Americas Archive

The song of the ol’ gray dawg

In “Cash on the Barrelhead”, a Louvin Brothers song  he recorded for his album Grievous Angel, Gram Parsons (the man who invented country rock) sings of a bus driver reminding him that “this ol’ gray dawg gets paid to run”. Greyhound, though, is still one of the cheapest forms of long-distance transport in the US, which is why it’s the choice of what Doug Levitt calls “people on the margins”. Levitt, who describes himself as a former foreign correspondent and “downwardly-mobile” singer songwriter, has clocked up 120,000 miles riding Greyhounds across the United States over the past 12 years, on an odyssey inspired by Woody Guthrie. In The Greyhound Diaries, for the BBC World Service, he trades stories with passengers he meets along the way, and turns some of theirs into songs. 

Breaking down in Bend

Tim Moore is a writer who’s not afraid of a gimmick. For his last book, The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold, he rode a two-geared East German shopping bike along a route that parallels the old Iron Curtain. For his latest, Another Fine Mess (Yellow Jersey), he switches from two wheels to four, travelling coast to coast across the United States through Trump-voting territory in a 93-year-old Ford Model T nicknamed Mike. In an extract published in The Telegraph Magazine, he tells how the car broke down in the town of Bend, Oregon, and he was enveloped in a “two-week festival of resourcefulness and the human spirit”.

Westward Ho!

My elder grandson’s on half-term break. I’ve been spending the days with him and my wife going to and from harbours and beaches along the high-hedged roads of Devon, and the evenings on slightly wider highways on the other side of the Atlantic. No teleportation involved; I just tune in at night to Laura Barton’s American Road Trip on Radio 4 Extra. In a grand audio outing, she heads from New York to LA, combining reflections and reminiscences on her own Stateside journeys with well-chosen excerpts from the radio archives and readings from the works of writers including Jonathan Raban, Joan Didion and Sam Shepard.  It’s a three-hour trip, but an endlessly diverting one, and there are plenty of places where you can pull in for a break along the way…

Writing and firefighting

In the introduction to his latest collection of essays, Figures in a Landscape: People and Places (Hamish Hamilton), Paul Theroux opens with a few lines on fiction and those who practise it: “When writers complain about what a tough job writing is, making a meal of their pain, any fool can see that what they are saying is a crock. Compared with a real job, like coal mining or harvesting pineapples or putting out wildfires or waiting on tables, writing is heaven.” Philip Connors isn’t a novelist, but he does his bit to put out wildfires and write. The website Longreads has an extract from his latest book, A Song for the River, in which “he watches as his beloved forest and his personal life burn, and he tries to imagine what will arise from their ashes”.

“The most secretly interesting place in America’

Sam Anderson first went to Oklahoma City in 2012 to write about its professional basketball team for The New York Times Magazine. He didn’t know then that he was embarking on a much longer project, a portrait of the city that he says is “the most secretly interesting place in America”. That portrait has now been published in Boom Town (Crown), which, as the subtitle has it, is “The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis.” The book is reviewed in the current NY Times Book Review, and Anderson talks about it in a podcast.

Life and (slow) death on the Chesapeake

I’m hoping to visit Arizona soon to write a travel piece. I’ve been doing background reading, buying guides and other books and making contact with people whose brains I would like to pick — all online. I couldn’t do that in the mid-1990s when I visited the Eastern Shore, that broad peninsula cut off from western Maryland by the great curve of the Chesapeake Bay. The Daily Telegraph, for which I was then working, had started what it called the “Electronic Telegraph” (on November 15, 1994), but its small staff was still separate from the print team, producing a publication that, initially, was updated just once a day. When my piece on the Chesapeake Bay appeared in print, on March 4, 1995, it was accompanied by mentions of the airline and tour operator with which I travelled, the hotel where I stayed and the tourist board that helped me on the ground. I gave telephone numbers for all of them — but no websites. Few organisations then had websites, and few readers — while access was still being charged by the minute — were minded to go online.

In those days, I did much of my most useful background reading when I arrived, following a swift scouring of the shelves of one or two local bookshops. Which is how I found Watermen by Randall S Peffer (Johns Hopkins University Press), a vivid and salty account of a year Peffer spent with the fishermen of Tilghman Island, harvesting the Chesapeake’s oysters, crabs, fish and waterfowl. If you’re heading to the Chesapeake Bay (and even if you’re not), I’d still thoroughly recommend it. But first, maybe, I’d urge you to buy a more recent, more topical book: Chesapeake Requiem by Earl Swift, which was published last month in the United States by Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins, and which I have just started reading. It promises to be an affectionate but inquiring portrait of a singular place.

Swift, a long-time reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, lived full-time for a while on Tangier Island, which sits dead centre at the Chesapeake’s broadest point, “at the mercy of nature’s wildest whims”. Those whims are a large part of his story, which he researched over nearly two years. The inhabitants of Tangier have made their living for generations from crabs and oysters. But the very water that sustains their community — one of 470 conservative and deeply religious people — is also slowly erasing it. A study published in 2015 by Nature suggested that the island, which has lost two thirds of its land since 1850, could become the first American town to fall victim to the rising sea levels brought about by climate change. Donald Trump, who is hugely popular on Tangier, has said there is no reason to worry…

On America’s border (No — not that one.)

America’s border with Mexico has been generating a lot of words, not just in news and feature pieces but in books as various as William Atkins’s The Immeasurable World and Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes A River, a memoir of his years as a US Border Patrol agent. (Cantú also popped up last weekend on BBC2 in Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border, briefing the road-tripping comedian on musicians but without being given a chance to plug his own book.) Porter Fox (what a great byline!) has been preoccupied with a quieter American frontier: the one between the US and Canada. To write his new book, Northland (W W Norton & Company), he spent three years travelling about 4,000 miles from Maine to Washington. He told The New York Times: “I started the way every other northland explorer had for the last 400 years: I packed a canoe, tent, maps and books, and headed for the line.” Outside Magazine has an excerpt from his book on territory in Montana known as the Medicine Line (“named by Native Americans for how the US Calvary magically stopped pursuing them at the US-Canada boundary”).

Back to the deserts

William Atkins’ The Immeasurable World: Travels in Desert Places was reviewed in The Observer last weekend by Sara Wheeler. The author has also been interviewed by Radio National in Australia — which seemed keener to draw him out on recent happenings in the Sonoran Desert, on the US-Mexico border, than on British nuclear tests in Maralinga in South Australia, which also feature in his book.

Following the fish on the Yukon

My review of Adam Weymouth’s excellent debut, Kings of the Yukon — for which he canoed 2,000 miles down the river to see how dwindling salmon numbers are affecting the lives of locals —  appears today in the print edition of The Daily Telegraph. You can read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

In the Black Hills and the Badlands

Picture © MICHAEL KERR

My article for Telegraph Travel about South Dakota, pegged to the 70th annniversary of the start of work on the Crazy Horse Memorial, is now online