Memoirs from Cow Town

The freeway. This isn't just an ordinary road, nor even an ordinary highway; four lanes in either direction, surrounded by a million lit-up plastic signs advertising heart disease or war in the middle east. Billboards promote businesses like Quik-E-Sue (for your swift litigation needs) and countless mobile phone networks; every so often there's one for SBC, or AOL, or MSN. It's a jungle of three letter acronyms and petroleum by-products.

A white, shiny pickup truck passes my Dodge Caravan; the driver is wearing a stetson, and the black bumper sticker says, "BEEF: it's what's for dinner." I've noticed other pickup trucks on the road with "Got Milk?" stickers and advertisements for the cheese factory (the largest in the world). There's the smell of shit in the air; this is cow country. In fact, the place I'm staying is affectionately known as Cow Town by the locals. Drive out past the houses and the strip malls, and you see field upon field of dairy cows, standing too close to each other and wallowing in their own feces.

This is the San Joaquin Valley. I don't live here; in fact, I don't live within 7000 miles of here. I'm here as an experiment.

The culture shock has subsided a little now I've been here for two and a half months; the endless pickups and the queues of cars outside Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers don't surprise me as much as they used to. I was brought up liberal and everyone here seems to be a Bush die-hard, hell-bent on a war I don't believe in, but even that has become less stressful. In fact, if you forget that hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake elsewhere in the world, it's kind of amusing.

"I'm not a sheep. I don't do things just because other people do them; you won't catch me recycling," one person said.

"Us either," we replied. "You won't see an American flag flying outside our house."

He looked aghast. "But you gotta fly the flag!"

People wander around with Grand Old Party T-shirts, advertising their support for the Republicans. In all my years of living in Britain, I don't think I once saw someone wearing so much as a Conservative Party pin, let alone an entire T-shirt. (Of course, I suspect the Conservatives secretly disapprove of T-shirts, and prefer to religiously wear lace wife beaters and Marks and Spencer's Oxford shirts while they listen to opera. This might be prejudice, I'm not sure; the only die-hard conservative I know left to join the army, so I can't ask him.)

My dog, who has flown over to the States and can never return thanks to the British quarantine laws, doesn't know what hit her. California has a strict leash law, so she can never be let run except in our own back garden - secretly we take her to the nearby medical centre, and the canal at the edge of town, but one of these days someone's going to stop us. Either way, she mopes around the house like the world's going to end.

As do a lot of people. They have vacant stares in their eyes; cars are called things like Escape because people dream of nothing more than to leave their lives and move on to something better. This isn't happiness, this mindless consumption and ten-hour workdays. It's life, they say.

I frequently get embarrassed at the supermarket. Here they have people to bag your groceries for you - my immediate instinct is to start bagging while the cashier rings everything through, but that'll get you nothing more than a disapproving glance and the tutting of someone who really ought to be doing that for you. Are you supposed to tip them? I usually let them go with a smiling "thank you"; if nothing else, it's all I can afford.

We get eighty channels of cable TV, ten of which are religious, another ten are variations on the Discovery Channel and twenty are home shopping. The TV news - we get that too, in tabloid, relentless and overtly conservative flavours - endlessly reports what will happen when we go to war. Not if, but when; it's never even considered in public whether the war is right or not. It just is. Predictably, the San Francisco Chronicle (one of our two regular papers) has more discussion from both sides, but I pity the people who live in Arkansas or Alabama and probably don't get that kind of coverage. Independent information and debate are hidden from the people (the head of the risible Fox News Channel recently, and illegally, gave political advice to the President), surpressing democracy almost to the point of tyranny.

(Funny, I think I remember reading something in the Constitution about that.)

The media performs another role as well, which is to sell. In Britain we have the BBC, which is legally barred from selling advertising to any other body (except political ones during a campaign, and then they have to give it away for free); the effect is that not only do they provide unbiased news, but the other news services do as well, in an effort to compete with them. There, a news programme really does tackle the issues from all sides - here, each story is little more than a smug soundbite, prepared days in advance, with advertisements for burgers and ice cream between the death and the famine. The adverts, although short and kind of amateurish at first glance, have been carefully prepared using an army of precise psychological techniques to make you want something. Given that most Americans work long hours and return home to flop in front of the TV, having had only time enough to eat the fast food they saw advertised the previous night, no wonder they're overweight.

Yet, despite all this, I love the American people. I can't help it. They have a kind of optimism and reliability I've never seen at home; call it a "can-do" attitude. Perhaps, yes, they're ignorant (the radio told me this morning that 11% of high school students here in the valley couldn't place the United States on a world map, let alone Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan), but they mean well. They certainly don't have the pompous snobbery and elitism that I see so much of in Europe; in fact, that elitism goes against their whole framework of society. Although their political representatives strive to turn their country into some sort of police state - just when did government start fearing the people who elected them? - on a person-to-person level they're friendly, helpful and inclusive. And they value differences. More often than not, anyway. Ish.

I'm heading back to my home in Edinburgh in January, war conditions permitting. Part of me is eager to return to the life I left behind - my girlfriend, my sister, my friends and my house - but I think, against the odds, I'm going to miss the tree-lined, cow-obsessed neighbourhoods of the valley, with their wasteful sprinklers and gas-guzzling pickup trucks. The simple fact is, they don't know what they're doing is wrong, and there's something about a smile when you walk down the street that elevates one's quality of life. They're largely a good people, led by their corrupt media and misguided politicians into some very half-baked ideas; I think we need to go easy on them. And maybe, delicately, quietly, educate them.

What do you think, did we get it right? Comment here...