Travel: Long Haul - Totting up the States

Beer hunter Michael Jackson reflects on a lifetime of ale and travel across North America
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The Independent Culture
This week you wouldn't much want to be in South Carolina, with all its floods and storms. But I arrived there before the tempest, and was excessively glad to be there. Finally, I had entered my 50th state. This was not a transcendental condition. I had been in all 49 other States of the Union (50 if you count the District of Columbia) and was now setting foot in The Palmetto State.

Elsewhere in America, people sometimes wonder why the legend on car licence- plates in South Carolina appears to celebrate the palmetto bug, a sort of giant cockroach. When I blurted out the question, I was quietly told that the state in fact names itself after the variety of low-leaf palm on which the bug thrives. Such palms protrude everywhere from the red earth around Charleston and Greenville.

I had asked at an airport desk for a ticket to Greenville. The desk clerk, wearing a lapel badge identifying him as Jesus Zapata, was laconically helpful: "We have several Greenvilles. Would you prefer Texas, Mississippi or the Carolinas?" I opted for the Carolinas. "Which one? We have Greenvilles in both North and South Carolina." For a moment I thought he would ask whether I wanted toast, rye or wholewheat.

I had already visited the Greenville in North Carolina. It is one of the many cities in the US to which I have been the only known visitor, American or otherwise. North Carolina is the state where the cars have bumper-stickers saying: "Thank you for smoking".

On the first (but most memorable) of my several visits to that state, I drunkenly caught the wrong train and had to change at a windswept station in Wilmington, Delaware. But it was in Pottsville, Pennsylvania - Deer Hunter country - that I had one of my best-ever ideas. I was drinking the Celebrated Pottsville Porter when I thought of a TV series called The Beer Hunter. I had written books on beer already, but my Channel 4 series was another means of funding my obsession with barley and hops.

Why so often in America? Perhaps I inherited this second obsession from my ancestor Meyer Jakowitz. When the man who arranged illegal emigrations visited his home in Lithuania, Meyer had enough money only for Leeds, wherever that was. He could not afford New York. He was dispatched by herring trawler to Hull and by train to Leeds, where he married and had a son and, later, a grandchild. By then the name had been anglicised to Jackson. My grandfather and dad never got further west than Morecambe, but talked endlessly of "Next year in New York". The unfulfilled destination, the dream, was bequeathed to me.

At the time of my first visit, there was still the odd remaining pushcart with herrings on the Lower East Side. I ate pastrami at the Carnegie Deli and blintzes at the Russian Tea Room, but I could not exorcise the ghost of Unfinished Business. No second chapters? There are no destinations in America. Life is the journey. Ever wonder why they make so many road movies?

I graduated from buses and trains to planes. On commuter jets around the St Lawrence and Great Lakes, I was often the only passenger. Early one morning, at the snack counter of an airport, I was tucking into a bagel (wandering Jews need hearty breakfasts) when the uniformed pilot at the next table nodded and asked: "Where are we going today?" It turned out he had flown me every day that week.

Once, stranded in the snows of Montana, I was approached at the airport by a man in the ticket line (there are no queues in the US). He knew a pilot who was willing to fly, and suggested we hire a private plane. Between five strangers in the line, it was surprisingly affordable. I worried when the pilot got a jump-start from another plane, and even more when he consulted a map in mid-air. As we slewed to a landing in a windy Seattle, he sighed: "Thank God for that."

In Oregon, I was ferried from one lakeside brewery to the next in a veteran seaplane. An incipient ear-infection flared up. We went to a drive-in doctor. "Don't fly or drink," he told me, hopelessly. When I explained that this would ground me twice over, he made me sign a legal waiver confirming that I had chosen to ignore his advice.

A friend with a degree in geology started a bi-monthly newspaper for beer-lovers in California. We would drive in his pick-up truck from Eureka to San Diego, finding stories, selling ads and dropping off papers. We stayed at Hojos and breakfasted at Ihops (Howard Johnson's and International House of Pancakes).

In what Tom Waits calls "the Los Angeles metropolitan area", every gas station attendant or short-order cook has the appearance of being in a screen test, but they do not all make the big time. "Watch out for jumpers," the radio on Interstate Five casually warned one day, referring to would- be suicides plunging from bridges over the freeway.

Survive the freeway, and the sun roasts you to death on a park bench advertising funeral parlours: tactless, but targeted. How to avoid eating yourself to death? In New Mexico, there are green chillies with the breakfast eggs; in Texas, steaks; in Louisiana, coffee and beignets - all served from 6.30am onwards by ethnic minorities who are allegedly too lazy to get out of bed.

Run fast enough, and you find that you have joined a growing minority who get up even earlier. We are known in America as "road warriors": leaving a Marriott or Doubletree at 6am, lap-top in hand, with a fold-over suit bag on a shoulder-strap, heading for some city in Oklahoma, Kansas or Nebraska. One day, reading USA Today on the plane, I came to the page that offers a paragraph from each of the states. I realised that there were only five or six to go.

Over the next 18 months I found excuses to visit the stragglers. Some were accidents, like Mississippi - the only state without a brewery. On the way to somewhere more interesting, I found that I had stopped at a "Family" Restaurant near Elvis Presley's birthplace of Tupelo. "Family" is a euphemism for "No alcohol".

Fears of flying?

International tension after the US attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan, and the subsequent threats against American targets, have not dented the confidence of most British travellers. Claire Dowling works for the discount travel agent Quest Worldwide. She reports: "We've had a few people coming in and saying that they don't want to fly on an American airline, and some saying that they'd rather not fly on British Airways because of what Tony Blair's been saying. So there's been a bit of a swing towards Virgin Atlantic. But overall the level of concern has been very low, and we've had no cancellations."