Not in Kansas Now
We sat opposite one another in a static world, while all around us people buzzed about; chattering, rummaging in bags, checking tickets and departure screens, waiting for their number to come up. Waiting to embark on their journey.
I saw him and watched him, and saw into him. Had we gone our separate ways then, I’d have thought no more of him.
We boarded our Greyhound coach destined for Memphis, Tennessee. He was up-front with his travel buddy, and I was blissfully ignorant then, nestling into my 30 hour journey, looking forward to the sleep. We had packed our usual sandwiches: one vegemite, one lemon curd. That was our ration - lunch and dinner. Breakfast - we dined out. Thirteen days left and $210 in my pocket. Steve hogged the window next to me, I his reluctant coach partner. I dig deep for my headphones and slip silently into my own musical bliss, and fall asleep.
It is dark outside the window, and all around me weary travelers’ sleep, like an audience. All except for Carole. Carole is my Australian buddy. We have spent the last 14 weeks together sleeping, eating, talking, weeping. When you spend every day with someone, out of choice, you move to the same rhythm. Like a love affair at first, there is so much to learn about each other’s lives, and loves. Sarah is asleep; fallen prey to the night. Perhaps Carole’s subconscious is awakened to the Australian time zone still occupied by her two new friends. A couple of Ozzie guys on their obligatory overseas trip, post Uni’. Hungry for news from home, Carole quizzes them on TV shows, favourite candy bars, and who’s topping the music charts. A prickle of jealousy crawls over me. I should have been up there sitting with her, but her and Sarah grabbed the seats first, leaving me saddled with Steve - our hanger-on, and my unwanted admirer.
Too tired to intrude, I sink back into my slumber and wait for Memphis to arrive.
Walking in Memphis.
Dropped off in downtown Memphis, as is traditional for Greyhound Stations, Carole gets to work locating the best hostel our money can buy. Headed north on foot, we make our way to a big old house on the hill. An old colonial house that stands alone in the eye of the storm, a rose among thorns. It was too beautiful for our money but it would open its doors and allow us in all the same.
It is early morning, 8:15, and the sun shines brightly, with only a mist of rain in the air to paint the faintest of rainbows over the hill. The rain melts the road ahead, and in the early morning sun, it shines gold.
Our small party had acquired two more. The Australian guys had accompanied us to the hostel on the hill. Traveling companions were a welcome dynamic. We had lost a couple back in ‘nooworleuns,’ so I guessed these guys restored the balance somewhat. At the very least they provided a distraction from Steve. Carole walked ahead, still deep in conversation with her compatriots. Sarah and I dragged a little behind chattering:
Did a visit to Gracelands supercede budget restrictions? Wouldn’t a cooked breakfast be a banquet after the loaf of jam-soaked bread we had consumed - all-the-better for the extravagance! And, how much farther away was this bloody hostel?
We were feeling the weight of our rucksacks in the early morning glare and yearned to lie on a bed for ten minutes before freshening up. Trudging on, we turned a corner and there it was: The House on the Hill. Pure white like a mirage, and our home for a night. “No place like home,” Sarah chirped as we pressed on up the hill..
DO NOT KNOCK. WE OPEN AT 10AM. NO ENTRANCE BEFORE. DO NOT LEAVE BAGS DUE TO THEFT. SHOWERS PRIOR TO REGISTRATION CHARGED AT $5 PER PERSON. NO REGISTRATIONS BEFORE 12 NOON.
Great. I could taste the warm shower water in my mouth and feel the droplets cleanse away the residue of a long, long journey. But $5! That was half my daily budget, and yet, if we waited until noon we would miss the only bus to Gracelands – today’s Mecca. Well, it is Sunday, and in Memphis NOTHING runs on a Sunday.
Sitting down I resign myself to the fact that I would not be getting a shower until that evening, in consolation I unwrap my last lemon curd sandwich - a little curled at the corners – and satisfy one basic need at least.
“Jeez, well, I am going to pay, man. I’m sick of these clothes. Thirty hours we were on that bus. I’m having the shower!” Carole had a bit more money than Sarah and I, on account of her publishing job in London. She was a bit older than us and had a career already. The closest I had come to work was a job in a ski shop in my parents’ hometown. When I get back to the UK, Uni’ awaits, and a whole new independence. This road trip is just the beginning of my adventure. My whole future lies in wait for me to discover: to rise and fall, to meet friends and lose foes, to teach and learn, and to fall in love, if I’m lucky enough.
The best thing about traveling around, backpacking, or whatever you want to call it, is that you have plenty of time to look, watch and listen. So much time that you don’t need to talk too much. Munching greedily away on my lemon-soaked bread, I watch the two Australian guys as they take quick drags on their cigarettes whilst discussing the days schedule and onward journey. The smaller one is cute. He seems a bit moody, but I like that, it provides a bit of a challenge, a bit of mystery too, maybe. He wears tight jeans and a white T-shirt with ‘Armadillo’ written across in blue and a red and blue armadillo motif. He’s slim, nubile, good jaw-line, jaw-length hair… God, I really had been starved of men these last few weeks….
As Sarah sits sorting through her purse, as is her daily ritual, Carole knocks at the heavy wooden door in a vain attempt to get someone to open up the house before the ‘stated time’. By now I had learnt that Americans generally mean what they say when they go to the trouble of hanging their policy on the door, so, sitting down, I pull out my diary and begin logging the last twelve hours of our trip.
Well, the wall was awesome. Scrawled with tributes, anecdotes and blasphemy, if you believe Elvis is God. Transported from the main gate up to the front door, we were shown around 5 of the 25 rooms, before being taken out to view the grave of a stillborn sibling. Turfed out the exit gate, we’re left to read the other end of the wall while awaiting the bus back into town. Really pissed that I forked out so much money on a white elephant. I guess it’s a notch and a tick on my list.
It’s really hot now and as the bus whizzes us back to the dead of Memphis I check out that jaw-line again. Moody isn’t quite right, he’s preoccupied. There’s a roughness to him that is always attributed to Australians, not that I have much experience of them beyond portrayals on film and TV, his face is already lined by the sun despite his youth, and his facial stubble adds a few years more. He looks like a traveler and I will him to look back and give me a smile. He doesn’t. I don’t think we have even spoken. I guess he’s just passing through.
Back in Memphis we breeze through the balmy streets in search of a café, diner or restaurant, anywhere that sells food. Our breakfast, delayed by the bus schedule, is now claimed by the lunchtime hour. This town is freaky. A ghost-town, which we float through like spirits. Finally, we stumble across a diner open for business.
As the others chatter away in-between mouthfuls of egg, bacon and sausage, I watch the slim Australian who sits across from me, and yet, seems a million miles away. I don’t know what it is about him but I can’t shake it. I seem somehow entranced by him.
Back at the hostel the next stage of our journey is under discussion:
“Well, I’m really up for getting up early and stopping off in Nashville, being that we’re going through there on our way to Buffalo. At least that shaves off an hour os so of the journey and we see something else on the way”.
Carole is looking to me for my support at this early morning rise suggestion.
“What time would we need to leave here?” I ask, certain that it will cement my decision not to go.
“Well, 5.45, to get the coach at 6.20, but that gives us 7 hours in Nashville before catching the coach up to Buffalo overnight!”
Her keenness to follow this plan almost disguises the unholy hour she is suggesting we get up and out of here. After spending the night on a coach last night I am really looking forward to lying flat out on a mattress and grabbing a lie-in if I can. I’ve also got wind the the guys are planning to chill here tomorrow before catching the later coach to Buffalo…
“Ahh, Carole, I just want a lie-in. Nashville’s not so high on my list of places to visit. I’d rather go on the later coach and catch up with you then”.
She is not happy with this assertion.
“Right. Fine. Sarah, I assume you’re not flaking out on me!” Sarah hesitates, registers the no compromise tone from Carole and caves in.
“Yeh, fine, I’m up for that. Better get my things packed now though if its an early start”.
Raising my eyes to the ceiling I turn over on my bed and return my attention back to my diary while Carole reads out facts for the visitor to Nashville from her Rough Guide almanac. Sometimes you just need to step out of rhythm with someone for a while to restore a little air to the scene.
They both awoke noisily, gathered their belongings and set-off on their early trip. I was glad of the solitude. It had been a while since I had lain in bed with no-one else in the room snoring, chattering or hurrying me up to set off on another mission. I lay there listening to the sounds that only exist in a room of one. I felt thoroughly relaxed and entirely relieved that I had made the call to take the second coach out of Memphis.
Eventually I rise from my slumber and seek out the shower room along the corridor from our small dormitory. The bathroom is locked so I lean against the wooden rail, hugging my towel, waiting for the person to finish up and allow me to finally wash the dirt out of my hair and sweat from my skin. (Last night the shower room queue was 6 people deep so I managed a strip-wash in the sink before crashing into bed).
The latch on the door is yanked back into the vacant position and the door swings open in a quick and forceful manner. Out steps the slim Australian, wrapped from the waist in a very thin ethnic print sarong. He greets me with a slightly surprised but very broad smile which is met with eyes like saucers as I stare at the mass of hair on his chest and weigh up in a split second if this factor might pose a problem on the attractive stake. I decide it wont and feel a shot of adrenalin-like fluid fire through my body and redden my face. I give him a clipped “Hi” back and run into the bathroom locking the door quickly behind me.