I wasn't expecting to be going 6,000 miles around the US on Greyhound buses at the age of 72. But the idea of revisiting the 'trip of a lifetime' that I had taken half a century before was too good to turn down.
The result is my new book Two Summers: Nixon and Trump by Greyhound Bus. In both years I saw magnificent sights, rode in police cars, worried about the politics and revelled in the hospitality.
And looking back I can't help feeling that I may have been witnessing the last summer of its kind.
In 1969 the 22-year-old Tim Albert spent three happy months travelling 12,000 miles around the United States on Greyhound buses. Half a century later - to the day - he set out to revisit his trip, armed with his original 30,000-word diary.
Would he find the America of President Trump much altered from the America of President Nixon? How would Greyhound bus travel have changed in a world flooded by motor cars and electronic devices? And would his 72-year-old body last the course?
In this funny and finely observed account, our game hero tours New York with a 50-year-old guide book; discovers that bus passengers speak into their phones and not to each other; celebrates the golden jubilees of the moon landings, the gay rights movement and Kermit the Frog; declines the offer of a mail-order AK-47; and is told by half the people he meets that the President is a dangerous embarrassment and by the other half that he is a saviour who never lies.
When two older ladies assume our scruffy traveller is homeless and reach into their handbags to give him money for food, he realises that one thing hasn’t changed - the generosity of Americans.
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...Self-deprecating and wry, Tim’s recreation of a trip his ‘whippersnapper self’ took in 1969 is not just a travelogue, but a quest to find out if this ‘superannuated old timer’ (his words!) has still got what it takes to navigate the often-maligned bus service. His battles with his older body and the frustrations and mores of modern technology are darkly funny: “The silent man next to me is still turned to the window, at one with his mobile phone. Others around are in the same foetal position: I have no choice but to leave them to their own devices. Literally.
Crossing the country on a series of uncomfortable and challenging bus journeys our narrator revisits a number of famous destinations (Pasadena, Niagara Falls, Las Vegas to name a few) but it is the more out of the way places that reveal the realities of the inequality, gun crime and immigration that characterise today’s America. His historical and touristic nuggets are fascinating, but it’s the people he meets en route who provide most insight.
Like all good journalists, he contextualises his pundits and gives their views the space to reverberate: “I kept asking those I met whether they felt optimistic about the future. There was always a pause. Then came a range of answers, from the student of political science who said, ‘I think we’re going to be the best,’ to the caution from the Pasadena police chief: ‘We want to make sure we’re not living through the last days of the Roman Republic.’
Two Summers is both a dip into America’s past and a fascinating snap-shot of the end of Trump’s first term in office. Highly recommended!
Review by Alice Allan author of Open My Eyes - that I may see wonderful things (Pinter and Martin)