For just over three weeks, from 10th May to 1st June, I travelled through the United States of America, from North Dakota to Appalachia to Louisiana. During the course of this journey I drove thousands of miles (4390, according to Google Maps; 5165, according to the odometer). I passed through seventeen states, all but two of which voted for Donald Trump in November 2016. I saw national parks, national forests, and national monuments; prairies, mountains and swamps; bison, groundhogs, and alligators. I made literary pilgrimages (Red Cloud, Port Royal, and Rowan Oak) and musical ones (Tupelo and Highway 61). I saw floods in Louisiana, blazing sunshine in the Dakotas, and electrical storms in Indiana. I started using Oxford commas.
For most of this trip I travelled with the novelist Jennifer Haigh, and it was an enormous pleasure to do so. Spending this time with her, talking to her, I learned more than I could ever have done from travelling alone.
The blogs I have published on this page have scarcely touched upon the ideas and questions that have most interested and troubled me along the way. In part that is because my time has been so limited. But largely it was deliberate. I have been wary of publishing anything that might seem like a conclusion. I have been wary of haste and prejudice. The questions I have been asking – and that Jennifer and I have been discussing as we drove, ate and wandered – will take time to nudge in the direction of answers. And those answers, inevitably, will be tentative. I have spent only a little time in this huge, complicated country. I am not going to pretend that it does not, still, baffle me.
Much of the political division and tension in the United States today is a result of intolerance, on both right and left. It is a result of the failure to take time, to make the effort, to understand those you disagree with. 'Liberals' condemn and caricature half the population as ignorant, racist, backward; while 'conservatives' condemn the other half as hysterical elites, out-of-touch with reality. What truth there is in these criticisms is lost in the muddle of hyperbole.
Writing literature, in part, is an act of empathy, and as such it ought to cut through this hyperbole, this sweeping condemnation. But to do so is not simple. I have seen and heard things on this journey that have shocked me, offended me. It would be easy to draw words out from that shock, and to criticise what I don't understand. The sight of a Confederate flag waving in the hot, Mississippi sun made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I know why. My discomfort was not a surprise. But I didn't come to this country to confirm what I already knew. I didn't come to cement my own opinions. What is interesting about that flag is not how it made me feel, but why, in 2017, it is still there.
What I have tried to do on this journey is to observe honestly the things that I have seen. Now, my task is to turn those observations into something more substantial: into words that I am willing to share. I hope that somewhere in the many pages of notes I made, and in the hours of conversations I had with Jennifer and with others along the way, I will find what I need to do that.
After three weeks on the road, this was my last day of travelling. It began beneath a sun that felt remarkable after yesterday's torrential rain, and a heat that felt remarkable because it seemed, quite literally, to be cooking us in our skins.
We took a tour of the swamp in the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge, saw herons and egrets and alligators, and felt ourselves to be in some weird, unfamiliar world. It was beautiful, but somehow terrifying. We drank a lot of water.
In the afternoon we drove north to visit a local writer, Bev Marshall, and her husband Butch, who told us a great deal about the area, about differences between Louisiana and Mississippi (where they both grew up), and about life before integration. It was an eye-opening discussion.
Finally, after yet more driving and yet more rain, Jennifer and I reach our destination: New Orleans. This is a city unlike any other in this country. It feels foreign, and charged with an energy that seems both of another place and perhaps of another time. We wandered the evening streets together in search of food: hungry, glad to have arrived, and yet, more than anything, sorry that our journey was over.
The Mandelay National Wildlife Refuge
"Ya'll try to stay dry!" So said our waitress as we stood from breakfast to head out into what was not, certainly, a dry day. The rain had been pelting down from before I woke, and it continued to fall, without let up. Fields of rice were now paddy fields, ditches and bayous were close to overflowing.
It was an unpleasant, slow drive, with wipers going as fast as they could go, but still failing to keep our vision clear. And we were travelling in the wrong direction: towards the darkest clouds, towards the flashes of lightning, towards swamp land.
This part of the country, on a day of heavy rain, does not feel like a place fit for human habitation. Everything, everywhere, is water. Water falling, water rising; the air filled with it, your body sticky with it. All else is sinking or rotting or crumbling.
When we reached our accommodation – the first on this trip to feature a pet alligator – we stayed inside.
Today was Memorial Day, and by chance we happened upon a small parade in Vicksburg, just after breakfast. It was watched by a handful of people, silent but not sombre. There were old men driving old army vehicles, a police car dragging a golden cannon on a trailer, and even half a dozen men on horseback, dressed as Union soldiers.
Later, in the Cedar Grove Cemetery, we saw that this town still has a complicated relationship with the Union. There, on tall poles, hung the state and Confederate flags, but no Stars and Stripes. Rows of headstones memorialised Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, some of them unknown. Little flags had recently been affixed to many of these graves, and to other, civilian gravestones, and they fluttered brightly in the hot wind. This flag, here, is a deeply complicated symbol.
From Oxford we made the short drive back east for our first non-literary pilgrimage of the trip, to Tupelo, and the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Being Sunday morning, it seemed the whole town was at church, and the visitor centre was closed. We strolled around the little cabin in which Elvis was born, we sat in his porch swing, then we drove on, back to the Natchez Trace.
The Trace is a slow road. Though it's almost empty of traffic, the speed limit is just 50mph, so it took longer than expected to make progress south. The road is also, after several hours driving, a little dull. For most of it, nothing can be seen beyond the trees. By early evening, we were ready to see something more than trees.
The Cedar Grove Inn in Vicksburg was that something. And what a place it is! A mid-nineteenth century mansion, complete with fountains, four-poster beds, and even cannonball holes, made during the Civil War. This is a place that embodies some of the strangeness and contradictions of the south. The high walls of the inn's garden divide it from the poor, black neighbourhood beyond, and it feels like another world. In the evening we sat outside on the porch, watching fireflies and lightning split the Mississippi darkness.
Yesterday, Jennifer and I experienced the madness that is Nashville on a Friday night. Along Broadway, almost every street-front building is a bar – with live bands playing something akin to country music – or else a purveyor of boots and shirts – selling something akin to 'Western apparel'. There are people everywhere. Neither Jennifer nor I are quite cut out for this kind of nightlife, so we chose the quietest bar we could find, and then retired to our hotel feeling old.
After queuing for a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, we set out for the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 'scenic' drive south, that will take us most of the way to our final destination. (Scenic is perhaps not quite the right word, since the road is surrounded by trees, but it is certainly a more relaxing drive than the interstate.)
At Tupelo we left the Trace for the day and headed to Oxford, home of Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi. We visited Rowan Oak, first of all – the home of William Faulkner – and wandered through the hot, humid grounds. We did not pay the $5 to go inside. Somehow it seemed you could learn more in those gardens than you could by gazing at beds, tables and writing desks in the house.
My accommodation last night was undoubtedly the most interesting of the trip so far (and I mean 'interesting' in a positive sense). The Balsam Mountain Inn first opened in 1908, and though it's been renovated extensively, it still feels as though it is of another time. The building has a peeling glamour, and its porch houses more rocking chairs than I have ever seen in one place at one time before. I was reluctant to get up and leave when morning came.
My first stop of the day was Cullowhee, and the University of Western Carolina, where I was given a tour of the artefacts in their historical collection, many of them related to the local Cherokee, such as hand-woven baskets and pottery, and others to the large number of 'Ulster Scots' who immigrated to this region.
Leaving Cullowhee I made another of my map reading errors, and took a 'scenic route' west through the mountains, that did not deliver me to Nashville until evening was falling. It included a five minute stay in Georgia, so added another state to my list.
I have done more driving in the past few days than I care to think about. Fortunately Jennifer Haigh will be joining me again for the rest of the trip, so driving duties can now be shared.
A morning of wandering and writing (and laundry) was followed by an afternoon of slow, circuitous driving, high in the mountains west of Asheville.
I took what I thought was a minor detour to Rosman first of all, in order to cross (very briefly) the state line into South Carolina. Then back again. The map, however, was deceptive. The route I'd chosen proved to be perhaps the windiest road I have ever driven, up and then up and then up, to over 6,000 feet, the highest part of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This time though I was rewarded with wonderful views, out over the Smoky Mountains, offering a hint of what I'd missed in yesterday's fog.
The scale of the forest, of the mountains, is quite astonishing.
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.
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 travelled 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 was 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.