I’ve been very fortunate to have travelled all over the world from an early age, and since I started work I’ve travelled on my own to some fantastic places. Also, as a part time performance comedy poet, I’ve travelled all around the UK, too. I’ve seen some nice place and visited some wonderful cities, and I’ve seen some downright grotty places too. Yet wherever I’ve been, the thrill of travel has been half the fun, and it usually only kicks in once I’m back at home.
It would be a bit naff right now to list all my favorite places, or those in which I have – (and I hate this phrase) – found myself. Tokyo and New York, for example. The rain forests of Australia. A four day train journey I took from one side of Canada to the other in the middle of winter. (I said I wouldn’t make a list, but now look at what I’ve gone and done).
I live in Devon, now. It’s a long way from the suburbs of Surrey where I grew up, and it feels like another world. Yet when I was barely eighteen years old, I took a journey out to Canada to see my Uncle and we ended up visiting a place that has stayed with me ever since. And I have no idea why.
In 1992, I was an enthusiastic traveller, diarist and amateur writer who saw the whole world as a source of adventure. Raised in the dull suburbs, yet defiantly liberal in outlook and, it has to be said, possibly a little camp, I wasn’t totally sure of who I was yet but I know what I liked, and I knew that I was different to everyone else. A holiday with my Uncle in Canada would be a chance to feel slightly independent, yet still under someone else’s care for a couple of weeks.
During my stay my uncle decided we would drive down into the US and just keep going, with the vague idea of going to Roanoke, because it sounded nice. We hired a white van and duly set off, driving all day and then stopping at motels, meandering across the southern states. And one night, when my uncle was too tired to drive, we stopped at a small town called Burnsville, West Virginia.
It was hot. Humidly hot. I’d never felt a heat like it. The moment I stepped from the air conditioned van, the humidity would cause me to sweat, instantly. We pulled up at a motel called the 79 and booked in. I remember thinking that it was the hottest I’d ever been.
I couldn’t sleep that night. The noise of insects kept me up and the small town had a rather unsettling feel to it, with valley sides and hills and forests, bleached white grass, hot car parks, and a deep starry night. Soaked in sweat, I decided to go for a walk.
The town was so quiet, except for the sound of traffic on the highway. I didn’t see a single person as I walked, in a kind of zig zag pattern. There was a bit of a valley behind the hotel with a stream in it which seemed to have dried up, and a bridge over the stream, and the sound of insects was quite loud. I think my allergies were possibly playing up. I saw a cat and I wanted to say hello to it, but my uncle had warned about diseases, and when I got closer to the cat I could see that it was badly injured as if it had fallen off of something. I felt really bad.
Kind of feeling that I should get help, I wandered around the side of the motel and saw light streaming out from a room beneath, in the basement. There seemed to be a laundry there, whether it was the laundry for the motel or a town facility, I did not know, but there were two young men in there of my age, shirtless, doing the washing. The moisture and the sweat made them appear to glisten in the fluorescent light and, well, you know me, I just had to stand and look at them for a while. It was the first time I’d thought about sexual matters for weeks, and this combined with the heat and the injured cat and the incredibly long day to make me feel strangely dissociated from everything.
I went away, sat for a while next to the road, which was mostly traffic free, looking at the woods on the slopes around the town feeling like a very small person in a very bit universe. Away from my family and from the comforting blanket of suburban Surrey, I suddenly realized that the person I was would stay with me for the rest of my life, no matter where I happened to be. Yes, I was in a strange new place, and there was the horror of the injured cat, but the glimpse of the sexy young men in the launderette reminded me that I had a culture and a life of my own.
I think we left fairly early the next morning.
As I grew up, and as I’ve travelled to other places, the town of Burnsville has stayed with me, always there at the back of my mind. Every time I feel hot or humid, like today, I’ve thought of Burnsville. Every time I’ve doubted myself I’ve remembered the motel and the launderette.
Lately, I found a Facebook page for the township of Burnsville and I’ve befriended a couple of people from there. They do not share the same beliefs as me and some of their Facebook posts can be quite infuriating for a suburban city liberal performance poet, but I can’t get angry, because this is their culture and this was the town where I realized something rather big about myself. It’s better to change the world slowly by example. And if I can’t sleep tonight, I know where my imagination will take me once again.