If you are just joining us on our journey across America and back in 1972, click here to read part 1.
On with the story...
About a year before I set out to America my Father was on a train back to Blackpool from London and ended up sat next to a young American (song by Bowie) who was travelling alone on his first trip outside of the USA.
After a few hours conversation dad invited him to stay at our house as he was the same age as me (20 at that time) and so we met Mark Branner from California and he stayed with us for several days. We got on well. Both of us played acoustic guitar and had an almost identical taste in music.
He was intrigued by England and most grateful for our hospitality. He invited me, if I was ever to reach America, to visit and stay over at his place. The chances of that ever happening were very slim indeed but "wouldn’t you know it” here I am a year later.
Before leaving home I wrote by "snail mail” to him in Berkley, just outside of San Francisco and asked if I could “drop in” ? As it happened I “dropped in, tuned in and turned on”.
Living in San Francisco was like that in the Height of Hippie days.
The journey up there on the bus from LA was a very long but beautiful ride. California was on the right, the Pacific Ocean on the left.
After a brief stay in San Jose en route (do you know the way to San Jose, Burt Bacharach) the journey continued through magnificent coastal scenery including the vast expanse of vineyards where the majority of well-known Californian wines are produced.
I arrived late afternoon in San Francisco and stayed in a student hostel overnight then caught yet another Greyhound up to Berkeley.
Berkeley (near to Oakland) is a University town better known for its student uprisings and riots in the late 60’s. Berkley was a very colourful and infamous place to be at that time.
I was staying at Mark’s student flat, a tiny space just a spitting distance from Telegraph Avenue.
Telegraph was the epicentre of the Hippie movement worldwide at that exact time.
Every front porch had hippies hanging out smoking weed, virtually topless hippie chicks with flowers in their hair, guitar strumming bearded guys in the drop out fashions of the day, Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead blasting through from spinning vinyl decks and through wide-open windows onto bleached timber porches.
I think that I would be still there now if Mark B. hadn’t had to return back down south to his parent’s home, and I had little option but to bum around with no funds.
The hippies made open and welcoming hosts. I stayed with friends of friends and lived off a small share of guitar strumming dollars with two of Mark’s mates on the pavements on Telegraph.
Food prices in the tiny student cafes on Telegraph were a pittance which meant that I could live for buttons for a short while longer.
The scene was almost 24 hours a day with the heavy mist of weed rarely absent. Talk of revolution and unrest were the topic of the disenchanted student population. The street art was radical as were the theories and inclinations of the Berkley inhabitants at that time.
The music scene thereabouts was slowly changing from the appeased easy west coast sounds of The Mamas and Papas, Jan and Dean and The Lovin’ Spoonful to sharper and restless ‘Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’ and heavier vibes.
On a more lucid moment several days later I realised that I had to start to cover another 3,000 miles of highway and get back to New York’s J.F.K. by the date on my ticket.
I bused back down to Frisco and read in the local free paper in the bus station at Berkeley that the most famous steam locomotive in the world “Flying Scotsman” had, 6 months earlier, been shipped over to America for a nationwide tour. The trip was financed by Alan Pegler, a multi-millionaire businessman whose budget for the coast-to-coast return trip had run dry.. The Engine was stranded at Fisherman’s Wharf in downtown San Francisco.
I made my way to exactly where I believed it to be, and there indeed it stood with only 2 or 3 carriages on the back looking forlorn and out of place!
I was invited up into the cab and spent the next few hours with the English driver and Fireman (who I recall were both from Nottingham) on the footplate of Scotsman.
The two crew were pleased to speak to a Brit., particularly as I had an interest in steam locos which, at that time, had only recently been completely withdrawn from
After another day in the city I checked out the Greyhound timings and routes in order to start my journey back to the East coast, at least several hard days drive away..
I eventually routed back through Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Wyoming, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and finally New York.
Again, effectively both living and travelling on Greyhounds.
I hit that journey hard as I was running out of days and hours before my flight.
I experienced one or two “uneasy” situations in Chicago arriving in the middle of the night and spending the rest of the time waiting for my connection huddled cold in a corner of the Central city bus station. Not a recommended spot to spend a night!
I found that if or when I was approached by anyone for any reason, that when they heard me speak they felt uncomfortable with my strange accent, choice of words, culture and even dress sense. They tended then to move on!
The U.K. was very different to the States in those days and most of us were less aware of the world outside of our comfort zone. I would certainly say that the overwhelming majority of Americans that I met or encountered did not hold passports.
In the town in England that I grew up in during the 50’s and 60’s there were very few, if any, black families. I met an incredible mix of people on the buses and sitting, sometimes for hours, talking would discover much about each others backgrounds.
I experienced conversations with the first black persons that I had the opportunity to sit next to on the journey.
I found that I had to open the conversation with my fellow passenger, usually asking them how far they were travelling on the bus that day. They would act a little surprised and slowly start to converse with me without too much caution.
They explained that “hey man your O.K. - white folk don’t normally talk to me the way that you do.” I had no reason to treat or talk to them any differently to anyone else.
They had almost no experience of meeting a European white guy before and were blown away that I could talk back music, particularly about my adoration of the early black blues guitarists , Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt and my stories about having watched John Lee Hooker live at our Blues Club concert night at Art College in 1969.
We ended up mates after a few hours comparing our lives and home town experiences. Soon however, after just a couple of hundred miles, they would alight
and we would exchange very warm handshakes. I would feel somewhat the richer for the experience and hoped that each and anyone I would meet would treat me accordingly.
Virtually everyone that I talked to told me that they thought I was “NUTS” to be travelling seven thousand miles on buses with very little money or proper accommodation.
I am not now sure if they may have been right!
But if I had not done it I would not have experienced the many influences of the adventure. It affected my views on art, music, business ethics and ideas and increased my confidence and self dependence in what sometimes were somewhat pressured circumstances.
I eventually arrived back in New York and the next day took off for Glasgow via Iceland.
Sheryl was waiting for me at the airport and it felt strange at first seeing all the “tiny” cars and the narrow roads as opposed to the limo sized motors and vast open highways of the States.
I am fortunate to have travelled many times to the USA, Canada and Alaska in the 45 years since my trip in ’72. Often attending trade exhibitions and sometimes on family holidays.
I was invited to row down the length of the mighty Colorado river just a few years ago, through Arizona and the Grand Canyon with a small group of people in several small boats … we rode some of the biggest navigable rapids in the world, saw only a handful of other humans for 17 days and lived under basic canvas shelters in incredibly remote and steep sided river banks.
Our small boats had to be pre-booked many moths in advance in order to be allowed licensed entrance into the Abyss of the Colorado river canyons and we must under no circumstances leave a single sign that we had been there. This also included not “poo-ing in or on the river banks” so the rules are that all deposits are made in a series of large metal containers (old military ammunition cans) and taken down in one of our small boats to our eventual arrival landing stage for “sanitised disposal”.
You can guess which boat was the least popular craft to attempt the rapids in!
As unique and exciting as that trip was it is not etched as deeply in my psyche as the experience, sights, people and sounds of the 7,000 miles on Greyhounds in ‘72.
In the words of the song…
If you, ever chance to motor west-
Travel my way it’s the highway that’s the best-
Get your Kicks on Route 66.
M.H. August 2018.
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