Since I began planning this trip I'd be looking forward to driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, high in the mountains between Virginia and North Carolina. However, I'd not counted on the weather being so unsuitable.
I set off early, in light drizzle, but by the time I made it to the parkway everything was shrouded in fog. Every few miles I would pass another viewing point, from which I could see nothing at all. I did manage to spot several deer, wild turkeys, groundhogs, squirrels, and a swimming mink. But of the mountains themselves, not a thing.
I made it halfway down the road, then decided to change route and find a shorter path to Asheville. It still took me around nine hours in total, with just a few stops to stretch my legs (and one to visit Linville Falls, during a brief pause in the rain) along the way. Here's what I might have seen, on a sunnier day.
As soon as you leave the interstate south of Charleston, you find yourself in a very different world. The road narrows and coils steeply up the mountain, trees crowding in on either side. A procession of huge trucks comes rumbling down in the opposite direction.
The houses, too, change. This part of Appalachia is coal country, and with the downturn in that industry, it is suffering. Abandoned buildings are everywhere; rundown houses and trailers, though lived in, look as though they ought not to be. The depravation here, to my eyes, is shocking.
Behind the trees, though, another kind of damage is being done. This region has one of the highest densities of mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia (there are 135 in West Virginia alone). From the road, it is all but invisible, but from above, the extent of this damage is truly astonishing.
After leaving Port Royal on Sunday evening, I'd driven south towards Berea, where I stayed with another writer, Silas House (and learned that Kentucky whiskey is much better than I'd previously thought).
Silas is a novelist, and also teaches Appalachian Studies here in Berea. The town's college was founded in the 1860s as a racially-integrated, abolitionist school, just a few years before the civil war began. It remains a liberal institution even today.
This morning, Silas gave me a tour of the town and the surrounding area. He is passionate about this region and its culture, just as he is passionately opposed to the destruction of its environment and communities by mountain-top removal coal mining. In the next couple of days, I will be seeing some of the results of that destruction.
Don't meet your heroes, they say. Well, today I did just that, and it turned out alright. On Sunday afternoon I drove through Henry County, Kentucky, to Port Royal, and found the farm of Wendell Berry.
Over the past ten years or so I've read all of Berry's fiction (eight novels and scores of short stories) as well as many of his essays and poems. I've also recommended his work to everyone who would listen. Berry's is truly a wise, generous and humane voice in American literature.
After chatting for a while inside the house, he took me out for a tour of the area in his pickup. At one point he stopped and got out to rescue a turtle that was trying to cross the road. "He was going in the wrong direction", Wendell explained. Later, despite his hatred of screens, he even consented to a photograph.
Organising this visit took several handwritten letters back and forth across the Atlantic, but it was worth every drop of ink (and petrol).
(An interesting fact: Wendell keeps a llama as a "guard animal" to protect his sheep from coyotes.)
A short drive today, from my cabin in the woods, via the town of French Lick, to Louisville, Kentucky's largest city. The heavy rain overnight had flooded rivers, and many fields were under water. (I learned later that Washington County, through which I drove, had declared a state of emergency after flash floods hit several areas, including in Salem, the county seat. Elsewhere in the south and central United States, lightning storms and tornadoes had also caused severe damage.)
I passed through small, rundown towns and farming communities. Here and there, signs warned drivers to look out for horse-drawn buggies (a few Old Order Amish live in this area). All of these little places felt very remote indeed from Louisville, just across the state line – a prosperous and liberal city in a mostly poor, mostly conservative region.
This morning I met Tishaura Jones, treasurer of the City of St Louis, Missouri. She has been a vocal campaigner against racism and poverty in the city, and this year stood in the Democratic primaries to become mayor, losing out to one of only two white candidates.
Ms Jones spoke about the deep roots of St Louis' racial problems, which have led to an ongoing, simmering tension here. After the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, just west of the city, there were widespread protests that brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the attention of the world.
St Louis is, she said, effectively a segregated city, more than sixty years after segregation was made illegal in the United States. A sprawling network of municipalities and school districts keep affluent white communities apart – socially, geographically and economically – from poor black communities. The problems, it seems, are structural as much as they are social.
But despite the immense challenges faced by those trying to effect change, Ms Jones remains hopeful that changes can be made. By tackling the factors that exacerbate and entrench poverty, she hopes, the structures that maintain the city's segregated system can begin to be broken down.
The City of St Louis, Missouri.
Driving east from St Louis, through southern Illinois to Indiana, I made an unplanned stop. After spotting a sign for the town of New Harmony, a quick web search revealed an irresistible coincidence.
Having made enormous social improvements to the conditions of mill workers in the town of New Lanark, near Glasgow, the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen travelled to the United States in the early nineteenth century. In southern Indiana, he bought the town of Harmony, and attempted to build a utopian community.
New Harmony failed, economically, after only two years. But the town remains a fascinating place even today. It has grand old buildings alongside original log cabins, and open air church overlooking a lake, and a very beautiful main street. It is also exceedingly quiet, in part because many of its residents drive golf carts rather than cars.
New Harmony, Indiana.
Arriving at my cabin in the woods near Lake Pakota this evening, a crash of thunder was followed by a few spots of rain. Then more rain and more thunder. And more. After only a few minutes, the noise of both was almost overwhelming.
I drove to a local Amish restaurant through the storm, but had to pull over to wait for it to ease. The roadsides were full of idling cars, unable to see further than their front windscreens.
I slept well, woken only occasionally by thunder grumbling through the hills.
Today we made a long eastward drive that felt, too, like a journey south. From Manhattan we made our way to Kansas City (which is not in Kansas), and ate lunch on a platform overlooking the Missouri River. This is North America's longest river – known as the Big Muddy – which we first saw in its upper reaches, in North Dakota.
The Union Pacific Railway, Kansas City, Missouri.
For the bulk of this trip I'll be avoiding big cities and big roads, but today an exception was made. The interstate took us east across Missouri, and by the time we reached St Louis it felt almost like another country. Here, the vowels are longer, the accent more southern; and the racial diversity is much greater. Ferguson, part of the St Louis metropolitan area, was one of the birthplaces of the Black Lives Matter movement, after the shooting of Michael Brown by police in 2014. Tomorrow I'll be speaking to Tishaura Jones, a prominent supporter of BLM, as well as Treasurer of the city.
Today was my first sighting of the Mississippi River, close to the astonishing metal Gateway Arch (you can get a lift to the top – 630 feet up in the air – if you are mad enough). The Missouri joins the Mississippi here in the city, and I'll meet the river again in another couple of weeks, in Louisiana, where it reaches the sea.
A last minute change of plan. My intention was to travel east this morning, to reach Omaha and cross into Iowa before heading south toward Kansas City. But some late night research suggested another possibility. A fairly straight southward drive would bring us to the little town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, the childhood home of Willa Cather, chronicler of pioneer prairie life, and one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. I couldn't resist.
The morning was wet, and a long drive through Nebraska under narrowed skies began. A few distant ranches and grain elevators studded the prairie; a gas station every half an hour; a town or two, barely worthy of the name. This is a land of few people.
It was late afternoon (and considerably drier) by the time we reached Red Cloud, and took a wander along the brick-lined main street, and through the museum. From there, we continued south a few miles, to the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie – more than 600 acres of undeveloped land, full of native plants, birds and insects. It is a beautiful place, humming with sound.
The Kansas state line is just beyond the Memorial Prairie, and as evening set in we continued onward to Manhattan – known as the Little Apple – home of Kansas State University, where we stopped for the night after eleven hours on the road.
A day in Rapid City, spent mostly writing (and doing laundry) before an evening drive east to Murdo, via the Badlands National Park. For the next few days I'll be travelling with Karissa Kary, the US organiser of the Outriders project.
Today marks the end of the first leg of this trip. Geographically, there will be four parts to the journey: the Dakotas, the Great Plains, Appalachia, and 'The South' (Mississippi and Louisiana). For this past week, I've mostly been thinking about the energy industry – fracking in Williston, and the pipeline protests at Standing Rock – as well as the differences between indigenous and non-indigenous (colonial) ideas of land use, exploitation and economics.
Driving through the Great Plains over the coming days, it will be impossible not to continue thinking about land use (and agriculture in particular), culminating in my visit to Wendell Berry's farm in Kentucky next Sunday.
We drove west then south from the Cheyenne River Reservation towards the Black Hills this morning, pausing briefly in the gold rush town of Deadwood, an area stolen from the Lakota people in the 1870s. After so much flat land over the past few days, the mountains, thick with trees, were almost shocking.
Jennifer flew east this afternoon (we'll be meeting again in Nashville next week) so I visited Mount Rushmore – undoubtedly this region's most famous attraction – and, nearby, another enormous sculpture. The Crazy Horse Memorial was begun in 1948 and is still very far from completion. It is a private, and somewhat controversial project.
I was one of five Scottish writers chosen by Edinburgh International Book Festival to undertake extraordinary journeys across the Americas in spring and summer 2017.
I will be travelling through the United States for three weeks, from north to south, beginning in North Dakota, through Appalachia, and ending in Louisiana. For much of this time I will be accompanied by the novelist Jennifer Haigh.
You can follow my progress on Twitter and Instagram, and keep up-to-date with all the travellers using the hashtag #Outriders.