In this weeks adventure Stephen takes us on a journey up the mighty Mississippi river, visiting no less than ten states along the way. From the mouth of the river in New Orleans, Louisiana all the way to source in Minnesota.
In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is in full swing when we start and it also seems that Stephen injured his arm at some point between Alabama and here. But it's not mentioned how or why in the episode, which is fair enough because it's about more the country, not the man. Still I must admit it nagged at me for quite a while and I was often wondering what happened. In addition to Mardi Gras we also get an insight into Voodoo, a culture that permeates the saturates the city. Then finally we're taken on a tour of the devastated ninth ward, still not repaired after hurricane Katrina hit. A place where ninty percent of the homes there were destroyed and a young marine named Isiah, who compares the state of the neighbourhood to that of war torn Iraq, guides Stephen around the desolate streets.
Next we're taken out of the city and towards the legendary Angola State Penitary (also known as "The Farm", a prison where nine in ten inmates are lifers. The prison warden Burl Caine is rightly proud his reforms in the jail, a place as large as the entire island of Manhattan, as he has turned the place around from a violent and desolate place filled with gangs into a place of genuine reform.
Leaving Louisiana behind we pass through the town of Natchez, filled with beautiful antebellum architecture before heading to Clarksdale, the home of the Blues and also the home of Morgan Freeman's club Ground Zero where Stephen meets with Morgan and the pair of them wax lyrical for a while.
After spending some time canoeing on the Mississippi itself Stephen travels to St Louis, Missouri - the gateway city, where he spends some time talking with a homeless man named William and travelling through the old abandoned stockyards to meet with more of the homeless.
Then it's a trip to Maharishi Vedic City in Iowa, the foundation and home of Transcendental Meditation, he meets with one Dr Fred Travis and has his alpha brain waves tested before talking a little about TM itself.
From here it's a trip through Indiana and Ohio to Michigan. In Indiana Stephen takes a ride in an Elkhart fire truck and chats about the great American hero, the fireman, before experiencing what it's like to be inside a smoke filled house - unpleasant would be the word of choice. In Ohio Stephen talks about the Kent State Massacre, where on May 4th 1970, thirteen students were shot by the national guard for protesting about Vietnam. A terrible incident that marked the point where the free spirit of the sixties died. In Michigan Stephen visits Detroit (Motown) and talks with John, a passionate car designer who has finally achieved his dream of designing a Cadillac.
From there it's over to Chicago, Illinois. Stephen first meets with the legendary Buddy Guys about the dying nature of the Blues and the changing landscape of music before heading to the also legendary "Second City" comedy club, a place where such greats as Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and the awesome Stephen Colbert have all performed. To this distinguished list of alumni in comedy you can now add Stephen Fry who was called up to perform on stage while he visited. Then while being initiated the following day at the wiener circle he has some sage advice to pass onto the young comedians with him, never give up because you can't be sure when you'll get your break.
Also in Chicago Stephen assists in making an Oscar and then admires the view from the once tallest building in the world the Sear's Tower. The wonderful shots of the city at night remind me once again of my own observations when travelling over New York and Newark. The way the traffic travels along the roads of America looks so much like life blood coursing through veins and arteries, it's a fantastic site that evoked many memories.
Next we travel through the ridiculously cold Wisconsin, so cold that Stephen's water is frozen in it's bottle, and meet with a woman who has a noble calling indeed. She intends to bring decent, proper cheese to America. Now I love the country, but I have to completely agree with Stephen's sentiment here. American cheese is utterly lousy, it's amongst the worst in the world - if not actually the worst. But here at least some proper decent cheese is being made in the traditional ways. And bravo for it!
Finally we travel to Minnesota, where Stephen learns about the Hmongs who sided with America in the Vietnam war and were allowed to immigrate into the country after America's defeat. They're a fascinating people who clearly still yearn for their homeland, but have made Minnesota their home. Finally Stephen heads back to the Mississippi river itself and partakes in some ice fishing - catching a Sunfish for his troubles.
Just like the previous two episodes this one was a delight to watch, America truly is a beautiful country filled with interesting and wonderful people. The episode was a delight to watch, Stephen is - as always - a delight to watch on screen.
In next weeks episode Stephen travels from Montana to Texas.
As always the episode is available to watch on the most excellent BBC iplayer and I'd like to also recommend the book as it contains a lot of additional material written with Stephen's incomparable style and wit.
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