America. The greatest nation on Earth. It has it all. Riches beyond imagination, limitless talents that lead and amaze the world and a natural beauty of which the Creator Himself must be proud. Thirty-five year old lawyer, Francis Scott Key, got it right when witnessing from his cell as a British captive, after a rainy night on September 14, 1814, his indomitable United States flag still flying over Fort Henry at dawn after hours of relentless Royal Navy bombardment. These, of course, are his iconic words:
'And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave'.
In fact, to add to the metaphor, the small storm flag had been replaced at dawn by a much larger one. Boo-sucks to the Brits. But what he failed to add in his spirited verse was that this is also the domicile of some of the most downright weird people on the planet. Boy, there are some wacky people lurking in those stubborn little corners of America.
Take the last town we visited for example. On our way from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Tucson, Arizona we looked for somewhere to break the 500 mile journey. As always, we tried to find an interesting, but off the beaten track, place to stay. We pored over the map. It did not take long. For there, invitingly, next to a dot in the middle of a vast nowhere, were the words 'Truth Or Consequences'. This must be one of the most enticing names of any city in the US and it called out for further investigation. Not since Apalachicola have we been so seduced by a name. Some quick research showed that this town actually used to be known as Hot Springs, after the bubbling water that emerges from the ground there at 112F. But this gift of nature had not provided the expected road to fame and fortune some had hoped for. The few rickety spas that offered miracle cures to the sick, lame, lazy, bewildered, and gullible simply failed to attract enough tourists down the long dusty path to this strange town.
In March 1950, some local bright spark was listening to a popular quiz show on the radio when his interest was ignited. The host, one Ralph Edwards, announced immodestly that it was about to be their 10th anniversary and, to celebrate, he would broadcast the special edition from 'the first town to rename itself after the show'. Our Hot Springs marketing genius could not resist this and in no time excitedly persuaded the city council to retitle itself. Hence, the eponymously named Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico found its way onto the map of America. It seems ironical then that all the locals now call it an abbreviated 'T or C', completely destroying the whole point of the bizarre exercise. Meanwhile, its next door town, not to be swayed by cheap marketing stunts, has proudly hung on tightly to its own fragrant name - Elephant Butte.
We arrived at our campsite, positioned rather precariously on the side of a steep hill overlooking the town, and checked in, planning a three day stop to give the cats a chance to settle. We were 'welcomed' at the reception by a character with a deep voice, some badly applied mascara and lipstick, an androgynous blouse and long greasy hair. This, we presumed, was someone on a passage through that now popular transgender journey, though in which direction we could only guess. Unfortunately, the process seemed to have stalled at an awkward point. This was no Caitlyn Marie Jenner. More Lola. "We just take cash", we were abruptly told. "Do you want us to fill in a form, tell you our address - or anything?" we asked. "No need" came the reply as if this question had never been asked before. Then a pause and "Perhaps you had better write your name on this just so I have something" and we were passed a torn off slip of paper. Usually we are given a site number. Not here. 'Drive round and park wherever you want' we were instructed so we went to the top of three levels and picked a spot. In no time our neighbor, an hirsute man of 60+, forestry locks and thick shaggy beard making facial recognition almost impossible, introduced himself. Did we see him in Deliverance? He lived in an old, old trailer and had an even older truck. He told us his life story in a minute and that the reason he lived up there on his own for four months a year was that he had 'a much younger wife'. What he did the other eight months will remain, as the man himself, a mystery. We resisted the supplementary questions. The child bride was probably just at boarding school or something.
The town itself continued the theme. The whole area seemed unfinished. The roads seemed unfinished. The houses seemed unfinished. And most the people seemed unfinished. We pulled up outside a shop on the deserted Main Street and stepped out of the car. On the other side of the street, two solitary old folk, sitting on a bench and smiling inanely, cried out "Hello there" to us in a slow unison, raising their right hands in a synchronized wave and replacing them back on their laps with the timing of a chorus line. Odd. To be honest, the people in the supermarket were very friendly, clearly fascinated by our daft accent, but we resisted asking these inhabitants the one question - 'Why?'
Another curious thing was that it was such a quiet, unassuming (albeit weird) town by day, but at night it was lit up like Las Vegas. You could have seen it from Mars, from where perhaps some of the original inhabitants came.The cats were bewitched - they thought it was late night cat television.
Truth Or Consequences by day...
... and by night (that's Sooty watching it all)
By the way, Elephant 'Butte' is actually pronounced Bee-ute as in 'beauty'. They say it is from the French but it sounded more Aussie to us. A butte is apparently small flat-topped hill, like a little 'mesa'.
So we had the shortest board meeting that night deciding unanimously to cut short our stay and leave the next day. We then stayed one night in Silver City, formerly an Apache campsite, then an old mining boom-town, now housing an arty community living almost 6,000 feet up at the foot of the Pines Altos Range.
So where does all this rambling get us? Thankfully and eventually to Tucson. We have now crossed into Arizona to be greeted by the gloriously totemic and statuesque Saguaro cacti and by signs warning us of what else lives in this desert state.