I was thinking of goldfish and how long they might last without food. I had forgotten to feed Ron’s goldfish, and Carol Abamont in the adjacent apartment wasn’t scheduled to feed them until…when? I’d forgotten that too. Maybe I should have been in that tank, swimming from corner to corner, forgetting where and who I was, wondering about food. But the Tudor hotel was approaching, the sleek coach standing outside waiting for me.
Registration and formalities took place in the hotel lobby. They were easy and very low key; future companions blank-eyed and ‘incurious’, furiously assessing each other in sidelong glances that veered onto walls and soft furnishings rather than risk eye contact. There were a fair number of Europeans – Dutch, German, French, Spanish,two Australians, and three Americans girls: seventeen of us in all, sharing a thirty-six-seat coach.
I sank into a window seat, stomach fluttering in excitement. This was the way I wanted to see America – a six week circular tour, camping under the stars – the only exception being Las Vegas where we stayed in a dingy motel with a fridge full of roaches and mould. On top of the fridge was a well thumbed guide to local prostitutes, complete with prices and their respective specialities. But that’s a different story. This story is how I wanted to see America, grasp its space and complexity in a way you never would on a plane.
The tour guide, Greg Faletta, began the 'bonding' as we drove out of New York. Introductions involved changing seats and talking about ourselves to attractive strangers. Luckily we all spoke English – in a fashion.
The journey to Niagara Falls was long, and through it all I stared out the window, dreaming, the mind registering what the eye didn’t see. In Britain the country-side, though beautiful, offers no sense of space. If a road passes through a forest you may see nothing but trees, but you know that beyond them are fields, and then pretty soon houses, and beyond that a town. The landscape is complex, dense in history, but thin.
So why was this different, staring through walls of thick woods on either side of the road? What I ‘saw’ was trees. What I sensed was the rich and brutal immensity behind them. And I thought of Natty Bumppo.
Fennimore Cooper’s 'Leather-stocking Tales' have a peculiar appeal. They fail every test but one. The writing is dense, often flowery, plots meander and in ‘The Prairie’ the plot is just downright bizarre. What attracts is the magic of the archaic, the language, vocabulary and rhythm conjuring up a culture and mind-set.
I imagined the eighty-six year old Natty Bumppo – better known as Hawkeye in 'Last of the Mohicans.' He’d left the dense forests of New York and Delaware because he wanted to be in a place where he wouldn’t be able to hear a tree being chopped down. The book was published in 1827 when presumably the forests were still largely virgin and the population sparse – but this eighty six year old man felt crowded, pressed in by people. The book has him traipsing around the prairies of the far west – walking from the banks of the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains in a single day – and rescuing sundry people from sundry Indians in a plot which goes nowhere in particular.
This was my holiday: a plot going nowhere in particular, and proceeding even more slowly than the iron-framed, eighty-six year old Natty Bumppo. It took us a day to reach Niagara and that was in an air-conditioned coach travelling at speed on good roads. What would it be like travelling from the Missouri to the Rockies? Could we do it in a day? Could a bunch of effete Europeans match the sinewy guile of a bionic Bumppo who took quantum leaps across vast spaces?
And would the goldfish survive?
Bumppo on steroids.