Travels with Macy

Saturday, February 5th, 2005

Travels with Macy

Travels with Macy has been published by Ebury Press

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If any of you have seen a golden retriever in a queue at the American Embassy, applying for a resident green card, that’s my dog. Last year I took her on an extended journey around America, to retrace the American novelist John Steinbeck’s route in his 1960s book Travels with Charley. I wanted to reacquaint myself with a continent that was once my home, to see what it was now like. Mace liked North America. A lot!

After living in Britain for more than three decades, after obtaining British citizenship, driving on the right, apologising to people who step on my feet (Sorry. My fault. Shouldn’t have had my feet on the ground.), waking up to rain and fog and thinking it’s a lovely day, I knew where home now was. It’s here, from the Sussex Downs to the Highlands and Islands, in keep-your-head-down, don’t-speak-unless-you’re-spoken-to Britain. I feel comfortable here, not just with the glorious scenery, but with the way of life, the values, the culture, the history.

The trip was a sabbatical – sort of – but it turned into much more. Macy, my four year old golden retriever took time off from her voluntary job enforcing Hyde Park Rules and Regulations (Park Regulation 7 [d] stipulates “All park squirrels must return to their trees before 7:00 AM and remain in their trees until dusk.” Mace told me so, so I know it’s true.) I took time off from running my veterinary clinic and from being a husband, father and son-in-law. Macy and I knew we’d both have fun but for me the trip was more arresting. I ended up re-evaluating who I am, who Americans are, where home really is and why values can be so different in lands that speak the same language.

In 1960, there was no motorhome industry. Steinbeck traveled in a motorhome he had constructed personally for himself. Today over three million Americans live permanently on the road in motorhomes some of which, when their motorised slides are activated, are wider than my London terrace home. I wanted a vintage vehicle and through the Internet discovered the ‘GMC motorhome’, built only from 1973 to 1978. It was years ahead of its time. Even today it remains the most elegant of highway vehicles, and a guaranteed way to meet Americas, even better than a svelte golden retriever. “Hey, that’s some rig ya got. Restore it yerself.” After speaking with owners and dealers I found my perfect motorhome in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I won’t dwell on the flight from London to Newark. It still upsets me too much. I won’t dwell either upon what it was like driving a 27 foot long sponge along the old roads of the United States and Canada (I avoided the interstates.) What I will say is that our journey reminded me that there are no people in the world more generous and good neighbourly than rural Americans. In Wisconsin on the banks of the Mississippi River I was invited into the community of Stockholm, fed, entertained and given garden produce for my onward journey. In Montana, where I went pregnancy testing with a local vet, a ranching family invited me into their home and took me trout fishing to their favourite stretch of the Boulder River. When I foolishly drove my leviathan up a steep, narrow mountain track (to a ghost town high above the Continental Divide) and burnt out my brakes on the descent, and when no wrecker within 80 miles would risk his tow truck on that mountain, the eight cowboys as the soda fountain where I was making my pleading phone calls from, arose in unison and declared, “We’ll save you from Granite Mountain.” (At least I think that’s what they said. Whatever. They certainly did rescue Macy and me.) When I was passing Sequoia National Park in southwest California, a park so high in the mountains that vehicles the size of mine are not permitted to attempt the ascent, a local family offered to put us up then drive us into the park. The next day, knowing Mace and me for only 12 hours, they handed me the keys to their old Jeep and said, “You and Macy will enjoy visiting the park on your own.” When, 18 hours after my wife Julia joined us for the last part of out travels, my home broke down in Louisiana’s bayou country, and after I’d called the American Automobile Association for a tow to the nearest GMC dealer, two local men, retired Air Force flight engineers, told me no modern mechanic would understand a vehicle as old as mine, hot-wired it, drove us back to one of their homes and while ‘the wife’ cooked meals for Julia and me, the septuagenarians spent a whole day under the engine repairing it themselves.

There were more surprises. Macy enjoyed every aspect of her travels. You can see that from some of these photos. I didn’t. I was dismayed – genuinely shocked – at the animal welfare problems I came across, throat-choking broiler chicken units polluting the headwaters of the Potomac River, the river that runs through Washington DC, veal crates filled with week old Holstein calves in upstate New York, dairy cattle in Wisconsin burnt out by five years of age through high energy feeding and hormone injections. I spent an evening with a Wisconsin dairy farmer who’d just retired rather than continue injecting his cows, the only way to compete with the thousand head dairy units I passed later in my travels, in California and Texas. Deep in Texas I was confronted with ‘exotic game’ ranches where hand-raised African herbivores – springbok, impalas – are yours for the killing – at close range, with arrows.

Macy was, of course, oblivious to all of this. For her, the excitement was the unexpected, the long early morning and early evening walks. She beachcombed on the shores of the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. She pounded the sandy shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Eric (where she chanced upon a salmon almost as large as she is) and Lake Michigan (where in the adjacent forest I lost her – completely, panic-stations lost her). She swam in the St. Lawrence, Mississippi, Missouri, Yellowstone, Columbia, Colorado and Suwannee rivers (where I thought an alligator got her), raced over the sands and cactuses of the magnificent Chihuahua and Mojave deserts (where, to my chagrin, she chased and caught a desert jack rabbit), climbed the forested Appalachian, Laurentian, Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains. We were confronted by rattlesnakes, coyote and tarantulas, (She took to flipping tarantulas with her nose.) and it was as exciting for me as it was for her.

When my editor asked why I planned to travel with Macy, rather than Julia I explained, jokingly, that Macy doesn’t shop. Funny, that. Because in reality that turned out to be true. The great joy of traveling 12,000 miles through the United States and Canada with Mace was that we avoided commercial America. I bought food from farms and roadside produce markets. We spent our nights in state, provincial or federal parks, once in a Wal-Mart parking lot, many times more, simply where I found flat land in the mountains, by lakes or rivers or most gloriously in the canyons and deserts of southern California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Friends ask whether we’ll do it again and the answer is ‘no’. It can be too much of a letdown to revisit the past. But Macy and I forged a deep bond during our travels. I’ve seen her perusing maps of Russia. Now that’s a thought.

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