America: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
I’ve been enjoying getting people to do my work for me lately, and in keeping with that trend, I made my girlfriend (Kate Anderson) write a post about her recent visit to America similar to my reviews of Iceland and Sweden. A long time self-loathing American, I really needed someone more objective for this post. Amidst all of the hiking, Mexican food, and creationism, this is what she found.
I hear a loud ‘HEY HOW ARE YOU?’ and answer the parking attendant with a genuine ‘I’m not too bad thank you, I’ve just arrived’. Seth looks at me with a face that reads oh Kate and I realise that when people ask ‘how are you?’ in the South, they basically mean ‘hello’ and don’t want a heartfelt life-story in return.
As we leave the airport car park, I get that familiar rush of excitement at arriving in a new country and not knowing what’s what. Although I was following my heart to North Carolina, the most surprising thing about this trip is that it felt like good ol’ character-building, life-changing travel.
I’ve been to America before on a family trip where I found myself in a casino on the Gulf Coast with a Mexican uncle I never knew I had (a story for another time). Still, I’ve always had this attitude that I know about America and it doesn’t have much to offer me as just another western country. I guess my previous travels have been based on trying to find some place that is the most different to, or least alike, where I am from.
When I was 18 and ready to quench my thirst for travel for the first time, my aim was simply: get the fuck away from the city (London) and all those God Dam McDonalds. Of course since actually spending time abroad in India, Iceland and parts of Europe, I know that travel is much less about escaping your own reality than it is about embracing someone else’s. In this case Seth’s. So like any other country you visit, there’s some good, some bad, and some downright ugly.
The Appalachian Mountains mark 2,400 km along the East Coast of America; a great smudge of tectonic beauty with a trail crafted specifically for the purposes of recreational walking, completed in 1937, and aptly named the Appalachian Trail. Seth and I were at the North Carolina section, staying in Boone (a breath-of-liberal-fresh-air town next to the Blue Ridge Parkway).
These were the mountains I’d heard about in Fleet Foxes songs or in Band of Horses lyrics. Yet there I was looking out over vast vistas of mystical mountains, rounded by 270 million years of elements and covered in a misty, blue haze that made them seem both peaceful and ghostly. It was a couple of weeks before the spring bloom so there was still thousands of bare tree trunks pricking up all around. From a distance, they reminded me of sporadic hairs on a pubescent male’s chin. Compared to the daunting volcanic scree mountains of Iceland, these were gentle, commanding and wise trails that guided you slowly up and up and up.
Seth knew where to take me - from a 20-minute stroll to the perfect star gazing spot Beacon Heights, to a 12-mile hike that wove between the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee up to a 360-degree view of blue balds. You can never underestimate how good you feel after a hike - trust me there really is no better place for conversation (or for being silent, now that I come to think about it).
It was great going with someone who knows the ins and outs of the AT, as it’s colloquially known, and I would recommend finding out as much as you can from the locals wherever you travel. Some of the wisdom I learnt was:
The white blaze rectangle is symbolic of the Appalachian Trail (two white blazes means there is an incoming side-trail or an obscure turn); a blue blaze marks water sources, alternate routes, and shortcuts. Trail magic is food that locals leave out for long-distance hikers who are glad for a fizzy drink and a crisp apple. I found out that you have to purify the water from streams as it contains the parasite Giardia - a good light-weight solution is LifeStraw.
Then there is the famous what to do if you see a bear question. The answer is to puff yourself up to look as massive as possible and shout as loud as you can. It makes you wonder what noise would actually come out of your mouth in that situation. Roarrr?! Some more sinister but useful knowledge is that ‘pink blazers’ is a term for sleaze bags who walk the AT to scout for girls, and that it’s best not to camp near a road – local opposition to hikers and vandalism can be a problem.
Whenever I met someone in North Carolina, I was thinking in the back of my mind ‘how religious are you’ and ‘do you know that the earth IS actually more than 6,000 years old?’ Whilst the overt friendliness of most locals was a breath of fresh air, I always felt I had to steer clear of any religious chatter to avoid having someone look at me with eyes that said ‘you’re going straight to hell’ when you tell them that you’re agnostic. For me, all religion can be alarmingly pervasive, not just Islam as the media would like us to believe.
I attended a Sunday service while I was in Greensboro and as a person who is not usually exposed to religious preaching, I was shocked by the pastor’s rhetoric and the sense of indoctrination that goes along with it. When he told a story of how 30,000 people died in an earthquake in Armenia and that one child was “found by Jesus” in the rubble 4 days later, I couldn’t help but laugh as Seth whispered in my ear ‘what about the other 29,999 people that god didn’t give a shit about?’
I appreciate that people find hope, community and a sense of purpose through religion. That to me is a positive. However, having studied Karl Marx’s view of religion as a subset of capitalist alienation and Hume’s refutation of the Design argument, I find it all too hard to accept any religion as the overriding truth. It is more that we perceive there to be a god in human experience, rather than any ontological man with a white beard in need of a good trim!
I could easily rant about the usual catastrophic problems in the U.S - obesity, crime levels, and consumerism (all of which are issues in the UK). I do agree that there are way too many fast food restaurants and I have some serious doubts on how socially desegregated America really is.
For me, the most annoying thing was how clearly these problems manifest themselves on a day to day basis and the level of political disconnect this has with some people and politicians. This is, again, similar to the UK. A homeless guy asked us for money after a long story about how his brother died going over a dam and that he wants to change the rap game in his brother’s memory. The equivalent of this in London is someone asking ‘can I have 20p?’ The point is there is little attempt to address the poverty cycle and provide the support needed to get them back on their feet in Republican-run North Carolina.
We know there’s increasingly shocking levels of gun crime in America. Yet if you want too, you can pop in to Walmart to buy a gun, come home and watch FOX News that teaches you how to use a gun, and then you can be sure that if you develop mental health problems there won’t be any state help to stop you from walking into a school and using that gun.
These contradictions go on. Organic and fresh food is twice the price of a buy-one-get-five-free Poptart deal, even though diabetes and heart disease are the number one killer in the US. All this is wrapped up in sinister reality TV shows like To Catch a Predator and pharmaceutical adverts that spend more time listing lengthy side effects than saying what the product actually does. It’s a hard conundrum, as I enjoyed watching The First 48 (a programme that follows the first two days of a homicide investigation) because it plays on an in-built human fascination with death and violence. For me, it all creates a disconcerting picture that we should look at with a critical eye, even if we do all enjoy eating Reese’s Pieces from time to time.
Overall, I was seriously impressed by how friendly and carefree people were in North Carolina. Boone is a lively university town where everyone just seems…well…happy. The shops were my idea of outdoor gear paradise, brimming with SmartWool gems and Seth’s favourite (and slightly odd) running shoes. Of a day, you could pop over to the Appalachian State University study area that has strategically placed water features to sooth you through the stress of pretty much anything, or you could just relax in any one of the hipster coffee joints where the staff are way too cool to be friendly and leave you to your own devices. I would highly recommend Boone for anyone who loves beautiful scenery, good beer, and some insightful conversation about whatever takes your fancy.