Continued from Day 4 . . .
It is 1966, I am 18 years old. Yesterday I crossed the Atlantic and landed in New York. Today I lost my address book . . .
Bit of a problem, I know no one in New York and I’m struggling to think whether I know anyone anywhere near here. It’s a difficult moment.
Then, after an agonising age, I do remember the name of someone – in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. I look at my map. This doesn’t seem too far away. So I ask my way to the bus station and, after a long anxious walk with the humidity rising and the suitcase getting heavier, eventually find a telephone kiosk, determined to tackle the stack of giant telephone books. I search the New Jersey book, looking for an entry in Point Pleasant. There are several entries under the same name – of course, there are, I should have guessed. Should I ring each one now or go to Point Pleasant and try my luck there? Either way, I need to get out of New York, because I’ve nowhere to go here and I don’t want to spend money on another hotel when I am unfamiliar with . . . well, everything here really. But I do still have my Greyhound bus ticket, valid for 99 days. There will be no problem getting on the bus. So let’s go now.
The address book had been my safety net. I have spent six months putting names and places together, each address another waypoint in the ninety nine day journey. One or two were family ones I had to visit but most were added because either I might be in the vicinity, or I might decide go in that direction rather than another, or, let’s face it, I might be in trouble and need someone.
I laugh about it now. Now I would have all those addresses on my mobile phone and on my iPad, and, in the unlikely event I lost them both, the back-up would be on the Cloud and I could access them in an internet cafe. Besides that, I would probably have a printout tucked in my socks; and failing all that my mum would be on Skype to list them out again. Before I arrived, I would have looked up each address on Google Earth and Google Maps – oh, and emailed profusely. But, do you know what, I had none of these, just a small book which I lost immediately. How lucky was that?
I am sitting in a window seat on a Greyhound bus. The seat is a blue, synthetic material, quite comfortable, moulded by backs mostly bigger than mine. There’s a cloth head rest. The seat next to me is empty and there is a piece of gum stuck on the back of the seat in front. The driver climbs on board, looks back at his dozen or so passengers, takes his cap off and swings the door shut. It closes with a satisfying hiss. The corner of the window is greasy but the view is leaving-a-bus-station fascinating. I don’t care about the vehicle, I’m travelling at last.
I still plan to see North America. Now that I have got over the shock, I realise that, without the address book, I am free to navigate wherever and whenever I want in the next three months. I don’t have a lot of money but I can sleep on the buses or in cheap hotels or with people I meet. In the next weeks, I will narrowly escape arrest in a Las Vegas casino, get asked to leave a bus in New Orleans because I am white, and find myself uncomfortable with the party scene on a beach near Vancouver. I will visit parts of the continent that the tourist boards won’t want me to see and I will be elevated by places, people and events in ways that I can’t yet imagine.
In 1966, three years after John Kennedy was shot, two years before Martin Luther King will suffer the same fate, four years before Woodstock, this is a remarkable continent. For the rest of my life, my view of the US, Canada and their relationship with the rest of the world, all their ups and downs, will be coloured by this trip. For now, all that is ahead of me. I sit back, relax and enjoy the journey.
And one part of the emergency plan has already been tested: if caught out, move on.
To be continued . . .