25 in Mississippi
'25 in Mississippi' is the awkward love-child of three renowned American adventures: Bill Bryson's 'The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America'; John Kerouac's 'On The Road'; and Joseph Heller's 'Catch-22'. The often hilarious and generally light-hearted book is an autobiographical account of a first year teacher working in a disadvantaged Catholic school in Pascagoula, Mississippi during the year of Hurricane Katrina (2005). A series of poignant brushes with the underbelly of American culture riddle the Irish author's stay and challenge every outward perception of the country.
We rolled into town just before midnight. Highway 90 had given way to Telephone Road and a quiet side street behind Wayne Lee’s now mapped out the final moments of our journey. I found little solace starring out the window, as only occasionally were our new surroundings betrayed by the moonlight. It may have been the tension, or the fear, or just the fatigue of spending several days driving the length of the United States, but whatever the reason, I was ready for the wait to be over. Likewise, Amber was probably ready to be rid of me and my unhelpful stories of how everything was so much closer together in Ireland. With the sound of nature heavy on the air, we stepped out of the car onto the parched earth. The atmosphere was nothing if not surreal. Dragging our bags to the front door, we knocked on the fragile window and waited in silence. All the while a relentless humidity reduced my thoughts to one simple question: How was it that I ever ended up in Pascagoula, Mississippi…?
I’d like to say it all started with a girl. An island paradise perhaps. Or even just a cold beer. It actually began amidst a horde of sweaty tourists in one of the few Internet cafés in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. Cramped against the wall and damp in my own sweat, I typed as fast as I could for fear of another power failure. At various moments of desperation I noticed a smile of bemusement on the face of the local hostess. I've always wondered what she was thinking, though I suspect monkeys and typewriters figured prominently. This application form was my first engagement with reality in five months on the road, and even then, I had come across it by chance. A friend of mine, Johnny Phoenix, had recently sent me an update of his adventures studying at the University of Notre Dame.
I didn’t really know that much about Notre Dame, and I certainly didn’t know where South Bend, Indiana, was — at that stage, I was just thankful I found my way home from that internet cafe. I had a vague inkling that some people confused the university with the cathedral in Paris. I also had a notion of an American football team, which played an effeminate form of rugby in an impossibly large stadium, a lake, and the hue of gold. After that, I really couldn’t have told you the Gipper from the Grotto.