Another journey to the US occurred over the Christmas and New Year of 2002–2003. I was a third of the way through my Master’s degree at Birmingham University, England, had just finished an essay and was exhausted. I should have gone home, but not a huge fan of Christmas, I opted for three weeks in America instead. As a student, I managed to obtain a relatively inexpensive flight and was able to get a month Greyhound pass, which allowed me travel access anywhere in the US. I rose late to begin with and missed my first train to London, but I figured I could get another one. That meant that I arrived at Heathrow with just twenty minutes to spare and could miss the flight, but luck was with me as it was delayed by two hours.
I arrived in New York around 10.00 pm after a seven and a half hour flight. I had another problem on landing. I was questioned aggressively by customs officials who found my passport suspicious. However, after some more direct enquiries about my reasons for visiting the US, the duration of my stay and my internal destination, I was eventually allowed to enter. Their main concern was over a previous five month stay. Nevertheless, I managed to catch the midnight bus to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Marcia, a lady I had met when studying there in 2000, met me the next day and we caught up; I told her of my latest travel adventures and she updated me on the progress of her studies. She helped me search the Internet for hostels in Florida. However, my first choice in St. Augustine, North America’s oldest continuous European settlement, founded in 1565, was fully booked and my second option in Fort Lauderdale was closed. Eventually, I chose the town of Clearwater, on the Gulf of Mexico, for my first destination. I was going to stay in Montgomery, Alabama, but I got a lucky break as Marcia was heading down there to spend Christmas with her son, so I opted for a lift. Several people had told me there was nothing to see in Montgomery and there were no hostels. I was learning quickly that the US was poorly equipped when it came to providing backpacker accommodation.
Some states are really prepared, like Utah, California and New York, but areas such as Texas and the major states in the south and also in the far north, as I discovered later, were more problematic. A few days before Christmas, we drove the eight-hour journey to Alabama. I spent a delightful couple of hours with Marcia’s son and his family, and then left, enduring another long bus journey to Clearwater via Tallahassee, Florida’s State Capital and college town. I arrived in the small town just below Tampa Bay mid afternoon the following day.
I met a young girl who I suspected was absconding, and together we set off by local bus to reach the hostel. After a forty-minute ride, and appeared to be nowhere nearer, we decided to alight and walk; we eventually hailed a taxi, which dropped us at the correct place within minutes. It was when I was checking in that I realised my companion was untrustworthy. She asked if there were any dorm rooms available and then said she had no money. She mentioned a different town from the one she had said to me. I told the receptionist that I was alone, had a reservation and got a dorm room.
Clearwater is a quaint town, on the eastern side of the Gulf of Mexico. The population is mainly white, middle class and retired. I stayed three days, meeting two friendly American guys; one was undertaking academic research in the country of Colombia and another gentleman in his sixties, who told me he had been born in the same hospital as Bob Dylan in Duluth, North Minnesota. It was hot weather, the kind that made you just want to sit around, chat and listen to the radio. I listened to Credence Clearwater Revival, who I fell in love with after hearing the song ‘Pride of Mary’ (1968).
I briefly explored the small town, particularly the beaches and nearby shops. I enquired about a boat ride along the Gulf, but discovered they were unavailable on Christmas Eve. When I arrived in Clearwater, I made the mistake of throwing my travel bus pass away! However, I did keep the original information and, this enabled me to continue using the buses. I had rung Kerry, an old university friend, who was working in Orlando, several days earlier informing her I would be in town for Christmas and we agreed to meet up. Therefore, on Christmas morning, when most people were still in bed or opening presents, I was travelling to Kissimmee, a suburb of Orlando.
Once there, I got the local bus that dropped me across the road from my hostel. I checked in and asked to stay for five days. Kerry was working for Disney World and was able to get me in as a guest, so we agreed to meet the following day around midday. I rang my family and Marcia, but became somewhat emotional and felt sad as I was alone. The hostel was almost deserted so I went out to find some liquor to resolve my loneliness, but could not find any — luckily for me. I had only just stopped drinking, having quit in June, and was beginning to feel my first relapse. Nevertheless, I could not obtain any alcohol and the feelings passed.
Getting to Disney World was difficult. First, I had to cross a busy two-lane road and then find the bus stop; it was hard to locate, as they are just metal benches set back from the pavement. Eventually, I arrived and walked up a series of slopes where I caught a small tram that took me to the correct park. A staff member who was just going to work, let me in, but Kerry was nowhere in sight. I had been told to wait at the large spaceship, but still she could not be found. I went to Kerry’s workplace. Three hours later, she appeared at the bar. She said that she thought I had stood her up once more, and failing to find me had gone home.
We had a quick tour of the large circular park that contained a series of acts representing various countries through an array of musical events. For instance, there was a group who imitated the Beatles. When Kerry started work, I spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering the park, listening to the different acts. The Canadian show was dramatic, with bagpipes and electric guitars. I also heard a Wild West display and an Indiana Jones show, which included loud explosions. In the evening, I attended the Christmas concert by candle light. Although it was religious, it was enjoyable; the music and singing with candles was excellent. When it finished I needed to find the exit and was escorted by security staff all the way to the bus stop; this happened every night I was in the parks.
On the second day, Kerry got me in again and I took a small ferry to another park and went on a fast car ride. I was able to navigate by following the park’s perimeter, using my hearing to detect and avoid large crowds.
I saw little of Kerry as she was busy working, but when we did meet we had fun; she showed me the large tennis balls they sold and we played with them, bouncing them around in the shop. Kerry still found it amazing that I was travelling independently around the world doing crazy activities.
I next headed to the Florida Keys and the end of the American land mass. Once I got near to the Keys, the buses were less full until it was just me, a humorous driver, a couple of South Korean girls and an American who had worked in Asia. The scenery was spectacular, palm trees and green bushes, with hot, sunny weather and stillness all around. The Keys are a trio of islands connected by road bridges, Key West being the last and largest island of the three. It is a strange place, full of unusual people of all ages, sex, character and colour. I stayed in a hostel, with extremely rude staff that made me wait, along with other backpackers, until 2.00 pm before we were admitted. The hostel was open, with wooden dorms that backed onto each other. There were homosexuals everywhere, and many Americans who migrated to Key West from the most Northern states such as Minnesota, New Hampshire and Montana, who returned home during their summer.
I did little on the islands, being low in money. There are many expensive activities available, such as fishing, diving and water sports. There is also the Ernest Hemingway house to visit, but at $10 per person I decided against it. I hung around the hostel in the evenings, talking to people, and explored the beach during the day.
I met an amusing Canadian guy who only had sight in one eye; we talked until late dusk. I met a retired US marine and discussed the Vietnam War with him. We listened to the fireworks on New Years Eve before going to a bar for a drink at around 3.00 am. A little local culture is always interesting. I was chatted up by a gay man who asked me if I was homosexual, I replied “Only on Sundays!” Next, I headed to Miami for a couple of days before deciding to return to South Carolina, with a brief stop in Atlanta, Georgia. Miami was uneventful; the large hostel was full of Cubans and Argentinians.
Miami, Atlanta, South Carolina and New York
I met an English couple and we spent an afternoon together on the beach. I got lost on another occasion and was offered a lift by a couple of guys in a golf buggy who were in the water sport business. I did not wander the city as, on my arrival, I sensed from the noise and tense atmosphere that it was big, dirty and dangerous. Atlanta, alternatively, what little I experienced of it, was lovely. I got a Metro from the bus station and then a transit bus, which dropped me outside the hostel. The Backpackers was spacious. The weather was constantly hot and the hostel’s owners were charming, very accommodating and eager to help. I stayed one night, confident that I had discovered a place to revisit in the future, and returned to South Carolina and Marcia. I had a couple of days with her, just recuperating after all the bus journeys. Although I enjoy those long bus rides, if you get a driver who is exasperating, patronising or antagonistic, then they can feel even longer than they really are.
I eventually caught my last bus to New York City, where I teamed up with Ross, a guy I had met in Thailand a year earlier. He was living in the Big Apple and looking for work. We spent a day together, walked across Brooklyn Bridge, and visited Ground Zero where the Twin Towers of the World Trade centre had once stood, and had a general wander around the city that I still dislike. This time though, it was less busy; it was wintertime so there were few people and less traffic.
I finally returned to the UK – another interesting and eventful trip over until the next time.