Today I move on and leave the dear old Colonel Taylor Inn that has been my home for three nights. I wake early and unpack: a bit odd when I am about to depart, but unpack I do. I am slightly worried about the weight of my main case, but if all of my costumes can be packed in the carry-on, that will leave just my regular things for the large case. With a bit of pushing and squeezing everything seems to fit nicely.
I make my way down the wooden staircase and the house creaks and groans its goodbye to me for another year. The banisters have sturdy pillars at every turn, which are topped with ornamental globes. Each time I have come down the stairs I have put my hand on one of these globes which is slightly loose. For a split second every day I have been Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.
My thoughts are at home today, as Liz is giving a presentation to a conference of Music teachers in London. The idea of standing in front of a group of her peers and talking to them is anathema to Liz, and she has been so nervous about today. She has been working incredibly hard to create and rehearse the talk over the past few weeks, and I have never been prouder of her, so am anxious to receive updates through the morning.
It is very foggy and icy at this early hour and I have to run the car for a while I heave my cases into the back. I set the SatNav for Columbus airport and head out into the thick clinging void (actually, by definition you probably can’t have a thick void…but for the sake of literary effect let’s go with it).
I leave Cambridge behind me and join the main highway towards Columbus. I am tired but the road is straight and there is little traffic about and the drive is easy. The cruise control is set for 70. The Jeep eats up the miles and I can spend a little time quietly going over the lines for ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’, which will be my next performance.
My comfortable state of mind is disturbed when a slight movement catches my eye. I glance to my right, the road has no barrier and there is woodland beyond. The fog is thick and swirling. Yes, a definite movement, and then a deer – a large one – breaks cover and bounds across the verge and onto the road right into my path. All in a spilt second I glance at my mirror, fortunately nothing behind or alongside, eyes forward again. Quick calculation: we are on a collision course. Stamp on brakes hard and the car lurches forward until there is no more suspension travel and the tyres struggle for grip. I start to veer to the right.
There is a cliché in motor racing that if another car is spinning in front of you, then aim for where he is, because he will be gone by the time you get there. The Renegade is struggling for grip. Aim for the deer, hoping that she doesn’t freeze in the headlights. She looks at me, large eyes staring straight at the car. Gripping wheel tight, trying to keep it straight, and not catch a wheel in the soft mud of the verge (which will send me spinning into the lap of the Gods). Antilock brakes pulsing. Fortunately, the deer’s sense of self-preservation is as strong as mine and she keeps running, almost skipping away across the carriageway and into the darkness. I come off the brakes and bring the car back to straight, travelling slowly now. A huge deep breath, and gently relaxing my fingers which are still tightly gripping the wheel.
Rehearsals can wait for another day, I think.
Thankfully, the rest of the journey is less eventful and I arrive at the Enterprise Rental car drop-off in good time. I sorrowfully say good bye to my little red Renegade (the song that Prince never wrote). It is dusty from my drive on Thursday and only we know what so nearly happened to us both an hour before.
Columbus airport is one of those wonderful regional airports where everything is easy and having dropped my large bag off (underweight), I find a restaurant for breakfast. Today I decide to go healthy and have a delicious bowl of yoghurt, granola and honey. A slice of melon and a blueberry muffin complete the meal.
I have plenty of time before my flight is called so I open the laptop and start to write yesterday’s blog, checking the notes on my phone to recall all of the little details.
As time goes on I check my boarding pass, as I am slightly paranoid this morning. My gate is B21 and my seat is A21 and somewhere along the line I have convinced myself that it is the other way round, but no I am definitely in the correct concourse.
Just before I board I get a message from Liz: the first presentation has gone superbly! I knew it: that’s my girl!
My flight is to Charlotte where I will change planes to fly onto Knoxville, which is pretty well beneath our initial flight path, but there is an upside as the view of the Smoky Mountains is absolutely stunning. In certain valleys morning mist is hugging the ground, so that from above it looks like a river delta of clouds.
Once on the ground we frustratingly sit on the tarmac for a while, as there is no gate ready for us. My connecting flight is due to board at 10.50 for an 11.20 departure. It is now 10.55, and no movement. Finally we get to the gate, and I look out of the window to see that there is no little cart waiting to take the luggage and I doubt if I will see my case at the other end. It is 11.10 when I finally get into the terminal but fortunately my next gate is not far away. The new plane is already boarded but I saunter on as if everything is routine.
Having been packed in like sardines (I am particularly squashed up against the window) our departure is delayed for some reason and I begin to think that maybe my bag will catch up with me after all.
I get to admire the Smokys again and notice that the colours are not blazing red and golden yet – the hills still have a definite green hue to them. The flight is short and soon we arrive in Knoxville airport, which is one of my favourites.
Walking through Knoxville airport is a sensory delight. The terminal is light and airy with rocking chairs facing the huge windows. Panels with an art exhibition are scattered through the hall. The first thing to hit you as you walk through is the strong smell of cinnamon from one of the food outlets, but that gives way to chlorine emanating from the impressive water feature that cascades all the way down the gentle slope towards baggage claim.
The car rental desks are placed in the baggage claim hall so I can get all of the paperwork done while I wait, hopefully, for my case. Sure enough it bounces and bumps onto the conveyor belt and I am able to walk to the parking garage to meet my next car.
This time I have a Jeep Patriot – I am working my way up the Jeep range!
I am driving to the town of Pigeon Forge, nestling in a Smoky Mountain valley and the drive is now a familiar one. The sky is cloudlessly blue and the temperature hot: the drive is stunning. Each year I see the same sign boards, advertising various tourist attractions and the one advertising Evel Knievel’s Harley Davidson has become more and more faded and bleached over the years -perhaps we all have.
The highlight of the journey is cresting the little rise before dropping down into the town of Sevierville and seeing the full majesty of the Smoky Mountains behind it. The tourist industry is in full swing and along the route all of the attractions, adventure golf courses and restaurants are packed with people in shorts and t shirts – is it really November?
Turn right onto the Forks of the River Parkway, and driving alongside the Little Pigeon River and I get ever closer (albeit slowly thanks to the traffic) to Pigeon Forge itself. Yes! There is the upside-down mansion, there is the Titanic, there is King Kong hanging off the Empire State building. Nothing is a surprise in Pigeon Forge, so when I see Santa and an elf in their sleigh stuck in traffic, I give them a friendly wave.
The Inn at Christmas Place stands proudly decorated and welcomes me back. As soon as I walk into the lobby I am greeted by old friends at every turn. I check in and see from the lavish display that has been created to promote my shows, that most of them have sold out: there is always a great audience here.
In my room I liberate my costumes from the little carry-on bag, and hang them up. Then I download the sound effect files so that I can burn them onto a new disk tomorrow. I do some more rehearsing of A Child’s Journey, mercifully uninterrupted by wildlife this time, and then settle down for an afternoon nap.
The final bulletin from home: Liz’s day has been a triumph.
In the evening I take a short walk to an Italian restaurant and order a salad and a main course. The waitress looks at me doubtfully and says ‘are you sure? That’s an awful lot of food!’ ‘Yes,’ I blithely say. ‘I didn’t get to have any lunch today’ Both dishes arrive together and she was absolutely correct. I had imagined a little salad as a starter, followed by my pasta dish, but the former is a main course in its own right and I am scarcely able to do it justice, whilst concentrating on the lime chicken pasta dish, which is delicious.
I admit defeat but do something I have never done before, and that is to ask for the remains of the salad to be boxed. There is a refrigerator in my room at the hotel and now I have tomorrow’s lunch sorted.
Back in my room I find the Turner Classic Movie channel and watch ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ falling asleep as Clint chews his cheroot and looks meaningfully to the right and then to the left.
Ennio Morricone’s score has probably never been regarded as a lullaby before, but that is the effect it has on me tonight.