Being cut adrift when you’re travelling can be liberating. It can also hurt. For me New Zealand just wasn’t meant to be. I flew 12,000 miles for my girlfriend to tell me what she could’ve said at Heathrow. Things had changed and we were missing the spark. No, I told her, I was missing the £900 airfare.
Still, I made the most of my three weeks till my cash was burned. I shot the rapids in Queenstown, swam in the Pacific, prospected for gold (OK, it was a quaint Victorian working museum) and drank cocktails named after sexual offences.
My money was almost gone but it felt too soon to head home. I had the photos that proved I’d had a great time, but barely three weeks wouldn’t convince the cynics. It wasn’t enough time to read the Wilbur Smith in my flight bag.
I had an idea: I’d call Nick my mate from Uni. Nick had been driving across the States with his girlfriend Renee. After tiring of motels and drive-ins he was shacked up somewhere in the mid-West. A quick call to Nick and I’d arranged to fly back via LAX and Chicago O’Hare to a place called Cedar Rapids – it conjured up images of Hill Valley in Back to the Future. There was no longer time for small talk. Line the beers up, Nick. I’d be leaving the next day. There’s no better way to irritate an ex-girlfriend than proving you’ve got options.
It is hot and sunny in LA, so the loose linen shirt, chinos and Hills hat seem a good call. Hours later, as we climb above Chicago, I’m shifting awkwardly in my seat, staring at a landscape covered in deep, sparkling snow. If Cedar Rapids is down there, I’m sure they’d have to find it with chisel and blowtorch. Here and there a telegraph pole or cabin sits in the carpet of snow, but little else. It reminds me of a scene from Fargo.
Cedar Rapids airport is warm, but I’m the only one dressed like Our Man in Havana. My fellow travellers seem to be modelling the LL Bean catalogue. They wear thick gum boots, padded waistcoats with bear’s paw-print motifs and hats with flaps.
Nick punches my shoulder and starts telling me about a bar called the Deadwood Tavern. Renee flashes a film star smile. If she’s wondering why I’m dressed like a man buying coffee in Brazil, she hides it well.
‘Cold isn’t it?’ Nick says.
We step into the car park. I try to breathe and gasp hoarsely. I can’t feel my ears. Renee’s car has a thick blanket of snow on the bonnet and roof. I’m expecting chains on the wheels. It starts first time and she pulls out into the drift. The dash is dark oak and the seats a rich, chocolate brown. It belongs in a Steven King movie, blinkers flashing on some lost highway.
Iowa City is small and neat. There’s a bar and a cafe and a drugstore and I keep thinking of Jimmy Stewart. My teeth chatter.
‘I’m freezing. It’s bloody Baltic,’ I say.
Nick stares at the loose linen shirt and chinos. ‘It’s January in Iowa. What were you expecting? Grass skirts.’
We go into a sports store and I grab armfuls of the thickest clothes I can find. I pull on two Iowa Hawkeyes sweaters, a scarf and a woolly hat. We head into the Deadwood Tavern. I’m thinking how welcome a nice tot of warming whisky would be when Nick slides a pitcher of Miller along the bar. It’s ice cold with beads of condensation running from the glass.