A few months back in August, we were halfway through driving in a semi-circular loop running from Birmingham (where I’d been to the Test match at Edgbaston) to Chelmsford (where we were due to go to a T20 match) via Brighton, and had called in to see some friends near the south coast of England. After an excellent meal, we were sitting in our hosts’ lounge when I noticed a book I’d read and reviewed here on this blog which was on our hosts’ coffee table. It was Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance, and my review is available here. Next to it on the coffee table was another book, Almost Heaven: Travels through the Backwoods of America, by Martin Fletcher. The second book looked so interesting that I ordered a copy through Amazon, but one thing led to another, and due to Amazon’s suggestions being so relevant and appealing I ended up ordering half a dozen more titles of the same genre.
Road trip books. I love them!
Usually, a book takes a little while to get into the swing of things, but Almost Heaven had me hooked after the first couple of pages. In Washington, Fletcher meets the people who hoist the Stars and Stripes up a flagpole (or sometimes flagpoles), then down again as soon as they have reached the top, then fold them up and ship them to all corners of the USA because so many people want a flag that has flown over their Capitol. Americans love their flag. They send out more than 100,000 of these flags each year.
Almost Heaven was written some time ago (published in 1998) and tells of Fletcher’s travels in an old car from the east coast of America to Seattle on the west coast, via all sorts of interesting places where he met up with some fascinating characters, sometimes by chance, but mostly through pre-arrangement.
One thing that jumped out at me was the extent to which many Americans don’t trust their government. Remember, this was in the 1990s, but much of the sentiments that later gave rise to Trump were already well-developed. So, Americans love the theory of America and the flag, but not the practice. No wonder Trump’s mantra to ‘make America great again’ had so much appeal.
Although I really enjoyed reading about the trip undertaken by Fletcher (who is British), I found there were only a few of the places he visited that I’d like to go to myself, and these are to be found near the beginning of his drive, and towards the end. The islands in the middle of Chesapeake Bay have an amazing history, and parts of Texas and New Mexico, where you can drive for hours and only meet a few cars, appeal.
Some of the characters that Fletcher describes are very distinct. There’s Mrs Martin, a woman aged ninety, who was somehow receiving a widow’s war pension for being a Confederate widow. How was that possible in the late 1990s? Well, Mrs Martin was married in 1927 to William Martin, who was eighty or so at the time, and William had been drafted into the Confederate army sixty years previously. They even had a son together, and then William had died. She’d gone on to marry his grandson (by another marriage) and that had lasted fifty years. And there’s Richard McLaren, a Texas separatist, who claimed that the Republic of Texas was an independent nation with its own laws, and who was soon to be arrested and sentenced to 90 years in prison.
He writes about several apocalyptic movements, for example the Church Universal and Triumphant, at Corwin Springs. Those people spend their time and money building bunkers up in the mountains and filling them with food and provisions, in the expectation of Armageddon sometime in the near future. There’s often also strong anti-materialism elements among such communities, and some just want to go off-grid. In North Idaho there’s a place called Almost Heaven, (hence the title of Fletcher’s book), where Colonel Bo Gritz set up a community of religious right-wing patriots. Fletcher meets with some Christian Identity white supremacist people. And there’s the even more extreme Church of Jesus Christ–Christian, a white supremacist movement, which was being led by Richard Butler when Fletcher visited. The Church of Jesus Christ-Christian was associated with the Aryan Nations organisation, and attracted Klansmen, militiamen, skinheads and neo-Nazis. It doesn’t get more extreme than this lot.
I don’t know why there seem to be so many nutters in that part of the world – maybe it’s because it is so remote. But some of the communities are simply more extreme versions of what seems to be going on in various parts of the USA today. Many people seem to find conspiracy theories in all sorts of places. They don’t seem to trust their government. I think that Trump is popular among such folk, which says something. It’s all a bit of a shame, because it puts you off wanting to visit what otherwise is an interesting place.