Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Letter from America

If you can gain a first impression about a place from its public transport, as I touch down on American soil my ideas of America as a land of patriotism are confirmed.

Flags add colour to small suburban front gardens, fluttering over row after undistinguished row of pastel coloured clapboard houses as we head towards the ground at John F Kennedy airport. They are magnified through the windows of the subsequent train that whizzes me towards New York (later, I discover that even the miniature sailing boats on the Central Park boating lake sport their own tiny red, white and blue emblems on their small sails). A small version of the famous stars and stripes is emblazoned on the outside of each Metro carriage, too, like a marker on a neat silver bullet.

Listen: Take Him Back To New York City - Herman Düne (I don't have an IPOD, but if I did this is what i would listen to, and I advise you to to enhance your reading pleasure)

Inside the train, we’re encouraged to support American peanut vendors, but we’re also constantly reminded in bilingual English and Spanish advertisements of the need for medical insurance. I’m never far away from somebody who’s slipped through the safety net of the American dream.

Americans may seem open and keen to engage with others, smiling at me and at each other, but some seem to be living in a different country entirely. An elderly woman in sparkly silver disco slippers, frizzy brown hair askew as if she’s been dancing all night to the tune of her lost dreams, trying to recapture her youthful expectations of the promise of the big city, shuffles herself and her ‘Fritos’ down next to me. She’s more likely just awoken, alone and unwashed, and tells me I look just like someone she once knew, somewhere, a long time ago. Some of the contents of her crisp packet escape her witchily long, scarlet fingernails, and catch on her mismatched outfit like the unexpected baubles of day to day life.

She’s a member of that transient class that carries their life around in a shopping trolley, ready to be upped from their spot under a park tree or in a disused doorway at any moment and transported somewhere seemingly promising, that has yet to move them on.

I’ve been out of JFK airport for less than half an hour, but already feel like I’m in an Amriki Baraka play. A character with a worker’s cap, grease and paint splattered on his hardwearing looking trousers, accompanied by a clownish sidekick in neon clothes and braces, sits himself and his boom box down next to me, and starts advising me on the sexual prowess of black men in great detail. After deciding that I’m mute, and asking round the carriage, including admiring a young woman with impractically long and pristine fingernails, he watches his fellows countrymen with resignation. Gurning to themselves, whether in pleasure or disapproval, deep in their own private worlds of thought, he concludes that no one wants to talk today. He doesn’t seem to know where he’s going and reluctantly says goodbye, deciding that one station is as good a point to leave and step outside as any.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going either, but Americans seem drawn to anyone with a map and the slightest trace of a lost facial expression as if by magnetism. ‘It’s so hot’, says a suited man, in the effusive, expressive manner of those for whom English is a second language. Attaching himself to me as an impromptu tour guide, he tells me his office is round the block and tries to reassure me that the weather is unseasonably warm for a time of year when the temperature should be in the seventies.

It’s true - the heat is wafting up from the streets and the front page headlines of discarded newspapers, and Manhattanites are riding the subway even for just a few blocks when usually they’d walk, confirming that the heat wave is making our bodies feel like we’re sweltering in the hundred degree range of the Fahrenheit scale.

I can feel my feet frying in my black plimsolls as I walk past a dog shop in the shady side streets of Greenwich Village that is offering $200 dollars off puppies. On display in a double fronted window, crotchety canines fight on one side and snooze in a heap in the other. It’s been another long day in the city that never sleeps.

Listen: New York Counterpoint - Steve Reich

After trying to get my head around the money - tiny dimes turn out to be worth ten cents, despite being smaller than five cent coins, and prices are quoted without tax - I head to the seaside, at the famous Coney Island in Brooklyn.

I breathe in its sweet and sour atmosphere of scattered popcorn and trampled hotdogs, amusement rides and old fashioned attractions that have seen better days. Coney Island has an air of impermanence about it. Like Blackpool pleasure beach, regulars fish for crabs from the pier and blasé teenagers while away their afternoons, but don’t stay.

Listen: Williamsburg Will Oldham Song - Jeffrey Lewis
Coney Island is at end of the line, literally. From the subway window, fragile Ferris wheels tower above the water, their future hanging in the balance and the basis of ‘Save Coney Island’ appeals and burlesque roller-skating benefits.

A man warns us that we’re decadent and damned, espousing his religion into a microphone as he paces back and forth against the backdrop of a beach hut, an improvised altar against the shimmering cut glass of sea and sky.

Another mimes the words in Spanish to a cheesy Latin song, as his friend in lifeguard colours sings along to a ghetto blaster. He clicks his fingers whilst moving from side to side and smiling, gesturing towards a woman sitting on the floor that she is the object of his serenade. She seems unmoved.

Listen: Coney Island Baby - Lou Reed

Larger than life is part of the everyday American experience. It’s in the brash neon signs of Times Square where consumerism and branding is enlarged into something impossible to escape from. It’s in simple things like hot-dog stands on fire. It’s in those who take it on themselves to stand up on a soapbox and become the orators of the street, assuming to speak for the rest of us and our salvation.

It’s even in the work of artists like Claes Oldenburg. His pop art vinyl recreations of fast food, like ‘French Fries and Ketchup’, or his giant BLT, complete with a wooden toothpick stabbed through the slices of tomato, is trash promoted to gallery status at the Museum of Modern Art and recreated in the cartoonish fabric of children’s indoor play areas.

You can see the seams of the vinyl, the grain of the shiny, wipe clean fabric. It’s super size before it even became a global term that ate itself into the consciousness of any outsider’s impressions of America.

Jeff Koons goes a step further and places the creations of convenience America, like vacuum cleaners fresh from their mass produced packaging, in a an air-conditioned gallery setting.Listen: A Love Supreme - John Coltrane
The streets, too, are living, breathing cultural stages. I walk down Charlie Parker street in the Lower East Side, stroll down the Bowery and wander through Chinatown.

I nap in parks such as the East Village outdoor sculpture garden to jazz buskers. I read the free newspapers, full of sex advice and adverts for women, that come from boxes on the street. One publishes the dimensions of all its girls - 48HH - 27 catches my eye - and advertises a ‘Brazilian gang bang’.

I daydream about writing for The Onion or the Village Voice and tell the time by a musical revolving alarm clock in the children’s zoo of Central Park as parents and nannies stop to photograph it.

Holden Caulfield’s beloved skating rink is under a giant funfair for the summer, but I watch red, green and yellow striped turtles stretch orange patterned feet as they bask on rocks in the sun in the park’s manmade lake, and try to persuade a man that my fascination stems from seeing in the wild a creature I’ve only seen in garden ponds and zoos before.

Listen: I’m Waiting for the Man - The Velvet Underground

I’m surrounded with Man Ray and Edward Hopper’s empty, evocative visions of New York in the Whitney, whilst the contemporary classical music of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble sends strings scored by John Adams scything through the air around me. It turns out to be a free Friday night gig, and I stay to watch a contemporary Yo La Tengo, Philadelphia’s misnamed A Sunny Day In Glasgow. Female vocals float over shimmering walls of guitar, chiming and bell-like. Sustained arpeggios fight their way through feedback and ring through the spring air.

Listen: On Broadway - Neil Young

At Frank Lloyd Wright’s curved Guggenheim museum, I see New York through the eyes of immigrant artists of the 1940s - Mark Rothko, Rothenberg and Pollock. It’s easy to miss the significance and beauty of their paintings close up, but step away and the blurred outlines take shape. They’re like the city, which seems overwhelming and enveloping at first, but starts to make sense once you’ve moved outside it. Once you’re detached, you have time to reflect.

The streets are also steeped in history. Stonewall, home of the historic gay rights riots of the 1960s, is now memorialised in Greenwich Village. In Harlem I stop at a graffiti gallery and tattoo parlour. I also have a change from a junk food diet of pizza and pretzels, bagels and cream cheese and jelly donuts, cookies and cheeseburgers. I eat a hearty meal of curry goat floating amongst rice, peas, sweet corn and bone marrow on Lennox Avenue, in sight of Malcolm X’s mosque.

Central Park is like an oasis of calm, a refuge from the noise and crowds of 5th, 6th, and 7th avenues - home to the Empire State building, Grand Central Station and the Rockefeller Centre, among others - that approach it. The nearby theatre district may be advertising stereotypically American concepts such as Legally Blonde, the stage version, and somebody mentions Woody Allen’s name in awed tones as I wonder past tree lined, brownstone streets closed off for film sets (the redbrick, cobblestones and zig zag fire escapes of Greenwich Village are already familiar from countless films) but the real entertainers are those all around you.

Listen: The East River - Jeffrey Lewis

Dogs are often driven around, or carried in owners’ pockets, but I sit on a bench next to a more inventive middle aged lady who’s turned her two miniature dogs into a travelling road show in a trolley lined with blankets. Passing children’s parents are asked for permission for their offspring to be the benefit of ‘dog kisses’, that is dogs licking the faces of delighted children. Some lucky children are offered the chance to feed the dog a biscuit, and then are told ‘well done’ and ‘you did brilliantly’.

Even without their casts of freaks, American cities go out of their way to entertain us in the summer months. I arrive at Central Park’s annual Summer Stage to see the local band Vampire Weekend for free, and join in the snaking queue that I’m told formed at 9am. Its members are passing the hot afternoon by trying to outdo each other in how sweaty they feel. T

he festival starts promisingly, as Time Out makes me a button badge, a radio station hands me a free chap stick and I find a seat on some metal bleachers. Then the rain starts. At first it’s refreshing, but as Born Ruffians soldier on it becomes apparent it’s going to rain for hours. And it does.

Andrew WK, best known for the one off novelty tune Party Hard, and its blood stained video, comperes, as over the top as ever. He observes that ‘if you haven’t washed your hair for a couple of weeks, your face will taste strange - that’ll be the hair oil!’.

We’re told to get off the bleachers when the storm starts. My fingers wrinkle like I’ve stayed in the bath too long, and my hands go so white you can see the blue veins through them. I’m soaked through, but then again so is everyone else, and we’re splashing around barefoot on the flooded ground. Those who had the foresight to bring umbrellas are trying to guard their possessions from the rain. Thunder shakes the floor, but every flash of lightning is followed by a huge cheer. The sun tries to break through, and there’s a cheer for that too. Then the cycle begins all over again; as soon as we’ve dried out, it’s time to get wet again.

The female rapper Kid Sister, though, remains upbeat, and Vampire Weekend keep us on our feet with their string led, pop take on world music. I get the Metro home, happy and dripping, after a hotdog vendor asks ‘what happened to you?!’, concerned. He asks where I’m from and I try to explain to him a world in which people stand in Central Park for hours in a thunderstorm and get soaked through to see a concert.

As I step off the Metro I see people are reluctant to go outside and see why: the entrance stairs have turned into a waterfall.

Listen: A - Punk - Vampire Weekend

I also arrive at Bryant Park early to claim my seat for an outdoor film showing of Dr. No. . I’m there more to share in another communal outdoor experience and see how New Yorkers react to the adverse weather that seems likely again, than for the choice of film.

The film is not starting until sunset, but I watch couples with wine and picnics, interrupted by frequent optimistic updates from a loudspeaker voice. I also listen to one of New York’s many cellular phone conversations, most of which are dedicated to friendships in crisis or analysis of relationships. A man sitting next to me updates somebody he is trying to persuade to come on the other end of the phone: ‘the weather just went from bad to apocalyptic’.

Looking at the clouds speeding towards us, like angrily swirling smoke, this doesn’t seem like an overstatement. They’re forming grey patches over clear white sky and gleaming, futuristic glass buildings, one of which is shaped like an inverted ice-cream cone. The bottoms of sun umbrellas over tables start rippling like water, propelled by the wind that’s conspiring with the rain against us seeing the film. As the thunder starts, half an hour before the film is due to begin, I decide to make a run for it, thankful that the excess of scaffolding in the nearby area makes a good waterproof.
Listen: On the Waterfront - Leonard Bernstein
Some of the interesting parts of New York, however, Soho and Tribeca included, are fast becoming gentrified. South Street Seaport is now trapped, as if in a stifling bell jar, under a glass shopping mall. Its charm has been staled by piped music and chain stores, bland restaurants and bars.

Past the Staten Island Ferry, from where it’s possible to catch a free close up view of the Statue of Liberty rising from the spring rain, and a grey-haired man volunteers a brief history lesson on the history of the bridges we pass through his newspapers and headphones, though, is a hidden gem.

Listen: NYC’S Like A Graveyard - Moldy Peaches

An ostentatious lime building with mustard trimming houses an installation by the former Talking Heads singer David Byrne, called ‘Playing the Building’. A vintage wooden church organ is spotlighted against the stained, paint peeling stone floor of a huge, cathedralesque, maritime hall. Through a prism opening in the plaster ceiling loom the clouds, rain, sky and skyscrapers of Wall Street powerhouses. The sun briefly comes out, and it casts a wonky shaft of light through windows in various states of repair over the organ. Eerie flutes and panpipes whistle, far away, through the workings of the building, screeching like the phantoms of its past history cast in a period opera by the avant-garde composer John Cage. I feel something rattle through the ornate pillar I’m sitting against, one of many with gargoyles at the top which must once have been gilded with gold.

When I sit down at the piano stool for my turn, clang, jangle, ting are countered by drag, rub, rumble at the other end of the scale, deep chords splodging and dragging like a large vehicle revving up. I feel as if I’m in a decrepit haunted house decorated with wooden panelling in nuanced shades of brown and grey, black and grime. Far off, mutated strings whine, grind and grate in surround sound. Then I stand up, and silence, like a beast of heavy machinery whose parts are slowly coming to rest.

Listen: Sonata for Prepared Piano I - John Cage

I reluctantly say goodbye to New York by walking past the notorious Chelsea Hotel, round the corner from my rather less characterful hostel, one last time.

Gothic looking, it rises above the launderettes and dry-cleaners, florists and minmarts, palm readers and psychics’ shops that comprise Chelsea. It’s like a rock ‘n’roll wedding cake, stacks of balconies layered on the outside that look as if they could have been built from the layers of popular history that have been made there. Today, all that remains of its colourful past is some rather garish art in the air conditioned foyer.

Listen: The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song - Jeffrey Lewis
A megabus $2 return takes me to Boston, sound tracked by a young man waxing lyrical about the elegance of suspension bridges as we tour New York to get to the highway.

We drive through the green and pleasant states of New York and Connecticut, all lakes and rivers and small settlements of wooden houses among the New England forests, to Boston.

Boston seems altogether more modest than the Big Apple, a mixture of old, historical buildings and modern glass architecture. I arrive on Bunker Hill day, but now the most subversive thing I come across is an innocuous tree hung with printouts on coloured paper that suggest ‘hug the trees’ and ‘an apple a day’ superimposed onto a scanned image of an apple.

The leaves sway in the breeze, and I can only imagine how Boston must look in the fall when its trees carpet the ground to match the warm redbrick of the buildings around it.

Listen: Roadrunner - Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

Eccentrics aren’t just on display in New York, though. Accordion players and saxophonists parade the statues and goldfish ponds of Boston Common, which is home to a tented ‘Old School Revival’, where ladies in their best floral dress are seated like ghosts of the old South.

The redbrick, outwardly austere old South Street Church, too offers jazz worship. A voice coming from a sandwich board pacing the ornate fountains and statues rises to a crescendo of ‘REPENT OR PERSISH’, and the flipside ‘JESUS GOOD SHEPHERD’, until even the homeless complain ‘you’re crazy, go away!’.

I start following the historic Freedom Trail uphill through Boston, but it’s full of tourists, locals break dancing for the crowds, and green t-shirted, shamrocked Celtics fans congregating noisily in Irish pubs for the Lakers-Celtics NBA final.

After stopping for gelato in a claustaphobically quaint district, I decide to conserve my energy for the next day’s pilgrimage to Concord, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

Listen: Dirty Water - The Standells

Forty minutes through Massachusetts on the bi-hourly commuter train, and home to Sleepy Hollow cemetery, Concord paints the idyllic picture of small town America that so many people over the world have from watching films and TV series. Painted houses with corresponding shutters and columns sit in the sunshine, rocking chairs idling on porches in shade cast by trees.

Walden Pond is a thirty five minute walk along a county track, carpeted by pine needles and bordered by bales of hay bleaching in the sun, but I’m spurred on by the memory of a case of Thoreau memorabilia in New York Public Library that featured John Cage’s setting to music of Thoreau’s famous dictum ‘that government is best which governs not at all…and when we are prepared for it that will be the kind of government that they will have’ and an audio book of Thoreau‘s most celebrated book, Walden, his account of renouncing nineteenth century society to live in the woods.

I asked for directions in an old-fashioned style ice-cream parlour, but stop some teenagers on my way to confirm that the long, winding road is taking me in the right direction. Although I’m on Thoreau Street, they seem barely aware of Walden Pond, saying ‘I haven’t been there since I was, like, five’ and suggest I ask in a nearby high school. After confirming with a trucker resting by the side of the road, I have to cross the highway to Walden Pond State Reservation.
It’s more popular than my brief conversation would suggest. There’s even a beach with a lifeguard hut, a far cry from the solitude Henry Thoreau sought in the 1840s. My first glimpse of Walden Pond comes, unexpectedly turquoise blue, through the thick trees that have grown on the site of Thoreau’s Bean Patch.

When I follow the trail down, it’s a lot larger than I expected. A couple from Cambridge who’ve been going there nearly every day for twenty years, to swim in the summer and skate in the winter when it freezes over, show me the steps down to the best bathing spot, and greet their fellow regular Errol. I’m told the pond has reached 74 degrees Fahrenheit after last week’s heat wave, which made it up to Boston too.

Remarking on the water’s cleanness, I’m informed the pond is filled by rainwater, and ‘the only pollution is the swimmers’. Someone adds that ‘sometimes you can taste the cosmetics in the water, like lacquer hairspray and sunscreen’.

At lunchtime, a shy chipmunk decides it’s safe enough to come and steal my crumbs, as I watch goldfish through the warm, clear water and swimmers in bathing caps lap the lake.

An enthusiast in the Thoreau shop, upon learning that I wrote my dissertation on Thoreau and Kerouac, recommends I find time to visit the old industrial town of Lowell, Kerouac’s birthplace. I begin to wonder whether I should have bought a $28 dollar, suede baseball embroidered with Kerouac’s signature from New York Public Library as a souvenir.

I’m heading back to New York early the next morning, however, to commence my first real journey by American standards: the 19 hour Amtrak service that links New York to Chicago.

As we wind our way along the Hudson River, the city quickly gives way to small towns with a seaside feel. Boats and fishermen gently ripple the calm water. We pass through Yonkers, the late afternoon sun breaking through the reflection of clouds in golden shafts over the wide river. We pass peaks and power stations, electricity pylons and water-cooling towers. What looks like the ruins of a castle, its own island in the river, is illuminated from behind by the orange sun. Sometimes the train is surrounded by water, as it splits into marsh on the other side of the track.

Listen: Syracuse - Saint Eskimo of the West

Old fashioned conductors Jim, and rotund, small talking Bob, barrel down the aisles as if they’re fresh young recruits ready for a cross country adventure. Jim proclaims we’re at ‘Syracus-ee. Syracuse-ee’ as if he’s seeing it for the first time. Seasoned passengers start trading Amtrak horror stories - taking a train in America is unthinkable to most Americans I’ve met, as they’re notoriously unreliable - but Jim tells us Amtrak is proud of its trains being another great American product, and urges us to tell Amtrak about any suggestions for improvements we may have, so he can keep his job for another twenty years.

We’re allowed out occasionally, for example at Albany, where there’s a vending machine offering seeds and flowers for sale. For a few seconds we’re joined by a deer lolloping alongside the tracks, a brownish orange against the green and blue darkness that is starting to descend.

As night falls we recline our seats, take out our blankets and try to find a comfortable position on the small pillows that have been handed out for us. We glide through town after town, distinguishable only by the gleaming of orange streetlamps in the rain through the silhouettes of trees.

At some point during the night, we travel past some lakes, and I wake up disorientated to a distended, swollen, almost full moon over which hovers a lone star, suspended lopsided above Lake Erie.

Early morning, we hit the flat Midwest, passing through Ohio until we reach the red and orange containers of industrial Chicago. As the train winds down past the famous Sears tower, I get the impression that Chicago is a city of symmetry and flashing lights, tall round buildings and lofty diamond shaped buildings, enveloped by rolling mist one minute and clear the next. The sky is an arena for advertising, planes flying over with banners fluttering in the wind.

Listen: Chicago - Sufjan Stevens

The weather in Chicago is extremely changeable. I think to myself that Chicago should be known as the rainy city rather than the windy city, but a tour of the Loop area (so called because it is encircled by the tracks of Chicago’s elevated trains) informs me that Chicago is famous for being windy because of the hot air of its residents and their pride at rebuilding Chicago after the great Chicago fire, rather than for meteorological reasons.

Whilst the sea at Coney Island provided a pleasant relief from the heat, intensely blue Lake Michigan is the coldest body of water I can ever remember immersing myself in. Usually swimming warms my body up in the cold water, but as I chatter amongst noisy seagulls, geese and fishermen, I remain conscious that my skin feels as if it’s been doused in ice and I want to get out before I get ill. Instead, I sit in pavilions by the lake that come with their own built in stone chess boards.

The view from piers, too, such as Navy Pier with its stained glass museum and Ferris wheel, is immense.

Listen: To Be Alone With You - Sufjan Stevens

The most concentratedely arty city I’ve visited yet, Chicago is full of Alexander Calder sculptures. Unusual interpretations of women by Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso face each other defiantly amongst Mies van de Rö he buildings. A photography exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Centre captures the bemused expressions of viewers of the giant Picasso sculpture when it was first erected against the cityscape in 1967.

The contemporary artist Jaime Piensa has created modern day gargoyles in the lakeside Millennium Park: two fountains against which videos of Chicago citizens are projected, pursing their lips gradually until they spurt water, to the delight and squeals of children in bathing suits.

Anish Kapoor’s shiny, affectionately named ‘bean sculpture’ reflects Frank Gehry’s serpentine bridge, and his playful Pritzker Pavilion, which resembles a crunched up paper chain cast in steel.

Listen: Theme De Yo Yo - Art Ensemble of Chicago

I spend evenings here laying on a lawn to free music. The first night, the Grant Park orchestra plays well known classical pieces: Barber’s Adagio for Strings, music from the Magic Flute, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, a selection by Debussy and a piece from Rossini’s William Tell. A fellow guest in my hostel, a recent high school graduate who’s travelled from Seattle is astounded: he tells me Chicago is the ‘most advanced’ city he’s visited.

My companions, too, are getting the train cross country and share my view that it’s preferable to being stuck on a plane where you can’t see anything. We feel obliged to go to a blues bar, being in Chicago, so watch a harmonica and organ led combo groove to Southern soul food at the House of Blues.

In the daytime, Pitchfork magazine offers lunchtime concerts in an ‘Audible Architecture’ series. Grizzled blues man Gary Higgins harmonises with an another guitarist in the classic, warm American style of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

I saunter to the nearby Freedom Museum before returning for an ‘Audio Picnic’ - a history lesson of Chicago popular music broadcast on the pavilion’s concert standard sound system. Small children whirl to ragtime, jazz and doo wop. Encompassing much of the twentieth century, obscure acts are balanced by famous names such as Sun Ra.

Listen: French Fries w/ Pepper - Morphine
I wander over to a free smooth jazz festival down the road, past a saxophonist busker bobbing up and down as if in accompaniment to the waves of the Chicago river. I blend into a crowd that’s snapping its fingers and clapping in time, singing falsetto and swaying along to a tenor and soprano sax. Over an almost hip-hop beat, a soulful female vocalist invites us to ‘come together’, spreading the vibes of summer and happiness.

A visit to Chicago wouldn’t be complete without trying its deep dish pizza. I accompany a hyperactive girl guide group from Michigan to dinner, and then we spend the evening watching the Buckingham Fountain light show, and trade information on customs such as fireworks night and the upcoming July 4th celebrations (in the event, I spend it in Mervyn’s parking lots in Redwood City, California, surrounded by families with blankets).

I leave with several phone numbers and email addresses and a cordial invitation to stay if I’m ever in the Midwest again.

Once I’ve stocked up on food for the trip - in a supermarket that’s not particularly big, but still manages to overwhelm me by containing a WHOLE AISLE full of the most choices of sliced bread I’ve ever seen - I continue my journey West in the great American tradition.

Floods in Iowa mean that America’s most scenic train, the California Zephyr of which Jack Kerouac wrote enthusiastically, has been cancelled for a week, but I’m allowed a last minute change onto the somewhat less romantically named ‘Southwest Chief’ double-decker train from Chicago to Los Angeles, which is to be the first train allowed through the rain soaked tracks.

Whilst I’m queuing to board, further insult is added to injury by a retro art nouveau style poster proclaiming the view from the California Zephyr to be ‘the best scenery you’ll ever sleep through’.

Listen: California - Low

Orange, red and yellow Union Pacific trains pass in the other direction, huge car carrying trains that seem as endless as the landscape they blend in against - flat golden fields of corn in Kansas, empty apart from the odd farm and manmade metal storage containers that house the crops.

Large, bulbous white towers occur at infrequent intervals, the name painted in bold letters at the top telling us which town we’ve reached the only thing that changes. A red parrot stands out through the window as we move towards the Mississippi, and begin to see the floods: trees up to their necks in water, the top of a slide where there would usually be a children’s playground. Inside our carriages, we can smell the water - an earthy, muddy, natural scent.

Listen: Ramblin' Man - Hank Williams

We slowly and gingerly cross the great river at Fort Madison, next to a boat casino and freighters sailing down the river, and a yard of submerged phantom trains, only their roofs left on display. We briefly make a stop to breathe in the sunset air. Rather than mere air and an abstract sensation, it seems to be something tangible and living, hot, moist and salty, almost touchable. We’re cautioned, though, not to move too far away from the train unless we want to become hitchhikers or wait in the desert for the next train along, in twenty four hours time and risk becoming bait for bears.

As I’m told off by the conductor for moving a few metres away, and previously had to run and scramble back on the train, I resist the temptation to walk over and photograph a petrol station named Love with a heart logo on its sign. The man I’m sitting next to informs me it’s a Southern chain he always makes a point to stop at when possible, and he’d like a t-shirt if they sold them.

We follow the Santa Fe trail and the female conductor tells us to look out for a ghost town in amongst the scrubbed hills. At the highest point of the trail we have to turn the air conditioning off to help us get up the mountain.

Settlements have given way to the occasional ranch braving a rocky terrain of terracotta earth where the only thing hardy enough to grow is flowered cacti. I’m touched by humbles graves in the middle of nowhere, mounds marked only with loose earth and heaped flowers.

There are more horses than humans, and the few people we pass wave to the train. Towns out this way have forbidding and unusual names like Truth or Consequences.

Listen: Whipping the Horse’s Eyes - Calexico

I spend most of the epic trip in a dedicated sightseeing carriage with outward facing seats and large windows. The train is like a hotel on wheels, complete with a café and dining car that takes reservations for tables three times a day. It’s a community on the move, united in heat as we have to make an unplanned stop in the New Mexico desert to allow the engines to cool down, which have given up on us after climbing too many hills en route. We start trading books and magazines.

It’s a family train, as we’re reminded by constant announcements asking us to watch our language and ensure any laptops only show films and games with child friendly content. There’s a high concentration of elderly and middle aged couples with the time to spare, and by the end, fathers are promising their tired, cranky children that they’ll take the train next time they go and visit grandma and grandpa.

The conductor, though, remains upbeat, and chirps ‘it’s been an adventure’ over the tannoy.

Listen: Way Out West - Big Star

I come to know my fellow passengers by sight. I recognise religious families, their teenage boys stiff in tucked in shirts, dress trousers and old fashioned haircuts when the rest of us are crumpling in the heat and shedding clothes. Ladies sport lace and bonnets and demurely put up hair, and arrange cards decorated with Bible verses in front of them. Women coo over my straw hat and tell me to watch out in case they steal it when I go to sleep. A young girl sits down next to me and tries to make friends, asking me if I know any ‘Japanese - Spanish’ and trying to teach me some words in her hybrid language.

As people get on, they bring with them newspapers, like The Pueblo Chieftain, and The New Mexican, which talks of rodeos and tobacco chewing - traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation.

It doesn’t seem to matter that we’re currently running seven hours behind schedule. As the light fades, someone takes out a harmonica and starts to wail to the eerie landscape.

We break through the night like a ghost train as lightning flashes past us, and thunder rumbles above. The train is already moving to its own music - the horn is almost always pushed down in a fat chord filling out the bang-clacking drum beat of the train’s metal workings.

The rhythm, and passing through all the different time zones is making me feel lethargic - Central Time, Mountain Time, Mountain Central Time, and then finally Pacific Time.

I pull back the curtains at first light to Arizona. I could have awoken on the moon. Dried out trails where water’s eroded the sand eat into pyramid shaped dunes. A blue-green river is incongruous in the arid surroundings, and there’s a surprising amount of traffic - trucks and cars cutting though the desert.

Listen: Scenic World - Beirut

I’m sitting next to a pin up photographer and writer from Baltimore who’d sold everything to go on a road trip for a couple of months, but no one seems to have told him the predicted journey time is fifty five hours and doesn’t seem to believe the prospect of spending so long in motion at first.

Chase, as he invites me to call him, asked if he could sit next to me rather than risk ending up next to a weird person. He’s wearing aviator shades and is covered in tattoos, from his neck to his ribs to his grafittied feet. One of the first things we talk about is his love for Manchester music, and he proudly shows me a tattoo on his wrist proclaiming ‘Morrissey waz ere’, tracing the lines of a tag the great man himself wrote there after a concert. I smile to myself at a foot tattoo that boasts ‘I love ASS’. He’s been tattooed lived on TV, and wins the admiration of nearby passenger by explaining that he recently won a sum of money on a television programme in New York that sounds like Who Wants to Be A Millionaire played in a cab.

We discuss mods, teddy boys and culture. I tell him my ambition is to visit the South, and Chase says that the scenery flying past us reminds him of the south. I note he’s reading Tortilla Flat, and tell I’m excited to be heading into John Steinbeck’s state.

Discreetly drinking from his battered Pierre Cardin luggage throughout the journey, Chase is less than delighted when his own supply’s gone and the onboard shop runs out of liquor. My new neighbour raves about Dexy’s Midnight Runners and invites me to listen to his ipod while he’s asleep. When I’m attempting to sleep, he does his best to distract me with hilarious impersonations of stereotypically ‘British’ accents; the Cockney, the Mancunian lad.

Having made it through the first night, he gives me a ‘hi-five, roommate’.

Southern California is bland and flat in comparison. We rattle through vines and orchards, succulent with plums and peaches. We drive past Route 66, and road signs inviting us to ‘Adopt A Highway’. We pass scrap yards and the occasional trailer park.

I end up having to transfer in Bakersfield, as my train is running too late to make the connection to Northern California. My new friend films me as he accompanies me to the end of the platform and gives me a hug goodbye. We exchange contact details.

A coach ride and further train later, the bay area approaches, presided over by a pink sun reflected in a tranquil sea. Whereas the stations, like Albuquerque, we stopped at in the night and morning were warm, Northern California is COLD. I’m told it’s because forest fires have blocked the sun and turned it its strange colour. Unfortunately, the fires rule out a long hoped for visit to the spectacular coastal scenery of Big Sur and Monterey, setting of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

I don’t feel as if I can possibly sit down any longer, but on reaching Berkely I’m whisked off to see a bay area punk film from the 1980s, ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’, at the Pacific Film Archives where my hostess works.

Seated amongst old punks, surrounded by the smell of creaky leather jackets and boozy breath mingled with cigarettes, it’s a fight not to fall asleep. While I’m there, it’s also screening a Buster Keaton silent movie, Steamboat Bill, Jr. , set on the Mississippi, to a live pianist, and the original Howard Hawks Scarface.

Berkeley Art Museum is showing photographs by the filmmaker Bruce Connor, who died shortly after I arrived home, documenting the area’s 1970s and ‘80s punks.

Berkeley is also home to a Shakespeare and Company bookstore, sister shop to the famous old Beat bookshop in Paris, just one among many used book stores and vintage shops.

The town is overhung with a pine and eucalyptus smell, and dominated by the grassy campus of Cal university. Vestiges of the political activism it’s famous for remain: tree sitters have lights shone on them all night by police constantly on guard.

The town is a lot larger than I expected, and full of streets occupied with frats and sororities, their mansions distinguished by giant, alien Greek letters pinned on to the facades. We lunch in Café Mediterraneum, a sixties literary hangout.

San Francisco, too, is cold, windy and misty. Weirdos on the Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit), who I take to be amongst Berkeley’s drugs casualties, entertain us with talk of audio books. An assertive liberal tries to defend a passenger’s right to have a seat given up for her. A hairy man wearing two hats with feathers sticking out, combat trousers and an ‘I’m a HERO I gave blood’ badge carries a container in a pocket with what looks like an unappetising mixture of mud and milk. A fellow traveller asks what’s in it, and the man replies that it contains all his nutrients. A metal tree house peers at us from a scrap yard, and an otherwise nondescript man enters carrying a silver spacesuit under one arm. He holds a tub of glitter and silver paint on his arm, and a trail of glitz remains once he’s left the train.

On arriving at touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, we’re greeted by the fishy smell of sea lions, and watch them bask and flop over each other. Amongst stalls selling clam chowder from bowl shaped bread, we hire Blazin’ Saddles to bike the haunted city of decorative old Victorian villas, despite the wind (and hills!).

We take refreshments in the Japanese Tea Garden in the massive and green Golden Gate Park, with its coi carp, tiny trees and water features, and pose in the sculpture garden of the De Young Gallery by a giant Claes Oldenburg safety pin and oversize apples.

The famous, three story City Lights bookstore in North Beach is still populated by bearding men discussing literature. I’m taken with colourful posters on the wall proclaiming ‘Viva Zapata!’, and ‘Printers’ Ink is the Greater Explosive’, as well as a section entitled ‘Muckraking’. There is a large fanzines section, where a zine entitled ‘Slept in Beds’ features photographs of slept in beds, the stories behind them and samples of fabric from said beds. Upstairs in the poetry room, I leaf through Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the founder’s, best known book, Coney Island of the Mind.

We pant our bikes up Lombard Street, the world’s crookedest street, and find it’s almost as difficult to get them down some streets, as it feels like they’re going to run away down the slope with us.

Listen: Shake Some Action - Flamin’ Groovies

Nearby, is Kerouac Adler, an alley named after the most famous Beat. A ticket to the Beat Museum announces ‘the mission of the Beat Museum is to spread the values of the Beat Generation - Tolerance, inclusiveness, and having the courage to live your own individual truth’. Two loud, oddly dressed hippies in the video room grill me on my favourite beats. Luckily, my preference for the poetry of Denise Lebertov as well as the more obvious choice of the writing of Allen Ginsburg, John Clellon Holmes and Kerouac, seems to meet with their approval.

They add their own commentary and laughter to the film, criticising ‘Which war? Good one. Who says the war ever even finished’ when the film makes an unsuspecting mention of the post-war climate in which the Beats were writing.

Listen: 7 and 7 Is - Love

We go for dinner in a restaurant dedicated to all things garlic, named appropriately The Stinking Rose. It’s hung with corks everywhere of all the bottles of wine ever popped there.

Night has fallen, and the street lamps seem to follow the tramlines down crooked streets, becoming light condensed into wire form.

Haight-Ashbury is touristy these days, and apart from vintage stores it’s full of shops selling sixties hippy memorabilia like tie dye baby grows. I enjoy a blues harmonica busker under a sign post, however, and pose for the obligatory photo where the streets Haight and Ashbury cross.

Listen: White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane

My visit also coincides with gay pride weekend. Naked hula hoopers on the top of buildings and men proudly showcasing their bottoms from upstairs windows point the way to the Castro district, where we dance in the street to techno at a huge party amongst pink angels and faeries in fluffy dressing gowns and heels.

By the end of the night, feathers, boas and tinsel of all colours are trampled underfoot in amongst party food like corndogs, funnel cake and sourdough bread.

Homeless people with shopping trolleys dart through the sea of legs to claim rubbish - cans and bottles - to sell for recycling. On the drive back, however, an aggressive tramp throws a rock at our car.

California boasts spectacular, bleached scenery, golden and pimpled with trees but it’s also very urban. Houses have colourful front gardens of wild flowers, and even the freeways have flower beds down the middle.

We soar over the Golden Gate bridge on a day when there’s enough fog over the red-orange metalwork to give it atmosphere, but not enough to obscure the bay and the small islands beneath.

We go on scenic drives on windy, hilly roads past remote farms selling strawberries, signs for drag races and miles and miles of cliff top fields broken by strange yards selling large animals made out of rusty metal. Reaching an angry ocean, we stop on a remote beach of grey sand.

Another destination is the Mystery Spot, an attraction where one can sample the rules of gravity in reverse. It’s just outside Santa Cruz, a university town with a seaside amusement park, and we stop in a giant redwood forest and step inside hollowed out trees, where the bark inside takes the texture of wooden leopard skin.

We pass through the cottages of La Honda, hidden amongst sun and pines. It was once home to Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and setting of his notorious novel The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.

At sunset, we reach a lookout spot and park in a row of cars admiring the view out over Berkeley, before returning home to make popcorn slathered in condensed milk and sugar. I feel like I’m a typical young American, watching South Park and an animated TV comedy American children grew up on: Ren and Stimpy.

Another outing takes us to wine country, cheese tasting and a historic Mission opposite an art deco cinema with worn paint in the small town of Sonoma. Nearby, a park is dedicated to the author, socialist and tramp Jack London.

The woods around us hum with wildlife, as we trample past signs warning us to beware of rattlesnakes and poison oak, to London’s houses and cottage. Lizards dart about to both sides of us, and we stop to watch one with a long, electric blue tail. I’m fascinated by banana slugs, large, slimy mustard coloured creatures.

Later, we explore Jack London square next to Oakland marina, visit a Chinese bakery in Chinatown and eat a dinner of tibs and honey wine in an Ethiopian restaurant with our hands.

Listen: Crazy In Love - Beyonce

By night, houses in Oakland are taken over for hip-hop parties. Another house hosts an impromptu punk gig in the front yard. Most houses in this area have threatening looking fences with metal spikes, but three punk bands play within a picket fence, with a wheelchair attached to it by a coat hanger, before the police turn up. A woozy Latino family arrive in their dressing gowns and stand in the street gazing in curiously at the odd view of a chess set, two sailing boats atop a barbecue, a child and Rottweiler dogs and puppies running around and an angular punk band whose drum kit sports the motif ‘A Friendly Neighbour Is My Shotgun’.

Over in San Francisco, pale faced, long haired metal fans dressed in black get a much needed dose of sun at a free outdoor concert in the Jerry Garcia Auditorium. A small dog has been dressed up in the customary regalia too, in a denim jacket decorated with band patches.

Listen: I Just Can’t Seem to Make You Mine - Nuggets Boxset

I’m told I have to sample American fast food chains, so we drive through Taco Bell, Americanised Mexican food, and In and Out, a Christian, California only burger chain where the fries and drinks come with a discreet Bible quotation on the packaging. Unlike the UK, these really are cheap - a dollar something for a cheese burger.

During my last week, I’m taken to an old style diner playing sentimental sixties pop music. My companions’ omelettes, and my pancakes, come with a sole strawberry as a cute finishing touch, and the ketchup dispenser puts a freak heart shaped blob of ketchup onto the top of the serving in my friend’s cup.

I think that American style pancakes with the unlikely combination of melted butter and syrup is the most delicious food I have ever tasted, but still feel obliged to try a slice of real American. pie. I deliberate at length, considering pecan, but finally settle on classic, wholesome apple pie and steal a bite of my friend’s pumpkin pie.

I’m also taken to a Peruvian baby shower my friend’s baby is holding, in one of the distinctive Latin areas in Californian towns and sample Peruvian food - chicken with spicy sauce and rice.

I decide to leave the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Frida Kahlo exhibition until my last day, but it’s closed so I wander the independent galleries nearby, from those offering collectors Picasso and Miro sketches to small galleries championing new artists.

I’m transfixed by the colourful, luminous skin tones of Californian painter Serena Rosenfeld. The gallery assistant, confident she can make a sale, sits me down in a private room to view the painting in a different light, and amongst other works by the artist. She quizzes me on the size of my bedroom at home and asks if I can envisage a place for it in my home. I have a hard time convincing her I can’t part with $6400 dollars, even if they will ship it for me. As a consequence, I don’t linger too long on the children’s book paintings of Peruvian artist Rosemary Vavende.

Having walked around galleries for hours, I rest in Union Square to a Bolivian guitarist named Oscar Reynolds.

Listen: You’re Gonna Miss Me - 13th Floor Elevators

I’m worried that if I stay in California any longer, I might start to talk in the strange language of Northern Californians, and begin to pepper my sentences with the word ‘hella’ that seems to precede every adjective.

I have a thirteen hour plane journey to look forward to, however, twice the time it took me to reach New York. My last journey in America, though, is a good one, past the magnificent dinosaur shaped cranes of the port of Oakland that tower over the bay and can be seen through the windows of the SFS airport bound train.