The plane journey from London Heathrow into Seattle-Tacoma was a long and tedious one, taking me further from home than I’d ever been before or ever dreamt I would go. The novelty of travelling by air had worn off for me long since. I still hadn’t been on all that many flights but after the first few I came to the conclusion that any flight, after the initial buzz of the acceleration at take off, was not so thrilling. Stale air to breathe, cramped seats to squeeze into, nothing to look at out of the windows except an endless expanse of sky. Unappetising food and the usual selection of obnoxious people to contend with meant that the only pleasure open to me was from reading something either informative or entertaining if it was at all possible. But constant interruptions and the necessity to make polite conversation with people I had no interest in and would never meet again, tended to always spoil even that.
I tried to sleep on the flight but found it difficult as my mind raced with thoughts of what lay ahead. I managed a few fitful moments, helped along by several glasses of duty free malt whisky. The couple who sat next to me on the plane were from England too, a couple named Cooper both somewhere in their sixties. Mr. Cooper was a Jewish man who had difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘r’ which he made sound like a ‘w’. He introduced himself cheerfully as I stirred for the umpteenth time after yet another failed attempt to sleep.
“Cooper, Hawwy Cooper, and this is my wife Wose.”
Within a short space of time I had learned a lot more than I could possibly want to about the Coopers. He owned a small high ‘stweet’ clothing shop in London’s East End, ‘Bwick’ Lane actually which he ‘descwibed’ to me in ‘gweat’ detail. They’d had a good year due to the booming financial climate in the UK and so he and his wife were embarking on the ‘twip’ of a lifetime as he put it.
Together they spent the following hours telling me what their itinerary was to be in North America, each butting in as the other paused for breath. I learned of the routes they would take, their plans to visit Canada, what they were looking forward to eating, drinking, bringing home. Smiling and nodding politely I sat there, zoning out as much as possible in the hope that they would eventually run out of steam but they never did. I was subjected to a constant barrage of facts, all babbled at ridiculously high speed and made almost indecipherable by the combination of Mr. Cooper’s speech impediment and their excruciating cockney accents. When Mr. Cooper began describing his previous holidays abroad, touring Europe in their 1965 Triumph Herald, I cracked. All attempts at politeness on my part went right out of the window. I couldn’t stop myself from taking the piss mercilessly for a while.
“Twiumph Hewald?” I asked.
“Yes, the twelve fifty. Do you know it?”
“Is it the one with the vinyl fabwic sun woof?”
“That’s it, and fwont disk bwakes too. They’re bwilliant!” he exclaimed proudly.
“What colour do you have?”
“Thought you would.”
The conversation continued for some time but eventually I became ashamed of myself. It wasn’t my natural demeanour to be a bully or even rude to anyone and the Coopers were harmless enough although the man was an imbecile. There was no harm done though as my insulting behaviour just washed over him like water off a duck’s back.
I went back to pretending to sleep but despite my feigned snoring he continued to drone on and on with renewed enthusiasm now that he mistakenly believed I was interested. With eyes closed I took a little pleasure in imagining what it would feel like to suddenly deliver a short jab with my elbow into his throat to silence him. By the time the plane gently dropped altitude and made its approach to Seattle I was seriously contemplating murder.
Once back on terra firma we said our goodbyes. Mr. Cooper could barely contain his excitement as he pumped my hand furiously, then elbowed his way down the aisle to the nearest exit with Mrs. Cooper in close pursuit. I managed to give them the slip as along with the hundreds of other passengers, we made our way through the concourse and joined the queue at the arrivals desk. With passport duly stamped, visa checked and baggage retrieved from the carousel, groggy and dishevelled I passed through customs and emerged from the terminal building. Squinting through sleep deprived eyes in the harsh September sunlight I made my way to the adjoining bus depot. There I purchased a ticket and was directed by an attractive if gaudily uniformed woman who hoped I had a nice day, to the parking bay from which my coach was due to depart in approximately an hour’s time. Considering the length of my journey so far it wasn’t bad timing so I grabbed a paper cup of coffee from a nearby machine and sat on my bag to wait.
As I sipped at the hot strong brew which was surprisingly good, a large and flashy vehicle drew up in front of me and the driver tooted its horn as it came to rest. My shoulders slumped involuntarily when I saw that it was my new friend from hell Mr. Cooper with his wife, grinning like Cheshire cats in their hired car. The vehicle that Mr. Cooper had chosen was a bright pillar box red Oldsmobile Cutlass embellished with so much chrome that it hurt my eyes to look at it. It was a convertible and despite the brisk September temperature the roof was folded down to reveal the white leather upholstery. I have never in my entire life seen anybody look so pleased with himself and so ridiculous at the same time. He was wearing a chequered flat cap and a pair of aviator sun glasses. Mrs. Cooper had donned a head scarf and was also sporting a pair of sun glasses which wouldn’t have looked out of place adorning the face of Audrey Hepburn. Unfortunately Mrs Cooper more closely resembled Henry Cooper.
“Can we offer you a lift somewhere young man?” asked Mr. Cooper.
I stared at him for a moment, wondering what I could do.
“Bit of an upgwade from the Twiumph eh?” he chirped with a smug grin which widened to match the huge front grill of the ridiculous car.
I walked around it slowly before replying.
“Thanks all the same Mr. Cooper, but you wouldn’t get me to travel in one of these in a month of Sundays.”
“Why! What’s the pwoblem?” he replied in astonishment. He’d obviously expected me to be drooling with envy. I tried to look as concerned and as serious as possible before delivering the coup de grace.
“Haven’t you heard about this model then? I’m surprised. It’s been all over the news, even in England. I was even just reading about it back there on the plane. These things have all been recalled, something to do with a fault in the fuel system somewhere near the petrol tank. Apparently they’ve been exploding all over the place. A married couple just like you were blown to smithereens only last week in California.”
Mr. Cooper began stammering, so I continued.
“Did they give you a certificate at the car hire place? Apparently there is a modification that’ll fix it. You might be OK but I wouldn’t risk it without a certificate if I were you.”
“N-n-no they didn’t.” replied Mr. Cooper. He looked horrified.
“I’d park it up and go back to the car hire place and sort it out if I were you. Better not leave it near all these coaches though, it would be like the blitz if this lot went up.”
With that, I nonchalantly took another sip of my coffee and continued to await the arrival of my coach. The Coopers drove away very, very carefully. As they performed the slowest three point turn imaginable I could hear Mrs. Cooper giving Mr. Cooper a right old ear bashing.
“I told you we should have chosen the Gran Torino Harry. You just wouldn’t listen as usual would you!” she whined.
“We are not Starsky and Hutch are we Wosey.” Came the caustic reply.
After a second coffee my journey resumed. From the airport I began the coach trip which took me through Mount Vernon and north to Burlington where I picked up another half empty coach that had seen better days and travelled out on State Route 20 going east. At last, the North Cascades Highway.
I wasn’t going to sleep through any of this particular part of my journey if I could help it. I sat by the window with my jaw continually dropping to my chest, agog at the incredible, awesome splendour of the terrain we passed through. I had never experienced anything like it. Deep thick forests tracked the banks of the Skagit River, in places lightly veiled under thin mists indicating the cooler air of the ongoing autumn tumbling down from the high country. Glimpses of magnificent snow topped mountains peeked through spectacular canyons. Dazzling, split second sun flashes bounced off distant hidden lakes and wetlands. The lower slopes leading down to the river banks were a blaze of colour as autumn painted the scene in every shade from the palest of yellows through the entire spectrum of reds to the richest and darkest brown, treating me to one of the most stunning displays of beauty that mother nature ever offered to anyone on the planet. At one point, as the old coach wheezed its way breathlessly up a particularly steep section of road, I saw at the edge of the forest a large herd of black tailed deer browsing on the under-brush and grass which lay between the trees and the highway. Of course I’d seen deer before if not necessarily that breed but in that natural and breathtaking setting the sight of them made my day.
On and on my journey took me, through the remnants of old and crumbling mining towns that looked like they hadn’t altered since being hastily thrown together in the days of the gold rush. We passed a few rough tracks leading off into the wilderness from one side or the other of the highway. I spotted occasional weather beaten signposts which pointed to places with mysterious names such as Steelhead Creek, Diablo or Lone Tree but there were very few sightings of anything resembling human habitation. I retrieved a map book from my pack that I had picked up at the airport and followed our progress as we travelled past Lake Shannon, constantly tracking the ever winding river that flowed towards us. Up into the mountains, through spectacular valleys towards Ross Lake. Over Thunder Creek, onwards along the edge of Ruby Creek until finally to the north, the majestic blunt topped outline of Crater Mountain came into view, silhouetted against an ice blue sky and a short while later we approached my destination. After twenty one hours and twenty minutes of almost unbroken travelling, the driver of the coach turned and said to me over his shoulder.
“Just approaching the Kirby place. This is you my friend.”
The old workhorse of a coach juddered alarmingly as he applied the brakes and changed down a couple of gears. At the side of the highway the wood and stucco structures of my new home, not to mention livelihood, came into view and we came to a halt right opposite. On the peeling paintwork of the main building facing the highway I could just make out the large letters spelling out ‘Kirby Services’ confirming that this was indeed the right place.
It looked like shit.