Wednesday 11 November

So it is time to move on. The Inn at Christmas Place seems to have become home and it is a strange feeling to be packing up and leaving room 529.  However the tour must go on and today I am headed north to Minneapolis, another favourite city of mine.

It is still dark as I check out. One of the staff is just arriving for work, and makes a shivering sound: ‘brrrr, its chilly this morning!’  Chilly?  The folks in Tennessee do not know the meaning of the word:  when Liz and I were in Minneapolis in February it was 27 below; now that is chilly.

The roads are quiet, and there is patchy fog hanging over the road. I wonder if it will affect my flight, but then realise that it doesn’t matter.  I have a direct flight today, with no connections and do not have any actual commitments in Minneapolis until tomorrow.

I have hooked up my phone to the car’s stereo system, and have my Christmas playlist blasting out. For the first time on this trip I have the delight of singing along to ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’.

The miles pass by.  I drive across a bridge over Happy Creek, which is rather nice, and see a sign warning me that ‘The Use Of Unapproved Compression Brakes Prohibited!’.  I don’t know what compression brakes are.  I don’t know where to go to get them approved.  I assume if I have compression brakes, and I have not had them approved (there is nothing in the car to tell me one way or the other), then I am not allowed to brake on this stretch of road.  Fortunately it is flat and there is no reason to slow down, which is a great relief to me at 6am.

I stop at a petrol station near to the airport and fill Ethie up with fuel, before taking him back to the Dollar car rental drop-off zone. Dollar are obviously not doing great business in Knoxville as all of their spaces are full and there is nowhere to park.  I pull in as far out of the way as I can and reluctantly say goodbye to my faithful companion of the last few days.

The Airport is quiet this morning and check-in is easy. With my boarding card in hand I go to security, where I take off my watch and my belt and my shoes and place them in the large plastic trays.  On the other side I get belted up again and head for the Rudy Tuesday concession for some breakfast.

I have travelled through the McGhee Tyson Airport on many occasions, and as I mentioned a few days ago, it is a favourite of mine, but I have never known the history of its name, so while I eat I look it up online.

Charles McGhee Tyson was a son of wealthy socialite parents in Knoxville and he lived a privileged life, playing golf and dating the daughters of similarly affluent families.  He was sent to be educated at Princeton, but returned to Knoxville after he graduated to work as an executive in his father’s textile mills.

In 1917, as the First World War raged in Europe McGhee (as he was commonly called) enlisted in the Naval Reserve Flying Corps and eventually was posted to England, where he was stationed at the mouth of the Humber.  His squadron’s mission was to drop mines over the North Sea targeting the German U Boat threat.

Late in October 1918 McGhee’s plane crashed shortly after take off (there is doubt about the reason – some say it was shot down, other accounts suggest it hit another allied plane in the thick fog).  Although the pilot survived, McGhee was lost and and his body was not retrieved for a few weeks.  Indeed, as the rest of Europe celebrated Armistice Day on November 11, McGhee’s father had the terrible duty of identifying his son.

Many years later Bettie Tyson, his mother, donated some money for a small airstrip to be built at Knoxville, with the proviso that it be named after her son, the aviator.

How extraordinary to read this story on Armistice Day itself, and the thoughts and prayers of thanks that go out to all servicemen today seem to have an even greater poignancy.

I am shaken out of my thoughtful state by an announcement over the tannoy: ‘Will the person who left their watch at security please come and reclaim it.  It has a black strap, a silver face and has Skagen written on it.  Please return to retrieve your property.’

Oh, my lovely watch! Liz gave me that for a birthday present and I adore it.  It is very slim and stylish and, as far as I am aware, exclusive to John Lewis where we bought it.  Thank heavens that the security people have found it before my flight boards. I make my way back to the agents and ask for my watch.  ‘But, another man just claimed it’ they say.

‘That’s MY watch!’

‘An older guy, with a beard came straight up and took it’

There is crime afoot and immediately one of the agents starts to trawl all of the gates in search of the master watch thief of Knoxville. I am terribly upset to have lost my beautiful watch, but also, so upset at human nature.  I tend to trust everyone, and when that trust is betrayed it leaves me feeling very empty indeed.

And then I think back. When I went through the security check I had taken my watch off and put it in my coat pocket then bundled it all up in the tray.

Since hearing the announcement I haven’t actually looked in my coat pocket, I just reacted to an exact description of my watch. So, while the guard is searching for the older bearded man I go back to my coat and there, in the pocket, is a black-strapped, silver-faced Skagen watch.

Now a double hunt ensues, as I am trying to track down the security guard as he is trying to track down the other man. Fortunately I am more successful than he is and I manage to explain the situation, before a very embarrassing confrontation occurs.

I return to the restaurant and pay for breakfast before going to the gate, where the flight soon boards. The early morning fog has lifted now and it is a beautiful morning as we soar over those wonderful mountains.

The flight to Minneapolis is due to take just over two hours, so I set up my Kindle and watch two episodes of House of Cards (the new, Kevin Spacey version). It is so well made and I have become completely hooked.

My viewing pleasure is briefly interrupted by the flight attendant serving drinks. The world of corporate sponsorship has hit the airline industry these days.  No longer do Delta offer a ‘drinks service’; these days they are ‘proud to offer Pepsi products and Starbucks coffee’.

By the way, the flight attendant looks like Telly Savalas, which is quite disconcerting and rather frightening. ‘Who Loves ya Baby?’

We land at Minneapolis on schedule and it is a sunny day here too, which is a welcome sight after the ice and snow of February. Even the temperature is at a decent level.

I fetch my bags and take a tram to the car rental plaza and soon I am in a pristine white Toyota Corolla heading out onto the freeways surrounding Minneapolis.

All is well with the world: the roads are running freely, the sun is shining, I am in a city I love, I have my watch on – what more could I ask for? I glance at the sat nav and realise that as I am making my way round a long right handed curve, the picture is showing a turn to the left over the river.  I look to my left and not only does the road not go that way but there is no river either.  The satnav unit is struggling to find a GPS signal and, presumably to make me feel good, is displaying a completely fictitious route.

It is at moments like this that you realise quite how much faith you put into these little boxes. I have NO idea where I am, and NO idea where my hotel is.  I turn the unit off and on a few times, and fiddle with the settings menu until at last the proper picture appears.  By sheer good luck I am going in the right direction and my exit from the freeway is just coming up on my right.  A lucky escape indeed.

Although it is early I am able to check in at my hotel, and in my room there is a welcoming bag of goodies, including four miniature bottles of Islay Single Malt Scotch!

I am here to perform two private shows for the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and the event has been arranged by Peggy Johnson, who has been coming to see my various shows for many years.

I settle into my room, and set about trimming my beard for the first time on this trip, which is never a job of a moment and which involves a great deal of cleaning up in the bathroom afterwards.

I buy a sandwich for lunch and then relax a little (why I need to relax, I do not know: I haven’t really done anything for two days!). Peggy rings and we arrange to meet for an early dinner at five.

The weather outside has changed and now a torrid thunderstorm is ranging over head. The dark sky is ripped apart by flashes of lightening, and the heavy thunder comes in immediately afterwards.  The rain is heavy and the car park outside my window is rapidly flooding.

At five I go to the lobby and Peggy is waiting for me. We drive for, well, probably 30 seconds across the highway, and pull up outside a steak restaurant where David Maddison, the young Director of The Minnesota Lanscape Arboretum, is waiting for us.  We shake hands and are shown to a booth.

Dinner is great fun. David is incredibly passionate about the Arboretum, and has great plans for it (which include bringing me back for a series of performances much closer to Christmas next year).  He also likes golf and James Bond films, so we are going to get along just fine!

Our meals come and I have a delicious parmesan-crusted Walleye (a white fish, native to the Minnesota lakes, related to the Pike family), with wild rice.

David offers to show me some of the Arboretum tomorrow morning, before my sound check, which will be fun. His enthusiasm is infectious and I am anxious to lean as much about the place as I can, especially if our professional relationship is going to be a long-term one.

Dinner finished we say goodbye and head out into the torrential rain once more.

Coming to a new venue is sometimes difficult, but the feeling I get from David and Peggy (who knows the show of course, and has been the driving force for my coming here), is one of immense enthusiasm and excitement. I think that tomorrow will be fun!