*USA: Fragments of America

CLIVE VAN LINT and LIZ LAWSON experienced another America on a ride through the southern States.

Independence, Virginia. The bar was a long corridor with gloss paint on the walls and a row of drinkers. Just like in the movies they all went silent as we walked in, and the barman disappeared.  A drunken old greybeard with a drastically ravaged face struck up a conversation of kinds. "How can you make up a dollar with fifty coins?  No offence ma'am. If it takes a sow an' a half to eat a bale 'n' a half, how long does it take a one legged man to climb a ten bar fence? - a while".

He sneezed and snot went down his arm, and down his hand, with some clinging to his lip. He insisted we see his home and his antiques. (No charge for the beer). "Will you bring us back?" "Does a cow have a butt?"

We locked the bikes and got in his car, which had panels missing and only one door which opened. We walked up the steps into his house. He had a collection of condiment sets, clasp knives and wicker table baskets. "They all thought you were from the ABC". "The ABC?". "The Alcohol Beverage Control". "No, I don't feel afraid on my own. I've got my first cousin and my second cousin nearby. My wife had a breakdown. Her head let her down after 26 years." His eyes watered in their bruised sockets. "I'll show you my second cousin". He shambled out of the room and returned with a Smith and Weston .38 in one hand and 5 dumdum shells in the other. "Wanna see my first cousin?" We declined. It was a sawn-off shotgun.

He returned us to our bikes. The lock had been opened, the cable rewound and relocked. We'd been told.

We saw many such faces of America in our journey up through Georgia, Carolina and Virginia. Bars, restaurants, roadside conversations and camp sites were our way of meeting the people within the landscapes.

We discovered that Americans don't camp, they recreate. Camper vans are called RVs: recreational vehicles. As big as coaches; with boats on the roof. They tow cars with bikes on the roof. At night, wonder of wonders, it's all floodlit: It cost them $22 to plug into a power point and faucet.

We stopped in a bar in Salerno. The heat was numbing. The glasses came frosted from the fridge, as did the conversation: "You ain't gonna get over the mountains. It's too cold and the wind comes down from the Arctic and the mountains are big, I mean big. Anyway, the blacks'll get yer in Georgia. An if they don't the Rednecks will".

St Lucie. A rough, dirty campsite. Our neighbour turned out to belong to an identifiable underclass of educated workers unable to afford rent or mortgage, using camping in such a superb climate for accommodation.

"Watch out for the Rednecks in Georgia", he said, "They don't like nothin that's happened in the last 100 years".

At Springfield we stayed in an old white farmhouse. Mrs. Rahns, a canny old crone, sat in her rocking chair and told us tales of Old Georgia. "Lil' ole house is a hundred years old. Mah husband moved in in '24. His family's one of the Saltzburgers: D'yall go to old Ebenezer, sweet Jesus it's purity". She twanged and sang her story. "An Sherman took what he could and burnt what he couldn't. She spoke with a bitterness that was still fresh, "His men ripped the hams off the hogs while them was still alive and took the clothes of the baby girl that died young.

Sylvania won't sell beer. It's God's country. The churches have exotic names: 'The Second African Methodist', what happened to the first? 'Middle Ground Baptist', 'First Egypt Weslyan'. We headed for Augusta, following the South Carolina border. Real hills and God and dogs. The people were helpful yet undemanding beyond my experience.

Through Georgia the dogwood and azalea were in flower.

Morning. For the first couple of hours it's severely upwards, drinking vast amounts of water from the little streams. The vista from Mount Mitchell is stunning. But there's nothing in the landscape like a ruined castle or a monastery to give flavour to the scene.

We passed through a high class lakeside community and asked the way of a white-haired woman. "Put your bikes in the car and I'll show you my favourite spots". She drove us back up the Ridgeway, over the Linn Cove viaducts, Grandfather Mountain, and other places, too. She described the history of The Erstwhile Tobacco Fields, The Historical Absence of Blacks, Sherman, Chestnut Blight, Micro Communities, Inbreeding and the Mountain Folk. "They've close-set eyes, no chin and they're ugly with an indifference to stupidity". She drove with one hand when two wouldn't have been enough.

Boone is a dreary town, named after Daniel who, according to one local, was "a cowardly bastard who spent his life avoiding the revolutionary war and fathering children without the benefit of marriage".

We follow the 'New River' path: a fabulous 15 mile ride alongside a slow, high river, abandoned tobacco fields, derelict barns and an old wooden drying trellis.

We met a black man who declared his intention to cycle because "ah feel so stiff since ah was shot. Once here, twice here, and here and here five times". We didn't linger.

We biked along the Ridgeway, where every overlook is breathtakingly beautiful. Stonewall Jackson is the local hero. He took 25,000 men to battle in the Civil War along the valley below, only to meet his death.

By the way, they were wrong about the Rednecks.

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