Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I & Claudius, by Clare de Vries

Having long dreamed of a road trip across the USA (I have now half completed one of my own, NYC - San Antonio), I am always keen to read about other people's experiences of such trips. Clare de Vries even took much the same sort of route as I did, down the Blue Ridge Parkway, Asheville, Memphis and then down the Mississippi and across to Austin (I skipped New Orleans and took a wrong turning and ended up in Chattanooga rather than Nashville, but otherwise we might have followed the same inspiration). Her journey took her right across, I finished mine by train.

Clare was at a loose end, 28 and worried about turning 40 before she knew it, no success at jobs or relationships, her mother had just passed on, and she wanted to have an adventure and spend some quality time with her cat, Claudius,
a rather magnificent looking creature who was coming to the end of his days: the road trip became the thing to do. Somehow she managed to get a flight that would let him fly in the cabin and had no problems with quarantine. Her list of essentials suggests a slightly different traveling style from my own:
"What is essential for a road trip? A cat. I have one. Some Gucci slingbacks. I have some. Am I forgetting something? How about a car? I have that too. It is being shipped over as we speak. My precious Lancia Fulvia Coupe 1.3S Rallye."
And that's it (apart from a bit of a rave about loving her wee rally car). Shame that it only did about five miles of the trip, broke down, was sold and replaced with a brand new Buick LeSabre.

I can't say that Clare was my favourite travelling companion: to be that obsessed with a cat is a little beyond my own experience, but it was probably her most endearing feature. Except that, well, at critical points, when Claudius is not feeling so great, she seems to leave him to his own devices, so that she can find a party or a fellow. But the times he does get seriously ill and has to be left with a vet, poor Clare does end up devastated at the possibility of losing him - even though she kind of knows that this is a farewell journey for him.

Things tend to go fairly well for her when she has contacts to keep her company, and I was rather surprised at how easy it came to her at times to make contacts, people would offer their home or give a friend's address to stay with: this never happened to me. But then I'm not a late 20's party girl. When it was just her and Claudius, life closed in on her: she'd have Claudius provide a running commentary but it was obvious there were times she found the solitude that comes with long distance travel very hard to deal with.Staying in grotty motels that don't allow pets, so she had to constantly engage in subterfuges to have Claudius with her, can't have helped. Fairly early on she thinks to herself:
Maybe I meant this trip to be a journey to the heart of my loneliness in the mistaken view that that would somehow cure it, as if by provoking it out into the open I could take a good long look at it. Well, here I am and it hasn't worked. If anything it just sits there staring back at me, like some Jabba the Hun, splayed out in its debauched extravagance, making no attempt to disguise its vile layers.
I don't think she came out of the trip feeling any less lonely. So maybe that's what led to her guard being down, and finding herself in some quite odd situations with blokes. Towards the end of the book, Clare feels, and possibly is, in quite significant danger from some random bloke who just can't get the message that its time to move on.Earlier on, she has a lucky escape when a waitress tips her off to a couple of guys she's hanging with being con artists.

It was fun watching her reactions to some of the places I saw. Take Gatlinburg, for example, at the south end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I hated it, couldn't get out of the place fast enough; my main recollection now are the millions of traffic lights that prevented my escape. She loves it, but then we have Claudius saying why:
I believe on the other side [of the Cherokee mountains] is an adult amusment park-cum-holiday village-type place, full of bright lights and fast ideas, perfect for someone who has no desire to face the void.
After seeing Ripley's Believe or Not, she takes a walk, catches the "souvenir shops with mini tepees Made in Taiwan and Indians posing for photographs with folks on the street", then there is the Tomahawk Diner, TeePee Motel, Big Chief Inn, Moccasin Gift Shop...

There are not a lot of times I had much of a sense of the physical world through which she travels: every so often, Clare will talk about what its like to be in the Grand Canyon (illegally, as she has Claudius with her) or in Las Vegas (after somehow going to the wrong one). Mostly however, it was more about Clare, or Claudius, or the people she's met or is hoping to meet. I was looking forward to her accounts of Oxford, or Asheville or even the Blue Ridge Parkway but she largely just name-checked and moved on - which left me thinking that this is more life story than travel writing.



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