In the 60s again for a trifling 25 miles to the south, through pretty, Scottishy country, featuring steep roads, a proliferation of trees and rivers, and even a few drystone walls. So quiet compared to the madness of yesterday and only counted about 20 cars in as many miles. (All the petrol heads were driving as fast as hell on alternative freeways and highways.) Arrived in the small town of Richmond at lunchtime and spent the afternoon in the library. It was when asking for a (typically befuddling) street map that I discovered my Scrabble host was actually eight miles to the north – the way I'd come. More back-pedaling, and now it was dark and wet. Cars honked at me on the slick streets, as if it was a crime for me to be there. “Out of my way you idiot! I've got a lot of driving back and forth to do!” And later “I saw a bicycle on the road tonight dear! Did you ever hear of such a thing?” He acted as if he owned the gutter and he slowed me down by at least five seconds!” “It's a bit late in the year to be riding a bicycle across the country ain't it?” “No, but it's a bit late in the life of the planet to be guzzling gas every day and everywhere you go ain't it?”

Couldn't find Steve's house, in the rainy, unlit streets, but fortunately some of Steve's fellow club members were driving by at that very moment and hollered out the window. “Bit late in the year...” No, they called to me by name and we made our way to Steve's house as a convoy. There was three of them – travelling together! In America? Sharing a car? It's true I tell you! Steve's wife and children were elsewhere this weekend and we Scrabble junkies had the place to ourselves, to make merry and make words. Steve worked for Lexmark (named after Lexington, where the firm is based) printers as an engineer, John had retired early from being an attorney, Will was a copy editor and Tiler (great name for a Scrabbler) studied computer sciences at UK (University of Kentucky). Together they made a youthful bunch and looked like a rock band, but then a lot of American men look like members of rock bands to me. They could all shoot some tiles too, hell yeah! I couldn't shoot diddly squat in the first game against Will and lost by a heavy margin. He played UPSTAND with two blanks and later fitted maybe the best word that fits around _ P _ _ (the first letter being a triple word and the fourth a double letter) that it is possible to play. Give up? APEX for 63. A couple of my words were lifted : LICED, & RIZ (acceptable in SOWPODS). Will should also have questioned SUDDIER and REN, but said he felt bad for me! In the second bout, against John, I put TEENAGED on a triple word, yet it still wasn't enough. In between games we had that perfect Scrabble food (pizza) and chocolate fudge gateau. Tiler and Steve were considered to be the best players there and I thought “Great, another two losses comin' up.” However, everything went my way against Tiler and I made a trio of maximums (READIES, DIARIST & RECLINERS) to his one (HEADSETS). Steve had a terrible time with his tiles and changed them three times. There were no bingos and hardly any scores of 40 or more, but I was able to grind out a victory. I copped out when asked if I wanted to play another, as it was after 11 and I was quite happy with my win rate. I slept in a little girl's room tonight (not for the first time) and dreamed of sugar and spice and all things nice.

It had rained all night and was still doing so in the morning, when Steve took me and his yellow lab, Izzy, out to breakfast at a place called Cracker Barrel, which was done up like an olde worlde barn. He drove back via his 'farm', 18 acres of land he has acquired, but unfortunately the bridge over the creek to get to it was flooded, so I could only see it from a distance. Steve had travelled extensively with work, including Scotland, where there is a Lexmark plant. Whilst there he got tickets to see a Rangers football match and was amazed at the number of police and also how the fans were kept so far apart.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Floyd's Knobs - Lexington (November 13)

Day 60

Crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky, a state built on the four vices of tobacco, alcohol (bourbon) gambling (horses) and fried chicken. Straight into Louisville, which like all US cities over a quarter of a million, had a cluster of skyscrapers announcing its presence from many miles away. A cosmopolitan and artsy district followed the downtown area, where I hardly saw a chain restaurant or store. The people, boutiques, cafes and new age establishments looked pretty interesting; but unfortunately there was no chance of tarrying a while with my busy schedule. If I'd had the luxury of time, I would have spent extra days in the likes of Boise, Columbia and Bloomington, to name but a few. In the 60s once more and the sun did its magic turn on the undulating, grassy hills and scattered trees. Met Rex for lunch (on his way to a four day stint in an Ohio hospital) at the Claudia Saunders' (wife of the Colonel) Restaurant, where Rex had the chicken liver in batter and I went for the less daring 'country style' ham sandwich. I had thought Mr Saunders to be as fictitious as Ronald McDonald, but he did once exist and had resembled like the iconic image – there was a photo of him wearing a white suit and boot-lace tie. Rex was an excellent lunch companion, with his knowledge of Kentucky, politics and overseas matters – he'd travelled extensively and spoke several languages.

I had imagined Kentucky to be poor, but the bits I saw were quite affluent, set against multi-hued, varied scenery. Later, when it grew dark the swirly pattern of clouds swathing the moon recreated the Obama logo. Maybe God was pleased with his victory. And so to Lexington, self proclaimed 'Horse Capital of the World' and if there are less than 300,000 residents, how come I saw a million cars on the road (all doing about 70 mph) as I approached it? Don't these people have anything better to do? Do they get paid to thunder back and forth endlessly in their big, fat cars, belching smoke and depleting the earth's resources? I sometimes wonder. It's pretty scary in the hard shoulder when night falls and I can't see a damn thing. One of these days I'll be sent sprawling by a branch or a brick and I will come to an ignominious end beneath the wheels of a monster truck.

I had arranged to meet Ken, tonight's adversary and the director of the Lexington Scrabble Club, at a Panera Bread restaurant. It had been his idea to meet there; he'd provided his cell phone number, given me directions and generally sounded organized. I phoned him and he'd forgotten all about it. There are worse places to wait an hour for someone than a restaurant, and I made light work of a Caesar Salad, pastries and hazelnut flavoured coffee. When Ken, who looked similar to Jeff Bridges, arrived, I asked him if he'd put our meeting in his diary. He said he didn't possess such a thing. Somehow he had been organized enough to land a math teacher post and as I played mostly upside down, he read the scores I kept upside down and worked out the additions instantaneously. From Nebraska, he and his wife had lived in Cambridge for a year, but were now settled in Kentucky. He knew a lot of weird words, such as PANDITS, KLONG, ATONIES, JNANA & BUNDT. I just had luck on my side; in the first game I opened with LOONIER and he never quite recovered. In game two both blanks helped me to form UNDERATE (which Ken lost his go after disputing the single R, as it can be spelt with one or two) and REFLOAT; yet he won by nearly a hundred points, with his weird words and closed play. We were the last diners, as the place had closed long ago at 9 pm and the staff, who kindly let us stay, must have thought we were a right pair of weirdos. Now virtually alone, the young staff were relaxed and 'free' with their language. One of them repeatedly said of individuals he didn't like “Well he can kiss my a**!” And “Well, she can suck my d***!” We played the final game on the patio and it should have been mine. I opened with ANTACID and by the three-quarters stage it was my turn to be up by a hundred. I stupidly played TAC (which may be a SOWPODS word?) to close up the one remaining bingo spot and with it removed, he did indeed play a bingo (REIVERS). I was still ahead after my next play, but then he added -IEST to my earlier ZEST on a triple, to triple it again for 55, and wrest the game from my grasp. If only I'd played a safe, closed game like him I would have won. I don't mind losing a game that's beyond my control, but when it's my own stupid fault, I get mad with myself.

It was foggy by now, and after I took my leave of Ken, I followed his directions to a motel, but felt like I'd gone much too far and there was no sign of life. I retrod my pedalings a couple of miles until I came to a petrol station, where I was told, yes, there was a motel the way I'd been going and it was just a little bit further than Ken had told me. Curse him! By the time I arrived at midnight, I was dripping with sweat and in ill frame of mind. Who did he think he was with his ZESTIEST and his JNANA? And then he had the audacity to beat me with a Scottish word like REIVERS! I ask you! I couldn't get to sleep for fretting over it. It may very well only be a game, but I want to win GODDAMNIT!

There was a complimentary Continental breakfast, although it beats me why it's called that here, as the US isn't attached to the continent in question. At least gorging myself on cereal, muffins and toast took the sting out of the $56 tab, and went a little way to sweetening the bitter pill I'd been choking on last night. REIVERS for crying out loud!

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Bloomington – Floyd's Knobs (November 12)

Day 59

Rained all freakin' day. As a perennial cyclist and non-car owner, I don't mind the rain. It's not so nice going from a warm, cosy home into a wet, damp environment, but once you're wet, you're wet. It was autumnal rain, with autumnal light and autumnal scents released into the air. The countryside was pretty and wood fires were burning. It was particularly attractive in the Hoosier National Forest, where I crossed a lake on a causeway. Indiana is 'The Hoosier State' and the origin of this word is unknown, although it could be a garbled way of saying “Who's there?” When someone comes a knocking. It was hard work today, not because of the rain; because of the hills, the headwind and because there was 99 miles of them. A lot of dogs have chased me on this trip, but none more than today. A boxer sped past me a couple of times and then ran at me sideways. Also a black lab ran alongside me for a few hundred yards before giving up the sport. Cars are more dangerous adversaries of course, especially in the rush hour on a dark, wet and busy highway, as was the case today approaching Louisville.

Tonight's Pixie Pit combatant came out to meet me at a gas station and escorted me back to his place in the delightfully named Floyds Knobs, on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, the other side of which lies the fair-sized city of Louisville in Kentucky – hence the traffic. Rex, a doctor specializing in difficult births, lived with his wife, Marsha, a pensions administrator, in a plush house stuffed to the gills with sumptuous furniture and furnishings, including a huge Persian carpet and fake trees in the living room. For my money the finest achievement was the basement bar, with its glass and marble curved counter, and vast array of alcoholic tipples. Of course I would walk all over their cream carpet in my muddy overshoes wouldn't I? Food first, in the form of a Creole shrimp dish with rice and a cake made from locally grown persimmon fruit (this was squashy and delicious). Later I road-tested Indiana red wine and a couple of bourbons (which can only be made in Kentucky to be given this name).

Scrabble next and a thrilling best of three. I won the first one comfortably, when accruing both blanks gave rise to the only bingos (GUSTIER & CARTINGS – which turned out to be invalid but remained unchallenged). Rex won game two with MISLAID, yet I did have my chances with NEEDIEST. I had the rather nice AURORAE on my rack but couldn't play it. I did, however, play the misspelled DETERING and Rex spotted it. The third game was neck and neck after Rex's SASSIER and my ALIENATE. Right at the end I pulled SURLIER out of the bag and somehow managed to squeeze it in to assure victory.

The next day, once again my hosts surpassed themselves in the breakfast and routing stakes. Rex printed out a whole host of maps and even suggested we meet for lunch, as he had business in Cincinnati.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Bloomington (November 11)

Day 58

Mike had to go out for a few hours with one of his disabled clients, and while his wife worked also, I was left alone in their house to do typing and laundry. In the afternoon Mike drove us
to one of the Scrabble clubs he attended in Indianapolis, 50 miles to the north of Bloomington. En route we toured his town, as he was so proud of it. This was where he went to college and also met his wife, although he was originally from Evansville in the south west corner of the state. The club was held in a room in a leisure centre, attended by about a dozen devotees of the game, all of whom brought sweetmeats, much to my delight and I gorged on them. The usual questions were asked, about where had I started on my trip, where would I finish, where was I from, how many miles did I ride in a day, etc, etc. Anyway, it was a real friendly club, they always played three games simultaneously (which the director paired them up for) and this is about the perfect number for my attention span. I felt a bit sorry for the director, as there was an odd number of attenders and he didn't get a game. My luck with Mike spilled over into this evening and I kept drawing these great, balanced racks. In the first game against Cathy I laid two bingos (LEMONADE & SPARSER) she didn't eke out one and she told me to go home to Scotland. In the next game, with Travis, I had even more good fortune and played two bingos again, the first of which was that old stalwart TRAINERS (an anagram of RETRAINS & STRAINER) but it was my other clearance that got the blood racing. There was an E on the board with a seven letter alley beneath it leading to a triple word. I had DEGNPX? Not the best letters for a bingo I thought – and then I saw it – EXPUNGED (107). Sweet as a nut. Travis nearly came back with two maximums of his own (WREATHES, & IDOLATES which proved to be a phony although I didn't challenge). He had already played other weird ones (TIVY, ORBY & CLAVE) which gave me the idea he knew what he was doing. I played an invalid word also in MUT. Victory was min in this fast, fantastic game, in which we both scored well over 400. In the last game I played someone else who had won their first two games. It had to be Mike of course, the top player there. We had another ding dong of a match, this time with a closed board – until he opened it out with BRAINIER. He was way out in the lead, but on my very last rack I had a chance to bingo out – and win – and I had A blank. I was confident that DILUTEE would be OK. Sadly I was wrong.

On the way back we stopped at the most famous bar in town, Nick's, an 'English pub', where we shared a stromboli pizza sandwich and a few jars – quite literally as it was served in a jar with a screw-top. It was a really convivial place and Mike was great company, particularly as he came across as quite straight-laced, and yet he was a child of the sixties, with a wild side. A non-smoker, he used to be on 60 a day and still drank a fair amount. Once again he refused to let me pay and once again a host had been unbelievably gracious (making me feel like part of the family, letting me stay in his house alone, and plying me with food and drink). In Scrabble the spoils had been evenly divided between us, but in terms of generosity : America 1, Britain 0.

After a day of rest and another good sleep I felt ready to hit the road. Mike had popped out for a McDonald's Special Breakfast and he gave me a route for the day.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Terre Haute - Bloomington (November 10)

(Photo from Charleston newspaper)

(Two posts at once)

Day 57

Couldn't find a suitable un-chain restaurant for breakfast, so made a start, then stopped at Stuckey's diner down the road. What a nasty place, with cafeteria style furniture, paper plates, and co-diners and staff as unappealing as the fare. Here you could get a 'footlong hot dog, fries + med. drink' for $2.99; but I opted for the congealed mass of eggy stuff, white toast, and bacon which is always fried to a crisp, even though I ask for it to be soft. Just like Misery and Illinois before it, Indiana made me think of Britain, or maybe I'm homesick (I doubt it). In between farmland, impoverished small towns, tatty trailers and tied up dogs ran round trees barking at me. One tiny aberration with poppy-out eyes, beloved of female celebs, had chewed the swing-chair to oblivion and it looked as though it had snowed foam all over the garden.

Arrived in Bloomington, a nice looking town that houses the Indiana State University, and asked where the library was. I was directed to a huge college library on several floors and although I found out how to get to tonight's host's address here, I couldn't find my way out of the building. I'd gone up an escalator, so went down one, but someone said that was the basement and there was no way out. Yes, I've cycled 3,800 miles (I don't think I'll reach the 5,000 mark) across a foreign land, often without a map or a compass, but couldn't navigate my way out of a paper bag. I ended up having to ask someone to walk with me. The destination street proved problematic also, as someone in their infinite stupidity, had started numbering the houses from the dead end of the cul de sac rather than the opening. Anyhow, I made it to the house of Mike, another retired social worker, although he still worked part-time with disabled people as a personal assistant, his wife, Mary and their strokable black cat. Mike, youthful and animated, was another cordial host and took me out to a cosy Irish pub for dinner (I had the lamb burger and a couple of pints of Irish ale) but we were both itching to get down to some serious Scrabble. His board, as with many competitive Scrabblers, was custom-made and circular. It had a photo of his daughter when young, between the premium tiles and the surrounding circle was gold-speckled black, a colour theme continued on the tile bag. Mike belonged to three different clubs in Indianapolis, which he attended on a weekly basis, and also played at tournaments within this and adjoining states. He was a good player and had been ranked just below Marty, at 33rd, but was now hovering around 80. I thought I was about to drubbed, but experienced a purple patch for the duration. I could do no wrong, and not only did I keep picking great letter combinations, but also found ideal places to slot them in. Both blanks came my way in one pick-up in the first game, LENDING a helping hand to a bingo. Later I played EXO, which is good in my lexicon, but not in the American list; although I still won the game comfortably. I couldn't have been HAPPIER right at the start of game two, as this formed my opening play. JESSIE proved to be a phony, although once again I bet it's a SOWPODS word. I then went on to take the game out of Mike's reach with DOGGIEST for 76. In the last game Mike kicked himself when he missed a nine-timer opportunity, when he could have played POULTICE off an available O for 140 points. He still produced a triple word bingo with UNPOLITE for 80. I managed OUTLIVE, but both WEM (definitely good in the UK) and SELIENT were challenged off the board (LENITES, LISENTE & SETLINE were all acceptable and would have fitted in). I could have won this game also Mike reckoned, had I not lost these turns.

The next day it was raining and I was laughing because I'd already asked if I could stay another night. By the time I surfaced at 9.30 Mike had already brought back a breakfast bagel from McDonald's and I washed this down with copious cups of coffee.

Charleston – Terre Haute (November 9)

Day 56

Marty escorted me from his house for 20 miles and from there on it was straightforward. He had invited me to stay for another night, but I had my tight schedule to keep to. In the past I haven't been made to feel nearly so welcome in the homes of 'so called friends' back home. I'm almost embarrassed at how accommodating people have been to me and as a naturally cynically, cautious individual I often worry that there is some kind of weird subtext to their friendliness. This speaks volumes about my neuroses, my upbringing and my experiences in Britain, and although I'm looking forward to going back to my flat, sleeping in my bed, and returning to all my little routines, niceties and comfort zones – I view reentering British society (even with my half-life on the margins) with a weary heart. I do miss some things about my fellow islanders, like the subtleties and nuances of interaction, and of course British humour; but I do not miss their duplicity, bitchiness, moaniness, meanness and tendency to blow hot and cold. I could go on. Americans are so straight, honest, decent and kind. What you see is what you get; whereas I often find it so difficult to read my own people and haven't a clue what they're really thinking, or how they feel about me.

Today the weather reminded me of how it might be in Scotland at this time of year : cool, drizzly, overcast; and also the scenery was like East Lothian, with flattish, empty farmland and pockets of trees. The rural settlements amuse me here, as even a place of 500 inhabitants (and you're usually told the population) has a pillared, pompous bank, a post office with a great big American flag, as well as murals and signs emphasizing the town's individuality and proud, self-absorption. These towns often flag up their sporting achievements too and if any even slightly famous people were born there – one promoted itself as the home of 'Miss Teen USA winner' in some year. The cycling was easy, like a walk in the park after a Sunday roast. I'm so often applauded for my fitness and braveness, but what I'm doing doesn't seem like a big deal to me. This undertaking has honed my mental sharpness, as well as my fitness, and made me feel kind of invincible. Maybe I'll turn around when reaching Charleston and come back the other way, like Forrest Gump when he walked across the country; or maybe I'll become super-human, like Neo in the Matrix. Only I would just look stupid in a long, black, leather coat.

Left Obama's home turf of Illinois and entered the Eastern Time Zone and a dusky Indiana, where Terre Haute lay just across the border. Pronounced 'Tear Hout' and that's what should be done with it. The main streets in so many of these medium-size towns have no individuality or life; wide, busy thoroughfares, straight as a die, teeming with endless chain hotels and restaurants, and strip malls. Banality reigns supreme and grandeur is supplanted by blandeur. The woman at the first motel said they had wi fi, so I tried to get it to work in front of her before I paid. Only then did she admit it didn't work so well. The woman at the second place, which was clearly a bit too pricey, said hello, then took a reservation over the phone, lasting a few minutes, and in my mind's interpretation of her mind, took precedence over someone standing in front of her in cycling gear, so I walked out. The guy at the third place said it was $49, when a sign outside advertised $31. I said I had Triple A membership (thank you Anthony) and beat him down to $39. I couldn't place his accent and asked him where he was from. By way of answering he said “You're British right? You occupied us 60 years ago.” An interesting and not altogether friendly way for someone in the service sector to describe they are from Jordan. Dined at Bob Evans (that's what it was called) and ordered exactly the same Cranberry, Pecan & Chicken Salad and French Silk Pie I'd had in Columbia.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Effingham – Charleston (November 8)

(Me playing Scrabble)

Day 55

A three hour ride to Charleston (not the one in South Carolina obviously) escorted by Scott & Laura. We were all going to Marty's house, for a monthly Scrabble meet; and today he held an extracurricular one in my honour. I was happy to go along main roads, but because Scott was adamant that the farm roads in between, that crisscross these parts, were quicker, he drove in front of me in his pick up truck, with his hazard lights on. He would wait for me at each intersection, and then turn north or east, as we made our way in a 'stepping' pattern. Colder again, with a debilitating wind, I kept my head down, feeling like the Rocky of the Scrabble world, on my way to beat someone to a pulp with my superior knowledge of Q words. Yo Adrian! I'm a fighter Adrian; that's the way I'm made. Etc. Only I don't have a superior knowledge of any type of words, as was shown today. Twice dogs chased me up the road, including one pit bull that was gaining on me, until his master called him off.

Arrived at Marty & Daiva's beautiful house, with it's fine collection of antique carpets and paintings, at noon, and met up with the Charleston gang of about 15 in the basement. Like Scott in Collinsville, Marty was from Chicago, in his late fifties and had retired early. He had been a social worker and his wife, of Lithuanian descent, was a writer and English professor. The local press were already in attendance and asked questions when I was gagging to get down to business. I won the first three games against Cheryl (played DATELESS & ADZ/AA/DAD on a triple word for 54) Letitia and Chuck. Daiva beat me, as did Scott (he played KALEWIFE, INTERNAL & RESIZES to my STEAMIER). Then I got my own back on him in a thriller from vanilla; a rumble in the mumble. He put down OUTSEND (which I should have challenged) & ATELIER, as well as two great non-bingos, JIVY (tripled with the J on a double letter for 75) & XU/XU (with the X on a triple letter for 50). I played HAUNTING & ROUNDER, but my PLEBITIS was thrown off the board (I must have been thinking of PHLEBITIS). I was still behind, then right near the end I had a major coup with ENLISTEE (77) on an existing E and leading to a triple word. I still only won by a few points and we had a combined score of nearly 900. Go Adrian!

Marty held a competition in my honour, where the people who scored the most points with my initials, AK, sequentially in a word, as well as GS (for Glasgow, Scotland) received a small prize. There was another one with IC, for Irvine, California, where Laura lived. Next up I played another English guy, Nick, a heavyweight to my middleweight, and the blood spilled. Marty, another top player (about 30th in the country) tussled with me as well, although we played 'an open board' and gave me a masterclass in the noble art of Scrabble. I would suggest a move to him and every time he came up with something better. I didn't mind when it was an unknown word, but sometimes it was something I knew and hadn't seen it, and that was pretty frustrating. This was my eighth game of the day though and I've never played so much in one day – from noon to midnight – with breaks for chatting and food. Marty paid for everyone's lunch from Subway and pizza for the few who remained at 10 pm. They actually convened at 10 am and this was too much Scrabble for me. I think more than three games is too much for me and after that my head starts to hurt. Marty plays in a totally different way to me and it's like a science for him, based on probability and letter value. Every time he plays a word and tiles are left on his rack he considers the synergy of these letters and how many points they are adding or subtracting in terms of a balanced hand. For example, it is good to be left with letters like ET, as these are common and therefore bingoable. It is not so clever to leave yourself with UU or suchlike. I know all this, but don't think about it as intensely as he does, and for me Scrabble is a creative, even serendipitous experience. Marty's methods made it seem like hard work, although to him the harder he works at it the more fun it is. It's his obsession though; he has played at tournaments all over the world and has put in a lot of study time. He played with both the American and the international dictionaries – and crucially he was able to divide – as well as retain the two lists in his brain. There are approximately 90,000 words in the US list compared to 120,000 in the international one. That's a big difference.

The next day Marty made pancakes and I showed them him the thinner British version, rolled up with lemon juice and sugar. Marty & Daiva said they liked them this way, but I think they were being polite. Amazingly enough, although I stayed until early afternoon (another light mileage) we didn't play the beautiful game. We did however, watch a documentary about it called Scrabylon. It followed the top players going into the 2001 World Championship in Las Vegas and featured an interview with Marty & Daiva, who at the time were engaged, and described Scrabble as an aphrodisiac and their foreplay. (Scott & Laura had also met through the game.) Marty told me how he'd beaten the top American player, Brian Cappelletto, in their first three encounters and these victories were sweetened by his play of REDEFEATS, a 'natural' (without blanks) a 158 nine-timer, in their third game. During the documentary I learned the term 'coffee-housing' relating to distracting tactics, like slurping on coffee or blowing cigarette smoke towards an opponent. Another term is 'brailling', where a player feels the tiles in the bag to locate a blank. This explains why letters on the newer tiles do not have a raised surface. It was a well made film and proved the board game could be further popularized if only there was more TV and press interest...

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Collinsville - Effingham (November 7)

Day 54

A 30 degree drop in temperature in two days and a cold tailwind, ushering me on through a hundred miles of Illinois scenery, which saw the plains of Kansas combined with the trees of Misery. Route 40 took me along quiet roads, usually parallel to an Interstate, and sometimes dumped me on it, without a care in the world. The four way stops are puzzling to me. You're supposed to wait if other vehicles arrive before you from one of the other directions, and also wait if someone draws up simultaneously to your right. However, as I'm on a bike, vehicular traffic often sits there when it's their turn to go. It's a bit like playing Russian roulette. I also don't get this business of having to halt at stop signs when there's no traffic around. At intersections where you have a good view of the road being crossed and can see there's nothing there on approach, why stop? So, I don't. Maybe it's to give drivers time to take a slurp of an icy beverage, which many seem to have, and sometimes in litre size cups. Or perhaps it's to give women on the phone a moment to gesticulate to their girlfriends with the other hand. The countryside and towns were nothing much to look at, especially with an oppressively grey sky overhead. Coming into Greenville a sign read 'Visit Vandalia” and listed the attractions of this, a town 20 miles ahead. Didn't the Greenville city elders mind this attempt at poaching their custom?

Later, there was a hairy moment when it grew dark. I looked up at one point to see headlights bearing down on me, then swerve to avoid collision in the knick of time, as a car overtook another coming the other way. In Effingham I met another Scott, and his girlfriend, Laura, a math tutor from California. Scott, a sports textbook writer, was young and still lived with his mother, who had made us a stew in her absence. I wolfed this down and don't think I should have compared it to British food, as even here in this isolationist land everyone knows of the plight of my tiny country's cuisine. There was also salad, and as is often the case in American kitchens, about a dozen dressings to choose from. There was blackberry cobbler too, beer, and later Jack Daniel's.

It was a laid back atmosphere for Scrabble, helped along with rocking music and liquor. In the first game, a three hander, I scored 128 for one word and still came last! WALTZER with the Z on a triple letter and the word doubled. The reason I lost was because I changed my letters twice, and they both made clearances - Scott bingoing out with the 100+ AVERAGE. I really should have retired then, but played a two player game against a combined Scott & Laura. They were real good players and very competitive, especially Laura, who acted all demure, but threw down a torrent of bingos. I challenged two of these (ADOBIES & ALIGNER) and was right to do so. I should have challenged MANDATER as well. I didn't bother with NARGILE as it was too weird to be invalid. I picked up both the blanks, although the rest of my tiles were dire and I couldn't eek out one miserly bingo. A quick look at the World War II 'museum' in the basement, assembled by Scott's late father – including a jeep in the garage. There was a Scrabble board carpet down there as well. I want one. It was midnight by the time I turned in and my night was further truncated because my room was next door to a young couple who had just been reunited...

The following morning Scott told me he'd scored an all time high with 577 in a game with Laura. We had Hudson Bay Bread for breakfast, a boy scout flapjack recipe with maple and corn syrup.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Belleville – Collinsville (November 6)

Day 53

When it stopped raining, a short hop took me to Collinsville, another St Louis suburb on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. This is where Pixie Pit player Scott lived with his chinchillas. He had a crazy 70s, subterranean 'earth house', meaning it had been built completely underground with a grassy roof. It was impossible to even see such houses from the road sometimes, although they would have windows at the back. An above-ground level has since been added. The open-sided, spiral staircase took me past his stained glass, paintings, insect models and all kinds of weird stuff. The main living area had hobbitesque round windows and beige carpeted split levels, while the other rooms were a rabbit - or perhaps chinchilla - warren, and in my bathroom the taps had button controls. Scott had already retired from a career in engineering at 56 and used to live in Chicago. He had been a keen biker until recently when he developed a problem with his feet. In his late forties he had ridden 500 miles in five days.

We dined at a restaurant that used to be a bank with a friend of his, Alice. I had a burger, which by US standards was small and only came with a few slices of potato. Yes, more meat and potatoes. Alice had lived all over the States and had visited more European countries than I had. Later we went back to Alice's 'through the looking glass house', which was crammed full of mostly glass objects and every room was largely one colour. My favourite was the red room. It was pretty amazing and I wished I'd seen it in strong daylight.

Scott and I played Scrabble back at his place, where he foisted beer, coffee and pecan pie upon me. He played real fast and I won both games, largely because I lucked out on all the blanks. I forget what my bingo was in the first game, but I know I got one and usually do get one. Then again I ditch the less common and duplicated letters for this purpose. I like playing bingos. A lot. In the second game I opened with FOREVER and apparently there is a one in eight chance of drawing a bingo with the first seven letters. The trick is seeing it of course, especially when a blank is amongst them. There was some controversy about certain words, as the two letter list Scott uses was different to the one I had been playing with. ZA was not acceptable for instance. Why can't everyone sing from the same song sheet?

Before retiring, Scott showed me his chinchillas, in cages, in their own special room. I'd never seen one before and he had 23. There were black ones, white ones, brown ones and ones with a combination of these colours. They were excited by my presence (which is entirely understandable) and did somersaults. Scott used to have a whole lot more and some 'ranchers', as they are called, keep thousands for breeding and also for their fur. A black one can fetch $300. I didn't realise they were so large. Scott talked to them all and gave them food while I was there. He used to name his chinchillas in the past, but now he calls them all 'Princess'.

I still can't believe how generous people have been to me. Scott took me to breakfast at the St Louis Bread Company, and like dinner last night, insisted on paying. Later he made me tortilla wraps stuffed with chicken and veg for lunch and gave me coffee in a flask, as well as leftover Hallowe'en treats. When I get back to the UK and go out to a restaurant, cafe or bar, I'll forget to pay my share, as I'm so used to getting everything gratis.