Cherished Listener, behold a tale of two English women’s road trip in south-east USA.
My friend Sarah and I galavanted through Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Louisiana in a whirl of suffocating humidity, BBQ ribs, gallons of beer, Trump T-Shirts, life-changing hangovers, bears, and a dramatic home invasion escapade – and I would like to say things about it.
So without further ado, turn off Netflix, get yourself a cool beverage, tell the cat to shut up, and we shall begin.
The car journey from Orlando airport to Daytona Beach started badly and went downhill from there.
I first tried to leave the Hertz car park through an exit clearly marked STAFF EXIT ONLY and was ushered back out the right exit by a polite Mexican; then within minutes of being on the freeway (freeway or highway? Is there a difference? Does it matter? What does anything even mean?) we had missed three exits and I was trying to quell the rising urge to go back to the airport, fly straight back to London and tell everyone we’d made a terrible mistake.
After eventually deciding we were going the right way, and navigating the 319 inexplicable toll booths that all charged 75 cents for the privilege of driving past an unmanned shed, it was all going well, until there appeared in the road ahead of us the jagged, ripped flesh of a car tyre that looked like it had been spat out by a T-Rex. There’s not much one can do at 70mph on a four-lane freewayhighway packed with rush-hour traffic, so I elected to simply run over it. This felt similar to driving over a tree branch embedded with six-inch nails.
Clearly I had just irrevocably damaged the rental car we had been in for less than half an hour, and our pierced tyres were going to flatten and flop about and eventually spasm off and whip into the air causing a devastating multi-vehicle pile-up, the tragedy of which would pale in comparison to the $3million we would have to pay Hertz, so I got off the freewayhighway and checked our tyres in a McDonald’s car park.
Anti-climactically, they were fine.
I then spent the next 20 minutes trying to get back on the freewayhighway. You Americans may wonder at my driving abilities, but let me tell you, when one is sitting in the wrong side of a car, on the wrong side of a road, everything becomes wrong; in this case, driving two miles in the wrong direction, performing approximately 13 illegal and wrong manoeuvres, driving the wrong way down a road, and inadvertently and wrongly turning on my windscreen wipers during a frantic three-point turn.
It was then that I vowed we would never again exit a freewayhighway unless the SatNav told us to, and even then it’d have to have a damned good reason.
Miraculously and only partly wrongly, we made it to our oceanfront Holiday Inn, and the next morning’s sunrise from our balcony made up for our distressing car journey, and for a night battling an air conditioning unit that sounded like King Kong with a chest infection.
We waded through the cloying 95-degree-4895%-humidity in search of breakfast, and it was on this short journey that all our fervent hopes that America is playing a massive practical joke on the rest of the world were shattered – for slapped on an electricity generator was a bumper sticker that defiantly yelled TRUMP PENCE 2020.
To keep our spirits alive we breakfasted in the Daytona Diner – a nostalgic haven of movie and TV memorabilia, adorned with plentiful images of Betty Boop being provocative with a Harley Davidson – and the waitress patiently explained to us the 297 different ways we could have our eggs.
After breakfast there wasn’t an awful lot to do up our end of Daytona Beach, unless we fancied getting a tattoo or visiting the mini golf where we could ‘feed and hold live gators’, so we spent the day by the hotel’s oceanfront pool.
It was at the pool that I made the following three important anthropological observations about our American cousins:
1. Americans do not swim. At least, not those Americans in Daytona Beach. Not a single one of the 20 or so Americans in the pool swam more than two meters. Instead, they plopped themselves in, arranged themselves in a convivial circle, and had a semi-submerged chat. An hour later, they emerged wrinkled and refreshed, and flopped onto their sunbeds with the laboured sigh of someone who has just swum the Channel.
2. Beards are there to be worshipped. The 60-something whale-bellied dude who had the bushiest, silkiest, lushest beard we’d ever seen (for this reason we inventively named him Father Christmas) lounged against the side of the pool sensually stroking his facial mane, while a hareem of adoring women bobbed round him, clearly seduced by the silken foliage. Sarah and I were mesmerised, particularly when he told a story in a deep, chocolatey southern drawl about his previous hotel in South Carolina where a kid shit in the pool.
3. The pool is a perfect place to show off one’s dedication to the gym. An oiled terracotta beefcake, adorned with hoops in both ears and a signet ring the size of a golf ball, spent two hours manfully astride his sunbed staring down at his pecks, which he flexed in turn to the beat of ‘America’s Greatest Stadium Ballads’ that he was kindly playing on his portable radio for all the pool to hear.
After a few hours of my skin slowly dissolving in the sun, I went for a stroll on the beach.
And it is stunning.
It is endless, silky (much like Father Christmas’ beard). Clouds floated in the wet sand. Clusters of tiny birds scuttled back from the lapping waves. Children busied around castles and moats. Elderly couples lounged under marquees, holding hands and peering contentedly into the blue. A topless man frantically pawed at the sand, whipping up torrents with his hands, muttering under his breath ‘It was here somewhere. Motherfucker was here somewhere.’
I called it a day and went back to the hotel.
That evening, after a cab journey to Daytona Beach’s main drag, I decided we should go to a biker bar. When in Rome, and all that.
A quick glance at Google Maps told us that the promisingly-named Main Street was the place to go for biker bars.
It was 6pm on a sunny Saturday evening in Daytona Beach.
Walking down Main Street at 6pm on a sunny Saturday evening in Daytona Beach was simply a sunnier re-enactment of the opening scenes of 28 Days Later where the dude wakes up to discover that he’s the last human left on earth.
There was no one. I mean no one. Despite the many inviting bars with names like Dirty Harry’s, Filthy Mike’s, Downright Unpleasant Steve’s, and the echoes of heavy metal wafting onto the baked pavement, there was not a soul to be seen.
After making it to the end of Main Street without seeing so much as the lovingly-coiffered fronds of a beard, we came to the conclusion that a) Main Street is actually an abandoned film set that no one’s got round to demolishing yet; b) Main Street doesn’t come alive until much, much later when the hoards of bikers emerge from their cocoons of corrugated steel and drink beer and compare clutch brackets until dawn; or c) Main Street had been hit by a devastating and extremely localised plague, which had wiped out its entire population, and the chipped, peeling facades actually concealed piles of decomposing corpses.
Whatever the reason, we had abjectly failed to have an authentic Saturday-night biker experience, so joined the gaggle of tourists at the end of the pier at Joe’s Crab Shack.
And there I innocently ordered the fish and chips, and innocently discovered that the batter of the fish was basically KFC skin.
I don’t mean my fish was coddled in actual chicken skin – although I wouldn’t put it past you cheeky Americans – I mean that the Colonel’s secret herb and spice mix had somehow found its way into my fish batter.
And after 13 seconds of resisting this heinous abomination of an English classic, I gave in.
We had a post-dinner stroll along the dingy Boardwalk, passing the amusement arcades, fried chicken and doughnut outlets, and the decaying bones of a wooden roller-coaster.
We weren’t 100% sure about this dusty, tattered edge of land that was Daytona central, although it didn’t fail to provide a somewhat clichéd introduction to the South, particularly in the form of the baby-holding guy who was wearing a T-Shirt that proudly growled ‘Spare me the debate – I’ll stick to my guns’, lovingly embroidered with images of rifles.
After finding ourselves on the outskirts of a U2 tribute concert, we decided we would permit jet lag to get the better of us, and wearily taxied back to the hotel and the throaty splutters of our air conditioning unit.
Conclusion: Daytona Beach is stunning. Daytona is like a humid, unkempt Brighton. And we never did find out if Main Street rose from the dead once the blazing red sun went down.
UP NEXT: Moonshine, the hangover from hell, and the best Monday afternoon ever in beautiful Savannah, Georgia.