This isn’t finished yet, but my laptop’s about to run out of battery and I don’t have the charger. I took too long writing it anyway… so, presented without editing, here’s half of the story of me going to America last month.

in March I went to visit Megan in Chattanooga. I know I wanted to keep this blog lean, I’ve been wary of page size and compressed the images in this post, it comes to around 94 Megabytes in total. Keep that in mind if you’re on limited bandwidth, otherwise, enjoy my bad holiday snaps.

Saturday 10th

Woke up around 4am, had my bags ready packed.

Nothing left but to down a bottle of cheap coffee drink and walk across the road to the train station.

Got to London Victoria on time, ended up taking the tube to Paddington, and changing there for Heathrow. Here’s a view from the train, just after dawn:

I watched American Made, half of Detroit, and The Party on the plane. The Party was worth watching, but also feel like I benefitted by being on a plane with not much else to do. I’m sure if I were watching at home I’d have skipped through it.

The plane arrived in Atlanta an hour and a half early, and I was able to get an earlier bus to Chattanooga. Megan was waiting for me at the bus stop and seemed delighted to see me again. She ran towards me and gave me a big hug, unfortunately I was pretty stinky from the journey, hadn’t showered or brushed my teeth or anything. I was also two days behind on sleep, so I can’t have been talkative company, but was happy nonetheless. Her parents got me some fast food and I can’t remember what it was or what it tasted like, but do remember enjoying it greatly.

Sunday 11th

We went to see a musical called Jersey Boys at the Tivoli theatre. It’s the story of a band called the Four Seasons, set to famous songs from their repertoire; Megan said you’re there for the music, not the story, which is accurate. The songs were catchy, even if it’s not stuff I normally listen to, and the story bits didn’t stick around too long between the music.

If anything it was just worth it for a date with Megan. Was also impressed by the popular makeup of the audience, which wasn’t all theatre snobs, rather normal families going out to catch a fun show on the weekend. I appreciated that.

Monday 12th

We headed out on a road-trip to Gatlinburg, on the edge of the the Smokey Mountains. It was a long drive there, and aside from the rolling landscape, I was fascinated by the huge American flags which popped up on the horizon from time to time.

Big flag

Following Dimitriov’s example, I refuse to ‘sneer at all the national sentiments of the broad masses’… I think it’s understandable to stick such flags in the central square of your capital city, or at a site of national significance. But in America, you get these inexplicably gigantic flags flying from such patriotic sites as roadside restaurants, hotels, trailer parks, and in one case, a knife warehouse.

Another big flag

Where are they getting these flags from? Who pays to put them up, and why? Do they need to get planning permission?

And another one

This sort of leads into another observation about ‘The South’ which I’ve been sitting on for a while. You often read about the ‘backwardness’ of Central Asia and Russia as an explanation for why the Soviet Union developed the way it did. The same thing applies to China, and countries in the Third World. Their road to socialism had to contend with (sometimes artificially created) conditions of under-development and, for want of a better word - ‘backwardness’. These revolutions often take on a dual, or triple, character to overthrow imperialism and/or feudalism, as well as capitalism. You also hear the opposite explanation for the prospects of socialism in the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries. For example a socialist project in the USA would not have to pass through a national-democratic phase, and therefore an ‘American socialism’ would necessarily develop differently to a ‘Cuban socialism’ or a ‘Burkinabe socialism’.

The idea that societies are shaped by national conditions is not some great revelation. It only gets contestable when you consider that ‘backwardness’ doesn’t just comprise industrial or technological progress, but also includes a political dimension. See for example the frontier outposts of capitalist globalisation; Singapore, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or even Liechtenstein. These countries are economically advanced, but their societies still bear elements of autocracy, and a particularly degenerated form of capitalism (but, and this important, not fascism). Despite their advanced economic position, a socialist movement in any of these countries would still have to deal with reactionary social structures.

The USA is for the most part an economically developed country, but the conception of ‘The South’ as politically and culturally separate from the rest of the “United States” also reveals its backwardness. This in turn puts into question the idea that California and New York could feasibly build a political project in the same conditions as Alabama and Mississippi. It might just be me but I felt (and visibly saw) the influence of the Roman ‘imperial republic’ in San Francisco, intertwined with the modernist tendencies of the New Deal. That kind of vision was absent in Chattanooga, there were no remnants of grand ideas chiseled into the urban scenery, although maybe I just didn’t see what I wasn’t looking for. If we’re to take the South as a political community, we have to take into account its social characteristics. Southern society can be defined by the church, patriarchy, racism, and of course the hoisting of unreasonably large flags along the side of the motorway. The South is a backwards society.

This doesn’t mean the South is incapable of changing, it just means that the left operates within a different context to the rest of the USA. I had a friend at university who used to argue that any self-proclaimed revolutionary movement in the United States led by armed white people could only be reactionary. And yet, Redneck Revolt exists, an organisation which seeks to mobilise armed white people around anti-fascist principles. The emergence of such an organisation would only really be possible in the South. The Ray O’ Light group also talks about the central revolutionary role of the ‘people of Appalachia’. It might even seem far-fetched now, but Chattanooga is where the CPUSA originally developed the idea of a Negro Soviet Republic. Of course it’s out of line with the racist attitudes which harken back to the confederacy, but it emerges from the same context as the confederacy - ie. the political schism between the South and the rest of the USA. It’s also worth pointing out here that the US only enforced voting rights for black citizens in 1965; as a country it is still relatively new to democracy. Even now, and even by the standards of bourgeois democracy, American society fails to live up to the notion of popular rule. This means that, following the ROL, there might be a case for ‘completing the national-democratic revolution’ at least in the South.

I have a dream indeed

What have I learned? Firstly, while a ‘Grenadian/Albanian/Yugoslav/Soviet/Chinese/etc. socialism’ might not be appropriate in the USA universally, these forms could be adopted specifically in the South. Secondly, the national question in the USA has yet to be adequately resolved, and therefore there is a progressive case for engaging with the South on its own terms.

Alright, digression over, now back to the trip. When we reached Gatlinburg, we parked and went up to the Ober Gatlinburg Lodge on a cable car. Here’s a video of it:

There was a ski resort at the top, it was a little old but I liked the style. Poured concrete walls at odd angles, wooden panels, it wasn’t too fancy.

inside the ski resort

It also had an indoor ice rink:

Ober Gatlinburg ice rink

And a stall selling dippin dots, which are tiny blobs of super-frozen ice cream, and they’re probably full of sugar but they taste amazing. Megan kept telling me about them and this was the first time I’d tried them.

dippin dots

Megan was enjoying hers :)

Megan eating dippin dots

There was also an arcade inside, and I had a go on an alpine racer cabinet. It had a unique control scheme where you stand on two paddles which are supposed to be the skis, unfortunately it was let down by clunky movement in the game.

Alpine Racer 2

Otherwise, the arcade was a little empty; Megan and I both won some silly jumping popper toys, and I played with them more than I probably should. There were two outlets for overpriced fast food, one shop selling weird military paraphenalia, and a shop selling jigsaw puzzles. As is standard for a ski resort, there was also an outdoor clothing shop… but it was closed.

Nothing much left in the resort, so we went further up the mountain on a chair lift.

The metal bar kept dripping melted water on me, and I was a little cold. At the top there wasn’t much to see. There’s supposed to be a fantastic view, but it was obscured by clouds.

mountain view

Determined to make something of the journey up the mountain I set off in search of some path we could follow for a walk.

blocked path

The path was blocked by a gate, and we were both getting cold.

cold Megan

So, we went back down again.

snowy chair lift

We went into the main town for dinner. I screwed this up because I spotted a sign for a ‘North China restaurant’ on the way in, and thought of all the places maybe I could get some Lanzhou lamian noodles there. I made Megan walk all the way through the town to the resaurant, and it turned out they didn’t do lamian. It turned out alright though because we went to a burrito place and got a huge burrito each. Megan tried some moonshine, and I tried to explain (in Chinese) to a Chinese man that I wasn’t drinking it. He misunderstood and kindly offered me his shot glass. Think I fell asleep in the car on the way to the hotel. We checked in and collapsed into the bed. Long day.

###Tuesday 13th

I woke up to this view from our hotel.

hotel pool

We didn’t hang about too long though, and it was too cold to use the pool anyway. Megan took me to get apple fritters for breakfast, she keeps introducing me to new stuff, and they were delicious. We also got a breakfast meal; and after the huge burrito yesterday I understood that what counts as ‘one meal’ there is what would usually count as two meals to me. So we ordered one meal to share between the two of us, and that filled us both up. I heard there’s an obesity problem in America? I wonder why.

We went straight from there to the Apple Barn, which is a big farm shop next to an orchard. They sell pretty much anything which can be made from apples - apple chips, apple jam, apple chutney, apple butter… all the way to weird stuff like apple chapstick and foot cream. Since I’m boring, I decided to buy a single normal apple from a crate in the back.

They also had a ‘cider mill’ within the building, which immediately appealed to me. I was expecting to be fully tipsy on sweet American cider before mid-day, but it turned out they only sold warm apple juice. I mean, it was nice fresh apple juice, but not actually hard cider. Megan, upon seeing my disappointment, drove me to a cider distillery to try a cider flute. It’s where you try all sorts of different ciders, for people who are really into craft cider. One of the guys working there proudly told us how he had a masters degree in Celtic studies. He had a beard. It seemed appropriate.

Behind the distillery there was a field with a big bell in it, I learned that the bell is an important symbol for Americans.

liberty bell

There was also a Patriot missile in a glass case.

missile case

Patriot missiles are also important to Americans. However, they’re more important to Saudi Arabia, which has been using them recently to shoot down ballistic missiles from Yemen over Riyadh international airport.

On the way out of Pidgeon Forge, Megan pointed out this building advertising LIVE BABY GOATS ON ROOF.

goats on roof

You want live baby goats? There are live baby goats. On the roof.

Don’t know why they had to specify that the baby goats were alive, I guess if they were dead someone would have cause to call animal protection.

On the way back we stopped at a national park. Here’s Megan standing next to a small waterfall:

Megan waterfall

And here’s the two of us in front of the Smoky mountains:

Megan waterfall

On the way back from here we took a wrong turning and got stuck on a terrible winding road which delayed us by about an hour coming back to Chattanooga. Another long day, we got back late.

Wednesday 14th

We set off for a bike ride along the riverfront. There’s a cycle path all the way down approximately past Megan’s house to Moccasin bend. I also got to use a fancy electric pump on the bike tyres. Never used an electric pump before.

Megan on the bike

There are various sculptures and artistic monuments on the trail, there’s also plenty of interesting industrial architecture. Such as this blue rig which hangs over the river:


Next to that there’s a big warehouse building, curiously painted in the colours of the Russian flag. I can’t work out what this factory does, it’s probably connected to the steel industry in some way.

colourful factory

Further up from there are some very pretty factory ruins.

abandoned factory building

They used to make pipes here. A helpful sign pointed out that at one point this factory was responsible for the bulk of the country’s pipe production. Megan said the area is being redeveloped, and the factory buildings would work well as an event venue.

abandoned factory building

There was a plan to turn these into housing six years ago. However, apparently the ground is contaminated with toxic chemicals, maybe that’s why people are reluctant to renovate it.

Right across from those factories is a train line. Here’s one of the freight trains passing through into Chattanooga:

There’s a strange thing about this city, if you look at a railway map it’s cut through with tracks, yet there’s no passenger train service.

railway map

Some of the tracks are disused, and the rest are used exclusively for freight trains. The city used to have a large well-connected station, but this was shut down in 1970 and turned into a hotel. I understand the trends in America towards reliance on cars and the growth of domestic flights between cities. Even then, it’s difficult not to get caught by the staggering inefficiency of the place.

If you need to compare numbers, Chattanooga and Oxford have a similar population - at around 170,000 inhabitants each. Oxford covers an area of 45.6 kilometers squared, meanwhile Chattanooga covers an area of 374.4 kilometers squared. When the city is that badly spread out, motor cars are the only way of getting around.

At the end of the cycle track was a hip cafe which sold organic vegan smoothies, and avocado toast, and stuff like that. Here’s Megan with some tasty avocado toast:

avocado toast

This place also had a hammock, and we made full use of it :)

megan in hammock

After that we wandered around the area, across the street was the International Towing & Recovery Museum. I would have gone in, but there was an entrance fee, and we decided it wasn’t worth it. Megan was already giving me funny looks for wanting to go to a museum about towing & recovery vehicles.

And we did a whole bunch of other exciting things, which I will come back to… at a later date.