Most people will have experienced that moment during a conversation when a person you hardly know lets drop a remark, an observation, or just a single word that instantly wipes away half-hearted normal chit-chattery to reveal a gulf of misunderstanding between the pair of you. It may be something about politics, or perhaps it’s a queasy moment of casual racism, or it could be an embarrassing personal revelation about sexual habits, or about illness. Or it might be your acquaintance’s firm belief in the impending end of the world.
The rain had arrived while we slept and when we woke the cold, clinging drizzle looked to have set in for the day, so before we made off for the Hoh rainforest I bought a cheap raincoat from a store in the small Washington town of Forks.
The Cullen House, Forks, WA
Helen was fussier and, not finding a coat absolutely to her liking, had decided it mightn’t really be necessary to wear one after all, although the low grey clouds gave no hint of thinning and we were bound for a hike in a rainforest.
By the time we made it to the Hoh it was obvious that the rain was only going to get heavier and that if we were going to hike into the trees Helen would need some sort of protection from the downpour, so we stopped at a small store just outside the entrance to the Park. Inside it was warm, dry and packed full of everything a hiker might need – waterproof coats and leggings, boots, food, sweets, drinks and bear bells to frighten away the black bears.
In the Hoh Forest
Helen had been given a bear bell before we left the UK by a friend who had lived in Canada, where there are bears a-plenty, but I had scoffed at the idea and refused to pack it. Although two black bears had run right past our picnic in the Appalachians a few years previously, such a close encounter was very rare; and though there are bears in the Hoh, we were unlikely to run across them. Back home I had imagined the worst thing would be the embarrassment of being an obvious hiking novice, tinkling noisily along a trail to the annoyance of other more seasoned walkers trying to enjoy the peace and solitude of the great outdoors.
I had reconsidered the bear bell question a week before when we hiked in Yellowstone. Some other hikers, I was alarmed to see, sported bear bells on their backpacks as though they were the most natural and necessary part of a hiker’s equipment. As we climbed a high, winding trail above the steaming springs and geysers, along a path thickly hemmed in by conifers that reduced visibility and offered easy cover to any large, dangerous animal I wondered if a bell mightn’t have been handy after all. But although bells are sold at the ranger stations in the parks, authorities seem to be divided on their advisability, some warning that to an old, arthritic and hungry grizzly, a bear-bell might be nothing other than an al-fresco dinner gong.
While Helen tried on coats I stood near the sales counter, and a shop assistant, a young chap, started to talk to me. This isn’t at all remarkable in the US. Although we in the UK have a sometimes undeserved reputation for being reserved, and we have been known to pass the time of day with a neighbour, it is nevertheless true that Americans are far likelier to strike up conversations, or just to nod, smile and say hello as you pass them. For example, while walking back down Hurricane Ridge a few days later and discussing this very difference between friendly, open Americans and aloof, formal Brits we counted the number of people who nodded, smiled, acknowledged us or said something to us as we passed by; all but two people said hello. They were probably English.
the view from Hurrican Ridge
So Dale, as the assistant told me is name was, guessed quickly I was from the UK and asked me what I thought of the Michael Savage case, the minor kerfuffle about the Talk Radio commentator who had recently appeared on a list of people banned from entering the UK published by the Home Office. I thought it was an odd question to ask but I was, as it happened, interested in the subject. I first listened to Savage in, I think, 2004 while driving around California, Nevada and Arizona – that was when I first listened to many of the right-wing radio hosts, in an autodidactic crash-course in American culture. I had remembered Savage as one of the more peculiar, although amusing, of the voices on the car’s satellite radio. I had since occasionally downloaded his show’s podcast back in the UK but it had seemed less funny, more angry and a little more bizarre in a way that puts you slightly on edge. But Savage had never seemed to me to be dangerous or someone who should be banned from the UK.
Savage’s ban had come about in the dying moments of the reign at the Home Office of the over-promoted Jacqui Smith, an MP who, a month after the ban list was published, had to resign from her job over her expenses claims – claims described by the former Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life as being “near fraudulent”, and which included an attempt to oblige the taxpayer to stump up the cost of two pornographic films watched by her husband. Smith’s perplexing naming of Savage was a typical piece of illiberality that I found immensely regrettable and rather shameful to be reminded of, in a country that has enshrined freedom of expression in its Constitution andwhich takes the issue so very seriously. I told Dale what I thought of it.
Dale went on to display a surprising knowledge of British constitutional affairs, showing a better grasp of British politics and history not only than most Americans I had talked to, but more than most Brits, and he volunteered that he had studied British History and Government while at college. Then he asked me about the EU and the Euro. I said that I thought closer integration was inevitable; that the EU was heading towards a Federal Europe; and that I was concerned because, unlike the US, we had a democratic deficit that wouldn’t be addressed politically because politicians and bureaucracies at the centre would be unwilling to relinquish power and we had no effective written constitution and no careful balance of powers.
Dale nodded. ‘I am a Christian’, he announced over the counter. I guessed this was the beginning of his pitch and the reason for his starting the conversation; he was evangelising. But it was weirder than that.
‘We believe that Europe will need to come together before the End Time’, he said, perfectly seriously.
‘Oh, well, I certainly think that the countries of Europe will move towards closer integration’, I repeated.
‘We believe the Bible tells us this, you see’, he said.
I didn’t quite know what to say, or how to end this. An apparently intelligent, not obviously insane, politically educated twenty-something was proposing that the gibberish of Revelations predicted the reception given to the Lisbon Treaty by the voters of Ireland, and that old Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was a tool of God.
Fortunately, before Dale could expound on his theories Helen arrived at the counter with a new coat. Dale put through the sale and we made quick excuses about needing to get on with our walk, and went quickly outside to the car.
De Toqueville says, ‘…the religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States‘ but previously in the States, even in the Deep South, we had never happened across that fundamentalist oddness before. When we visited Jefferson’s home, Monticello, his vague Enlightenment Deism had seemed so reasonable it would have fitted well with the current-day Episcopalians who, it is said, believe in at most one God. Dale’s degree of visceral Biblical literalism, and eager confidence in the meaning of a few accidental verses reminded me again that despite an almost-common language and our close historical ties, the US is decidedly a foreign country.
Robin & Crystal Bernard – The Monkey Song & The Ecumenical Movement