My resignation was accepted. My last day will be the 8th April.
I saw my attorney today and she advised that I should apply for a B2 (tourist) visa. Although my I94 (entry/departure record) permits me to stay legally until the date on it, Dec 2008, I want to ensure that there is no space between quitting and exiting: not for this time around, but for my next visit to America. I do not want the immigration officer to query the gap.
Now I can say that I am "L1 pending B2."
Even if they reject the B2 I still have 180 days to exit the country legally.
My last day of work was Friday 4th, a little earlier than I expected. We had lunch. I read some excerpts from kind works colleagues had sent me. My favourite was from a colleague in Bergamo, Italy, whose English was not great. In reply to my "I`m leaving JAS" email, he wrote, "Sorry to know you`re living, but I wish you all that bast." Ha ha ha.
A very stressful day packing my possessions. I had quite unqiue requirements that the forwarder (JAS) could not handle and so I had to take my stuff down to the warehouse myself.
The hard part was packing my wooden crate that contains my valuables and breakables (e.g. musical instruments).
On facebook are the photos of my 450kg of stuff:
I left my friends` house in Cumming around noon and drove at a leisurely pace (hey, petrol is a whopping 43p a litre, haha!) down to The Hostel ion the Forest near the Atlantic coast. On the way I exercised my right as a road tripper to pull off whenever something interesting catches my attention; on the way down it was High Falls state park, containing a beautiful waterfall and weir.
The forest hostel is like no other I have experienced (and I`ve seen a few). It`s a cross between Big Brother the TV program, the Glastonbury festival (minus the music), and those krusties who tried to prevent the Newbury bypass in the 1990s. The staff are rather like the clientle of those illegal Exodus raves in Dunstable, only nice. The concept of the hostel is that of a true commune, where everyone takes a turn to do the chores of cooking, cleaning, etc, while taking the time to do whatever they feel like. Dinner is a communal affair and is included in the $20/night fee.
The rooms are wooden huts up in trees, which are great fun, if freezing cold (a sweater and 4 blankets were necessary). Evenings consist of sitting around by the campfire chatting, playing guitars and singing, playing drums in a drum circle, and getting in touch with one`s inner bliss. For me it was sufficient to have a day or two off from the 12-hour days of packing and cleaning that I had done for the previous week. Swimming in the crystal clear lake was enough bliss for me.
For anyone who wants a few days of pure peace and relaxation, without cell phones, TV, cars or idiots, this hostel is highly recommended by me.
Tuesday I went to the Golden Isles off the Georgia coast - Jekyll and St Simon`s Islands. On Jekyll it feels like a 1950s summer camp, albeit a very nice one (it was the home of the Millionaires` Club). The highlight was a walk on the driftwood beach, where the beach and its shifting sands consume the adjacent forest, leaving not just twigs of driftwood but entire trees.
I then went to Fort Frederica on the next island, which was Britain`s main defence against the Spaniards in Florida. Both nations wanted Georgia, and this fort (and colonial settlement) were there to protect it. Although nowhere near as famous as Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, it was just as important. In fact, my American friends, were it not for this fort, we`d probably be pressing two for English on the telephone.
You`ll note that the flag in the picture is not the same as that of today - it`s that of the Britain in the 18th C before the Union with Ireland, and the adaptation of the flag to incorporate St Patrick`s cross.
Today I went to the Okefenokee swamp. This is a native American word meaning "land of the trembling earth," so-called because the methane trapped in the peat causes the ground to wobble as it is disturbed by footprints.
I convinced a biker couple to go halves on hiring a motor boat with me, and we took a 3 hour tour of one tiny corner of this massive wildlife refuge. We were on the canals (routes cut into the swamp) half the time, and praries (open expanses of water covered in lillypads) the other half. We saw several wild aligators, though only small ones. The best view was of one aligator sunbathing on the bank, who hissed at us for getting too close.
Early this morning I witnessed the emptying of the compost toilets at the commune. Basically some poor voluteer has to take the bucket out from under the privvie and empty it into a compost heap for 2 years, before it is then turned into flower bedding. Lovely.
As I write I am in the home of a couch-surfer in Tallahassee, Florida.
Today I spent the morning in Tallahassee, the state capital of Florida, where my host, a young student/soldier, took me on a tour of the Soroity houses. Sadly no-one was in as they were all at classes, but it was just like in the movies.
The rest of the morning was spent at the state history museum, before I went to the Apalaciacola forest. Here I visited the Leon Sinks national/state park, which is a collection of geological sink-holes. It was quite amazing to see a river flowing and then disappearing into the earth, only to reappear around the corner.
My drive to Panama City was disrupted for 30 mins by the air force: they were testing their predator drones and, in the words of the officer to whom I spoke, "they sometimes crash and we want to close the road to ensure we don`t kill nobody." Nice. The rest of the drive was along a beautiful cost road where the sea was literally next to the road and sand blew over the tarmac.
My host today, an artist and pharmacist, took me to dinner and to an indie film show in an art gallery. Panama City is very nice, a centralised walkable downtown area with streetfront bars and restaurants. Luckily I missed the mayhem of Spring Break.
After a fry-up breakfast in a cafe on the quaint highstreet of Downtown Panama, where I utilised the free wi-fi, I spent all day Friday at the beach. My first call was Panama City Beach, a long white sand beach edged with beautiful green sea. I`d missed "Spring Break" (half-term holiday for uni students, when they all pile to the beaches of Florida, where the drinking age is just 18, and cut loose) for most universities but there were a couple of stragglers. Needless to say I approched several gaggles of 21 y.o. girls, who naturally fawned over me, my charm and my accent. They showed me how to do a beer funnel and I tried this - it`s a way of downing a can of beer more quickly by pouring it into a funnal and tube, then releasing it all in one go.
I then drove further along the coast to Walton and finally to Destin beaches, where I spent all afternoon. After being on the beach all day I was lured into the main bar, AJ`s, by a aeroplane trailing a flying advertisement, in which I had a few beers and watched the band. They were all grey-haired rockers, very talented, and certainly beat Thursday night`s restaurant entertainment of 12 year old brothers trying to cover Guns `N Roses tunes on their acoustics. The bar was right next to the marina, so I could watch the fishing and pleasure boats come and go, and see the greedy pelicans waiting for fish scraps.
Friday night I think demonstrated just how hospitable the Americans are. The following would never occur in Britain: I had arranged to couch-surf in Pensacola, but the host was not actually at home that night. He left a key with the apartment doorman and I spent the night in his apartment without him. Amazing generosity and trust.
So far, 3 nights of such, I have been very impressed with the concept of couch surfing with strangers. It certainly saves me a lot of money (this is, afterall, a super-budget trip, now that I am unemployed), and is a great way to meet people and be shown around. The only thing I don`t like is the obvious need to arrange in advance, which means my plans are tied. I sometimes feel like I rush to reach the next town by the time agreed, when a couple of times I have actually prefered to dawdle some. Despite enjoying having the place to myself and having a much-needed lie-in today, I do wish I had spent last night in Destin.
Right now, Saturday morning, I have no plans to be anywhere at any time. I have a friend in New Orleans (we met at Mardi Gras 2007), whom I would like to visit in the next couple of days, but other than that I have nothing lined up. Maybe I will call-in to Biloxi, just to laugh at the name, or possibly Gulfport Mississippi. Perhaps I will push on to N`aarlins to catch a Saturday night there.
I have some great pictures of the beach babes, but my camera is refusing to upload right now. I will do so asap.
Last night`s crashing in someone`s apartment allowed me to have a well-needed lie-in and re-couperation. I then set off from Pensacola to Biloxi, Mississippi. Of course I took only back-roads along the coast, which were beautiful, as you can see in the pics.
I stopped in Fairhope, on the Mobile Bay, where they were having an Earth Day fair. "Festival" is a little bit of a push, as it was only a small town affair. It felt like a village fete, with school children expositioning their projects for example.
I then pushed on to Biloxi, a town famous for its casinos. Little did I know that this would mean the price of accomodation would be proportionately high, and I spent a good hour seeking a reasonable hotel or motel. There were none and I went over-budget on the hotel. That`s going to be a concern for me: when I have nothing booked in advance and I have to find a motel on the spot, I have little leverage with prices. However, it`s possible to sit in the motel`s parking lot and hijack their free wi-fi to try to book online or to find another place nearby. This trick also works when a little lost in a city.
That night I went to the Imperial Palace casino, where the beers were free (if you got them from the bar in the gaming room), or given to me for being cool (if you were hanging out in the live music venue with the air force guys).
It`s kinda nice not really knowing what day it is, not having to worry about where, when and with whom things will be done.
Laissez les bon temps rouler - Cajun for "let the good times roll"
I`m very excited about being here in N`arlins. My drive here from Biloxi, again along the coast road (see pics), had me end up accidentally at a NASA base. Very cool.
Anyway, the city has come a long way since Katrina*, and although there is a still a lot of destruction, a lot is better. In particular the bridges, many of which were close on my trip here last year. However there are still scores of homeless people living under bridges in tents, even on Canal Street.
Right now I am sitting in the back yard of the pictured India House Hostel, a $17-a-night backpacker`s hostel, where one has to pick one`s way over the sleeping bodies in the dormitory. I feel at home here, and did so as soon as I stepped through the door. It has the same communal feel as the Forest Hostel, without the hippies and the dirt, but is it larger and more anonymous, and so a little less friendly.
Later today and tomorrow I will go into the French Quarter, and tomorrow evening will pop across Lake Pontchartrain using the world`s longest bridge (38km long see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Pontchartrain_Causeway) to visit a friend from Mardi Gras last year.
* Amusing story about Katrina. Last night in a bar I was chatting with a girl who was telling me about the area. She: "This place is not what it used to be, a couple of years ago we had a huge hurricane, the worst in years." Daniel: "Wow, worse than Katrina?" She: "Oh yes, much worse; everything was destroyed." Daniel: "What was the name of this hurricane, I have not heard of it?" She: "Katrina." Ummmmmm ok.
I`d seen New Orleans during Mardi Gras in 2007, which was one of the craziest places I`d ever been. Now, during low season, the French Quarter feels a lot different without the throngs and the thongs, the boobs and the beads, and the lushes and the lush. It does, however, have the same God-awful stench of trash and piss, on Rue Borbon at least. Without all the razzamatazz one can see quite a different side - for example, I had no idea that there were so many art galleries and antique shops.
I`d never before seen the garden district, a residential area consisting of the most beautiful Victorian houses on wide tree-lined streets. This was a pleasure to walk around, despite the heat. Of particular interest was the LaFayette cemetary, consisting of large family-owed tombs. Not just graves, but proper multiple-occupancy above-ground tombs. Quite a site.
Last night I slept in the dormitary of the hostel, about which I was quite excited. It`d been many years since I`d done so, and it would appear that in that time the roles were reversed. Before, I was the early-down, early-rising guest, who worried about his possessions and the noise of others. This time it was I who came home boozed up, everyone else being asleep, and then shocked when all these backpackers rose at 7am sharp. Weirdos.
Speaking `aboot` weirdos, there were a whole bunch of wannabe anarchists in the hostel last night. The came down from Canada to protest George Bush and his meeting with the Canuck PM and the Mexcian El Presidente to discuss forming some bizarre unilateral militia. They wore ditry Yassah Arafat scarves and smelled bad, so I got `oot` of their way.
By the way, that`s how Canadians talk. It`s hilarious, and Terence and Phillip from South Park were not exaggerating.
Last night I went out with some of the hostel staff for a few beers in the mid-city area of town. Everyone, even the local residents, was very Bo-Ho.
Last day in New Orleans. I went to the Louisiana State museum, which was OK but could have had better explanations of the state`s interesting history. My $4 lunch consisted of bread and smoked fish from a deli, enjoyed while listening to a jazz band on Decatur St.
I then drove to Baton Rouge. This was one of the few occasions where the freeway, I-10, was more interesting than the side roads. Much of the freeway was through swamps and overflow of swamp into lake. On the other hand, the side roads were just light after light.
Baton Rouge, "red stick", is so-named because a European settler noticed a bear heads and fish heads stuck on top of red poles here. These were marking the boundry of hunting rights between two native peoples.
I couch-surfed on Tuesday night with a very interesting LSU student. He plays guitar and after we went out for a few beers we jammed until late.
Today (Weds) I will explore Baton Rouge, in particular LSU (Lousiana State Uni), and then head halfway to Houston.
Baton Rouge is the home of Lousiana State University. I spent the morning looking around the campus, which is enormous, about 5 blocks square, and is fully self-contained. Dressed like a traveller with a rucksack on I blended in perfectly (in New Orleans I was asked by the museum teller if I was 19 or 20 year old). The only difference between my fresher/freshman days and today is that everyone has a mobile phone and a laptop. There were still the tables of organisations outside the union (where I ate two pork chops for $4), such as Nation of Islam (or at least angry looking black men in bow ties, NoI was my guess).
I went to the physics building and met with the head of the department, who allowed me to attend a couple of lectures, in which I sat at the back. The lecture hall was small, around 100 capacity, which is a far cry from the 300 I was used to. Size aside, it must be noted that these classes were TOO EASY. I attended "sophomore" (2nd year) physics, but the material was more like A-level (high school). For example, angles of refraction and the classic "should the hunter aim above or below the fish`s aparent position?" problem. That is high school physics, not 2nd year degree level. It goes on - the next lecture was on ideal gases. This was first year material for me, and today`s lecture was not too much higher than high-school (it featured degrees of freedom of mono-, di- and poly-atomic ideal gases, its only grace saving it from being soley high-school). My point is that today confirmed my suspicions that many American university courses, even the so-called hard ones like physics and engineering (as opposed to the crappy courses advertised on TV like "criminal justice" and "international fast food management" ) are not even close to the equivalent course in Europe. It makes me think that every uni here (with the exception of the ivy leaguers, Emory and those on the west coast) is like Dr Nick Riviera`s "upstairs Hollywood medical college." If you can find the ceremonial hall, you get to graduate.
OK. Rant over.
I then went to the State Capitol building, which is the tallest in the country. It`s more like a tower block than the typical gold-domed St Paul`s-esque capitols of Georgia and Florida. I fought through the protestors to the door, fought the hired goons in security, fought the school children for the elevator, and made it up to the observation platform. Great views of the Mississippi, which was overflowing. In one of my pics you can see a riverside parking lot half submurged. A quick stop at the governor`s mansion (desinged as an exact replica of the White House, so that when governor Huey Long makes it to there he will know where the light switches are).
Then I drove the back roads to Lake Charles, a one-horse town. I had my first brush with the law on this stretch, a copper scolded me for rubber-necking as I drove through road works. That pissed me off. He should not have even been hanging around at the road works - my tax dollars should have had him out catching criminals.
Today I drove from Lake Charles to Houston. My first stop was at the Johnson Space Center, NASA`s mission control and training centre on the edge of the city. The centre was a little child-oriented, with too many hot dog stands and ball pits. It was a little disappointing to discover only late the interesting stuff hidden away around the back of the kiddies` play stuff, and then to have just a short time to see all the exhibits.
Although the museum side was in a separate section from the real control room, we went around the actual mission control area. One of the most interesting places was the original 1960s control room where all the famous events occured. Did you know that the two IBM mainframes that controlled the moon landings had just 200kb of RAM each? My $7 walmart digital watch probably has that much.
We saw the Saturn V rocket that had sat outside in the elements for 20 years before being restored by the Smithsonian. Wow, that`s a huge beast, the engines of the first stage are as tall as a room.
I caught a glimpse of moon rock before being tasered out (at 16:55) as the place closed. I wish I`d seen more mook rocks and fewer models of astronaughts.
Houston itself is HUGE. It`s twice the area of Atlanta, which is sprawling enough, and the city proper has 4 times the population or Atlanta proper (although the metro areas are around the same at 5 million).
The hostel here in Houston is pretty dull. No vibe whatsoever. I went out for buffet style BBQ - beef brisket, pork ribs, 2 veg and bread, beer; $15. Can`t beat it. Then I saw a Beatles cover band at a club up the road, I`d never before seen kids dancing in the original 60s Beatles style.
Today I explored downtown Houston. I was a little unimpressed at first, but by the end of the day had really grown to like the city. Downtown is of course mostly a business district, with very tall skyscrapers, some of which I ascended for great views of a not particularly attractive city. The buildings are linked via a bizarre network of underground tunnels (which had less asbestos and stream and fewer tramps than those under Imperial) or walkways and over-street skywalks. Bill Bryson would have loved them.
I took a moment to enjoy some of the performances at the warm up for International Festival, which seems to be simply an excuse to install hundreds of overpriced food stands in the city centre. I enjoyed the Ethiopian dancers.
After my allegations that US undergraduate physics courses are sissy, I conceded that LSU was indeed perhaps not the best benchmark. So I decided to see the exact same thing at an Ivy League uni - Rice. A beautiful campus, set among moss-covered trees, contained old-school buildings. Unfortunately I had missed the last lecture by two days, but was given a tour of the department by the woman. The old fashioned lecture theatre, with its weighted black boards and not a PowerPoint in sight, was nostalgic. I did discuss my opinions with the undergraduate co-ordinator. She said that undergrad courses at all US unis, even Rice, were not as hard as Europeans ones, and that when she arranges for European high school kids to visit for a week (I think the program is called ASF or similar) she said that they always have no trouble with the degree level material. Her words, not mine. HOWEVER she also said that the graduate courses in the US are the world`s finest.
I went to the park and enjoyed the Japanese gardens (I always do). Then after resting my sore feet (I must have walked 10 miles today) until nightfall I then walked the Buffalo Bayou as I had been told it was beautifully illuminated at night. Yes, this is true, but only for a 1/4 mile stretch. The rest is under the freeway bridges, bum city. Rather alarming. I walked very quickly and looked over my shoulder every 10 paces, conscious of the shadows and cigarette glows under the freeways.
All in all I am quite impressed with Houston. I had been told there`s not a lot here. While it`s not exactly culture central, it`s a pleasant city that has some beautiful parks. Worth a visit.
On Saturday I arose early to take the longish drive from Houston to San Antonio. I did not take the side roads as Texas is just too big, it would have taken me forever. This is demonstrated by the fact that upon entering Texas on I-10 there was a sign saying "El Paso: 825 miles."
(Luckily I found a radio station that is, wait for it, completely and utterly commercial and chatter free. They do no even speak to say the name of the songs. They just rock out. Move over, BBC, make way for KISS. [US radio, and TV, stations are all assigned a 3- or 4-letter call sign from the FCC, just like in many countries, but only in the US do they actually state their call sign on air. As well as telling listeners that they`re tuned to "Pop Hits Radio" or whatever, they must announce the call sign - "you`re listening to KABC Pop Hits 99.6" etc. Sometimes the radio goes only by its call sign, rather dully, and so they often ask for cool acronyms such as KPOP for a pop station. Historically the schema Kxxx is for stations west of the Mississippi and Wxxx for those east. So "107.5 WJZZ" is Atlanta`s jazz station. Anyway.])
San Antonio is a charming town, 3 hours west of Houston. It features a below-street riverside walk, lined with restaurants and bars. One measure I use to determine how nice a city is is whether my parents would like it. I think they would like San Antonio, therefore it must be a nice town. I arrived, accidentally, on Fiesta day, so the centre of the city was closed to cars and everyone was in carnival spirit. There were so many Latin people that it made Miami look Anglo-Saxon. I didn`t stay for the parade though as it didn`t start til much later.
The biggest tourist attraction in SA is the Alamo. This is actually a fort, an entire complex, but what most people recognise as the Alamo is actually just one of the buildings, the church. The fort was defended bravely, but ultimately unsuccessfully, by Texans (nb. they were not part of the United States at this point) against many Mexicans. They held out for a long time but in the end were defeated. Many famous names were involved in its defence: Davy Crockett, Mr Bowie (of knife fame), and Mr Travis. It was interesting to hear the description of the defenders, which of course was jazzed-up to be very Red-White-and-Blue (words such as "transcendent" and "patriot" were used at the museum). Words such as "slaughtered" were not used, despite that being the actual outcome. That`s just not American.
After visiting the Alamo I had a pint on the river in a British pub. Another unsuccessful attempt at legitimacy - I`ve never been to a British pub where the staff wear kilts and there is a Union flag-painted Mini Cooper on the wall, or where there is a back-lit Big Ben sign 6` tall. But it was a valiant effort.
I then drove to Austin, the capital city of Texas. The hostel here is really great, clean, spacious, and set on a river. The common room does feel a little like a lower school, though, because there is a fish tank backed with presentations on the wall. I don`t know whether it`s a Hostels International (YHA) rule globally, in the US, or just per-hostel, but many ban booze. I was scolded for even carrying two closed bottles on site.
After much illicit boozing by the river I, some Swedes and some English birds went into the city for a night on the tiles. Unfortunately we were apparently running on Swedish time, which seems to be like Black Person`s time (Chanel`s phrase, not mine), and we didn`t get there til 1am. The city - renowned for its parties and music scene - shuts down at 2am. Bah!
In all the hostels in all of Texas, I happened to meet there someone who was born in the same now-defunct hospital as I: Hitchin General.
I have been on the go for three weeks: two weeks of traveling and one week of packing, all of which have been exhausting. Apart from one day relaxing at the hippie commune I have not had a day off, and I can feel it. Were I working, I would have 3-6 nights in per week, but at the moment I am busy all day and all night. It`s extremely tiring. After hitting the bars on Saturday night I welcomed a lie in until all of 11am, and then mooched around until 2pm. At that time I went to see the city.
Austin is a rather nice city. Standard grid system, but with the state capitol placed over the intersection of blocks, not on the block, meaning it`s visible for miles down the main road. Very impressive. I took a tour of this, and saw the Texas houses of senate and of representatives. They`re a lazy bunch, they meet for 142 days every TWO years, not meeting at all in 2008. George Dubba`s portrait hangs in the rotunda as ex-governor. The house is a little more formal that the UK parliament - in the senate at least, a speaker may speak for an unlimited amount of time so long as he does not wander or repeat himself, the record being 42 hours.
In the photos you can see six seals around the base of the capitol`s dome. These are the six nations under which Texas has been: Spain, France, Mexico, the independent nation of Texas, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America. This is the origin of the phrase, and the theme park, "Six Flags Over Texas."
I then went to the Texas state history museum and the IMAX. It was interesting to read the story of oil. The first derrick was sunk in (I think) 1901, and in just 100 years Houston went from nothing to the enormous megalopolis it is today, due to the oil boom.
In the evening I saw the outbound flight of the world`s largest urban bat colony. Around one million bats live under a bridge in the centre of town, and they fly out to hunt at night. It was very cool to see them all, although I suspect that the colony was not quite up to full capacity.
At night I went out again to 6th street to sample the live music. Amazing. Every bar was full, even at midnight on a Sunday night. The local bands were just so talented. One guitarist`s facial expressions put Jimi`s to shame, it was as if he was using his facial muscles to play, not his fingers. The drummer of the band did a drum solo, but came away from his drums: he came out into the crowd and played everything available - mic stand, trash can, somesone`s pint glass, pipes and beams on the wall, to make a tune. Very entertaining.
While walking through the town my heart exploded in panic when I thought I has lost my passport. I carry it about my person and it never leaves my side, but I thought that the belt had broken and it had fallen down. I turned and ran back to the museum, and in my single-mindedness was nearly hit by a car as I did. Turns out I had not lost it. But I never ever want to experience that degree of fear again. Everything else is replaceable, but my I94 is not.
Today I am off to Dallas.
A day of travels. I drove from Austin to Dallas at my usual leisurely pace, stopping at one of those odd Czech towns for lunch. They seem to be scattered around the state, and contain nothing but Czech descendants and their typical businesses. Lunch was a series heavy Czech pastries.
I passed through Waco, a city made infamous by the seige by the ATF in the 1990s. I wanted to see the ranch, and asked the tourist board for info. The woman seemed reluctant to give me any details, wary of my intentions, and even tried to deter me. However after some insistence she produced a ready-made print out of directions to the ranch. Obvioulsy I`m not the only one to want to see it. There was indeed nothing of note at Mount Carmel, aside from the fact that it now seems to be the home of yet another cult (Americans seem to like following buffoons, as we can see in their choice of President), called Stone Church Branch Lord of Righteousness (which upon further investigation is just the Davidians rebranded). I did not enter the ranch - these nut jobs had a small arsenal last time.
Upon arrival in Dallas I went to the hostel and then went for a walk. The many Mexican children playing in the park were pleasing to see: they know how to let boys be boys. They were playing with bikes, fishing rods, footballs, in the weir... very heathly, and to be encouraged.
So far I had seen 4 of Texas` 5 big cities. What I really wanted to see, however, I had not: cowboys. Fort Worth filled this need. In the historic "stock yard" area of the city one can see a true cowboy town, complete with cows. A couple of times a day the cattle are driven though the Western-looking town over cobbled roads. It wasn`t quite what I expected (which was a hundred head of cattle running through the streets), just a handful of cattle walking down the road. But very cool.
I went to several cowboy shops and was fitted for a proper cowboy hat. I am pleased with my purchase as it will provide all round sunshade without blowing off. I will upload a photo when I can have someone take one of me. Also in the shops were beautiful cowboy boots. Sadly those in my size were too expensive, particularly as I can`t really think of a time when I`d wear them. Despite not being Texan I could certainly appreciate their beauty.
One of the reasons I Dallas was because we studied JFK in year 10 history class. So of course I wanted to go to the museum and solve the mystery for them (the FBI couldn`t find the WMD either, could they?!). I have worked it out, but I fear the world is not ready to hear, so I`ll not publish it here.
The morning was spent in the JFK museum, which is actually on the sixth floor of the book depo, and features the window itself. I was fascinated by the analysis of the audio recordings, which took the primary and then the many echos of the gunshots and modelled the paths of the sound from the source (or sources) to determine where these sources were. The different studies could not, however, agree upon whether there was a second shot on the grassy knoll. (The knoll, by the way, is the first thing in America which is SMALLER than its counter part in Britian - the knoll is more like a tiny bank about 4` from the kerb.) On the road is an X marking the position of the fatal shot.
As I write I am at the home of the father of my friend Heather, in Plano, just outside Dallas; who is very kindly hosting me tonight. They live just 5 minutes from the ranch that was the setting for the soap opera `Dallas`. More on that tomorrow.
As I mentioned yesterday, there were two main reasons for my being aware of the city of Dallas - the JFK assassination and the soap opera `Dallas`. My mother was an addict of this and I can even remember the theme tune in my head. So it was imperative that I visit the legendary Southfork Ranch in Plano.
The mansion was privately owned and, during the soap`s heyday, was only used for the outside shots. All indoor shots were done in a studio. It`s a wonder that they ever bothered to rent the mansion, because even the outside was often no good, and camera tricks had to be used to make it more suitable. For example, the balcony from which many characters were thrown or fell is a good 6` from the edge of the pool, but everyone always miracously landed in the water; in reality the shot was made in two halves.
I then drove for nine hours to Carlsbad, New Mexico. America is sooo big that what looks like four inches on the detailed page of the map is actually 490 miles. My 9 hours took me to the South East corner of New Mexico, through some rather amazing scenery.
The scenery as far as Big Springs was dull dull dull. Literally nothing to see. But turning off the freeway and into the desert allowed me to see some really beautiful sights. A typical sight was a red dusty field with either mottled brush or deep furrows, with the occaisional nodding donkey oil well.
The wind was very strong all day, and driving through arable farmland the dust was blowing all around me. It was like a day on the windy beach, but the dust was 20` tall. I often had to drop my speed and turn on my lights, at 5pm. The dust formed sand-dunes at the side of the road.
Eventually I arrived in Carlsbad, tired, dusty and dehydrated. I was tempted to camp tonight to offset the cost of the gas I burned but negotiated a decent rate at a motel, allowing me to shower and return my outer layer of Texas to the earth.
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Carlsbad Caverns is a network of 30 miles of caves in the mountains of New Mexico. I visited today and spend several hours underground, first as part of a guided tour and then wandering around the safe areas solo. The caves contain huge chambers, the biggest in the western hemisphere - the largest was 110m from highest to lowest point, and a good quarter of a mile long.
The caves are unusual in that they were not formed by erosion by an underground river, rather their roots are shared with the area`s oil culture: hydrogen sulfide from the oil combined with rainwater to create sulfuric acid, which ate the caves from the inside. They then drained, and further rainwater created the stalactites and -mites. Most of the formations are now dry and inactive, but some are still growing. Notable a small set of formations inside a manmade tunnel, showing that in just 75 years a noticeable deposit can be made.
I entered via the elevator at first, and then walked down the natural entrance, the one that the bats roost in. It felt like entering the bowels of the earth, and due to 40` of bat crap on the floor, it smelled like it too. Once inside the huge rooms it was possible to see all kinds of different formations - stalagmites and stalactites as mentioned, columns (where the two meet), soda straws (hollow stalactites), popcorn (small baubles), veils (long wide curtain-like formations) and lillypads.
After lunch I went to Roswell, NM. There is a Roswell in almost every state, including Georgia, yet this is probably the most famous. In the late 1940s there were various controversial incidents that may or may not have been caused by weather balloons, advanced military experiments, aliens, or over-active imaginations. I visited the UFO Museum, which was the worst, most partial exposition I`ve ever seen. It was as if the producers of the Jerry Springer show had decided to make a museum in the back of an old shop. Still, it was part of Roswell.
Then in the late afternoon I drove to Albuquerque. I was floored with the scenery on the journey. Despite being nothing but desert and rock, it was just stunning. I had no expectations of NM and have been very impressed. I saw the sun set over the mountains, only then to drive through the mountains and see the light again on the other side.
My drive certainly sucked up the gas as I was driving into a headwind for most of it. The wind was so strong that I had to use both hand to open the car door at each of the many photo pauses. The wind and the elevation (up to 6000`) made the weather cold. I had been used to 90 degrees and air con, and then up on this plateau it was freezing and I needed the heating. The remoteness of the plateau was shown by being unable to get a real phone carrier and being able to get just one radio station on the entire band - I would tell the radio scan through and it would just return to the same station. Pretty remote at times.
I am couch surfing tonight. I picked up my new friend from her art studio and drove us to her place in the burbs. Very nice.
Gas was $3.65 for most of NM, but I saw highs of $3.99 and lows of $3.45 today.
I had intended to drive to Colorado today, but when I considered that I had spent 15+ hours in a car in two days, I wanted a day off. My couch surfing host Codie said I could spend another night, meaning I didn`t have to drive today. For this, as well as her hospitality, I was grateful.
So instead I went into Albuquerque, first to a lecture at the University of New Mexico, and then to the Petroglyphs National Monument. I also had the oil changed in my car for $24 (12 pounds), as I have now covered 3300 miles.
The lecture was on global warming, part of the `blue earth` series in the `science` minor for non-science majors. Codie is a third year art major. It`s not fair to compare this lecture with anything. It was well presented but incredibly basic.
The petroglyphs (`stone carving`, from the Greek) are a series of small drawings carved into rocks just outside the city, created by Pueblo natives in the last 1000 years. I say `just outside`, which is really true: on one side of the road are houses, the other a national park.
We saw a range of drawings, created by scraping the outer oxidised layer from the local igneous rocks: people, animals, spirals, geometric shapes. Some of these symbols still have meaning to Pueblos today, while many meanings have been lost.
In the evening I helped my couch surfing host Codie and her friend prepare some art exhibits. I stitched goat skin over plaster body parts, and was quite pleased with the neat results. Quite a different activity to the average Friday night, I`m sure.
Tomorrow I will go to the Four Corners (where one can have a limb in each of CO, NM, AZ and UT), and then to Mesa Verde national park in Colorado. There I will be camping.
On Saturday I drove from Albuquerque to the North West corner of the state, entering the Navajo Nation, a native American homeland area. As I approached Shiprock I was shocked at the poverty visible. People lived in single-storey port-a-cabins on bare dirt in the city, and in shacks at the base of mesas in crags in the desert, clearly without running water (50 miles into the desert). I did not photograph these unfortunately, but did snap a homestead just outside of town which was a little better but never-the-less still quite lowly. I took this picture because as I drove through the desert one of the things on my mind was how it felt like a million miles from the bustling cities of Dallas and Houston. It actually felt like a separate country, hardly conceivable that the richest nation on earth could still house people in such conditions while just 500 miles away in Las Vegas more money and energy is wasted than is comfortable to imagine.
From Shiprock (named after a huge vertical rocky outcrop) I went to the Four Corners, where the highly-imaginative division of the land resulted in four states converging in one place, with orthogonal borders between them. It was actually pretty cool to take two steps and enter two states that I had never previously been to (Utah and Colorado; I went to Arizona in 1995). Of course I made the standard pose of one limb in each state.
The scenery in this area is just amazing. Something different over every hill: smooth red rocks, yellow pyramidal sand formations, brown mud scarred with deep dry streams, mesas, black mountains, strata of rock and sand, and then finally a view of the snow-covered mountains further north in Colorado. It was really quite something else, possible the most beautiful part of America I have yet seen (while not being classically beautiful - not your typical bald eagle landscape).
The drive took forever as I kept stopping for pictures. There are quite a lot of pictures of rocks, but that`s what this whole area is all about. There are several shots showing the road itself: I wanted to include these because this is what I spent much of the day looking at. It`s the type of scene from films and from atlas covers. (Remember that reference, please....)
I drove on to Cortez and camped. It`s pretty expensive, $24 for a simple tent space. But the view from Camp Clarke is right out onto the mountains. When I finished erecting the Walker-Ellis tent (purchased in the west, flown from SFO to ATL, and now driven back to the greater Rockies before use), I checked the car - the engine was covered in sand from the drive, and the suspension on one side started to squeak over bumps, I suspect from the dust and sand. I liberally WD40`d the suspension, without success. I hope that it`s nothing serious. I`m hardly in the right place for a breakdown.
Tomorrow I will go to Mesa Verde national park and then perhaps on to Arches to camp for the night.
[Sorry for the delay in this update. I`ve been offline in the mountains for a few days. Yes I am alive, very well, and grateful for your concern.]
I spent a sleepless freezing cold night, waking every hour. My body was warm but my face, the only part exposed by the sleeping bag, cold. I arose early to go to Mesa Verde, a national park up the road. The feature of this park is a collection of hundreds of ancient dwellings, set into alcoves in cliffs, which used to be inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo peoples. They`re really quite breath-taking, particularly those that were for ceremonial use rather than inhabitation.
An interesting feature was the kiva, an underground circular hole that was then covered flush with the earth. They all followed the same pattern of a central fire pit, a ventilator shaft with deflector, and a small holes in the roof (entry) and floor (symbolic connection with, or entry to, the underworld).
There was apparently quite a community on the mesa, with shared facilities such as a temple and food store.
The age of these dwellings if from about 550AD to 1300AD, when the entire area was suddenly, and mysteriously, evacuated.
I took two tours of the bigger features, Cliff Palace and Balcony House, and then did the driving tour of the mesa. I felt quite lazy, driving for literally 50 metres before parking again to gawp, but there`s not really any other way. The river and scenery was stunning too.
In the evening I drove into Utah to visit Arches National Park. Another stunning drive, which again took a long time because of all the photo stops. I pulled into the Arches park at about 7pm, and it took another half hour to drive to the campsite (giving you a scale of the place). Luckily there was room for me in the campsite, and I pitched right under a huge rock and just 50 yards from an arch. I watched the slide show put on by the rangers, and made my DIY dinner (I had stocked-up on the way over).
On monday I awoke at dawn after a much better night`s sleep. The investment of a $10 airbed was well worth it. Washing in cold water under a dripping tap was not quite so much fun, though.
My day was spent seeing most of the Arches park, including a walk down Park Avenue, a ranger tour of the double Windows arches, marvelling at Balanced Rock, and finally enduring a hot and therefore difficult uphill hike to Delicate Arch. This is the most famous of the arches, and it Utah`s unofficial symbol, seen on their licence plates.
The arches are formed by rock cracking vertically when an underground salt deposit was washed away. The vertical cracks then eroded and widened, forming fins. The fins then in turn eroded inwards, forming beautiful, but fragile, arches. In fact they are still eroding and in 1991 a huge section of one arch fell off. They will probably all (all 2000) be gone before the next new arch forms, in my guess.
After hiking for a good 10 miles I called it a day at 5pm and read until dark, declining a dinner invitation back in town from a couple I met on the top of the mountain in favour of an early night. [Posthumous update: I regret that decision, it would have been great to have dined with them.]
The desert life is quite amazing. Despite not having much rainfall there is a plethora of flora. Juniper bushes, up to 500 years old, are everywhere, as well as adult oak tress just 18" high. Even the sand is alive, covered by a special type of cyrptobacteria that harden the crust, hold the sand`s shape, hold water in, and therefore are essential to life. A footprint in this may take 250 years to fix itself.
In the middle of the night I answered the call of nature and was floored by the night sky. In the absence of light pollution and air pollution, the sky at night is quite a different beast. Imagine the 50 or so major stars you can see on an average night - Orion, Ursa Major, etc. Then imagine a clear night at home, when you might see one or two thousand stars. Now intersperse these 2000 with about 5 or 6 times as many smaller, feinter stars, such that there are too many to even find the main constellations. It was just beautiful, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. (It helped to have been wearning my glasses and be sober; a similar sky was not fully appreciated by me in Costa Rica for these two problems).
My morning hike was a good 7 miles in hot weather, over sand and dunes, flat rock, gullies, over the top of the thin fins I mentioned, through arches, down crags. Very challenging, and hard on my feet as my shoes were full of sand for most of the time. This was around the Devil`s Garden.
I took a well-earned lunch break, making more DIY sandwiches for about $2 total, and then took the famous Fiery Furnace tour. This is a ranger-led hike around a reserved area not open to the public. This was a very challenging hike, involving walking sideways between two vertical cliff faces for example. I had no trouble but the fatties and the oldies made the progress quite slow. I had laughed silently when I purchased the ticket for the tour, as I was asked whether I could lift my knees to waist-high. Evidently these fatties had lied.
Several times now I have felt like something from one of my childhood books. I can`t remember the name, just the image of some scared travellers walking the narrow path along the side of the valley, with the forboding mountains looming over them and the sheer drop to their side. It`s a very cool feeling. I felt like that today again, after first feeling it on the way to Delicate Arch.
On the way to a campsite I had a lucky break and stumbled apon a hostel. It`s just $9 a night, and features four walls, a roof, and - ahhhh - hot showers. I can`t believe how expensive a campsite is - $25 for a space on the floor.
I ate my first hot meal since Saturday (I`d been eating home-made sandwiches for lunch and dinner, and the occaisional cold tin of beans), which was very welcome. This is another cool hostel, filled with mountain bikers and rock climbers, and (despite not being so sporty) I felt very at home. Rather than the cold soup and early night in a tent that I had anticipated, I spent the evening doing tequilla shots in the hot tub with some travellers (yes, $9 a night, with a hot tub).
After some contemplation about the speed at which I am travelling, prompted in part by some emails I`ve received and by the bonus day I had in Albuquerque, I have decided to slow down somewhat. It`s particularly pertinent that I should do so at this time, because this part of my travels spans the parts I was most excited to see. So my second day in Arches was a spur of the moment decision to extend my stay, and just this morning I decided to stay a second night in the Moab hostel.
Having been latched on to by a bizarre hostel guest (I think he has a screw lose) we went to Canyonlands National Park, just over the road from Arches. This is a more impressive, though less beautiful, park, comprising mostly canyons and mesas, the occaisional monolith and an arch or two. This park is split into two and my intention of seeing both halves in one day was dashed by the size of it. So today I saw just the north half, the Island in the Sky area. This is a mesa bounded by the Colorado and Green rivers. It has really stunning canyons - dare I say it, more stunning than the Grand Canyon? I`ll write again on the comparison (which spans 13 years of my memory) next week.
One particularly impressive feature was a hike straight up a butte, scrambling over the last vertical one metre very carefully: this was the only time I have actually feared for my life while hiking, one tiny mistake and I would have slipped 500 feet down the side of the mesa. Around the back of the plateau was a series of wind-etched passages, cut right into the vertical wall of the butte. Here were situated several Ancestral Puebloan graneries, simple dry-mason walls holing-up the passage. Their location was hardly convenient should the local sqaw have wished to bake an extra loaf if the Joneses pop round for tea.
I kept meeting the same people on my hikes. Spanning three days and two national parks, I met four couples more than once. In fact I met one group four times, and they even knew my name by the end of it. On one occaision I met a couple on top of a mesa and chatting to them, givng them my standard recent history speil. They said something like, "oh, you`re the second Brit we`ve met from Atlanta, there was another guy who also lived in Sandy Springs who quit his job 4 weeks ago and jumped in the car, his name was Daniel." We`d obvioulsy failed to recognise eachother on the second encounter, how embarassing.
I have been asked if I am tired yet. Yes, in that I have been on the go nonstop for quite some time, and I miss just being able to veg-out in front of the TV. No, in that I am not yet fatigued by the sights, although I think I have seen a lifetime`s supply of arches. On past adventures I saw too many churches, for example, and by the end I kinda tuned-out. I`ve not reached that stage yet, but I am quite looking forward to the next city already.
I`ve just ditched my looney new friend (he accepted my challenge of walking over an arch that was on a clifftop, actually its base was on the cliff wall, meaning that as he walked he had a 1000 foot drop on either side) and am in the Moab library catching up on blogging. Tonight I will have some kind of enormous meal, a few beers in the hot tub, and then do the south half of Canyonlands tomorrow before heading towards Capital Reef national park. I don`t know where I`ll stay yet, but may be offline for a few days. Fear not.
Canyonlands park is split into two main parts. Today I visited the second half, the needles district, so-called because its prominent geological features are multi-coloured vertical needle-shaped formations. It`s such a huge park, it is 40 miles from the main road to the visitor centre! The cop-out parts - the parts that may be seen on a half-mile loop from the various parking lots - were not quite so impressive as the north half. One very interesting thing was an old camp in an alcove. It`s believed that the Ancient Cowboy peoples used this as a base. These were a rare breed of near-solitary nomadic people, commonly thought to have used horses in their daily work. The only direct descendents of Cowboys are what are known today as Used Car Salesmen.
I hiked for about 10 miles, over incredibly difficult terrain. It was well worth it though, the view in the isolated parts of the park were stunning. I trekked though the needles (rather than just seeing them in the distance from the road like the cop-out trails show one) and into a large garden that should have been called the mushroom field, for it was full of huge mushroom domes. The perimeter of this area was entirely needles, as you can
see in the 360-degree panorama video I have placed in the `my videos` section.
After leaving the park I drove the scenic route, via the tiny Natural Bridges national monument (featuring 3 water-etched arches, not eroded arches, known as natural bridges) to the tip of Capitol Reef national park. This was perhaps the best drive yet: 5 hours though the most impressive roadside scenery yet. Deep canyons, high mesas, lush rivers at the bottom of valleys walled by sheer red rocks, crossing the Colorado river at sunset, moving into grey rocky areas where there was not a single plant for miles, along long straight roads with mesas on the horizon (just out of a film)..... wonderful. This part of the world is easily the most beautiful I have ever seen in my many miles of global travels.
I`m currently in a cabin in the one-horse town or Torrey. It used to be a hostel but now it`s just an RV park. My cabin is not quite what I had in mind: it`s more of a shed. A shed with a bed and and TV in, nothing else. It`s really remote here, on the drive up I must have passed maybe 20 or 30 cars in 300 miles.
NB I will title the photos when I can - the wifi in the shed is really bad and I have no DNS access.
In my shed I had a job interview this morning. It was going well, until the free wifi I was stealing dropped my skype call and would not return. Still, in the bottom of a Canyon 300 miles from civilization, I can`t complain.
Today was spent at Capitol Reef national park. This is not one of the big players on the national park scene, but was pretty cool. Had one teleported into the middle of the park, it is certainly beautiful; however for someone who`s spent a week in the Four Corners national park district it doesn`t really offer anything I`ve not already seen several times. I did enjoy a stroll down a gorge, and managed to snap some pics that reminded me of the gorge in Morocco whose photo used to hang on my wall. I say stroll, and not hike, because I took it easy. My hikes usually involve walking very very fast, such that I am drenched with ten minutes in this weather. After four days of strenuous hikes I strolled.
I was impressed with the `tanks`, a series of stepped oases that act as small resivoirs in the desert. Also interesting was the `Pioneer Register`, really just a bunch of graffiti from 19th C explorers. I found it amusing that many people even etched their names using a cursive hand, rather than the simpler block letters. The title is quite typical of the way modern Americans see their ancestors through rose-tinted spectacles: they were not grossly incompetent outcasts, trying in vain to live in a desert (great idea!), they were pioneers.
I was not sure why the park was called Capitol, and not Capital, until I saw Capitol Dome. This is a large boob-shaped rock that looks just like the dome on most State Capitol (like county hall) buildings.
Lunch was home made bread and cream soda. The bread was so tasty - it actually tasted of bread, and not just nothing - that I ate it dry.
Before leaving the area I went to public land, managed by the BLM, to hunt for gems. I hacked at various rocks and dug shallow grooves with my screwdriver, but I didn`t really know what I was looking for, nor where to look.... so I quit after two sites. (The second site saw me wading into the Fremont river.)
Last night`s long drive through stunning country ended at night, and so today I set off a little earlier so I could complete the journy in the light. I used scenic route 12, described as "a destination unto itself". I crossed the Dixie national forest and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument. The dixie forest was amazing, just 23 miles out of the desert and I was 9600 feet up in pine forests, still with a foot of snow on the ground. On the way through the grand staircase I crossed the Hog`s Back, a narrow road out of Boulder. It was quite scary at times, because the road ran along the top of a narrow fin, so narrow that it fell away at the very edge of the windy road. You can see this in a picture.
Now I`m in a campsite in Tropic, Utah, just outside Bryce national park.
Bryce Canyon is possibly the strangest place I have ever been. Its beauty equals, even exceeds, that of Arches, yet it is one hundred times more strange. It has an almost martian quality about it, many times I thought that if the trees were removed it would look like a 1950s artist`s conception of another planet. I often felt like I was in another world, a fairy story, a Christmas grotto, or stereotypical hell.
The concept is similar to the Needles area of Canyonlands (speaking of which, the pictures from the 8th are not showing up due to a problem with the website, which I have reported to them; thanks for your patience), in that the attraction of this park is a series of spires and columns created by weathering fins. The big difference is that these spires are more numerous, smaller, sharper, and have a very odd texture. They look like organ pipes, stalagmites, chimneys, poodles....
The spires are known as hoodoos, and all day I had that song from Labyrinth in my head (you remind of the babe / what babe? / the babe with the power / what power? / the power of voodoo / who do? / you do / do what? remind me of the babe).
The most stunning part was Wall Street, a narrow crag in the rock in which a tree grows. I waited a good 10 mins for the perfect (i.e. touristless) photo, and was well rewarded with some rich shots.
It was a beautiful day, cold, crisp and clear - my favourite type of weather. The park has 200 sub-freezing days per year, and there was still snow on the ground up to 5` thick. It is these days that have shaped the park, chipping away at the hoodoos constantly. My camping last night was the coldest yet, below freezing. I altered the Walker-Ellis tent to turn it from a summer to a winter model by adding a bedsheet over the flysheet, but was still blue this morning.
I hiked another huge trail today, and it was exhausting. Nearly 7 miles, at 8000` elevation, with a full mile change in height (aggregate), with just 70% of sea level`s oxygen available to me: it was very difficult indeed. After that, I opted to do more of the American style of sight-seeing: driving a half mile between the many look-outs and pausing for a snap. At least I actually stepped out of the car, rather than photographing from out the window.
Dinner last night here at the campsite was great: for $12 I had two chicken breasts and unlimited everything else, in a cafeteria-style dining hall. Awesome.
There are many foreign tourists here, particularly Germans and French-speakers (I think from Quebec). I love to listen and work out where they`re from, even though I don`t speak most of their languages. My ears had been on the listen-out for a Hungarian speaker and now, a week into this tourist area, I finally found one. Chatting to them for a few minutes in Hungarian made my day and gave them the surprise of their day.
Some Dutchmen were out in force, riding 80-100 year old (my guestimate) motorbikes, mostly `Indian` marques. They all had clogs on their knapsacks and bore `Amsterdam to Las Vegas` plates. When they all started their engines (a very long process), and shifted into first gear using a hand-operated lever, their pulling away was deafening.
I have been in need of a day off. Today I gave myself an afternoon off. After popping back to Bryce to finish up what I had not seen yesterday, I drove the short distance to Zion. The journey was cool, the remainer of scenic route 12 through Red Canyon.
Upon arrival at Zion I drove to the far side and found a (grossly overpriced) campsite. It has a pool and so I enjoyed chilling in the sun.
This morning I went on a brief nature walk and saw a cave full of ice, and a waterfall. The water through the canyon was not natural, in that the Mormons redirected another river to flow through this valley to feed their new settlement (hey, why not settle where there`s water, eh?).
I`m now catching up on overdue emails, having fought with the stupid grannie running the wifi to get connected. Dumb ass.
The management here are so tight. The showers are token-operated and last just 8 minutes. I wonder how many sheets of toilet paper I`ll be allowed to use.
Zion national park`s main drag is Zion Canyon, a very deep valley bounded on all sides by huge sandstone monoliths. They are very imposing, yet graceful at the same time.
I took a ranger tour in the morning, a great way to get an orientation to and history of any park. Of course natives were here at one stage, but they left, possibly because of repeated flash floods, to be replaced in the 1860s by Mormons.
After that I took some brief walks, one alone the river, one to the Weeping Rock, and one to the Emerald Pools. Zion sits far above all other parks in that it operates a free eco-friendly shuttle to take you up and down the valley. What a great idea! Saves on gas, stress, and pollution. [posthumous edit: oh if only Yellowstone would do the same, it would mean one could enjoy the park rather than being in a traffic jam for 3 days]
In the afternoon I embarked upon my most strenuous, scary and difficult hike yet. I went to to the very top of the Angel`s Landing, which had me rise nearly 2000` (600m) above the valley floor. The first few miles were winding hairpins, but the last half mile goes across the very top of a narrow fin. It`s so narrow that at one stage I could see an 1800 (550m) foot drop just a foot each side of my toes. I am quite a fast hiker, bordering on recklessly so at times, but on this hike I used all four limbs and held the guide chains tightly. This was particularly important during the very final stages, where I was scrambling over rocks and roots. The views at the end were worth every step - up and down the entire valley.
Last night`s camping was fine, fun actually. This was helped in no small part by the fair temperature.
In the evening I went to a ranger program about the fauna of Zion. He pulled out from a tiny suitcase, Mary Poppins-style, a vast array of hides of animals of the park, including wolf and mountain lion. Did you know that coyote are extremely clever, and that they learn tricks to con the visitors? One coyote was limping from an injury, and the visitors fed him in pity. Within two weeks all the other coyote had developed fake limps.
Tomorrow I will drive to Grand Canyon via Monument valley. A bit of a detour, but it`s on my hit-list.
Monument valley is a tribal park on the Navajo Nation reservation. It`s basically a series of beautiful mesas, buttes, and monoliths, all within a few acres. They`re all so different it`s as if a giant had collected unual rocks and placed them in this garden: they`re quite a mismatched collection.
I was mainly interested in seeing the Mitten mesas, the two most famous rocks that together look like a pair of mittens. I did not know their name, but knew of their existence due to their being on the front cover of my USA road atlas. As soon as I saw the cover, I knew I had to go there. The rest of the park was of little interest to me, to be honest. I`ve seen plenty of rocks recently.
My drive to Monument Valley was punctuated with some stops near Lake Powell, once at a panorama point and the second at the 700+ (200m) foot Glen Canyon dam in Page. I was almost strip searched on the way into the visitor centre; I guess their security has to be tight because one terrorist could destory the entire valley below, Ruhr-style.
I drove from Zion to Monument Valley, which saw me crossing state borders and time zones thrice. The park is fairly lowly, with shacks rather than outposts, and 17 miles of unpaved roads. The latter were particularly problematic for me in a sedan/saloon car, not because I or it could not handle the bumps, rather becuase I spent my energy concentrating on the best route through the road rather than admiring the scenery. My car is covered in red dust and mud.
In the last afternoon I headed through the Painted Desert to Grand Canyon, putting me in the car for around 11 hours that day. By the time I arrived I had that strange combination of being high yet exhausted from the concentration. I camped in the park, not quite on snow but adjacent to snow patches. I hung out with a brother-sister couple I met, they very kindly fed me and then we chatted by the campfire.
Goodness it was cold last night: I measure the temperature by the time at which I first awake from the cold. A normal night is 4am, a cold night is 2am, last night was 1am. Brrrr.
On Wednesday I applied for a permit to hike down and camp at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I was offered the hard route, a three-day hike without taps and without rangers, but declined in favour of waiting for a slot for the easier and more famous Bright Angel trail. Unfortunately I might not have got the permit until Saturday. Luckily, however, Liz and Matt, the brother and sister I had met the previous night, added me to their permit.... for the difficult hike.
After a day`s basic sight-seeing at the rim, and an evening cooking on an open fire in the freezing campsite, it was time to descend. Our first stop was at the Horseshoe Mesa campsite, just a few miles down. This put us about halfway down, and had our permit not mandated that we must spent the night there, I`m sure we could have pushed on the additional 10 miles to the river. The afternoon was spent hanging out at the campsite, playing cards and sunbathing. I wished I had brought a book.
The second day`s hike was long, but largely level: the last 2000 feet (600m) in vertical descent was spread out over 10 miles. Nevertheless it was a hot day, and the nearer the valley bottom, the hotter the air. Sometimes I felt out of my league with the walking, as Matt is a Park Ranger in NZ and Liz is a marathon runner, whereas my lifestyle has been what the medical professionals call "largely sedantry".
Our water was running low, and as we passed a creek we bathed and filled the water bottles. It was like drinking a bandage, since the taste of iodine was so strong. We had to choose our creek carefully, as one was full of arsenic.
We arrived after 6 hours of hiking, pitched tent on the beach, and snoozed in the sun. As we messed around, with my arse being whipped repeatedly at cards, several rafting outfitters passed us. One set were for the pussies, with enormous motorized boats, and the other were for the hardcore, simply two-man rowing dinghies. I splashed around in the Colorado river, which was freezing cold, too cold to bathe for anything more than a few seconds. As the moon rose we played more cards by moonlight, before retiring quite early in preparation for the daunting task ahead.
Our ascent was easy at first, following a dry riverbed for several miles, before starting the upward climb. By this point I had walked 17 miles, and was already exhausted, but the route gave no quarter and nor did the air: with each step, the sun got hotter and the air got thinner, giving us 30% less oxygen then we needed as we approached 7000 feet. My muscles ached, my pack felt so heavy, each step was a huge effort, with every one of which the pain increased. The track was very difficult by this point, involing scrambling over 6` boulders, climbing 45-degree slopes that were covered in scree, and repeatedly losing the trail because it was so faintly marked.
None of this was helped by the fact that my trail shoes, fit at the start of my travels, had now worn out. It was not until I was at the bottom of the canyon that I looked at their soles are saw three holes had been worn in them. This in turn was compounded by my walking barefoot on the beach and slicing my foot in two places on driftwood, including one on the very sole of my foot. This made every footfall feel like a stone was in my sock.
After nearly 6 miles today (19 in total), and 4500 feet (nearly a mile) vertical gain, we reached the rim. A huge sense of relief and acheivement came over me as I stepped into the car.
We were all incredibly - dangerously - dehydrated. I, who has a bladder the size of a peanut, went to the toilet just once all day long. Liz and I emptied our water bottles during the hike up, and the last hour was done dry. Matt raced ahead to collect my car from the car park, drove it to the trailhead, and then almost ran back down the trail with waterbottles for his sister, who by this point was lagging severely. Warm three-day-old tap water never tasted so good.
We all headed back to the camping area for a very welcome hot shower. Despite having splashed in creeks and rivers, three days of sweat, grime and sand covered my body; there was so much sweat that it had formed large salt crystals on my cheeks.
The shower felt wonderful.
Liz and Matt showed me wonderful generousity, sharing their hot food and camping accessories with me for 4 nights. I had underestimated my appetite and taken only bagels for breakfast, lunch and dinner over the three days. After freshening-up we went for a steak, and Liz, the only employed person, very kindly bought my and Matt`s too. God bless Americans.
As I write I am in a neat little hostel in Flagstaff, AZ, on Route 66. It`s been done-out in 50s and 60s decor, and even had a jukebox. It`s the cleanest I have ever seeen: furnished with purpose-bought items, not just tatty old crap. Each dorm has ensuite bathrooms, and there is free breakfast too. Seems too good to be true for the price, but then I realised the catch. Twice an hour, all night, a huge freight train rattles by, just 50 yards from my head, blasting its "hey we`re too cheap to build a bridge so get the hell off the level crossing, I`m approaching!" horn.
Today I will go to Winslow, maybe the meteor crator, and to Phoenix.
Well, I`m a standing on a corner
In Winslow, Arizona
Such a fine sight to see
It`s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford
Slowin` down to take a look at me
This morning I went from Flagstaff to the famous town of Winslow, Arizona, where I stood on a corner. That`s pretty much it for Winslow. There is an old hotel, part of the Santa Fe railroad, where the railroad trains used to stop. The hotel is La Pasanda, and was beautifully decorated.
I posed in Standing On A Corner Park, a small corner of an otherwise lifeless town that attracts idiot tourists like me, lured by the siren song and ending up being disappointed with everything beyond the park.
On the way to Winslow I called in at the Meteor Crater. This is where a 145` iron meteorite hit the earth 50,000 years ago. The hole was 700` deep but has filled-in over the years, but is still 60 stories deep.
This afternoon I descended from the Flagstaff peaks to Phoenix, and BOY is it hot here. In just three hours it went from warm to boiling. Even now, at 9pm, sweat is dripping. I am dreading the sunshine tomorrow.
A note about the radio
Today`s diary is quite quiet so I will mention the radio. As part of a road trip, I listen to the radio a lot, so it is actually an important part of my day. I must say that US stations do indeed do classic rock very well. They don`t, however, do dance music very well at all, at least not in the South West. I found a station today called Energy, describing itself as "Arizona`s dance beat". Their take on today`s Arizona dance scene was a string of European Union-originating hits from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some were as old as 1996 if my memory servers correctly; l several I have on vinyl, and some were part of my core set from back in my DJ days. As, the memories.
I`ve also noticed that radio stations are like a brand that can be repackaged for different cities. All they do is change the name and the frequency, and everything else is the same, even down to the guy doing the voice-overs. Remarkable.
Nation Public Radio, a set of current affairs and classical music stations, is wonderful. Interesting discussions without adverts, hurrah!
As I mentioned yesterday, Phoenix is hot. At that time I did not realise quite how hot, til I looked at the weather report today. The temperature yesterday as a staggering 43C/110F. At this temperature, the breeze does nothing to cool one, it`s simply like opening an oven door and being blasted with hot air.
I had a fairly lazy day because of that, involving buying a new camera, driving around downtown, and an afternoon in the Heard Museum. This is a private collection detailing the plight of Native Americans in the area over the years. The content and the material were nothing ground-breaking, but the presentation was first class. A really well-designed museum that kept my attention. I even had the time to complete all the children`s activities, such as cutting-and-glueing to make an Apache basket or a Hopi-style garment of woven beads.
I was not aware that one solution to the `Indian Problem` was to destroy Natives` culture through strict military-style education. Children were removed from families and sent to boarding schools for 5 years, where they were fully Americani`z`ed though ridicule, dogma, and routine.
In the evening I chilled in the hostel garden, with some cheap cold beers and a wet towel over my shoulders. After dark I went to a bar with a French girl, Solenne, and listened to some jazz among some very cool cats.
Felicity is a tiny (5-house) town at the edge of California, inhabitied by at least one redneck (whom I met) and one very eccentric Frenchman. The latter is the mayor of this town, and evidently has vast quantities of money and time.
He has convinced the French geological survey that the centre of the world lies not in Paris, not at the intersection of the equator and the prime meridian, rather in his town. The French bought this, and attended the very grand dedication ceremony (which I saw on the DVD).
Further to this, the mayor has installed a vast array of expensive granite plaques, detailing his passions: the French Foreign Legion, the Korean War, the history of (French) aviation, the history of parachute jumping, and, most importantly, a history of humanity.
The latter is my connection. My friend, the very smart and utterly delecatable Kristen, wrote the 400+ pages of the history of humanity. It`s a few paragraphs on all the important parts of the development of mankind, from the big bang, through the Tigris and the Euphrates to Christ, to Caesar, to Shakespear.
Kristen is an English grad from Emory University (one of the US`s finest), and I am a complete hound for English these days (since living in America of course; and since studying other languages my desire for exactitide in my own has increased manifold), and therefore I inspected her work with a fine tooth comb. I found a couple of factual, typographical and grammatical errors. I`m such bastard.
I was intending to sleep under the stars tonight, in the desert, but after reading the plaques for several hours and it still being only teatime, I decided to push on to San Diego. On the way I was stopped twice by the Customs and Border Patrol, who had several temporary roadblocks on the freeway. The first guys immediately spied my front plate (a Union Jack flag, not a California plate, remember) and asked right away of my citizenship. He asked what I am doing in America, and to see my visa. I chose my answer and the page to show him carefully: I said I was working and showed him my (still-valid and fully legal, but in a grey area - see my second diary entry) I94, which is the crappy piece of card the immigration gives one upon entry into the country and which one must keep hold of until depareture.... because apparently computer-readable passports are insufficient. He waved me through.
The second encounter was with a sniffer dog, I guess checking for illegals in my boot (trunk). The Interstate-8 is literally just 5 minutes from Mexico, so perhaps this was the reason for the spot-checks, although if I was trying to sneak in to the US I would not then drive or hitch along the border that I`d just crossed, rather I would head away from it.
Now I am in Ocean Beach in San Diego, in a huge anonymous hostel that I don`t really like so far.
Addendum to my Radio comments: Mexican radio is very prolific down by the border. The pop music is just as bland and mass-mastered as pop from the UK or US, but the traditional music is qute good. The commercials are hilarous. I do not like the sound of Spanish, in fact I think it sounds stupid, and these commerical sounded exactly like the Fast Show`s 1990s spoof TV station Channel 9 and its Specialis Reportos ("Bono estente!")
After signing off I was about to go to bed, feeling rather out of place in the huge party hostel, when the curfew hit. Therefore, the entire hostel piled out and down the road one block to the beach, taking me with the throng. The party on the beach was awesome; people were gathered around city-provided fire pits, drinking, playing the guitar and singing, swimming in the sea, dropping acid, freaking out because of the latter, fire-breathing and playing with pet rats. I swam, but it was too cold for my taste and the strong waves kept removing the last of my clothes. One buffoon fell into the fire and is now in hospital. I retired at a respectable hour and slept in seawater-dampened clothes.
On Wednesday I joined some Oirish lads to watch the Chelsea/Man-U match in a neighbourhood bar. The atmosphere was electric, the place was full of die-hard European fans of football. Despite the teams being both English I think I was the only Englishman there, and was certainly the person least interested in the game. Nevertheless I thought it was an excellent game, far better than any World Cup final, because the teams did not seemed to be terrified of losing like the are in the World Cup and so played hard. It was great to be drinking before noon and to be tipsy by lunchtime on a weekday.
On the main road here in Ocean Beach is what they called a farmers` market, basically a cross between a summer fete and an open air market. It was very cool, but did confirm several opinions I have about Californians: they are all filthy rich, gorgeous, and utterly crazy. The stalls sold products and services that only a crazy Californian would pay top-dollar for: organic cloverleaf tea, magnetic foot spas designed to restore the pH of one`s blood, llama rides, buskers playing the recorder, hand-made pretzels....
After strolling and snoozing on the sand for a bit, I played drinking games with the Irish lads, who of course cleaned the floor with me, and then we all went back to the beach. The party was great again, but there was a little drama. After I had tried the fire-breathing (where one takes a mouthful of lighter fluid and blows it out onto a flame - I was not bad for a beginner), one of the supposed expert fire-breathers accidentally swallowed some of the fluid, and almost immediately fell down coughing and spewing. He quickly passed out, and I and another guy had to put him in to a position where he would not choke on the vomit rapidly emanating from his crusty mouth. The ambulance were called, and in doing so the police were alerted to our illegal party; the cops arrived far faster, and the shout of "cops!" by me was enough to send most of the party running. (It was illegal because the fire was present after midnight, we had booze and glass on the beach, and half the guys were underage). The cops told all the lightweights who were crashed out on the beach from the booze to beat it; carrying them back to the hostel was clearly difficult. By the time the ambulance arrived there was just myself and the other helper remaining. They put homeless `Huckleberry` onto the gurney and took him away, leaving me to wash the tramp vomit from my rucksack, which had been used as a pillow for him. Finally the cops said something to the effect of "since you two were the only ones good enough to stay, you can clean up this party," and so under police orders he and I had to tidy the trash from the area. Humph.
I went to bed late, wet from scouring.
After my few days of partying and without much sleep I welcomed a couple of days doing fairly little. Yesterday afternoon I went to the Cabrillo national monument and then to the Old Town.
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed from central America and discovered California by sea in 1542, naming what is now SD as San Miguel, and he has a monument at the end of the Ocean Beach peninsula. There is also an old lighthouse there which was interesting to visit. The original 150 candlepower house is far more romantic than the modern electronic unmanned `lightbulb on a stick` house of today.
The old town state historic park district is a restored area representing the earliest settlments, redone in a very tasteful manner. I enjoyed looking round an unusally-shaped adobe house, in which not a single indoor hallway exists: every room is accessed serially from the previous room, as was apparently the fashion back then.
In the evening I went to Pacific Beach, where I am staying with my new friend Liz for a few days (she`s the one I met at the Gand Canyon). Today before work she took me on a tour of the area, we took in the views from the hills, on the coves and beaches, and gawped at the $5M houses in the fashional La Jolla. I have no idea where these people get the money to afford such an amazing beachfront property.
After Liz went to work I went to Balboa Park in search of a statue of Sylvester `Rocky` Stallone, but could not find one. Instead I went to one of the many interesting museums there, the Fleet children`s science musuem. It was a hands-on learning museum, full of cool experiments that were utterly wasted on the little brats. Several times I told various children to stop messing around (and let me play with it). My favourite toy was the pictured stereo reversing headphones, which were very disorienting.
After I hasd looked around much of the park, I walked around the Gaslamp District in Downtown SD, with a trip to the harbour. The harbour is shared with several naval installations, and the USS Midway, a huge (but tiny compared to today`s) carrier, was being prepared for the Memorial Day party.
Yucca Brevifloria, aka the Joshua Tree, is the bizarre bastard son of a regular yucca and a monkey puzzle tree. It is so odd that the NPS gave it its own park just East of Los Angeles.
After a wonderful12 hours sleep, my first true lie-in in 2 months, I enjoyed made-from-scratch blueberry pancakes chez Liz. After that I drove the scenic route from San Diego to Joshua Tree, and pitched my tent in the Cottonwood site. After braving the hoard of children at the evening ranger program I went to bed early on an air mattress with a slow puncture. At midnight I got up to take some photos of the beautiful night sky with my new camera. I hope you can see just how many additional stars there are in the desert versus the city.
This morning I started my tour of the park. The park is on the border of two major deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado, the former higher and wetter than the lower drier latter. One can see the vegetation change from creosote bushes to Joshua trees quite markedly as one crosses the boundary. I enjoyed a few brief walks, but was not really in the mood for, nor did I have the time to enjoy, uber-hikes.
Before leaving the park I took up Ranger Cynthia on her implied offer of becoming a Junior Ranger (she said that the 4-14 age limit was a guide, not a necessity), and completed my activity book. I was made to do all three age brackets` activities, which I indeed did. I am currently proudly sporting my NPS Junior Ranger badge.
After that I drove to Los Angeles. This city is just enormous. Its metropolitan area feels a billion times bigger than Atlanta`s: I had been in the metro area for 30 minutes on the freeway when I spied Downtown as a spec on the horizon, it was a further 45 minutes to the hostel on Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood. It`s kinda cool so far here, it`s obviously an old motel where they have crammed co-ed 6 bunks into the old rooms.
Tonight is a free dinner at the sister hostel, tomorrow is Memorial Day.
Here in Los Angeles it was Memorial Day, and so the families with kids were out in force. I spent most of the day on the beaches at Santa Monica and Venice. There were not quite as many bikini-clad valley girls as I expected, but far too many kids with parents. Also on the beach was a large anti-war memorial, a collection of 4000+ wooden crosses in the sand to represent the soldiers killed in Iraq. Many flags were at half-mast today, a touching gesture.
The beaches are just beautiful, wide near-white immaculate sand and weed-free waters protected by a reef just 50m out to sea. I wondered up and down the promenade and dodged the many many weirdos and crazies. Even the street traders here are crazy: they sell bundles of sage, they ask for money to `support a stoner` (ie. to buy pot at my expense), they dress-up like sailors to sing.... but it was very entertaining. I spent a long time listening to the beautiful voice of a street performer, even buying a CD of her work. She was not bad to oggle at either.
In the morning I wondered up from my hostel along Hollywood Blvd, looking at the stars` plaques on the floor (I knew maybe 1% of the names) until I reached the Chinese theatre, where many premiers are held and where there are several hand prints on the floor. I noted with interest that apparently actors in the 1940s to the 2000s wore shoes that did not have tread; it was only the Harry Potter casts` shoe print that showed the tread on the soles. How odd.... or how fake.
I rode the bus to the beaches like a pauper. Never again. The bus network in LA sucks big time, it took me 1:45 and 4 vehicles to get 10 miles. Half the buses don`t stop in the right places. Was a mess; no wonder commuters prefer the jams in their cars.
Tonight I finally grabbed my guitar from the boot of my car, and participated in the hostel talent show. It was a bit of a poor turn out, with me and only two other performers; but we all had a good time. The evening finished with charades (apparently the Aussies can`t play this game and don`t know the rules).
This morning I awoke to discover that in my dorm of 6 I was the only male, and that I was surrounded by gorgeous 19 year old Norwegian babes, many of whom were strutting around in their underwear. It`s a hard life. Everyone here except me seems to be on their way home from Oceania to Europe, everyone is closing their gap year in Australia. All the flights come through LAX I suppose.
Tuesday was spent being very green. Green with environmentally-friendly attitudes? Come off it, this is America, being green gets in the way of my 6 litre hemi V8. No, green with envy. I toured LA`s richest neighbourhoods staring at the mansions and wondering how anyone could possibly afford them.
My day was based upon touring the length of Sunset Blvd. I started in Hollywood Hills, where I actually went round three open houses (house for sale with their doors wide open). They were quite modest really, only around the $2.5 million mark, yet had been lavishly decorated: huge bedrooms, baths and showers overlooking the valley, TVs in the bathrooms, kids` playrooms, out-house writing rooms, studies with en-suite.... One owner was apparently a director for some daytime TV shows, as his bathroom was covered in Daytime Emmy Award certificates. My cover story was that I was scouting houses "for my parents to buy"; this hopefully explained the interest of a bum-lookalike in these homes.
Beverly Hills had the most ridiculous houses, mansions, castles (yes, some even had gaudy fake turrets and towers); they were unimaginably large. Each was done in a different style: art deco, Spanish, Italian, Berber, modern, minimalist. That in itself was fun to see, as it makes a change from the cookie-cutter of real life.
I walked down Rodeo Drive, which on a weekday was populated only by tourists. I visited Gucci and discussed how the new 1500 series of watches have evolved from the same line when I worked at Gucci in 2001; and visited Bang & Olufsen, where the bored girl showed me what I asked for: the finest in high-fidelity. I had a demo of a pair of $21,000 speakers; the sound was pure bliss (more in the the picture description).
After this I became the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and saw mansions that were almost hidden from the road by their long drives and tight security fences. After a good hour navigating the rabbit-warren of dead-ends I was rewarded with a great view of Downtown from atop a hill.
Finally I took the Pacific Highway (route 1) to Marina Del Rey, which was a little disappointing. The map showed a "Fisherman`s Wharf" affair, which was really a boat owner`s wharf: not much beyond yacht yards.
On the way back here I braved the LA traffic in rush hour. It could have been worse, considering it`s supposed to be the worst in the country.
Just before I hit the sack I bumped into Solenne, the French girl from Phoenix. A big country, yet a small world.
Last night I went out to `the other hostel` - another owned by the same people as mine - where they again fed and entertained us. The entertainment was stand-up comedy, which was great except the comedians kept telling culturally-relevant jokes that the Brits and Aussies (the place was exclusively populated with these races) would not get, and then doing that hurt comic standard of blaming their unfunny joke`s poor reception on the audience being stupid.
After that we went to Santa Monica Boulevard to a club where there was a little karaoke happening. I sang two songs, quite well, but the concept didn`t really take off among the backpackers. We (I and a bunch of Brits) had a Mexican meal in the middle of the night (the US equivalent of the kebab I suppose) and then took a very shady taxi back: the driver was either drunk or retarded, even in our state we could tell something wasn`t right.
A night out on the beers - special offer beers at that - was just what I needed.
The following morning, Wednesday, I drove from LA to Sequoia National Park through some very pretty countryside. There were many fruit plantations, lemon and orange mainly, and I stopped at a market from some local produce for dinner.
Upon arrival at the park I pitched camp. Being in a bear area meant I had to lock my food in large metal bins with complex locking mechanisms. By "food" the NPS actually mean anything with a scent. Anything! As you can see in the photo I locked-up everything that was on the list: food, drink, mozzie repellent, first aid kit, WD40, beer, chewing gum, detergent, etc. Luckily no bears broke into the car overnight to steal crumbs.
In the evening I tried to make the most of my time by seeing some of the sights. On the map it looked just a few miles up into the trees, but of course this was full of switchbacks all the way up the mountain. As I ascended I entered and, amazingly, then left the cloud layer, and as I approached the giant tree I felt like I was in Jurassic Park, what with the prehistoric-looking huge vegetation and the swirling mists.
I saw the General Sherman tree, the World`s Largest Tree. Now, that claim is rather like the Oscars: correct, but quite obscure. It`s not the tallest nor the widest, but it`s the tree with the largest volume in the world. Yes. It is 2200 years old and has a volume of 1500 m3. Sequoiadendhron giganteus ("giant sequoia tree", I believe) keeps growing for thousands of years, and so a mature tree`s foliage is dozens of metres up in the air, making the tree look less like a conifer and more like a bog brush. In the car park I saw a very bold coyote strutting around like he owned the place.
I also climbed up onto a rocky outcrop, ignoring the "ye shalt die of lightning if ye continue" signs, to see absolutely nothing because of the mist. Finally I went to the tunnel log, where one can drive a car through a sequoia log. I was doubly disappointed - firstly because for some reason I had imagined driving through the log lengthways, and in the end it was sideways. Bah. Secondly, because a poor German tourist had stopped in the tree for a photo and locked his keys in his running car. I pitied him because exactly the same thing happened to us when we were in Grand Canyon in 1995. Another couple had also taken pity on him and offered him the use of their warm car to sit in while he waited for the mechanic. However after 3 hours without a mechanic the other couple`s patience was wearing thin. Mine was too, as I wanted the killer snap of my car in his car`s position; and so the two of us managed to convince the German to break into his car. It was amusing to watch him smash the window and then be unable to reach the lock. I used a long stick to wind the window down and finally the day was saved.
I got up early to again make the most of the day, and was rewarded with the photo of the trip. As I rounded a switchback I saw something curved and brown moving behind the wall. I stopped and after a few minutes a bear popped its head over the wall. It then climbed over the wall and started wandering around in the road. I had never seen a wild bear before so was delighted to see a black bear (aged 1-2 years, according tot he ranger) just a few yards from me. It was not very big but I prudently backed into my car as it got closer, even though it hardly cared for my presence.
I climbed the lightning rock again in the clear air for some better views, before hiking a few miles up to a very cool waterfall (had I known that I would see ones even more impressive in Yosemite, I might have reconsidered). The hike took me over very interesting scenery - crystal clear water flowing over smooth granite in between snow-covered pine trees. This was exactly how I pictured a stereotypical US national park, and was something I had not yet seen in a park. All the others I had been to until then were swamp or desert climates.
Further into the park I encountered the General Grant tree, which held the more legitimate title of the World`s Widest Tree at 40-odd metres around. Surrounding the tree were two 100-year dead sequoias that were still intact enough to climb in and on. These trees are almost fireproof and almost rot- and fungus-proof, meaning their carcasses hang around for ages.
King`s Canyon National Park is essentially the little brother of Sequoia park, and they are treated as one big park. However the canyon itself is quite different from the many sequoia groves in both parks: it`s a beautiful long canyon flanked with waterfalls and caves. I thoroughly enjoyed the drive all the way to the end of the canyon and back.
I drove to Yosemite and was disappointed that the campgrounds were all full and were not taking walk-ins. That was no problem for an enterprising young man like me, however, and I asked to shared the space, and cost, of an already occupied site. The delightful couple from North Carolina graciously agreed and we chatted over our respective dinners until dark. I again froze in the night, waking up as my butt reached the floor through my rapidly deflating air mattress (it has a slow puncture).
At dawn I enjoyed my first hot sustenance in a few days by way of "Coffee with a Ranger", which was just a very informal Q&A session during which I regained the feeling in my fingers thanks to the hot drink. Rangers are certainly among the coolest people in America, with the coolest jobs too. My campsite-mate, a State Park ranger, explained to me that NPS rangers are like bees in a hive, each with a specific role or caste, whereas State rangers tend to do a little of everything. In NC the rangers even carry guns.
Yosemite is a stunning valley flanked by huge granite monoliths that make it look like a hall of petrified kings sitting around a table. The structures look far too big for the valley and this contrast in size adds to their majesty. Dotted between each are an uncanny number of waterfalls; I have no idea where so much water comes from. I stopped at a few, such as the tall thin Bridal Veil falls, before opting to do another killer hike. Today`s was from the valley floor up to the top of Yosemite Falls and then beyond that to Yosemite Point. In the photos you can see these two, the point is to the right of the falls. The hike was difficult but not particularly interesting, consisting mostly of switchbacks. The top of the falls gives fantastic panoramas over the valley, to the Half Dome and the Eagle monoliths, as well as allowing one to look from behind and above the top of the waterfall. Not content with not being at the top I walked "off-piste" to Yosemite Point, a hair-raising mile-plus hike over 45-degree slick granite, where a single slip would have had me fall not all the way down the 2700` (850m) drop, but just 50` to the river where I would have been swept down the waterfall. This was quite a thrill.
The waterfall created beautiful rainbows as well a deafening roar. The wind was so strong at the top that the water sometimes blow over me as I luncheoned, despite being several metres above the surface of the river.
After seeing the valley and the fall from such a perspective I decided I did not need to stop at every single vista around the valley ring road. They would have paled in comparison. I therefore headed out of the park, over two temporary bridges to detour around a huge rock-slide, to Merced, at the bottom of the central California valley. I`m in a Hosteling International hostel which is actually a private residence. Not an old house which has been converted, but a residence. I`m in the elderly couple`s living room, surrounded by photos of their children and life. It`s quite bizarre, and a million miles from the 100-bed party hostels I`ve been used to.
My first touch of soap and hot water in three days was especially welcome after today`s hike: I refused to pay 5 dollars for a shower in the park.
San Jose is a million-person city just south of San Francisco. I drove there on Saturday from Merced, and had a bit of a nose around. It`s a standard American city, employing such wonderful techniques as naming streets with numbers of letters ("I`m on the corner of ninth and G"). It`s nothing special. I went to the famous West San Carlos street to look at the antique shops, and was amazed at the prices some people will charge - and pay - for such junk. My favourite part of the town was Caesar Chavez plaza, a nice square in the very centre with fountains and which is overshadowed by the Knight Ridder building. Yes, Ridder, not Rider, but everyone calls it the latter.
Of course I wondered around the University of San Jose, and then read for a while in a riverside park.
There being no cheap place to stay in SJ, I drove to Santa Cruz on the coast, where I stayed in a delightful little cottage hostel just 2 blocks from the beach. It has an 11pm curfew, not just quiet time, but a proper lock-out. Thus when I was out at the pub I had to come home at 10:45 on a Saturday night, rather a let-down.
The main strip in Santa Cruz is Pacific Ave, where all the weirdos come. And there are a lot of weirdos, even for California: lots of down-and-outs, druggies, and young krusties. I was offered pot and, amazingly, Xanax (an antidepressant) as I walked down the road. I had been recommended a curry house for dinner, but after looking at their menu, making my enquiries, and asking where were all the meat dishes, I learned it was a vegan place. Bah. That`s what happens when a hippie makes a recommendation for dinner.
After I ate I went to one of the pubs listed in the hostel welcome page, where a discount is offered. I asked the barman whether he would honour my coupon, and handed him my twenty. A moment later it was returned to me with the explanation that my beer was courtesy of the dude by the juke box. He had overheard I was a traveler and very kindly bought me some beers and we chatted. I`d only ever seen such a concept in the movies before so was very impressed by his generosity.
Sunday morning was spent in the University of California, Santa Cruz, in their organic garden. Two of the hippies staying here, part of a self-declared "Farmy Army", are enormous fans or organic gardening and farming, and so we went to check out the garden project. This is no small affair, a team of 38 live-in hippies manage the UCSC garden, and do a fine job of it. It was a little oasis of colour and peace on the side of a hill with an ocean view, complete with hhhhhhhherb garden (yes, H-erb garden, with an H), orchards, beehives, and ruler-straight rows of veggies. The management team even have their own kitchen and common room where they all live; very much like the Hostel in the Forest in Georgia. It was nice to just chill out for an hour or two watching the bees buzz and trying to ignore the girls discussing "the soil, man, where we all, like, come from."
After that I left the others and headed to the beach, where I did some wine-tasting on the wharf. All the wines were very nice, but overpriced, local SC produce. I enjoyed reading the sommelier`s tasting notes, as they were the most pretentious I`ve ever seen. It wasn`t just waves hollyhocks waiting to whoosh up my nose, but apparently dusty roads, wet straw, and star anise. I could detect none of these. But wait! The recommended pairings were even more daft. It wasn`t just "onions", rather "Walla-Walla onion crepes with crème fraîche"; it wasn`t just "Sirloin" but "medium-rare Sirloin with pear compote in a Syrah reduction"; it wasn`t recommended to be enjoyed with "prawns", but "sauteed tiger prawns" no less. Heaven forbid that one would drink the wine with fried king prawns.
My dinner was totally free, utilising the hostel`s free food policy. Some kind of charity donates leftover foodstuffs to the travellers; day old croissants, veggies, fruits, etc. After bitching so badly about the vegan restaurant, my dinner was one egg away from being totally vegan. I emptied the fridge of all its vegetables and made a stir-fry (broccoli, onion, mushrooms, etc) followed by fresh fruit (melon, strawberries, avocado and pineapple), all for free.
Absolutely on a whim, I drove from Santa Cruz to Cambria, half way to LA, all the way down CA-1. Laura had mentioned that Monterey and Carmel where worth a look, and a chap in the hostel raved all night last night about how great the Big Sur route was. Therefore I decided to hit it up, and today drove from Santa Cruz to Monterey, to Carmel, and down the coast on route 1.
Monterey, named after the (Count of?) Monte Rey, was once the capital of California and the only port at which foreign vessels could dock. It has a rich naval heritage and some free museums that reflect this, which I visited. I did not know that 16 flags have flown over California, including England`s, Spain`s, Mexico`s, and a derivative of Russia`s.
Carmel is a delightful little town, quaint without being fake, containing small houses and boutiques on a narrow steep strip that leads down to a glorious white sand beach.
From Carmel, Route 1 really comes into its own. It`s from here that the road starts to run right along the coastline, and where the amazing views start. It`s from here that one`s progress must slow to an average of 30mph, half due to the bends and switch backs, and half due to needing to stop at every vista to gawp.
This road is the one from all the commercials, all the movies, where one sees a sports car driving over tight curves adjacent to the ocean, with a handsome man and a beautiful woman in the front seats. Well, apart from the soft-top, that was certainly me. A young traveler, Natalie, whom I had met in SC (one of the hippie girls from the organic garden), and I traveled down the coast together today. At every turn the scenery becomes more impressive: mountains that come right down into the water, beaches 5 feet from the road, sheer cliffs below the road into the water, lush forests, and an ocean that can be four colours at once: navy blue out to sea, dark blue close in, turquoise patches near the beach, and ice white foam around the rocks. Stunning. We stopped for a lunch break over a sheer cliff, with an absolutely amazing view of rocks in the Pacific. Adjacent to us was a girl tracking condors with a scanner and antenna.
We arrived in Cambia, another quaint but rather more fake seaside town, where we are staying at a home hostel (a B&B basically). We arrived in the late afternoon, had some ice cream, and then headed to the beach to drink and watch the sunset. It was very windy and I think we ended up looking like bums - she in her hippie clothes and I with beard and wrapped in sleeping bag sitting on the promenade drinking wine.
Today three of us (I was also giving a ride to a friend of my new friend, who joined us later in the evening) drove from Cambria back up route 1 to Silicon Valley. This is not a place one can find on a map, rather a virtual (no pun intended) area spanning San Jose, Santa Clara, and Palo Alto, and it where all the big IT firms are based.
My natural interest in the subject lead me to Intel, past Sun, to Google. Intel had an interesting, but very basic museum, which I enjoyed. The assistant insisted I ask him a question, so I did, and he could not answer it (is the silicon doped or used simply as a substrate? Just as a substrate is the answer). Google, on the other hand, was quite disappointing. I went to the visitor lobby, and enquired about what one might see, and I was rather rudely dismissed: "Google is a closed campus and we don`t allow visitors." I had to settle for a photo of the street sign. There were a lot of geeks in Google tee-shirts wandering around either deep in thought or deep in a mental vacuum.
I drove to San Francisco and dropped my passengers at the park before heading to the house of my friend from University, Lisa. It was wonderful to see her and to catch up, as well as to eat a delicious home-cooked roast dinner. Hers was the first familiar face I had seen in weeks.
This morning I woke to Katsia`s concern that my car was missing. A brief investigation and a few calls to the police ascertained that it had been towed and was downtown. Great. Two hundred and eighty dollars later I was reunited with my car, only to then be presented with the original parking ticket. Apparently, despite being careful, my car was a whole 18" over someone`s driveway, and this was sufficient for a busybody bastard to call the cops and to get a $75 ticket for "blocking driveway"; and then for the towers to take it away just 40 minutes after the ticket was issued.
I am in two minds whether to pay the $75, as I do not live at the address to which my car and licence are registered, and no-one knows where I am. Ellie said that the police records may be tied to the border patrol, which is a serious concern. I`m grateful for any advice (no moral lectures, thanks).
I returned to Mountain View, Silicon Valley, to visit the fascinating History of Computing museum. This was a wonderful collection of all kinds of computing devices, from abacus through slide rules to vacuum-tube monsters to Crays to Ataris. It was like being back at JAS`s datacentre to see decades-old behemoth machines, stamped with "IBM" and collecting dust. Most of the computers I could not relate to, until I reached the 1980s machines, complete with 5.25" drives, 16-colour screens and software boxes that promised far more in terms of graphical output than could ever hope to be achieved in reality. I even saw an old monochrome Apricot like I used to own.
My favourite part was seeing a working example of Charles Babbage`s difference engine, a 5-ton monster created for, and loaned by, a Microsoft big-wig, who will mount it in his living room. I actually knew nothing of the machine, and was fascinated to learn that it was not designed to perform calculations ad-hoc, but to create printed tables of logarithms and sines (etc). It even has a built-in "printer" to create stereotype plates that can be used to print on paper.
(Non-techies can skip this) The engine works by calculating the Nth difference of a polynomial, up to N=7. It can therefore calculate solutions for polynomials up to the 7th power, after being primed with the first few results in the series. One simply turns a handle, and the differences are calculated for a given argument, and the results displayed and printed. HOWEVER, and this is a big `however`, the machine can only operate on integer coefficients in the polynomial. So if your problem is f(x) = 5x^2 + 3x - 5, then it`s easy; but if your series is, for example, the solution of a sine wave [sin(x) = x - (x^3)/3! + (x^5)/5! - (x^7)/7! + ...], with non-integer coefficients, then it needs a work-around. The work-around is to factor-up until one has only integer terms, and then divide-down the results that are printed out. Remember that this machine was supposed to create tables of sines and logs, not just easy integer polynomials, so having to use this work-around every time was not really all that wonderful.
There is a video of the machine in action, it`s really beautiful to watch the DNA-style rotations of the arms.
After the museum I went for coffee in Palo Alto with another uni friend, Ellie, who is post-doc`ing at Stanford. Again it was great to see a friendly face and to chat both about the old days and about being a Brit in California. I think she was tempted into further travels of America by hearing of my trip.
Haight-Ashbury is a section of SF where, in 1967, the hippie and LSD culture took off. Upon visiting today I saw that there were none of the expected gray-haired hippies, no perma-trip beatniks, and no free love. It`s mostly trendy clothing boutiques, record shops, and many bong shops. I was a bit disappointed: compared to my visit to Christiania in Copenhagen, where pot is grown, sold, and consumed in broad daylight; here in Haight-Ashbury it felt simply like Camden Town turned down a notch.
Now I am in the Green Tortoise hostel on Broadway, which I had forgotten was the street with all the strip clubs.
(If you would like to see all my computer photos, not just a selection, try Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=20039&l=f196c&id=516724171 )
After a night in the sauna in the hostel, which was so hot that it melted the glue binding my book and every time I turned a page it fell out, I spent the day dehydrating myself even further. I`d been to Sonoma valley twice, but never to Napa, the world-famous region north of San Fran in which many fine wines are produced. I headed over the Bay bridge to Treasure Island for some great views of the city, Golden Gate bridge and Alcatraz, before going past Oakland to Berkeley. The former deserved its satirical dedication in the sone Welcome to Paradise, while the latter really was delightful: tree-line streets were everywhere.
The Napa tourist office recommended some famous and free vinyards for me to visit. Three years ago, most of the Sonoma valley vinyards offered free tasting, but last year none did. In Napa the prices were higher and the tastes of smaller portions, but its standing in the world market commands this. I sampled 20 wines in 5 vinyards over the entine length of the valley, including two that, for once, I had actually drunk from: Mondavi, Sutter Home, and three smaller boutique vinyards. The wines ranged from $5 per bottle to $150, and that really was the best I have ever tasted.
My lunch was mousse de frois de canard avec truffe et porto on fresh bread, enjoyed in the Sutti gardens in the sun. Very nice.
It was not until 5pm, when the booze ran dry, that I thought about where to sleep. It was tempting to pull over at the side of the road, but I thought that the police in Napa might frown upon vagrantry a little more than those in the inner city. In the end I decided to push up the coast to Redwood National Park, but I underestimated how long it would take. I drove for 6 hours and arrived in the dark, where a note waited for me on the door of the hostel (it contained the code needed to get through the door, rather defeating the security measures). I went immediately to bed, having had a very disturbed night, but was still wired from the drive.
While driving along the never-ending US-101, the Redwood Highway, I saw some excellent scenery. At times I descended hills for 45 minutes at a time, without any uphill parts. One interesting turn-off was Chandalier Tree, the tree that I had confused in my mind for Tunnel Log. This was the baby that I wanted to see, where 1900s vandals (sorry... "pioneers") cut a hole in a living redwood, through which one can still drive.
I woke to the amazing sight out of my window of the ocean. I did not realise how close I was, which shows why I try not to drive at night. The first picture from today is a shot out of my bedroom window. Today was spent seeing the Redwood National and State parks, which are adjacent Federal- and State-operated parks that exposition the Coastal Sequoia (Sequoia Sempervirens). These trees are taller but narrower than their Giant cousins, and can grow right on the coast. I sought the world`s tallest tree, but it is in an "undisclosed location" to protect its rootball from footsteps. The forest is beautiful, and very different from Giant Sequoia. The climate is much wetter, being right on the coast, and so the vegetation is much more dense and lush. Almost every limb is draped in thick green moss.
I saw wild elk, including a herd of females in a meadow just around the corner from a herd of males. The males were hiding in long grass, and one could see only their antlers until they stood up, at which point their true majesty could be appreciated. Such handsome fellows, no wonder they feature so much in folk-art.
Also in this neck of the woods are several other State Parks, including Humboldt Lagoons, a string of three freshwater lagoons separated from the sea by a narrow fleet of sand, over which an ethereal mist floated landwards. See the video.
My dinner tonight was locally-smoked salmon (I resisted the offer of salmon jerky and candied salmon); delicious. After dinner I crossed the road to the beach to mess around with the camera.
Today I drove from California to Crater Lake in Oregon.
I`d spent nearly three weeks in California, and had travelled the length and bredth, but now it was time to move to a new state, my first time entering a virgin state in 5 weeks: Oregon.
The drive over the mountains was great, it was amazing to see in just a single range of mountains how the flora changes from tall evergreens to meadows and decidious trees. In fact the cow-parsley and horse chestnut-like trees reminded me of beautiful Britain. Oregon is a world away from California, not just in gas prices (ah, back down to ~$4, hurrah!), but in the industries. Northern California seems to have no agricultiure whatsoever, but Oregon is covered in beautiful meadows, with or without cattle in. The houses are different, generally they`re one-storey painted wooden farm houses.
Crater Lake is a lake atop a mountain. Nearly 8000 years ago a volcano erupted and then collapsed in on itself, after which the recess filled with deep clear water. The colour of the lake is a wonderful deep blue, and its waters are mirror-still, allowing the rim and the mountains to be reflected in it. The entire park was covered in snow, up to 10 feet deep, and so the steep banks were both granite-grey and snow-wqhite at the same time. Perhaps the most beautiful lake I`ve ever seen.
I was most diappointed that the park had not ploughed (plowed) the majority of the rim road and none of the hiking trails. Nor did they hire snow-shoes or skis. Therefore after a few snaps my time at the park was over; had I paid the $20 entry rather than using my annual pass I would have been rather miffed.
As per the video I decided to descend down to where there was no snow to spend the night. It was still freezing cold though.
Today I seemed to spend forever in the car, again. I drove from my cold campsite in Union Creek, just next to the park, to the coast road. I am not sure whether it was due to it being before 8am, being a Sunday morning, or my being in the middle of nowhere, but I hardly saw a soul for an hour.
I drove half way up the Oregon coast, calling in at the seaside towns on the way. The coastline was just as beautiful as the Big Sur coast, but more accessible and less remote. I won`t post too many photos as they would rather duplicate the California photos. I did enjoy the Oregon Dunes recreation area, where huge (50` high) dunes dominate the landscape and tower over the road. I took a stroll from the road to the beach, which due to the dunes was a 15-minute walk.
Some of the towns I stopped at included Florence, a very nice and not at all touristy little village, whose Old Town consisted mostly of galleries rather than tat shops; Newport; and Depoe Bay. This claims to be the world`s smallest harbour, which I cannot fathom since it had several dozen boats in, far larger than any Cornish village. Here I sampled Salt Water Taffy for the first time, see the video.
From Lincoln, home of the World`s shorted river (named `D` if I recall) I drove inland to Salem, the capital of Oregon. What this city`s Historic District lacks in character it makes up for in cleanliness, rivaled only by Zagreb for the prestigious title of The World`s Cleanest City In Daniel`s Opinion. I quickly departed for Portland, from where I write now.
I am looking forward to exploring the state`s largest city tomorrow.
Portland is a very nice city, much larger and cooler than I expected. It avoids the retarded A Street, B Street mentality, and so wins many Brownie points with me. I spent the early afternoon in the gardens and the late afternoon in the Nob Hill and Pearl districts.
In Washington Park there are two beautiful gardens, the International Rose Test Garden, and the Japanese Gardens. The former is a collection of the world`s finest roses, in particular winners of various competitions. It was great to see and smell them, and to chuckle a their names. Some were named after the breeder`s foibles or loved-ones, others after famous persons or in time for world events (Neville Chaimberlain in 1941, Silver Jubilee in 1981, Peace in 1944, Queen Elizabeth in 1951, etc), and still others apparently after newspapers (Liverpool Echo and The Sun). There seemed to be a lot of British names in the collection.
The Japanese Garden is apparently the best outside of Japan, according to the Jap ambassador to the US, though I`m sure he was just being polite. It featured many plants that I could even name (acer japonicus being the most important), huge koi, an enormous raked-gravel garden, and one of those cool plink-plonk bamboo devices that fills with water before inverting to create its onomatopoeic sound.
I had to take care of some mundane business in getting my oil changed. This dull task was made entertaining by the kitsch retro outfit, a drive-through establishment where one sits in the car as they tinker. The mechanics wore 1940s uniforms and called-out their tasks to one another, from the foreman at the bonnet to the greasemonkey under the car, who then confirmed the same back to him ("checking the water / checking the water .... water level`s good / water level`s good"). The garage had even installed three cameras around my car and a monitor next to me, so that I could observe the whole car, the engine and the underside. It was pretty cool.
After that I went to Twenty-third Street, or as the locals would have it, Trendy-third Street, which is full of cool boutiques in wonderful old buildings. I spent a good few hours sampling the offerings of one of the many microbreweries; my favourite was the Terminator Stout. I`ll report tomorrow whether it`ll be back.
After the beer I enjoyed a good hour in the famous Powell`s bookshop, in which I bought some second hand books, including those which the mighty Amazon had been unable to source for me (a novel in Hungarian called Gabi and an obscure textbook on the same language with - tada! - a cassette tape).
On the way back I encountered my second stroke of bad luck. I was ticketed for making a "dangerous" left turn. I did indeed make a left turn, but it was certainly not dangerous; I and the oncoming car, both first in our respective lanes, were sufficiently far apart for me to have turned safely, enabled by his junction being staggered back an additional 5m. Unluckily for me, a bored policeman was behind my fellow driver, and he pulled me over. He ticketed me for a dangerous turn, something I was not really able to refute since American policemen look sternly upon anyone who would try to knock them from their pedestal of righteousness; but what was the most annoying was that he lied to me. He outright lied, falsely accusing me of a another crime that I did not commit, and then lied about what he saw. As this fat lying bastard, Erick Thorsen*, number 23581, approached I turned off my engine and removed my seatbelt, just about to get out to speak to him when I remembered that armed officers feel threatened by unarmed weaklings, and I remained in place. He accused me of not wearing my seatbelt, which I refuted and explained the above, he then outright lied and said that he saw me driving without it on, which I again refuted. As anyone who`s ever driven with me knows I am a stickler for seatbelts; am I not, Ricardo? I would never drive without wearing it. He then went to ticket me, I thought for both offences (especially as he walked off right after my second refute with words to the effect of `fine!` muttered), but in the end just for the turn. I am due in court next month. Yuck fou, Oregon.
Again advice on what to do is appreciated, bearing in mind that I have no intention of committing a driving offence in Oregon after July, and that I do not live in Berkeley Run any more.
* For the benefit of this liar when he Googles his own name in a month or a year.
Today I took a walking tour of rainy Portland`s many downtown districts. I was in fact the first ever client of a new walking tour outfit, hosted by the delightful Hillary . The tour spanned Downtown, the historic district, the ex-warehouse Pearl district, Chinatown, the riverside and the Skidmore district; and covered Portland`s history, pop-culture and modern details.
I drank from one of the many Benson Bubblers, a rather wasteful series of drinking fountains that come in stands of 4 and are permanently on; so-named for their pioneer, a gentleman who wanted to rid the city of drunken workmen who just popped into the local bar "for a glass of water."
One of the more entertaining features of Portland is the streetnames that were borrowed by local resident Matt Groening for characters in The Simpsons - I walked down Flanders St and Lovejoy St, and passed signs for Terwillager on the way in.
In the late afternoon and early evening I visited the Bohemian district surrounding Hawthorn Blvd, where I am staying. It`s a much nicer and cleaner version of Haight Street, minus the stoners but with just as many bums (who, by the way, beg from me, indicating that my scruffy beard does not yet distinguish me from high society). Here I ate and finished my sampling of all the local microbrews from one particular brewer.
Wednesday was a day of volcanos. As I left Portland I went to Mount Tabor, the only volcano to be within a city park (the volcanic activity was discovered only later), past Mount St Helens, which famously erupted in 1980 shedding much of its mass; and headed to Mount Rainier.
Had I not learned that it was named by Vancouver for a fellow Brit, I could have believed that Rainier`s name came from the typical weather conditions. In fact there was, and still is, a movement to return its name to Mount Tacoma, the original Native name.
The 14,000-foot peak was utterly obscured by dense clouds and constant rain, and I was quite disappointed not to have seen it. Even halfway up the peak I was still below the clouds and could not get a good view. So instead I opted to hike. In the snow. Wearing trainers (sneakers). See the video - I gave up and turned back once the feeling had left my feet.
My accommodation for the evening was care of the generosity of James, the cousin of my Atlanta friend Rebecca, who had put us in touch. He`s another fellow Englishman transplanted here for his brains; like the rest of us having convinced the US Embassy that no Americans were up to the task. He and his wife Hannah live in a very trendy part of town, within walking distance of the main attractions, so it`s been ideal.
James and I went out for some beers and a bite to eat in one of the cool districts, and were surrounded by trendies and punks.
Seattle marks the North-West corner of my trip and as such the half-way point in my travels (in miles, at least, not necessarily in days). It`s a great city which is very easy to love; it`s rather like San Fran only cheaper and flatter.
I spent the day working my way through the list of things in Hannah`s guidebook, starting with the Pike Place market. This is famous for its fishmongers (said one woman to the man in oilskins holding a fish "excuse me, what`s a fishmonger and where can I find one?" ), who operate in teams: the front man will take your order and then pick your fish (usually a whole salmon or whole flatfish) from the ice and throw it to his colleague behind the counter, who will then wrap it. Sometimes they threw a stuffed cloth fish at a tourist to make them scream, must amusing.
Also in the market was a cool stringed instrument store, in which I felt like a kid in an expensive sweetshop. I own and can play most of the instruments in the window.
I indulged myself slightly and visited the very first Starbucks for a brew. The Seattle people love their coffee, there are are cafes everywhere, and more Starbucks than the average town. People slate this company as the epitome of the evil megacorporation, but I do not. Hats off to them, for rising from one store in 1971, through the vast competition, to the global brand that they are today (more on their brand in a second). Although their coffee will never be as good as that which I drank on the Don Juan plantation in Costa Rica, I did enjoy my cup even more than normal know that it came from store number one.
The branding of this store is the original, with a naked mermaid in brown, rather than an obscured green mermaid that we all know.
I explored Pioneer Square and environs, a charming old part of town with tree-lined streets and red-brick buildings, one of which was a National Park museum about the gold rush in 1896-8 (in which thousands of Seattlers sailed up through Alaska and then trekked into Canada. Hundreds died or turned back, and only a few got rich. 3000 pack horses were worked to death crossing a single pass.) One part of the day`s entertainment came from a group of Utah children giving a performance in the square. It was a cross between cheerleading, a Broadway-style musical, and Pop/American Idol. The energetic nonstop dancing and singing, the glittery costumes, the heartache at being told (albeit to myself) how badly they sang. The egalitarian nature of the troubadours meant that each child took a turn at the microphone, regardless of their ability to sing or even remember the words.
Lunch was fish `n chips, with Pacific salmon for the fish, on the waterfront watching the passenger ferries roll in and out.
After lunch I went to James` office building, the Columbia Tower, which at 76 storeys dwarfs the aging Space Needle. From the 73rd storey I could see the entire city on the observation deck. Why pay $14 for the Needle? I enjoyed a second beverage at Skybucks, the 40th-floor Starbucks.
I passed through the deserted Union Station to reach the International District, where I gawped at the odd oriental food (I did wonder whether the Korean BBQ stall sold deep fried dog), before riding the excellent bus and pointless monorail to the Seattle Center. The bus was free and traveled in an underground tunnel, rather like the Tube but with a front-facing window and the risk of scraping the walls. The monorail, a hangover from the 1962 World Fair`s vision of how we`ll all be traveling in the future, was slow and annoying. Its two termini are its sole stops, taking nothing but tourists from Downtown to the Space Needle.
The Space Needle is another World`s Fair creation, perhaps their vision of how we`ll all be living in the future. I was disappointed that there was no flying car, just an empty fairground. I read in the park before returning to James` place, satisfied with the amount of sights I saw in one day.
After a breakfast of a doughnut from Seattle`s finest, I went for my last anticipated geek-trip: I visited Microsoft over in Redmond. While it was cool to be on their campus, their visitor centre was not very good. At all. I was expecting a history of the company, and perhaps a peek at their future, but in reality their visitor centre was just the bastard offspring of a time capsule and a mobile/cell phone shop. Their company time-line was really just a series of 70s, 80s and 90s memorabilia, with no real relation to Microsoft. Their exposition of their products included a look at "the next version of Windows, Longhorn" (codename for Vista, released about 2 years ago). They really needed to update this display, I thought. I did buy a teeshirt in the company shop, though; and then gatecrashed the main campus. It looked a fun place at which to work, since just like at Google no-one was doing any work: they were all queuing for burgers on the playing field. Hungry geniuses.
I then caught the ferry across the Sound to Bremerton, on the Olympic peninsula. I anticipated that this would feel like another world, or at least another country, but of course it was no different to the rest of Washington.
Near Port Angeles I went to the National Park and drove up to the top of Hurricane Ridge, where I saw stunning and very Alpine views of Mount Olympus, framed by conifer forests and grazing elk. The glaciers were clearly visible, as were two blankets of clouds at different levels (in different valleys).
I drove on past the glacier-scraped Lake Crescent to the Sol Duc hot springs. These are stinky volcanic springs set in a Turkish or Budapesti style (they were very overpriced, and at $17 for entry, towel and locker I opted just for the first). My skin felt slimy as I sat, and upon exiting I did not feel any more youthful or invigorated. I`m not sure that the elixir of life would smell like rotten eggs.
Finally I went to a hostel near Forks, whose street address was a whopping "169312 Highway 101." It was another home hostel, run by a very pleasant and kind man, whose house was very reminiscent of Layhams, and cost just $10 and 15 minutes of chores in exchange for a room for the night.
After doing my chores, sweeping and scrubbing, I visited the Hoh rainforest, again part of the Olympic National Park. This is one of only a few temperate rainforests in the world, and consists of trees draped in clubmoss.
It was interesting to see the life cycle the trees: a large tree falls, becomes covered in moss, then seedling trees grow on the trunk, before maturing over the rotting wood, and finally the mature trees are left tip-toeing over the space where the old trunk used to be.
I drove to Olympia, the capital of Washington. Again I was impressed with how clean the capital city is compared to the state`s largest city. The state capitol distinguishes itself from all other generic capitols by being in its own campus set on a hillside. It features a park, fountains, war memorials and gardens, and commands great views over the city and the water.
I then explored the city centre, which is only a few blocks square. There was nothing of note there.
Since I intend to spend a lot of time in New England, I will be hopping across the northern leg of my journey quite quickly. To this end, I drove from Olympia to Glacier National Park in Montana, spanning the width of Washington and the top width of Idaho.
Despite Washington calling itself the Evergreen State, it has many faces and climates, only one of which is evergreen. In the middle of the state the terrain changes quickly and drastically to (what looks like) desert, featuring plantless rocks and sandy plains. Once the sage bushes started to appear as I headed east, the state reminded me more of New Mexico than of those Evergreen number plates.
After the desert stretch I hit a potato patch. Mile after mile of potato fields, all irrigated by those huge rotating wheeled sprinklers.
Idaho was a beautiful state; despite the stretch I drove comprising conifers and hills, it was unique. The mountains are much more rounded than others, and the trees more spread out.
I was delighted to have left the West coast when I saw petrol for sale at less than $4 again for the first time since Arizona. I was surprised to see ski lifts visible from the freeway, though they had been static for months.
Once I reached Montana, my journey from the freeway to the park took me past a fine example of America`s most beautiful bird, the bald eagle. My hawk-eyes spied it by the side of the road, and as I turned around I saw it land in a roadside tree, where it pouted and posed for my photos. That five minute break from my long journey was the highlight of the day.
Just around the corner I spotted a black bear cub climbing over a fence and balancing for a moment on the fence post. At the time I was simply happy to see a bear, and a black black bear at that (the last was a brown black bear), and it wasn;t until I showed the photo to a Ranger to identify the species that we realised how likely it was that a huge and protective mother bear was not too far away from me. I caused a small "bear-jam", where following cars see a tourist pointing a camera in the bushes and also stop to see the fuss, creating a little congestion.
The countryside in Montana was postcard-perfect, particularly a stint towards Flathead Lake where the road ran through meadows parallel to snow-covered mountains whose image glistened in the pools of clear water in the meadows.
I managed to last 10 hours on the road before ceding to the fading light and the never ending miles; I turned into a random state park to spend the night just with the last of the light. After almost 600 miles` concentration I could not sleep.
I complete the last stretch of the journey up to Glacier National Park, which shared a border with Alberta, Canada.
The park was great, but I was frustrated that the management had not ploughed the road through the park, meaning it was closed. I happened to be trapped in the half where there were no glaciers, and was annoyed, angry actually, that I had to drive over 2 hours around the edge of the park to be on the correct (Eastern) side of the pass. I saw some glaciers, but to be honest they could have simply been piles of smooth snow. Had they been naked they would have been more impressive.
I took a hike up a gorge until snow blocked my path, but this snow had formed a natural bridge (an arch) over the stream. Adjacent to the stream, in between the snow, were Alpine-like meadows of colourful wildflowers.
After leaving Glacier I drove what I hoped would be a few hours toward Bozeman in the south of Montana, near Yellowstone. The scenery changed incredibly quickly; just an hour from the park I was in the middle of grass prairie, driving long needle-straight roads of gentle hills. There was even the odd silo too. Strangely, despite there being such an abundance of grassland just a tiny fraction was grazed.
The scenery changed towards the centre of the state, as I drove though a rocky pass and passed the aptly-named Castle Rock. The entire range looked like it had once been the fantasy castle of a long-dead giant king, with castle-like formations, battlements along the edge of the cliffs, and equally-spaced shrubs along the top of the cliff that looked like petrified sentry guards.
As I drove I called to make a booking for the night, but was out of luck with all the I90 corridor towns. In the end my salvation was a shared room in a hotel in West Yellowstone, 90 miles south of Bozeman just a stone`s throw from the park. In the end I had another exhausting 7 hour drive, arriving in the dark.
I had absolutely no idea of what to expect in Jellystone. Perhaps smarter-than-average bears, along with the standard rock-tree-water backdrop. I was pleased that I did not research the park in advance, because this meant I was taken by surprise all day long.
The first surprise was not a pleasant one: YNP is so busy it`s like being on the public highway, with its full complement of jams and terrible signposting. I even had to queue to enter the park, a first.
I quickly discovered that the bear-jams were far less common than bison-jams. The wild bison in YNP simply stroll around without a care for the motorists, even walking along the road as if they were a vehicle. Everyone wants a photo, not knowing when they would have the chance to rubberneck again, so I am sure that I am not the only visitor with dozens of identical bison photos.
Upon finally reaching the visitor centre I enjoyed the video, in which I learned how the park formed: just like Crater Lake it was an explosion that left a caldera (cauldron-shaped valley). Unlike CLNP, though, YNP is still active. The visible surface sits on a fast-moving plate that slides over a relatively static plate, in which a huge ball of magma sits. As the upper plate slides, the surface above becomes volcanically active, before it moves on. There is apparently a long chain of extinct volcanoes that were all once over the ball.
After looking at the torrential waterfalls I then got my first taste of YNP`s dozens, perhaps hundreds of geysers, mudpots, fumaroles, hot springs and mud volcanoes. There are several areas in the park, called basins, where many geothermal features seem to congregate. In the space of about an acre there may have been 50 features, some as
small as a mouse hole and some as large as a front room. Each had its own noise, ranging from gurgling to hissing to booming. Even the mouse-sized holes, with no apparent water, made noise.
The most beautiful features were the deep pools, azure blue and seemingly bottomless. Around their fractal edges were colonies of bacteria that stain the rocks yellow and orange. With the exception of a blanket of steam over each, these pools looked exactly like a slice through one of those pretty agate lodestones that you see in gem shops.
One of my favourite sights of the day was that of a bison through the steam of a boiling pool.
Then came the geysers. These come in two types, cone (like a jet from a fireman`s hose) and fountains (like an upside down waterfall). Old Faithful is a cone geyser which erupts faithfully every 90 minutes. I caught the end of one show and then waited for the next, which sadly was not so spectacular. I was amazed at how many so-called sight-seers turned and left halfway through Faithful`s performance, as if 30 seconds was all they needed to see.
After seeing several dozen features I started to get geysered-out and headed back into town for a dinner of....
Tomorrow I will upload some videos once I have compiled the best. Only in video can you appreciate the movement and sounds of the features. I wish that I could convey the sulfur smell via Smell-o-vision too.
Yellowstone is far too crowded, and it`s not even the peak of the season yet. It took me an hour and a half to get from the entrance to Canyon Village today, due mostly to the crappy traffic management they have here.
My day was to be split between the upper loop of the park, which I did not see yesterday, and Grand Teton. In the end the sheer size of YNP and the endless bear-jams meant it was 5pm by the time I`d done just the Yellowstone parts. I will have to rise early tomorrow for the Tetons. In fact, in these two days I have driven 260 miles just around the inside of the park!
Today I saw a very different half of the park, whose features were reminiscent of Bryce, complete with hoodoos. The major geothermal attraction on the North side is the Mammoth terraces, a series of hot spring up a hill that flow out over self-made terraces of coloured rock and cemented ash.
I also saw a final basin and some waterfalls.
That`s about it for today. I there have a spare moment to mention Canadian radio. Up in the Olympic peninsula I was close to Victoria, BC, and could receive CBC One. This is like the US`s NPR only better - their current affairs span the globe, not just the US. It was nice to hear "aboot what`s goon on ootside" North America. I even heard an advert for a Mark Atkinson Trio concert :)
This morning I was up at the crack of dawn to drag myself the many many miles through Yellowstone to its little brother, Grand Teton National Park, before heading through beautiful Wyoming to Devils (sic) Tower and ultimately to Rapid City, South Dakota.
I awoke in Montana and by 06:45 I was in Wyoming, but even at this hour there was still a queue to get into YNP. Unbelievable. I continued through the park to Grand Teton ("large boob" in French), which is far more beautiful than YNP, though lacks half the attractions. The park is concerned with a valley called Jackson Hole, where the Teton mountains rise up against the valley floor which by contrast is sinking yearly. The mountains are made more impressive because they have absolutely no foothills, and so rise directly out of the lake.
The valley floor is a flat lush meadow, full of yellow flowers. There were ample photo opportunities to capture some great meadow-meets-mountain shots, including one with horses in the meadow.
I left the park at 11am and braced myself for a long journey. I was immediately hampered by a rock slide right in front of my eyes; luckily the traffic had been halted while we waited for them to escort us through the repairs from a previous rockslide.
Wyoming`s countryside is even more varied than Montana`s. I started in jagged granite mountains, and quickly descended to the plains. From there I drove along canyon floors and over mountain passes, the scenery of which looked like a more fertile version of south Utah, complete with red rocks, strata and the odd mini-mesa. Peaks loomed above me, and helpful motoring signposts told me the type of and age of the rock that I felt might engulf me at any moment. After the mountains the prairies opened up, and I pushed on to Devils Tower.
Devils Tower is a huge (1200 foot) basalt rock that pushes straight up out of the prairie. It is the rock featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where that guy sculpts it (beautifully parodied when Homer Simpson sculpts a big top out of mashed potato when he want s to join the Clown College).
The story behind the rock is wonderful. A little Kiowa girl, who had recently taken bear medicine, turned into a bear and killed everyone in the village except her little sister. When the boys returned from hunting to see the massacre they fled with the little sister, and were helped in their plight by the buffalo (who slowed the chasing bear-girl), a flat rock (who told them to run around it), and a tree. The tree told the children to stand on the rock, which started to rise up out of the ground. The bear-girl clawed at the rock and this is what caused the lines running down Devils Rock. Cool.
I chased a rainbow into South Dakota where I couch-surfed with a local guy. The house was full; he, I, his daughter, his girlfriend, his girlfriend`s two children, and his Aussie friend. After losing at "chess" twice to a 5-year-old I retired to my basement campbed.
My journey today was 680 miles, and I was in the car from 06:40 until 21:15 with just an hour out of the saddle. What a killer journey. It`s about the same distance as London to John O`Groats, Atlanta to Baltimore, or Budapest to Milan.
Today I visited Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park.
As everyone knows, this is a carving of three of America`s best and most important presidents, plus Teddy Roosevelt. It would be easy to confirm my suspicions that this is a decadent example of American arrogance*, but that would detract from its importance as the second most American and instantly identifiable attraction, behind the Statue of Liberty.
* Even the introductory video described it as being created during the US`s cockiest phase.
The pictures that we see of this monument do not represent it accurately. They give the impression that the faces are as tall as a mountain, when in fact they are really quite small. They`re 60` tall and sit on the top quarter or so of the cliff face, and as such from a distance look rather feeble. Only up close do they show their grandeur.
Just as fun were the snow-white gruff billy goats who stroll over the park, and the fat marmot-like rodents that make the tourists squeal.
After this I went to les mauvais terres, the Bad Lands. This is an area of South Dakota that spans the Buffalo Gap National Grassland**, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and Badlands National Park. The Badlands are rocky gullies and fins, created partly through volcanic ash deposits (perhaps from Yellowstone).
The Badlands are the home of palaeontology, as this is where the first major fossils were found in the middle of the 19th C.
I spent quite some time talking with the Lakota people who work in the visitor centre. One grand gentleman had two waist-length braids of hair and sat on a buffalo hide as we spoke. I learned some fascinating things, which I have detailed in a video.
As I passed from the reservation to the park I gave a ride to two Lakota hitch-hikers, one of whom was called Malcolm Bigfoot. They, sadly, were the Native American version of Coconuts. It was fun to chat with them, and as a thank-you they left me a sage bush in the car, which smells lovely.
** I got the name wrong in my video. Oops.
Today was a rather dull day, with a long drive to Minneapolis via Iowa.
My journey had a deliberate detour, through Iowa, as this is a state I simply wanted to dip my toes into without a full visit. Bill Bryson put me off Des Moines with the opening line of one of his books.
Iowa is everything I expected: farms and a grid system of roads. Looking at the map every single road is on a matrix, even the intercity roads. I did not complete a turn that wasn`t 90 degrees during my half hour in Iowa.
There were plenty of farms, with their typical silo and Amish-like barns. Very quaint.
South Dakota`s eastern half was very much like the West - grasslands, endless grasslands.
I had arranged to couch surf in Minneapolis, but the girl, Renee, had not sent me her address, so by 9pm I needed to book a room in a hostel. As luck would have it she called me literally as I was on the phone booking a room, so it worked out well.
I arrived at her downtown house at around 10pm, and by 11pm we were on our bikes riding downtown to a nightclub on the main strip. It was my kinda place, an old warehouse with a killer sound sysem, with a very trendy crowd. The music was deep house, which I`d not enjoyed for years. Up on the 4th floor of this building was the dance floor, which had been talcum-powdered to make it slippery for dancing, a simple bar and a rooftop smoking area. Downstairs was another club room and then a cheesy pop room.
After the club kicked out at a ridiculously early 2:30 (I have yet to go to a club in the US that opens past 3am, pah) we went to an after-party. A friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-couchsurfer lived in a loft apartment downtown, and threw a shindig filled with very cool and flamingly homosexual guys with a distinct lack of women. But it was a cool bash.
Gay gentlemen have a trick that is to be encouraged. While queuing for the toilet my heart sank as three guys went into the bathroom together in front of me. "Oh no," thought I, "they`ll be doing their gay stuff for hours and I need a pee," but in actual fact they were also just peeing, and all peed at the same time into the same bowl, thus reducing my queue time by two thirds. Great move!
We walked home in the sunlight and turned-in at 5:30, so I am rather tired right now.
Sunday was spent being very lazy. I got out of the house at about 1pm and sat in a coffee shop for several hours as I recaffeinated my body and recovered slightly from the exhaustion.
I then wandered around Minneapolis, focusing on the Mississippi river and the interesting features and history there. There is a waterfall, St Antony`s Falls, right in the middle of the city, but as logging and industry grew the falls were almost destroyed by logs. Relatively recently they have been reinforced, in fact they have been replaced with an entirely artificial set of dams and raceways that all for hydroelectric energy to be produced there. Despite being in the Mississippi`s northernmost US state, just a few score miles from the headwaters, the river was still a powerful torrent.
I wandered around the ruined mills and the condos that have sprung up around them. This city is unusual, IMO, in that it seems to take great pride in its old buildings, either leaving them as-is even if they are tumbling down, or restoring them using modern finishes. The result of this is a series of beautiful old original brick warehouses with steel-and-glass facades or entrances. Very cool.
I ate a three-course steak dinner for just $9.99 and then retired to a much-craved bed.
Minneapolis is one of the few cities where I have felt at home and that I could easily live there. Its pace is just right, not too sedate (like Olympia) and not too crazy (like Los Angeles).
After giving my host Renee a lift to the airport I began my thankfully short journey to Wisconsin. I didn`t really know much about the state apart from the character Colin in the film Love Actually and his desire to go to "a fantastic place called Wisconsin," where he rightly thought that the women would fawn over him.
I arrived at around 8pm to the house of a lovely young couple, who`d couch-surfed all over Europe and were now returning the favour. When I asked if I could use the stove to heat some soup they insisted on a full grill-out and very generously fed me delicious steaks and home-grown veggies. We ate, drank local beers and chatted in very late. Awesome.
It would appear that Colin was right. The women here in Wisconsin are incredibly good looking.
Madison is the capital city of the state and a university town, situated between several large lakes so that it feels like it`s on an island. It`s cool without being scruffy, liberal without being krusty, and young without being immature.
After a huge cooked breakfast from my hosts Ralph and Alma I strolled into town along the narrow strip of land between the lakes, reaching the State Capitol just in time for a tour. The building was much the same as most other capitols, but was still good to see from the inside. It`s particularly ornate, with an awful lot of imported marble and gold leaf (to stop it burning like the previous one did).
I then walked up and down the main street, State Street, toward the university, stopping in a museum on the way. My lunch was some cheese from one of the many local dairies. I tried to protest that this orange cheddar should not be considered Wisconsin`s typical cheese, since real cheddar is white and is matured in Cheddar, UK, but it fell on deaf ears.
Last night after blogging I went out to a concert in the park in Madison, which wasn`t quite what I expected. It was classical-swing featuring horn solos. Were the mozzies not eating me alive and my stomach eating its lining I would have enjoyed it, but I lasted only two numbers before seeking food like a bear in spring.
After dinner my host Ralph picked me up and we went back to his for home-made brats (bratwurst is a typical Madison dish) and local beer before heading to a local bar for some live music and more local beer. The bar was done out in the style of a northern Wisconsin bar, which essentially means a sauna with stuffed animals on the walls. After the bar we went back home for more beers and silliness til the small hours. Great fun.
On Wednesday I enjoyed a cooked breakfast before heading down to Illinois. Bah! They don`t have freeways in Illinois, they have tolls roads. I would not ordinarily mind paying a toll to take a road if, like I hear the M6 bypass offers, the roads are of superior quality. But they`re not, they`re just as terrible as all other roads in America, with their deep potholes and patchy asphalt (Tarmac).
Eventually I arrived in Berkeley, a suburb of Chicago, were my afternoon`s destination was. I`m sure you`ve used the World Dryer Corporations`s hand dryers in restrooms all over the world. You may have noticed that they print not only their name but also their address on the dryer. Well, you may have also wondered just what Berkeley, IL, was like; I certainly wondered this over the many years that my hands have needed drying, and so I went to their modest HQs. Like Google, they of course did not have a visitor centre. But one staff member, Earl, an old guy with a very thick Chicaaaaaaago accent, overheard my request and said that anyone who would come to them for such a purpose deserved a tour. So he took me into their offices and showed me around. A highlight was the showroom, a corridor in which one of each of their dryers is installed, including historical models and future prototypes. The standard model has its enamel chipped, which I frowned upon until Earl explained that this display model had deliberately been shot with a pistol, and the only damage was the flaking. Impressive. Their factory was quiet as everything is now made in New America (aka China). I was very chuffed to have been given such VIP treatment by such a kind man, and I left with a big smile.
I drove around neighbourhood trying to steal wifi*, as I had thus far been unsuccessful in arranging a couch surfing host, so in the end I stayed at a hostel in trendy Lincoln Park. I think it used to be a hospital or lunatic asylum, as it still felt very clinical and not very homely.
I took a wonder through the burbs and was impressed with the gas-lamp district. Unlike San Diego`s gas-lamp district, Chicago`s actually has gas-lamps in it. Every few yards a 5` high, dual-mantle lamp glows along the sidewalk, but of course they are dwarfed by the neon and sodium lamps.
* The IEEE really need to address the problem of wifi being shit. Nine times out of ten when I try to connect to an unsecured network I am told there is an "unknown error." Secure networks are not as easy to get into as, say, secure websites, and I have only succeeded in cracking one or two so far.
I was very excited to be in Chicago, as it is the first alpha-class global city on my trip that I had not previously visited. I started my tourism by riding the train to downtown. The train system is crap. There are only a few routes, designated with such gay names as "the pink line", and it is impossible to transfer between lines at some common stations without going up to street level and paying to reenter. They also omit a step that is important for novice visitors, that is the simple labeling of destinations with "North" and "South", which is far more helpful than "95th Street", as I have no idea whether that will take me downtown or not.
Upon reaching the Loop, the main financial hub of the city, I went straight to the top of the overpriced Sears Tower. This is America`s tallest building and was the world`s tallest for many years, and offers great views of Lake Michigan and the city. The trapezoid John Hancock Tower is, in my opinion, more characteristic of the city`s skyline (since it was always features on TV station WGN`s commercials), but the Sears Tower is more of a destination. It was great to look down on the river, which is narrow and is spanned by many bridges, making it look like my stereotype of Venice.
From the tower I went to Millennium Park and ogled at The Bean (a huge kidney-shaped mirror), then down to Navy Pier to enjoy the view of the skyline. My last stint of the day was to walk the Miracle Mile, the main strip of the city. This is very cool, bordered by looming skyscrapers from 100+ years ago (the city was burned down in 1871). These all look like the main building in Ghostbusters, with their ornate stonework and spires.
Mid-afternoon I curled up for a snooze in a posh shopping mall and was lucky not to have been kicked-out as a vagrant.
Finally I took the train to my car and then drove to another suburb to crash with an artist girl in her tiny (and I mean tiny even by British standards) "studio" apartment. It was really a bedsit, too small even for a sofa. In the end, after a mail-bomb to the whole of the Chicago CS community, I spent all day receiving calls and messages offering couch space, and I have accepted one for Friday night. The artist`s place was just too small for two people, even for one.
This morning I went to the beach at the edge of the city. It felt rather strange being on the beach in the middle of central Chicago, and even more so being thousands of miles from an ocean. Lake Michigan is very beautiful, its waters change colour between dark and turquoise blues within a few hundred metres. On the beach was the first of the many summer camps I encountered today - a hoard of young kids, all wearing the same teeshirt, being shepherded by other children in their teens.
I visited Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Tours of the field were available, but I balked at the price of $25 when there was not even a game on.
The "Old Town" of Chicago is a quaint boutiques-and-cafes district, with ivy-covered buildings and wrought ironwork. Very nice, but not particularly old I fear.
My afternoon was spent at the zoo in Lincoln park, a free service sponsored only by donors. My infantile sense of humour meant that I was crying with laughter as I watched one lemur clean another for ticks.... see the video when I get around to it. I`ll not bore you with a hundred photos of animals. Just the lemurs.
On the way from the park to my downtown accommodation I passed through a small gathering of layabouts and hippies that called itself the Peace Fest. I do not know why so many people didn`t have to be at work on a weekday afternoon. I arrived at a set of luxury apartments where I was staying for the night; my host was an ex-JPMorgan broker who really showed me what it is like to be a 28 year old millionaire. When I arrived at about 5pm he asked what I would like to drink and then ordered over the phone another 12-pack using his account with his liquor dealer. We discussed his immense and expensive art collection while getting slowly more inebriated, before finally heading down for dinner. Since I was still dressed like a vagrant my host Jared lent me some clothes and I ended up looking like a typical American youth: polo neck, khaki shorts and leather flip-flops. I was missing only the side-parting floppy haircut.
Dinner was in the poshest restaurant I have been to in a long time: crab cakes, frois gras slivers (not pate), rack of lamb, and a wonderful bottle of red that the sommelier recommended.
After dinner we went to the top of the Hancock Tower to a bar on the 96th floor for a few drinks, before heading back to the bachelor pad with some of his friends to party until gone 4am.
My host even gave up his bedroom to me and he slept on the sofa, but the bedroom door was obviously not used to being closed fast, as it jammed through the night. I was trapped and in need of the bathroom, but luckily I had taken a glass of water to bed with me. This was put to good use. Eventually I managed to crawl out through the closet and could kick the door open from the outside.
My parting gift was a bottle of wine from his cellar. Such generosity.... God bless Americans.
Chicago is a great city, one of my favourites in America. It`s big without being too big, the people are friendly and the sights cool. It is the one place I think I would like to return to in order to see me; no other place has made me feel like that.
I left Chicago feeling awful, hardly able to keep my eyes open through tiredness, and headed south over yet more bloody toll booths towards Indianapolis. On the way I had to pull over by the side of the freeway and curl up under a bush for an hour to snooze.
I arrived at my host`s house in Indianapolis in the middle of a house party. Her friends were all very cool, and we chatted and danced til about midnight when I had to turn in, leaving them to keep swinging for hours.
One thing I will sorely miss in America is the following. Walking into a room and not being noticed, until I start to speak and then suddenly every head turns to look and listen. It`s noticeable out of the corner of my eye how the heads turn in my direction, but becomes even more marked when I am made the centre of conversation and attention through my witty banter and fascinating narratives. Having a sweet accent is one thing, but being an international man of mystery, in the middle of a tour that my fellow guests would never dare take, makes me really stand out. It`s a great feeling and I will miss it.
After the Saturday night party I enjoyed a good 11 hours` sleep, which I had been craving for weeks. I then went into the city centre to look at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the famous Indy 500 race is held. They have a very cool motor museum filled with old cars (including the world`s first cars from Benz and Daimler) and racecars. It`s even possible to tour the track, but unfortunately they were repairing the track so I could not ride on it. It was quite different from Wrigley Field at just $3 for the tour.
The racetrack started life as a proving ground for local manufacturers, and racing was really just an after-thought. The track was initially just mud and only later were cobbles ("bricks") laid, giving the track the name The Brickyard. The track is a highly imaginative oval shape, containing nothing but left-hand turns. Anything more would be too difficult for the fans of NASCAR to follow.
I went to the nice downtown area of Indianapolis, which sits on a river and a canal. There is a nice walk along the canal down to a museum or two. In the centre of the city there is the standard Capitol and obelisk, the latter being topped by Miss Indiana. I must admit when I imagine Miss Indiana she is not made of bronze and is not quite so silent (but if Miss Teen South Carolina* is any indicator of eloquence, sometimes it`s best to keep one`s mouth closed). The tower that holds her was rather a let down: a broken elevator meant I had to climb the 330 steps and then on reaching the top the view sucked: the platform was enclosed with filthy perspex, ruining both the view and the chance for a cool breeze.
Indianapolis was nice but it wasn`t quite as clean as Salem or Olympia, shattering my theory that state capitals which are not the major city in the state are always spotless.
After Indy I drove to Columbus, Ohio, where I am staying with a friend. It`s nice to see another friendly face. We went out to see some fireworks (but could not find them) and then to a bar with some of Meg`s friends. I enjoyed being flashed by the girls: even if half of them were lesbians, a hot bird is a hot bird.
Downtown Columbus makes Midtown Atlanta look straight. Not only are there many gay bars and shops that welcome the gay community, there are even shops that stock only gay paraphernalia. If you are ever in need of a rainbow flag or a white sparkly top that`s six sizes too tight, High Street Columbus is your choice.
Today I managed to add yet another odd place to my collection. Today I saw the inside of an animal hospital, including the ER, the operating room, and the ICU. They say that the English love their pets more than they love their cousins, but I think this doesn`t do justice to the affection that Americans have. The hospital could have been for people were it not for the cages, rather than beds, in the wards.
My friend Meg is a nurse at the hospital and she showed me the behind-the-scenes show. I saw dogs on drips, a puppy being operated upon by three people, a cat in a hyperbaric chamber, and dogs connected to TV screens that showed their vital statistics like heart and breathing rate. It was really quite unbelievable that the quality of the care for pets - for PETS - is better than it is for many people, here and in poorer countries.
After this we strolled around Columbus, which is a nice city despite the weather being very English. We went along the main road (called "High Street" and not "Main Street" - hurrah!) to the river, where the city has a replica of Columbus` ship the Santa Maria. We took the dog for a long walk by the lake and dined. The evening out never materialised. I cut my hair with dog clippers.
I have just been told that my snapping pics in the hospital was illegal, because it breaches the confidentiality of the pets. Ahem.
After a filling brunch out with Megan I hit the road to Michigan. The drive was uneventful.
Upon arriving in Detroit, I was about 10 minutes away from checking into a cheap motel when I received a call from a couchsurfer offering me a place. Perfect timing.
I ended up staying at the riverside bachelor pad of a 50s lawyer. The condo was amazing, all glass, brushed steel and slate, with a view over the river to Canada. Pretty stunning.
In the evening my new friend took me on a tour of the city and for a bite to eat in a veggie restaurant (where one could also get a massage and top-up one`s spirituality). After this we went to a bar for some drinks in the centre of the city. We were the only white people in the joint, and the only ones not roaring with laugher at the "comedians".
My host is a pot lawyer. That is, he helps people who have been busted for pot-related charges. He is also a huge campaigner for the legalisation of medical pot in MI, and while showing me his law offices downtown I saw a (-n empty) tin of government-issued cigarettes: 300 government-rolled joints, a month`s supply. Wow.
Detroit is known for two things: being the Motor Town and then the Mo-Town music style. Unfortunately there are no motown clubs that play on a Wednesday morning, but there is one motor plant left, Ford. Most of the others have moved to Mexico and then to China.
The Henry Ford (an odd title, seemingly missing the suffix "Museum") is a combination of museum, historical village, and factory tour. I opted only for the tour, which allowed me to see a morning in the life of a Ford F150 truck plant. The factory is huge, as it is actually a plant, taking not parts but raw materials (smelting its own iron, for example); yet is very green. In fact it is literally very green, as the roofs of the buildings are covered in gardens to recycle the water, the surface of the parking lots absorb and recycle the water, and the terrestrial gardens and orchards are filled with water-heating and photovoltaic solar panels.
Before the tour I experienced the best introductory video I have ever seen. I was skeptical about a "multi-sensory experience" but it was brilliantly executed. A hemispherical screen took me on a journey through the life cycle of a truck, starting from ore and ending at soak testing. As "I" was poured from the furnace into the mill the fans blew hot air into my face as the floor rumbled, and later as "I" was spray-painted a mist of water was spray from the roof. It was very well done.
I timed the tour well, since the last chassis had entered the plant that morning in preparation for the summer shutdown. The tour itself was OK, but the workers disappeared halfway through and the line halted. Apparently a union dispute.
I then walked from Corktown (the Irish quarter), which had very nice red cobbled streets ruined by flaking Tarmac, to downtown. Detroit is almost like a ghost town. Just a few miles from the city centre there are neighbourhoods filled with derelict buildings, boarded-up shops, grass-covered sidewalks, and endless liquor stores sporting "checks cashed" signs, populated with layabouts hanging around on the street. Even in the very centre of the city there are empty buildings that, were there enough people left in Detroit to create a demand, would make beautiful apartments.
I rode the People Mover, a one-way automated monorail that links sites in the downtown area. One of the more interesting is the General Motors Renaissance centre (purchased anonymously from Ford, about which they were very annoyed upon discovered the true buyer). In the basement is an exhibit of the GM back-catalog highlights.
Detroit is certainly my least favourite city so far, and it`s at the bottom of my list of cities to which I would like to return.
I drove back to Ohio, to Cleveland, to crash with a young software developer. We went out for dinner and then I slept like a log.
My expectations of Cleveland were low, only because my ATL neighbour always ribbed our mutual neighbour about how bad it was and how much it smells.
Other than the heavy industry I can`t see any reason for any bad reputation.
I spent most of today in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a museum dedicated to the music and, moreover, to the list of famous musicians (and producers) who have been listed in the Hall of Fame. I spent 5 hours here, enjoying the exhibits of instruments and artifacts, as well as snippets of all the members of Hall. Annoyingly I could not take photos, otherwise I may well have filled-up my camera with snaps of endless guitars. I particularly liked the Les Paul exhibition, which detailed the young inventor`s works while making an electric guitar, including one made from a railway track section.
I could understand most of the inductees, as they were of course famous rock & roll musicians (or at least musicians in genres of music that were crucial to the invention of rock & roll, such as blues). There were others that I could not understand, specifically Madonna. I am not sure that her music could ever be described as rock & roll, and the Hall`s choice of Vogue (an 80s dance record!) as a typical piece. I also noted with my beady musical eye that one of the clips for The Jimi Hendrix Experience was from Woodstock in 1969.... when The Experience did not play. Jimi appeared with Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. Yeah.
After the museum I wandered around the city, all the way from Lake Erie to Public Square and the University. It seems a decent city, with what looked like a cool entertainment district.
In the evening I went to the local Hungarian restaurant with my Hungarian-speaking American host for some typical filling food. We then stayed up chatting about information technology til 3am. He`s very cool, and it was a pleasure to watch him as he glided around the insides of a bash$ prompt.
In the morning Alexander, my host, and I went to a small National Park in Ohio called Cuyahoga Valley. It was small enough to have been a state park elsewhere, but in Ohio I suppose that it`s a big feature.
The park is very nice and its two main features are a series of ledges and a decent waterfall. We visited both, and gawped at the families out for their Independence Day. Just like in Piedmont Park at festival time, the African American families really know how to have a picnic. They don`t bring sandwiches and a blanket, they bring trays of chicken, rice and peas; tables and chairs and a marquee. Sweet.
After I departed Cleveland I crossed Pennsylvania to New York. I entered a deserted Buffalo, wolfed down my dinner, and headed to the town of Niagara Falls for the fireworks. Each weekend in the summer, Canada puts on show as a gift to America. The show was cool but very brief, I don`t think it was any different, on this big day, to an average summer day. The display was certainly nothing in comparison to the Lenox show in Atlanta.
The falls we very cool to look at at night as they are illuminated with colour. I deliberately looked only at the US falls and not the bigger Canadian falls, saving something for the next day.
On the way back to Buffalo I stopped at the bar in which the first Buffalo Wings (chicken wings friend in special sauce, a typical US bar snack served with celery and ranch dressing). The wings I had at the Anchor Bar on Main Street were good, but had clearly been sitting under the lamp for a while as they were dry :S
My first paid night`s accommodation in several weeks resulting in a very disturbed night.
Today I spent a long time enjoying a very famous American attraction, which, along with the Statue of Liberty, Mt Rushmore and the White House, is probably one of the more famous US icons: Niagara Falls.
Yesterday I purchased a ticket for a tour that comprised all the best parts of the area. It was operated by a woman who, were she not so amiable, could have worked in Auschwitz or an abattoir. Due to her excellent but forceful stewardship we managed to be at the front of the queue for the Cave of the Winds when it opened, and missed the 2000-strong queue for the boat: she gave strict instructions about how to beat the other tourists, and marshaled us as effectively as if she had had a cattle-prod.
The Caves of the Winds is a tunnel down to the bottom of Goat Island, the centre of the falls. Here they have built a wooden boardwalk that takes tourists right into the water. Despite wearing a raincoat we still all got soaked, especially when standing in almost the full force of the falls. Great fun.
After this we went on the world-famous Maid of the Mist boat ride, which takes visitors right into the basin of the Canadian falls. We were covered in spray the whole time but this and the roar of the water made for a very exhilarating stint.
We watched a very lame 3D video that would have made Native Americans (and the worst budding actors) cringe, and then headed downstream to the Whirlpool. This is a bend in the river a mile or two downstream where the rapids create a huge underwater vortex. Very impressive. The falls used to be at this point in the river because they are slowly moving upstream from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, and will one day make it all the way upstream.
The tour was very expensive but worth the money, because of our guide`s ability to shepherd us so well.
I need not have fretted about my paperwork, Canada, and potentially missing the best views through being on the US side: the boat trip afforded the best international views, and I think we may have dipped West of the border at one point.
I felt very left-out as I was the only one in a group otherwise consisting entirely of couples and honeymooners. It was one of the very few times that I wish I was on holiday with someone, particularly a partner, rather than doing this alone.
After leaving the waters I drove all the way across New York state, through such Euro-named towns as Rome, Syracuse and Rochester, to Vermont. This (and the corner of NY too) is a beautiful state. It`s so nice to see deciduous trees at last after endless evergreen forests: sycamore, poplar, lime, willow, and - hurrah! so homely! - some very grand horse chestnuts.
Before entering Vermont I had been very scathing of the name "New England". I had thought that it showed the same lack of imagination on the part of the early settlers that their descendants showed more recently in creating a country containing 10,000 cities each with an identical set of street names (Main, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, Oak, Maple, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson etc streets, and a Martin Luther King Jr boulevard [it`s always a boulevard]). However, this part of the country looks exactly like England. Gently rolling hills, streams, deciduous trees, farms.... the only difference (today, probably not then) is that there is a lot less farmland here than in Old England. So, to be fair to those who fled somewhere insufficiently puritanical to redefine and overuse the term "Freedom", it`s a just moniker.
At the hostel where I am staying there is a lake on which I paddled in a canoe this morning. Over the far side in amongst the reeds and grasses there was a small stream carved out, which had been dammed by beavers. I`d never seen a beaver dam before so this was very cool.
After planning my route and transcribing Google`s complicated instructions I hit the road. I avoided the freeways and drove only on local routes, which meant I could see lots of quaint New England villages. They all have several things in common: clean, tree-lined, and with white buildings everywhere. Very nice.
I stopped in NH`s capital, Concord, on my way through. The state has a very small population and the capital city is tiny, far smaller than even Dunstable.
I am staying in Conway, New Hampshire, in the tip of the Appalachian mountains in the White Mountains range. It`s a very nice little town.
Today started as another uneventful day of driving, the intention being to get to Maine`s coast from New Hampshire. In the morning I took a 2-hour hike to ease the conscience (it would have been terrible to have been in the White Mountains and to have not hiked). I went up the easy Boulder Loop trail, so-named for the scores of huge boulders that little the forest.
There was even a delightful covered bridge in the middle of nowhere. I was told that covered bridges are to keep animals calm as they are driven over the river, but this bridge was in the middle of a forest halfway up a mountain, so I doubt animals were ever driven over it.
The drive was fine until I reached Maine, where the signage that is normally pretty crap all over America suddenly gets appalling. Routes are labeled at junctions, but not with their cardinal points, so it was easy to turn in the wrong direction.
American signposts do not favour symbols whatsoever. In Britain it`s almost impossible to see a road sign with words on it (except "Stop" and "Give way"), favouring symbols. Here in the US they spell everything out using sentences that are far too long to read at 70mph. Instead of a symbol they instruct me that "Right lane must turn right", that this junction has a "No right turn on red" policy, and that "Left turn must yield to oncoming traffic on green (except commercial vehicles) (pursuant to city ordinance 1234)". Pfff. They do like to use both miles and kilometres here in Maine, perhaps for the benefit of the Canucks.
Bar Harbor is a beautiful fishing village on the isle of Mount Desert Island. Its narrow tree-lined streets are filled with lobster restaurants and ice-cream shops, its harbour is full of small fishing and pleasure boats, and it attracts tourists from all over the US. In the evening I took a wander around the town and ended up in a bar that served delicious local Maine beers at exceedingly bizarre prices. I was confused by the scale: $5.50 a pint, but I was drink halves so that I could try several different brews; their price was $5.00. Odd.
I slipped into bed late in the night, frustrated at the lack of a private bed, as of course is the nature of hostelling.
I dragged myself out of bed due to the guilt of being the only one still asleep at 7:30. I guess the lure of the park is very strong. I spent the day driving round the coastal Arcadia park, which is really very beautiful.
After looking at the gardens and the Native American museum I headed straight for the attraction with the highly descriptive but totally useless name of Sand Beach. I believe it sits between Water Ocean and Grass Meadow. Maine describes itself as "America`s vacationland", and on a hot day in July it certainly lived-up to its name. The park was busy even at 10am, and by noon the beach looked like Bournemouth beach on the one hot day of the year back home. I went rock-pooling and collected some winkles and crabs, I might eat them later. I sliced my foot yet again, just as I did on the banks of the Colorado the last time I went barefoot on the beach.
One attraction is Thunder Cove, a thin inlet that roars like thunder as the tide is rising. It`s quite a subtle effect, but it certainly drew a large crowd.
I drove - it was too hot and there was too much ozone in the air to make oneself out of breath, it would be dangerous - up Mount Desert to enjoy panoramic views of the island. It was great to look down upon the town of Bar Harbor and see the small islands and boats surrounding it. The mist rolled-in in veils that clung only to individual coves, not the entire ocean.
The villages on the island are very quaint, and one even has a working lighthouse at its tip. Apparently this lighthouse typifies the Maine coast, but I do look forward to seeing better specimens as I drive to Boston tomorrow.
After a whole day hearing the L-word nonstop, and seeing fishermen checking their traps, I was gagging for a lobster dinner. I hand-picked a feisty looking chap and sent him off to the steamer, bidding him adieu for 20 minutes. On his return I discovered that `he` was a `she`, as she was stuffed full of roe. She was delicious but in my mind I had built-up an unattainably high standard of taste, and my 10-legged friend indeed could not reach this. I`m not sure that a 1.5lb lobster should cost $30, even with a seat by the water.
Last night after blogging I ate my winkles (there will be a video soon) and then watched a movie in the hostel. It was nice to enjoy some camaraderie in the place, as many hostel do not have such a good atmosphere.
I drove down the coast from Maine, back through a section of New Hampshire, and into Massachusetts for the first time ever. Since I had all day to get there I dawdled and used the coast roads rather than interstates. However by 5pm the idiot drivers and ridiculously-managed intersections (God bless Milton Keynes` roundabouts) I gave up on the back roads idea and hit the freeway, which brought me nicely into Boston.
I drove over a very cool suspension bridge (single set of cables, but mounted on two pairs of tripods) and made my way to Jamaica Plains, where I was surfing with a couple of pharmacy students. Luckily they didn`t make me wait 15 minutes between my ringing the doorbell and their opening it, just to "check that I had been given the correct apartment number". Yes, Zaid, this is a jibe at you.
My host Eve and I went out for dinner and drinks and met up with another surfer girl. She was brave, at age 20 she had just finished 4 months` missionary work in The Bronx. It`s a small world, it turns out that she is staying with the same girl that I will be staying with Friday and Saturday. We both knew of eachothers` existence in terms of there being an incoming/outgoing guest, but I put the paper trial together when some facts were revealed. Weird.
We were surrounded by people dressed in the latest fashion. This is too scruffy to be Bo-Ho but too clean to be gutter-punk. I learned that the name of the fashion is "hipster", and it is characterised by unbelievably tight drainpipe jeans, skinny little teeshirts, and scruffy hair, very much like the character Mark Renton from Trainspotting. They all ride special hipster bikes, which are normal racing bikes but with only one gear.
After drinks we went for ice-cream and I saw one random girl eating an ice-cream that was as big as her head. I had "Cherry Ortiz" flavour, a play on "Cherry Garcia" using the name of a local sportsman.
Cambridge is a town in the greater Boston area, famous for being the home of Harvard and MIT. I spent my morning here.
I took the MTA, Boston`s pretty decent metro service, using a "Charlie ticket". Charlie is a character in a song who gets stuck on the train because he cannot pay the fare, and the MTA named a type of ticket after him. Listen to the song, which I actually heard on the radio as I drove towards Boston, which mentions Jamaica Plain where I sit as I write.
Harvard is the world`s number one university, and sits in the middle of Cambridge in a very urban campus. The red brick buildings mix well with the non-uni buildings, all of them surrounding greens and trees.
The uni was empty of undergrads but there were plenty of graduate students and tourists. However there was not very much of an academic vibe, meaning it did not feel like a university, perhaps because of the open-plan campus. It felt more like a town.
I enjoyed their museum of scientific instruments, which ranged from old sextants to the control panel from a 1980s cyclotron experiment.
I walked all the way down Massachusetts Avenue ("Mass Ave") to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. This is the world`s number 10 university, but feels far more like a uni than Harvard. This is probably helped because it sits mainly in its own huge campus, and the white buildings do not blend with the houses. I attended an introductory lecture and spent my time trying to work-out the guy`s teeshirt. It wasn`t quite an equation as there was no equality symbol, but I recognised all the elements. Upon substituting for the more well-know configurations I was pleasantly amused at the result, and at that point left the lecture satisfied Very geeky :)
From MIT I crossed back into Boston and walked up the grand Commonwealth Avenue, a 240-foot wide boulevard with a long think mall (park) in the middle. Very nice. This brought me to Boston Common, the central park, from where I looped thought the Financial District. This was very much like every other FD in the world, and I could have skipped it.
Finally I met Eve in town and we went to an open-air screening of Friday the 13th, a classic horror movie, in the back yard of her local video rental store. The event was sponsored by a local brewery so the beer flowed freely.
The MTA by The Kingston TrioNow let me tell you of the story of a man named Charlie
The F-word is all I have heard today. Freedom. I walked the Freedom Trail throughout Boston.
In the morning I transferred from Jamaica Plains to surf with a nurse downtown in a very nice neighbourhood.
The Freedom Trail, which really could have been called the Boston History Trail or the Boston Revolutionary Trail, but of course that would not have been chest-beatingly American enough, is a 3-mile long red line painted on the pavement that leads tourists from site to site. All of the landmarks are to do with the deep and rich history that surrounds Boston and its role in the revolution. I often thought throughout the day that there is more history in two square miles of Boston than in the rest of the country combined.
The trial starts in the park and its first stop is the State House. This is the State Capitol but it has never been called such. From there we see the Park Street Church, the third oldest building in the city, and its adjacent Granary Burial Ground. In this cemetery are the graves of "founding fathers" Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere and the Franklin family tomb. More on Revere later.
The King`s Chapel was closed for a private services but the cemetery was open. Just down from these is the Latin School, America`s first public school. Both of these ar epoints of interest on the trail.
One of the more interesting places was the Old South Meeting House. In the museum here I learned about the run-up to the Boston Tea Party, since it was in this building that they had discussed what to do about the tax on tea. It was at first interesting to note he museum`s choice of words, but by the end of the day I was sick of the P-word. In 1773-5 the local people were still citizens of Britain, and so for them to have been patriots they would have needed to have shown dedication to Britain, since America as a country did not exist for them to have shown loyalty towards. They did not show dedication, rather they showed nothing less than treachery. The deeds they committed at the time are viewed now as heroic but at the time many were mere criminals, and in fact by today`s standards they would possibly have been called terrorists or freedom-haters. They were most certainly not patriots. This is the first example of a gross misrepresentation of history.
It is also interesting to note that were these people alive today, the so-called freedoms and liberties that these people fought for may well be suppressed by the misnamed Patriot Act. Were these people alive today and attempting similar subversive and treacherous acts, then the freedom and liberty for which this struggle was supposedly all about may be suspended in the name of security.
The trail then moves to the site of the Boston Massacre, the second misrepresentation. Let us first state the facts: 1. Five civilians were killed by British troops. 2. The troops were defending themselves and suppressing a riotous crowd. 3. A massacre is "killing a large number of humans indiscriminately and cruelly." Therefore it is a gross misrepresentation to call this a massacre. Tsk tsk.
The next stop, Fanuiel House, is where the town used to meet before it was formally a city. It is still used for civil ceremonies and debates.
The trail goes though North End (Little Italy) to Paul Revere`s house. This was the chap who rode from Boston to the countryside to warn civilians that the troops were planning to march on Concord and Lexington. He was captured and sung like a canary: hardly a hero. He did not shout, "The British are coming!" because 1) the citizens he was warning were legally still British, 2) the mission was a secret. He said, "The redcoats are on the move." That quote is the third misrepresentation of the time, and is actually a line from a poem written 40 years later. Basically Revere was a nobody, but because of this poem he has been elevated to hero status, and this grave and house are as important on the Trail as that of real heroes such as Adams and Hancock.
Near here is the Old North Church, from where lanterns were used to signal to other revolting proto-Americans whether the troops would march or sail to Concord. The myth, the 4th lie, is that the signalman would use "one (lantern) for land, two for sea." The troops were already in Boston and would not arrive by sea; the code was actually "one for land, two for river."
The church had its original box pews. These were small (neck height when seated) cubby boxes in which families would sit during the sermon. They rented the pew from the church and had exclusive use of it.
From here was yet another cemetery, the Copps Hill Burial Ground, and then I crossed the river to visit the USS Constitution. Old Ironsides was a battleship from the turn of the 19th Century, which fought and won against many British ships in the war of 1812. It was against HMS Guerriere that she was said to have sides of iron as the cannon balls would not penetrate. The ship did not fire until the ships were aligned, at which point the entire broadside was unleashed upon the hapless Guerriere.
Finally the Bunker Hill monument remembers the battle there, which was actually fought on Breed`s Hill. It was here that the Colonists were told not to fire until they could see "the whites of their eyes."
By this point I was exhausted, pissed off with the F-word, and rather embarrassed to be a Redcoat. So I came home.
After a long sleep on a short sofa I did an overdue and overpriced load of laundry. From the "laundromat" I walked along the river, passed sunbathers and joggers, to Beacon Hill, a fashionable distict in the town centre.
This part of the city is reminiscent of various Chelsea mewses, an image which is helped by the evident rule that states that merchants cannot use their own colours on their logos, rather must use gold. So every single shop, even Seven-Eleven, has a gold facade. Very classy.
I went to the waterfront and read with a beer for a few hours, then meandered back to Qunincy Market. This is a food hall with about 50 different shops, all competing for the tourists` business, meaning that the food is very cheap. I had a pound of BBQ beef, 2 side dishes and a drink for $12.
That`s aboutit for today, nothing amazingly exciting. Tomorrow I am going to "the cape", i.e. Cape Cod.
If you`re fond of sand dunes and salty air....
Do you remember that scene in The Simpsons when Homer thinks that Bart is gay and tries to straighten him out by taking to a nice hardworking manly steel mill. It turns out that all the workers are gay. As Homer`s jaw drops Bart asks him why he had been brought to a gay steel mill, and Homer sobs that he didn`t know.
Welcome to Provincetown.
I had been recommended this "picturesque village" on the very tip of the cape, and since I wanted to see Cape Cod I was keen to go. As I pulled up I saw lots of rainbow flags and wondered to myself about the naivety of the owners, not knowing what this flag symbolises. Then in the hostel there were only immaculately-manicured and coiffured pretty-boys.
It turns out that Provincetown is a gay resort. Perhaps even America`s gayest gay resort. Ooops. Someone had mentioned this fact to me but I had either forgotten or assumed that it would be no more flamboyant than San Francisco. How wrong I was.
Not only were there no women apart from the odd girl there with her family, but I had visited in the middle of "Bear Week." Apparently a "bear" is a large hairy gay man... the place was crawling with them.
On the main strip at night there were drag queens, convincing or otherwise; endless bears, "cubs" (a young bear), "twinks" (good-looking clean-shaven men), and sight-seers like myself. I went to see some drag karioke and get a bite to eat, but I really didn`t fancy attending the Vault or Purgatory night clubs.
Before reaching Provincetown I stopped at Plymouth to see the world-famous Plymouth Rock. I assumed that this rock was a large cliff or similar, but in actual fact it is simply a rock. A boulder about 5 feet long with "1620" carved on it. In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, who would have known that the foot falls of a "few outcasts" would make it so famous.
Plymouth itself is a very nice town, with old mills, stocks, 17C houses and a lovely park housing the rock.
One the downside my latest run-in with the motoring authorities: I returned to my car to find a note alledging that I had dinged the adjacent car as I parked. Sadly a cop was nearby and wrote me up. I visited the station and they gave me some paperwork to complete, but no fine.
This morning I took the unbelievably slow ferry and bus from the mainland of Cape Cod over to the island of Martha`s Vineyard.
This is a small (5 mile) island just off the coast, a popular family vacation destination. It felt a lot like Truro on the Scilly isles, only I did not enter by helicopter. The roads are narrow and winding and the hedges - yes, hedges - were tall. Very pretty.
I took the ferry on foot, as it costs $140 round trip to take the car. I learnt that it`s $400 round-trip to go to the adjacent isle of Nantucket, where the billionaires live, and even if you get there you need a 4x4 with a compressor installed in order to get around: rather than using speed bumps they use metre-deep sand traps, requiring the residents` 4x4s` tyres to be deflated. Talk about elitist!
It was frustrating to have to change buses to travel from the port to the youth hostel, using the one-bus-per-hour service. Pretty crappy considering it`s midsummer and it`s a tourist hotspot. The other guests swore to the contrary, that this bus service was amazing. Compared to other rural areas perhaps they are right, but both on an absolute level and compared to other resorts` services, it sucks.
Having checked-in I braved the bus again to reach the tip of the island, Gay Head, where there is a decent beach with multicoloured cliffs. Being caught in a rainstorm on the beach was very cool, I had never seen the effect of the raindrops on the sand before.
In the evening the hostel filled with 30 children from two cycling trips. Ugh. While they were actually very well-behaved, they were nevertheless not silent, and during the hostel-organised movie night I had to lay down the law once or twice. (I`d never seen The Karate Kid all the way through before. No wonder everyone used to call me Daniel Son as a boy, because Mr Miagi`s pronunciation of `san` does sound like `son`.)
This morning my fellow guests tried to convince me to stay longer on the island. I think that if I were here with a family, or if I wanted to laze on a beach every day, it would be very easy to stay for a while. However, I have seen dozens of beaches, have spent two+ weeks in the Four Corners regions looking at far prettier rocks, and have been on the New England coast for a week.... I felt there was no reason to lounge around.
There is also the effect of the traveling becoming increasingly tiresome. I`ve been on the road for over 3 months and sometimes I feel like I`m just going through the motions, rather than actually enjoying a destination. My enthusiasm has waned a little and I do not think that, despite desperately wanting one, an entire day`s sleep would help.
I took the bus to Edgartown, a much larger town than the two-bit village where I had stayed. It`s very picturesque, with brown houses and white houses on the water, red cobbled pavements (sidewalks) and delightful shops.
I took the ferry back to the mainland and drove to Newport, in the state of and on the island of Rhode Island. This is another nice old town, and I would have loved to have stayed here. Sadly I could not arrange any surfing there so my visiting was just fleeting, and I continued up to the capital Providence.
I was a little sad to leave Massachusetts. It`s a really cool land, clearly heavily inspired by England, and is very civilised. It reminded me of home because not only is every town named after an English one (Bristol, Weymouth, Falmouth, Truro, Plymouth...), but each town obviously grew "organically". I hate that word when used in this context but it`s very vogue right now. The streets in every Massachusetts town are narrow and have these amazing things called curves, they do not have arbitrary names (Washington, Jefferson, First, Second, Third.... [can you tell I despise this convention?!]) but useful names. The road in Tisbury that leads to Edgartown is called Edgartown Road, not Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard. Amazing. There are no strip malls and few gas stations. There are independent shops and few chains, even in Boston. The buildings have character and are neither cookie-cutter (i.e. all from the same cheap mould) nor are they all grossly different to somehow reflect a perceived individuality of the owner. The freeways are free and of reasonable quality. The road signs are better than in Maine. The weather is good and not too humid.
I could live in Massachusetts.
Now I am in Rhode Island, in a "loft". These are studio flats/apartments in the upstairs of a warehouse. This one is 3500 square feet (my ATL apartment was 850), and is so large and isolated that the resident`s band can practise here and then leave the equipment in-situ. Very cool.
Rhode Island is the setting for TV`s Family Guy. In it, they always make fun of Portuguese immigrants, and it is these who do the menial jobs that in The Simpsons Mexicans do. I finally understand the reference. Rhode Island clearly has a large Portuguese population, as there is even a radio station in Portuguese. Note, it`s not for Brazilians: having studied Brazilian Portuguese and dated a Portuguese girl I am able to tell the difference, this is defo for the Europeans. On the cape there were several references to Portugal too: in Provincetown I saw Portuguese Square (a road), a Portuguese bakery, a Portuguese flag and even a poster for a Portuguese festival. Very odd. Xhau.
After blogging yesterday I went out for a bit of a bender with my host Jaime. He`s a real fun-lover (making part of his living via air-guitar performances) and had already been out of the lash somewhat by the time he and his friend returned to the apartment (I had let myself in). The three of us went to his boat, then for dinner and finally to a club in which ladies take of their clothes, sometimes not for money. It was very very different from the Atlanta and London clubs, there were no rules and no thugs. Zach stepped on someone`s toe and the three of us were threatened with being stabbed. Time to leave.
After this we went to a bar where Jaime`s friend worked and we had after-hours shots and beer (all free) til about 4am. Very cool.
A night out and a long lie-in did me good.
After going for lunch and a quick tour of the small town of Providence I drove to New Haven, Connecticut. This is another small town, the home of Yale University.
My couch surfing host was a cleaner thinner version of Michael Moore, and after a career in the media and news industry (he was Jimmy Carter`s campaign soundman) and a stint at CNN he decided that there was too much bullshit and too many lies in the US media. Now he makes movies in a similar vein to Fahrenheit 911 by Moore. He was adamant that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job and showed me two excellent feature-length movies about the alternative to the lies that the US Government published, far better movies that Moore`s. I recommend watching them. I had previously been agnostic about the idea, but now am convinced that the towers were bombed from the inside, hence the otherwise inexplicably fast toppling of a building that would easily stand a non-stop kerosene fire indefinitely. You can even see thermate (super thermite) pouring from the side of a tower as it falls). What I am yet to be convinced of, but am open to suggestion, is that the London 7/7 bombings were also an inside job. In interviews one idiot Londoner even remarked that she supported a loss of liberty in exchange for freedom. I wish I could have given her a thesaurus.
Links: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8172271955308136871 and http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5948263607579389947&q=terrorstorm&ei=dsd_SOiUBIrg-wH5i7HnCQ
The couch surfing was a little awkward, as this chap looked-after his invalid mother, who lived on the ground floor of the apartment in a gurney. I felt, although it was not stated, that I was rather confined to the upper level of the flat. I was grateful for his hospitality but it was the first time I have not felt 100% at ease.
In the morning I took a quick tour of Yale, one of the more grand Ivy League universities. One building of note was the almost windowless Skull and Bones Society building. This is one of those stupid "secret" societies that is not really a secret at all. But rather than simply getting each other out of parking tickets, this society supposedly runs the United States and therefore the world: major decisions and backhanders are made here, before finding their way through legitimacy in Washington (or sometimes, in the case of the current president, he will push his will through without Congress, declaring himself above the law... doesn`t that make him a tyrant?). Anyway, myth or reality, the building was kinda creepy to look at.
I drove to New York City, over the rip-off Throgs Neck bridge to Long Island ("Lorrrn-Guy-land") and left my car in Port Washington where my ex-colleague Peter lives. Peter did some contract work with JAS and when I resigned he and I spend a month working together to effect the handover. Among other things, Peter now bears my old responsibilities at JAS. I really enjoyed working with him, it was great to be able to bounce ideas off each other and to say, honestly, whether or not they are good ideas without fear of being branded a trouble-maker or non-line tower, and to have ideas taken seriously. He is far a better "people person" than I. He very kindly offered to host me when I was in NYC and I gladly accepted. He`ll not be back from JAS til tomorrow so I took the train to NYC and am staying in the heart of Manhattan in a brushed-aluminium hostel, the Chelsea Star.
Wow, this city is big. One hundred plus streets hatched by 10 or so avenues makes around 10,000 blocks, all of them (from what I have seen so far) filled with skyscrapers and millions of people. Just looking down 7th Ave past Madison Square Garden as I ascended from Penn(sylvania) Station made me stare. The city seems endless, far bigger than (flat) Los Angeles or (small) Boston. I can`t wait for my first "hey, fuck you" from an impatient native.
I am about to go out for dinner. New York pizza calls, I think. How you doin`?
I went out for my pizza as expected last night, and it was nothing special. What was special, though, was I did not have to wait long to be able to tick off something from my to-do list. In fact I could tick two off at once. Not only did I hear an argument between a pedestrian (who`d just crossed illegally) and a taxi driver (who tooted) (tick one), the pedestrian launched into a tirade of swearing (tick two) without a pause after the toot. New Yorkers` vocabulary is as small as their patience is short. (On Friday I was also able tick of "don`t worry about it" from my list - a workman suggested I climb on a truck to get a better vantage point for a photo, I declined, citing that it was not my truck..... "dohn worry a-bow-dit")
I wondered down 8th Avenue, through Chelsea and Greenwich Village until the road became Hudson street, at which point I walked to the Hudson to look at New Jersey. From there I went along House-ton (Houston) street til the roads returned to a retarded sequential naming system when I entered Alphabet City.
Tired, I went back to the Chelsea Star hotel and chatted with a computer expert attending the national hacker convention. I wish I could go but the time needed, and cost of the tickets, was above what I could allow.
Today, Friday, I went all over Midtown: up 8th to Times Square. Although every single building so far is at least 4 storeys high, meaning I always had my head to the sky, Times Square is where they get really high, and become covered in so many electronic billboards that is makes Piccadilly Circus look like an optician`s test board.
From Times Square I went through Bryant Park where there is a cool outdoor reading room, rather like a mobile library in a park. I assumed it was free, as I could not determine a way of charging people.
As I passed the very grand New York Public Library I had an urge to test just how extensive their catalog is. I wanted to see whether they had a 1965 book that`d I`d been unsuccessfully awaiting on back-order from Amazon. Wow, this library is huge. It took me 3 flights of stairs, three rooms and 10 minutes before I actually saw a book. First one has to seek the book on the computer, and write down its shelf position. Then one tenders the ticket to the librarian, who puts it in an air-tube down to the vaults. One then must register for access (ie get a library card) and then wait for the book to be sent up from the basement. It took 25 minutes to get my hands on my book, but I was impressed that they actually had it.
Grand Central station was next, simply to look at the main hall. New York seems to have only two main stations, but each is enormous and serves several cardinal directions. Compare this to London`s many stations that serve only one direction each. On the ceiling of the station is a back-lit map of the heavens.
From here I walked to the East River and to the United Nations. After officially leaving the United States and entering international territory, I was rather miffed to have been charged NY sales tax for my tea and danish, but oh well. I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the facilities, despite it being more crowded than ATL airport at Christmas. We saw the security council room. Did you know that there are 15 seats on the council, 5 permanent for the 5 founding members of the UN (US, UK, CN, FR, RU) and 10 rotating for all other 187 members to share. This is grossly unfair, and is made more unfair in that these members have ultimate veto of any motion. A majority of 9/15 votes is needed, but of those 9 all 5 founding members must pass it and a single no cancels the entire motion even if all 14 other seats vote yes. Pah.
We also saw the main debating chamber even though it was in session, and I was told off for taking a photo. The pic is blurred as I did not stop walking but you can make out the delegates. No-one famous though.
I thought I had spotted a boo-boo in that Taiwan`s flag was flying outside the complex. I snapped it and showed it to our guide and demanded an explanation, and he could not give one. It turns out that Myanmar`s flag is almost identical and this was my error. I identifed it my the adjacent flag, Mozambique, from its AK47 motif.
From the UN I went to the Rockefeller Center, which is again nothing special. Just a tall building with a bunch of shops at the bottom, but I was able to see the famous street side studio of The Today Show where I had thought that Laura had previously appeared (she was actually on Good Morning America in a similar setting). Sadly it held little appeal for me today as I have never actually seen the show.
Taking the subway this evening I realised that "the little things" are really starting to piss me off. Things that are perhaps not as good as the could, indeed should, be are now getting under my skin, whereas a few months ago I would have perhaps said, vive la difference. For example, New York`s metro system has only a few lines, although the different branches of these are each assigned their own extremely helpful name (A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, etc). When in the subway the platform has very little information about where you are, where you`re going, etc. For example you can see in one of the pics a "47" on the wall. That`s it. One is supposed to know that this means you`re at the "Forty-Seventh Street and Sixth Avenue station". But one still doesn`t know which line nor which direction. Contrast this to the far superior London Underground, where one can see on a single huge chart in on the wall of each platform where one is, which line one is one, in which direction one is headed, how far along the line one is, what other lines are available at this stop. Pah. That really got on my tits today. Perhaps it`s simply travel fatigue.
Saturday was Peter`s R&R day, and so we spent it on Long Island. We toured the peninsula on which Port Washington sits. This is his hometown and was a 1645 settlement, renamed relatively recently. We saw two of Solomon Guggenheim`s castles, which he donated to the state. They are lovely manor houses done in the style of castles.
After Port Washington we headed to the south of Long Island to the Jones State Park beach, a section on the long (100-ish mile) sand bank that shields Long Island from the Atlantic. The beach was great and the water perfect. It was really nice to be on a beach (my 10th or so on this trip) where I could relax and mess around without worrying about my passport and car key. Peter taught me to body surf, the poor man`s surfboarding.... a lot of fun.
In the evening we went out to eat in PW and then came home quite early. A very nice day.
Harlem. The name may conjure up various images in your mind, just like it does in mine. The two most powerful images I have are of Afro-hair basketball players balancing spinning balls on their fingers and of an inner city full of racial tension. This is the setting of the scene in one of the (too many) Die Hard movies where Bruce Willis is sentenced to death by being forced to walk though Harlem wearing an "I hate niggers" sandwich board.
Peter used to live here and kindly took me on a tour of some of the historical and cultural highlights. These included his old street, Sylvan Terrace, which is one of the only streets with wood houses in the whole of Manhattan; the oldest residence on Manhattan, the Morris-Jumel mansion; the house of Alexander Hamilton (killed in a duel by Morris ** .... so I was told, but apparently Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr - thanks Mike), and City College of New York. We walked the main high street in Harlem, without sandwich boards, and had a brunch of "soul food" - excellent food of black cuisine such as collard greens (kale).
Harlem is a little run-down, and were were certainly conspicious in our European appearance, but nowhere near how I imagined it. There were a couple of ominous boarded-up shops, but then there was a huge condo being erected.
We then walked most of the lengths of the enormous Central Park. Peter was keen for me to appreciate the importance of this park to New Yorkers, explaining that without the park, its greens, its spaces, and its recreations facilities the residents could go crazy. He said it`s the park that makes Manhattan inhabitable. The view of Midtown over the reservoir was incredible, as were the many Ghostbusters-like building lining its edge.
From here I went alone to the Guggenheim museum. I`d been torn between the three major art museums, but I thought that this, regardless of its content, would be the most New York-like. As I`m sure most of you are aware, this building, one of Frank Lloyd Wright`s least ugly creations, spirals around a central rotunda, and the art is placed in the spiral. It`s actually a great idea for a gallery as it allows you to see everything without accidentally omitting a section - its topology is that of a long thin room. The collection was of French Louise Bourgeois. Her art was... meh. I can appreciate fine art, even modern art, and indeed spent an hour discussing the pieces on the wall of my friend in Chicago; but I did no appreciate any of her creations. I did, however, really like two pieces by Laszlo Moroly-Nagy, whom I had never before heard of.
After the museum I took the subway to Brooklyn, one of the five boroughs of New York city, from where I walked back to "the city" (Manhattan) over the famous Brooklyn Bridge. The plaques describing its creation suggest that the borough system is quite new: words to the effect of, "Erected in 1870 as a joint venture between the cities of New York and Brooklyn." From up on the pedestrian walkway one can look down upon the traffic and out over the river. The bridge offers greats views of Manhattan and the East River.
By now, in the 95 degree heat and high humidity, I was exhausted, but since it was not yet hometime I reshuffled some of my plans are went to the Empire State Building. The queues were not too long, but many. I queued for security, for a ticket ($19!), for the first lift/elevator, and for the second. What kind of tourist attraction requires two lifts? In the end I walked the last six storeys to the observation deck on the 82nd floor, which is apparently far better than the 102nd as it`s open-air. The views of the city were wonderful, it gave a real sense of size to be able to look up and down the island and to not see either end. It was only really possible to see half of Central Park before the view faded in the haze and distance.
I returned to Port Washington shattered.
Today I took Peter`s aged dog to the vet, and sadly we returned empty-handed.
After that I went to Broadway to grab some tickets for a show - more on Wednesday - and then walked the main square. From Madison Square, home of the original venue, I went south to Union square, where there is a very cool outdoor market. It was not until the food was inside me that I thought about how many exhaust fumes had wafted over it as it waited for my custom at the side of a busy street.
From there I continued though NYU and its charming mews to Washington Square (strangely the statue of Washington was in Union Square). Just south of this is cast-iron historic district, consisting of super-old buildings and cobbled streets that dissect blocks into sub-blocks. All the building are now occupied with fashion stores so it was not really very historic. From SoHo (the area South of Houston Street) I finally reached the Tribeca border at the disgusting Canal Street. The Triangle Below Canal (how witty, how clever, how it doesn`t work with a west-is-up map) starts with a vile road lined with peddlers of fake Rolexes, knock-off fashion items, and slave-labour "I love NY" teeshirts. This part of the city, together with the area around Broadway/50th, smelled horrible: hot rotting trash, urine and sewers were some of the olfactory delights with which New York tantalised me today. Parts of this city stink just as badly as does the medina in many a Moroccan city. Rather inexcusable for a city of such stature.
Of far more interest to me was the Civic area, where City Hall and the courts are located. It was interesting to see a municipal building with "New Amsterdam MDCXXV, New York MDCLXIV" carved on it (it was a modern structure though). An odd little corner house the African Burial Ground National Monument, an NPS-administered site that actually contained humps on a lawn that were - or were meant to be - graves. The monument was covered with all kinds of religious symbols that might be found in Africa, from tribal glyphs to Muslim and Christian symbols.
After nodding off on a park bench for ten minutes I woke myself and went to the South Street Seaport area, a set of dockside wharf-like buildings. I overheard in the pub where I ate my dinner that much of the area will be replaced with condos, and that the fish market had already joined the meat packers` exile to The Bronx. My dinner was mainly liquid, a "Beer Voyage" of several local brews from the microbrewery on the waterfront, served simultaneously on a disk. The "Farmer Jon`s Oatmeal Stout" was exceptional.
I finally got to visit Liberty and Ellis Islands today, taking a painfully labourious cruise between the three points.
First stop was Liberty Island, to view "Liberty Enlightening the World" as she is properly known. I landed and wandered around the base, an old fort. I was fascinated to hear on the audio guide that for a long time Americans did not consider her American. They thought of her as a very French monument. On the other hand, the immigrants, as they arrived into the harbour, were delighted to see this symbol of America, freedom, and the right to shoot each other.
From there, Ellis Island was the next port of call. A small island at first, it was enlarged several times, and now spans both NY and NJ. I toured the museum and saw the registry all where the immigrants were herded like cattle. One of the steps along the way was a brief (6 second) medical examination, where the "doctor" would draw with chalk a symbol on the lapel of anyone requiring closer inspection. Many were detained, hospitalised, or deported.
Upon finally reaching Manhattan again, 5 hours after joining the queue for tickets, I went up Broadway to see some of the really old sites. These included Bowling Green, Trinity Church (cool to see the solitude of the old gravestones set against the bustle of a big city), the New York Stock Exchange, Federal Hall (where Washington was sworn-in), and the Federal Reserve Bank.
Wall Street was a maze of road-blocks, sniffer dogs, fences and police. One cannot get to the door of the building as the fence blocks half the street. Even if one could, though, there would not be a lot to see from the outside, it`s just a door. On the reverse is the largest flag I have ever seen, spanning the whole facade.
I went to the site of the World Trade Center buildings, which is a deep hole in the ground with lots of cranes. They appear to be building new things, but there is still a lot of evidence of the old site. Security is tight.... we wouldn`t want anyone to blow-up the rubble, would we? That`d show `em.
The World Financial Center, just next door, was unimpressive - one can`t really see its outside because the pedestrian walkways in the whole area are enclosed; and upon entering all a tourist can see is turnstiles to the left and shopping top the right. Meh.
The highlight of my day was meeting up with fellow Queensbury School alumnus and fellow ex-Patriat Ravi. He too came to the US in 2006, though under far more impressive circumstances (UBS to New York, not JAS to Atlanta). We met at Penn station and went for drinks, dinner, and an excellent catch-up. We`d not seen each other since Dave & Andrea`s wedding in August 07. It was great to see a friendly face, and to engage in conversation without having to bring out my "From Bedfordshire..... 30 miles north-west of London.... no, I used to live in Atlanta" speech.
Today was spent mostly in darkness. My first stint was during a musical on Broadway. I saw Mamma Mia, a musical set to the songs of Abba, at the Winter Garden theatre on Broadway itself.
On Monday I`d visited the discount ticket stall to try to pick up a ticket, for any show, at a discount rate. It turns out that they sell the super-great $120 tickets at half price, and do not sell the cheaper tickets at all. So rather than waiting all day for the ticket stall I went to the box office of a show that I really fancied. There I looked into getting the super-cheap, standing-only tickets, purchasable only 2 hours before the curtain. In the end I decided not to risk missing the opportunity just for the sake of $40, so bought a regular ticket. And I am very glad I did, the place was full to the rafters.
The show was excellent, I thoroughly recommend it for anyone who likes good music and dancing. By the encore I, indeed everyone, was dancing. I won`t ruin the plot, but will say that the songs fit perfectly with the narration without feeling like they were forced. Three main characters, a Yank, and Brit and an Aussie, were very funny. The guy doing the British accent did an excellent job, but the Aussie sounded like the typical "American doing an Aussie accent" - ie. terrible. Surprise surprise, the British character turns out to be gay, a recurring light-hearted joke that the Yanks like to pull.
After this I went to meet up with a couch-surfing girl who`d answered my "help! need company!" plea. She had free cinema tickets and we saw American Teen (very good) before going to Chinatown for some tea. I`d never before tried "bubble tea" or "tea eggs". The former is a delicious hot or cold creamy iced tea-like drink with tapioca at the bottom, sucked through a wide-bore straw. It tasted great but felt like eating frog-spawn. Tea eggs are vile and taste neither of tea nor eggs.
We were caught in a brilliant thunderstorm on the way back and were soaked to the bone - not a problem normally, as the rain was warm, but stepping onto the air-conned train made me freeze.
A day of travel. I braved the traffic and tolls in order to say that I have now driven through Manhattan and survived. I`m sure I was honked at, but only once.
I crossed through Newark and, due to day-dreaming, missed my exit from the expressway and ended up almost in Maryland. The plans I have for exiting Philly would not have allowed me to see Delaware easily, so rather than turning around I continued over the bridge and into the exciting land of Delaware. There I stopped by the river to make a video before heading into the city centre of Wilmington. It`s not a very nice town, quite poor, with a lot of bums and even more people just sitting around on their doorsteps doing nothing. I dashed through the walking tour around the centre and made my exit.
Next up is Philadelphia. Wonderful city. I stayed in the incorporated suburb of Manayunk, which is not posh, but is visited by lots of rich Daddy`s Girls. I couchsurfed with a true travel guru, whose tales of adventure and misadventure paled my own. In the evening we went to Manayunk high street for dinner (full Irish with real beans and real bacon!) and beers. The night became rather messy as one bar was celebrating its birthday by giving away free booze. My friend Dennis took my camera and snapped me with various different women all night.
Firstly let me say that Philadelphia is an awesome city and I rank it on a par with Chicago, almost as good as Boston, and better than New York. Yes, New York is not as good as New Yorkers would like to think it is.
I took the overground train into the city centre. The service was poor, one train per hour! When I mentioned this in my disgust and boredom to the stationmaster, he replied that it`s better during rush-hour. Two trains per hour.
Upon alighting in downtown Philly I walked Market Street all the way to the main Independence Mall area, where the post-revolutionary tourist attractions are. I started with the Liberty Bell, which I`m sure will be of interest to a certain campanologist among us. I knew the bell was cracked but had not heard the story: it developed a tiny hairline fracture which affected the sound, and so they recast it in the USA. This was of little use, and the crack returned. Eventually they drilled it out to actually widen the crack, thus preventing the edges from chaffing each other. Ultimately, after a whole day of ringing, the crack spread and the tone deteriorated, and now the bell is simply symbolic. There is no evidence to support the myth that the bell rang on 4th July 1776.... another case of American poets corrupting the minds of school history teachers.
After the bell I was in Independence Hall, the old city hall; and a room containing original copies (for distribution) of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Articles of Confederation. The DoI copy is older than the famous signed one.
My lunch was in the original City Tavern, re-done in period style, serving period food in costume. Quite fun, and excellent value.
I also visited the Congress Hall, the US Mint (sadly closed to visitors at 3pm and I missed it), Ben Franklin`s grave, his house, his museum (they love Ben here in Philly); Penn`s Landing, Betsy Ross`s house, Christ Church, the old Presidential house (site) and Elfreth`s Alley. This is the oldest inhabited residential street in the country and is just charming. One resident hung the 18C British flag from his house, and another the 18C US flag. Nice touch.
Finally I saw the modern city hall and the business district before collapsing back in Manayunk. It didn`t help that I was hungover as hell all day and my lower intestines were still objecting to the cheap beer.
At night Dennis took me out for a Philly Cheese Steak. We went to a famous shop were the queue went around the shop and down the street. After 30 mins we placed our orders. There is a special lingo the one must use in order not to delay and infuriate the assistants: I ordered "whiz with". That is, a cheese steak with Whiz brand cheese and with onions. The result is a baguette ("hoagie") filled with shaved beef, Whiz cheese and onions. Not bad. The cheese looked and tasted like it came from a petrochemical plant and not from a cow, though, but then that`s American cheese all over.
We then went on a quick tour around South Street (a hip area full of rock kids), some super-posh neighbourhoods and some ghettos.
While doing research into the best place to find Amish, I also saw a company that offers buggy rides. I was mildly tempted, but when I saw their map to their location I knew I had to go. It was just outside the town of Intercourse, Pennsylvania. This was too good to miss.
I set off from Philadelphia after having had AAA come to look at my car, which refused to start. Embarrassingly it turned out that the problem was simply a near-empty gas tank and a steep road, combining to result in no flow of petrol to my engine. Moving the car to a level surface did the trick. Ooops. AAA are not as good as The AA, because they arrive without a toolbox: their purpose is either to jumpstart or to tow, and they will not even look at the engine.
As I turned from US30 onto the farm route to Intercourse I passed a warning sign for buggies, and then the real thing. Driven by men with beards and straw hats, these spotlessly-clean horse-drawn buggies are a pleasure to watch, especially when the horses are all such athletes. I stopped at the Intercourse sign for a pose, and then went to Aaron & Jessica`s Buggy Rides. I enjoyed a 3 mile tour of the Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand countryside, seeing several farms, several farm-hands working, and a shop where the car-park was full of buggies.
It would appear that not all Amish shun mod-cons, pleasure-seeking (or at least aiding others in their search) and commerce. I was peddled delicious home-made doughnuts and cookies by girls without shoes. I could tell that they were real and not just dressing up because their suntan exactly matched the hemline of their conservative dresses.
Interesting fact: the term "Pennsylvania Dutch" is a corruption of Deutsch. The Amish (at least the ones I met) speak German, not Dutch, and have nothing to do with the Netherlands at all.
Lancaster county has the following hilariously-named towns: Blue Ball, Fertility, Bird-In-Hand, Virginville.... a recurring theme would appear to be a lack of intercourse.
From here I drove through Lancaster, down I83 (where I stopped in a Walmart car park for a nap), to Baltimore, Maryland. The PA-MD border reflects the Mason-Dixon line, the border between North and South USA... so I am officially back in the South, hurrah!
I stayed in Baltimore with a couchsurfer who also had two French surfers staying, so the four of us and his housemate all went out for dinner to the Fells Point area of the city, right by the water. It was cool, great restaurants on cobbled streets, performers and entertainers, and no kids. I tried my hand - or hips - at hula-hooping on the streets.
We took a tour of some of the ghettos, and I was surprised to see more desolation than Detroit. On some streets two out of three houses were boarded up, and those inhabited were fronted by their occupants sitting on the steps with nothing to do.
My first port of call (boom-tish!) was Baltimore, around the Inner Harbor area. It was good to see the city in the light, as well as at night. I walked around the bay and was very impressed with the area. The old buildings have modern tenants but keep their original charm, and are offset by true modern structures made of all-glass.
Some points of interest were the last survivor of Pearl Harbor, the USCG Cutter Taney; the World Trade Center, and old power plant now filled with shops, USS Constellation and Federal Hill.
I called in to see Edgar Allen Poe`s grave and then continued south to Fort McHenry. This was really fascinating. It`s a star-shaped fort that defended Baltimore and was the birth place of the Star Spangled Banner song that became the National Anthem in the 1930s. Here`s the story. In the War of 1812, the Royal Navy landed troops south of the city who marched toward Baltimore. They agreed to spare various small towns in return for no aggression against them. Upon their return through the town some troops sought shelter in a house, forcing their way in, and were arrested by a local doctor. When they were released and reported their story, it was deemed to have been a breach of the gentleman`s agreement and the doctor was arrested and taken to a ship. Francis Key was sent to negotiate his release, and since the doc had aided wounded troops he was indeed released, but both had to stay aboard the ship as they`d heard of the plans to attack Baltimore. Soon the Navy attacked Fort McHenry, using rockets and mortars from a position out of range of the fort`s cannon. By the morning, the dawn`s early light, if you will, it was clear that the fort was still under US control since the flag was still flying (a flag of 15 stars and 15 stripes), and the Navy abandoned the attack. Key was so pleased that he wrote the song that very day.
The flag used to be updated with an extra star and an extra strip for every new state that joined the union. After 18 states had joined it was decided that the stripes would be too thin, and a new mode was conceived: 13 stripes for the 13 originals, and a star for each current member.
I enjoyed watching the actors re-enact the daily life in the fort, and was grateful that they spared my life: "with an accent like that we should put you up against the wall" :)
I drove to Washington, DC, and parked just up from the White House. This was my first stop. It was cool to peer over the fence, but I swear that the Hired Goon standing on the roof was pointing his binoculars directly at me.
On Pennsylvania Ave there was a woman protesting... something. It wasn`t quite clear. She has banners demanding peace, demanding that we (Joe Public) renounce genocidal weapons, and declaring GWB the real terrorist. I engaged her and it soon became clear that, despite her peace banners, she wanted the annihilation of Israel. She swore it was a Zionist state, not a state for the Jews; but she was unable to explain to me the difference between the two. Her literature, aimed at aiding my understanding, did nothing to define the Zionists, simply decry them. She even suggested, in her terribly broken English, that I didn`t understand what was written, at which point I left.
I toured half of The Mall, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln, via the WWII memorial and the long pool. The Washington is a huge (550ft) obslisk, visible from all over the city, Lincoln`s is a statue of him seated in a large Parthenon-style building.
I headed over to my couch surfing home, the apartment of two gorgeous ladies. We went to a dinner party at their friends` house and then crashed out.
Today was spent in the touristy area of DC doing touristy things.
I left the girls` apartment with the delectable Erin first thing in the morning, as she was then able to walk me to the metro station. It had occurred to me that the National Archives might get busy, so I went there first. Despite arriving 45 minutes early I was still not first in the queue to see the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Naturally these were in a secure area, cleverly hosted in a way that makes them inaccessible but visible to the public, allowing us to see them without having to go through a bazillion locked doors. The first two documents had been carelessly hung in the sun for decades and were almost illegible. Luckily, though, in the 19thC someone made a copper plate of them and they can be easily reproduced. The Constitution was in better nick, having been stored in the dark of Fort Knox. I also saw the 1297 version of the Magna Carta, which really ought to be returned to England. That would be difficult as some rich American bought it from the descendants of the outcasts who took it from England all those years ago, and no doubt his lawyers are more expensive - and therefore, by US standards of liturgy, better - than mine.
After the Archives I went over the mall to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian Institution offers many museums in the capital, all of them free. I first went to "the Castle", their HQ, before taking in my first museum, the International Gallery. This is the home of the Jim Henson exhibition; I thoroughly enjoyed the Muppets and particularly Fraggle Rock sections. I don`t think i have seen FR in 20 years but can still remember the song and the concept. Doctor Smith, you must lend me your record of the tune please.
After this I went to the Air & Space museum. I tried to focus on the aviation side of things, since I have already been to the NASA museum. It was a great set-up, not at all stuffy with many hands-on experiments into the nature of flight. There were too many stupid children who just wanted to press the buttons and pull the knobs to see the effect, but were ignorant of the principle behind it. The Bernoulli principle was well explained and demonstrated. I didn`t know that the Wright brothers were so meticulous with their work. I had rather thought of them as guestimating everything, but they were true scientists.
I chuckled silently to myself as one old geezer was arguing with his wife about which end the sun should go in a diagram of the solar system. She was right, he clearly didn`t know. What a retard.
After the Smithsonian I went to the US Captiol, where I took a tour. Security was annoyingly tight, and the place packed with tourists. Since all the rooms reverberate horribly the tour guides use a clever system: they wore a microphone with a local transmitter and the guests wore headphones tuned to their guide`s frequency. It would have been wonderful were the woman wearing her lapel mic under her chin and not under her sagging breast. This was certainly one of the larger Capitols, but not as grand inside as Wisconsin`s. One abomination was a painting called The Adoration of Washington, were he was depicted as a god, very much in the same way as he is revered. He was a great man, but a man nonetheless.
I jumped back on the metro (subway) to take me to my next fixture. Boy, the DC subway is amazing. It`s certainly the best in the whole country: fast and frequent trains, an extensive network that doesn`t just run North-South (cough cough Manhattan), wide spotlessly clean cars with carpets, and the most helpful set of maps/directions in the country. You`ll see some examples of how helpful the information is in my pics. Again though the words "Eastbound" rather than "(to) Vienna" would do the world of good.
My destination was The Pentagon, in next door Virginia*. Of course I could not take a photo of the thing - there was a guard with a machine gun at the top of the escalator from the metro. I could see construction works from what I assume is where the Tomahawk (sorry, "plane" ) hit it years ago.
From the Pentagon I went to the Arlington National Cemetery, a burial ground for military and other distinguished persons. I saw the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. This was strange, because it was simply one guard swapping places with another under the supervision of a third. There was a lot of marching up and down, shouting of unintelligible commands, and a bizarre leg-swinging-then-clicking technique that may have inspired the Ministry of Silly Walks skit. Look in the pics for a soldier with his leg at an odd angle. I saw the graves of John Kennedy, Mrs Kennedy, infant Patrick Kennedy and "Daughter". The fourth gravestone said simply, "Daughter / August 23 1956."
My last touristy thing was the Ford Theatre, in which Lincoln was shot. It was closed for the year for repairs.
In the evening I join Erin, Katie et al for a "local" thing (ie. not a tourist thing). We went to Screen on the Green (like in ATL), where they were showing Arsenic and Old Lace. The movie sucked, but it made me realise that when old movies are parodied in Family Guy or The Simpsons, they`re not lying when they do such silly voices: they really did talk like that in the old films! The green in question was the lawn of the Mall, and so behind the screen was the illuminated Capitol. Quite impressive. It was cool to have been invited to do something that I would not normally have heard about, and to see and to hang out with the residents of DC at leisure.
* DC is an odd shape. If you draw a square, and then put a river running though the bottom half, the top half would be DC. The bottom half is not DC, rather Arlington and Alexandria, both in Virginia, but their boundries almost perfectly make the square. Curious. I was also perplexed about its name. "Washington, District of Columbia" is similar to "Boston, Commonwealth of Massachusetts", and based on their being other towns in Mass it would be a fair guess to think there could be "Exampletown, DC." But Washington is DC and DC is Washington.
I rescheduled my departure plans to allow myself an extra day in this awesome city.
I`d left my laptop in the car, parked outside the dinner party hosts` house a few blocks away (hence the late blogging), so I went to the local library to plan some surfing. I dodged the bums snoozing among the books and nearly screamed at the guys snoozing while logged on to the computers that I was queuing to use.
My first real destination was Massachusetts Avenue, aka Embassy Row, where I played the game of "guess the flag" with myself and won, but only narrowly as there were embassies and flags of countries I`d never heard of. Most of them were in 1800-style houses with minimal security, but when I reached the British Embassy there was no mistaking it: the Ambassador`s house, on campus, is a huge Georgian mansion with massive chimneys. The embassy itself is as dull-looking and almost as large as the US Embassy in Grosvenor Sq, but nowhere near as fortified. I asked the Souf Londoner on the gate whether I might pop in for a spot of tea, but he said no. He said I could take photos but needed to be wary of US police, as taking photos on that road is frowned upon. Land of the free!
I continued past the Navy Observatory and saw their master clock, which I could not understand, and then past the house of that dick, Cheney, before jumping on the metro towards the Smithsonian again.
My afternoon was spent in the wonderful National Museum of American Natural History. It was another superbly presented museum, but again there were too many children. They were even touching the dinosaur fossils, the little bastards! The last time I saw so many dinosaurs I was a child and was not aware of just how incomplete a skeleton can be, the rest being made of resin or plaster. Sometimes a dinosaur had just a fragment of skull, but the missing pieces were padded-out to a full head.
I think I must have taken about 200 photos of rocks in the geology section. I definitely want to do a degree in geology when I get home. The exhibition walked me through the creation of the rocks in the planet and then to the creation of minerals, crystals and finally their cutting into gemstones. The climax was the 130-carat Hope Diamond.
My silent chuckle of the day was when one gentleman explained with conviction to his wife that fluorite, CaF2, is so-named because "it glows under fluorescent lights." Maybe he meant UV light. Dummy.
After the rocks I saw the insect zoo, a hands-on zoo for children. The trouble was, I wanted to hold the grasshopper, but there were too many little boys and girls being given priority over the adults. Humph.
Erin had kindly secured a ticket for a concert that we`d been discussing, so I went home to change and then headed out to meet with her friend and a series of friends-of-friends. We saw the Old 97s, an "alt-country" band that are apparently very popular (the venue was packed), who were very good. I did not know any songs but enjoyed their flawless performance.
All in all, Washington DC is one of my favourite cities in the US. It`s clean, well-oiled, jam-packed with culture and cool people, and it`s just the right size for me. Its downsides are apparently price of living, and the pervasive paranoia, present everywhere, but particularly so here (x-ray and metal detector to enter a museum?!). I could live here. I`d even choose it over Massachusetts, though maybe not over Boston. Certainly over Chicago and Philly. Sod New York.
Today was simply a drive through Virginia to Charleston, WV.
I drove through Shenandoah National Park, a long thin park atop the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was quite a hazy day and so the views, and even more so the photos, were imperfect. The park was just a detour actually, I saw it on the map and decided to take the Skyline Drive over the ridge of the range. It was 100+ miles long and took only 2.5 hours, since I didn`t stop at every single viewpoint. I may have done were there more time and less mist.
I didn`t actually make it to Charleston in the end as I was too tired and it was too dark. It was a good job, therefore, that I was unable to arrange surfing there. I pulled off into Beckley and got a motel room. Ah! My own bed, a cool dark room! It was very very welcome to have a good night`s sleep.
A rant about censorship on the radio. Must Dire Straits` Money For Nothing be censored so severly? Must it have its entire third verse chopped out just because the lyrics mention a "little faggot with the earring and the make-up?" Surely they could make clean such a terrible word like they do with Pink Floyd`s Money by either muting that word, replacing that one-beat section with the reverse of itself, or (yuk, I hate this technique) cutting that beat out entirely, resulting in an unflowing 3-beat bar? By censoring it, it draws more attention to it than by hearing it.
Feeling fresh from the best night`s sleep in about a month I headed off from Beckley to Charleston, WV. The town was nothing special but the scenery was great. Rolling hills and large deciduous forests. For once I actually felt I was getting good value from a toll road, as it was evident that a lot of blasting had to have been done to carve the cuttings deep into mountainsides.
I went to the Capitol, but I promised you no more gold domes. You will see a photo of the Governor`s office, one day I hope to have such a grand doorway to my work area, even if it is a cubicle.
I drove to Lexington, Kentucky, which is famous for horse racing. I headed straight for the Keeneland racetrack. I knew there was no meeting today - one six weeks per year - but I could still see the stables and track. They were offering "simulcasting", a rather grand name for the mundane and well-known concept of showing a remote race and betting on it, even if you are not present at the track. I was surprised at just how many people were betting, drinking, and skiving work at 4pm on a weekday. There were whole families of Mexicans... I hope this was not their source of income.
I had been to Kentucky already last year, but a brief trip to a motel on a layover at Cincinnati airport doesn`t really count.
I drove down to Tennessee, and luckily I re-entered the Central Timezone, meaning that I was not, after all, late to meet my surfing host. It felt great to be back in a state that bordered Georgia, even though it`ll be a week and one or four (depending on my whims) states yet before I am back.
Western Virginia, all of West Virginina and eastern Kentucky share the same beautiful rolling hills. I recommend the scenery, even if the cities are not quite world-class.
Ahhhh, the humidity! I`m certainly back in the South. I thought DC was bad, but back in the real South it`s as humid as I remember it, the only difference is that now I am spending my days trekking around and not sitting in an air-conditioned cubicle.
I started my day`s tourism in Capitol Bicentennial Park, before climbing Capitol Hill to enter the city. Nashville, the state capital, is not too big, not too new, and not too old, despite many of the buildings being done in Greek Revivalist style, including the Capitol.
I wondered around until I found myself in Ryman hall, one of the homes of the Grand Ole Oprey (more later). Adjacent to this was a vintage guitar shop, which of course I went in. I didn`t touch any of the instruments as their price tags and the "you break it, you pay for it" signs meant I was out of my wallet`s depth: an SG for $10,000, a 1934 The Gibson banjo for $12,5000 and a white Gibson mandolin for $20,000. Beautiful.
One attraction is the replica of Fort Nashborough, from which the city grew. I didn`t stay long here as it was in Bum Central.
Nashville is known as Music City and is famous for its country music. Not only are there many bars and clubs but lots of record companies too. I went to Music Square, a posh part of town where every building is a record company HQ or recording studio. I admit that although I only knew some of the labels (EMI, RCA and Sony) I did recognise the names of the songs that were on banners outside the buildings: "ABC record company congratulation A. N. Other producer for his hit `Better as a memory`, by whomever, recorded here." Some of the houses had been turned into recording studios, presumably to rent by the hour.
Finally I went to the TN State History museum, which was interesting. I did, however, spot an error and duly reported it (the British in 1790 would not have flown today`s Union flag, which dates from the 1801).
The Grand Ole Oprey is a TV show, a country music magazine. It started in 1925 as a radio show that quickly drew a live audience following. The show has moved homes several times and now has a dedicated building near to where I am staying. I went to the museum. It was of excellent quality, but I had no idea who anyone was and so didn`t get too much out of it.
I read that many of the bands were hickified by the management. Normal Tennessee artists, with names like Daniel and his Clarkes or something, who wore normal clothes, were turned into redneck spectacles, given floppy hats and dungarees, and told to call themselves Daniel and the Whiskey-Sippin` Hill Boys or similar.
In the evening my hosts Nate and Sara took me and another surfer out to some bars. The crowd in Nashville is much older than in, say, Atlanta, with a population distribution skewed towards 50 or 60-somethings and, alas, away from 21 year old girls.
The first bar we went to featured a virtuoso country band in a bar whose decor was cowboy boots. I already knew that country guitarists are among the most talented, but this bad convinced me. Anyone who can play at that speed and remain so accurate, without letting the distortion play for him and mask his imperfections, will always rank higher in my mind than a rocker.
The second bar was very strange. The male lead musician wore a pink satin shirt (or blouse), unbuttoned to show his male-symbol necklace, wore tight jeans with sequins on them, and sat with legs wide apart facing the crowd even though his blues piano was at 90 degrees to this. He flopped his long blond hair around and towards the crescendo of a song stood up and played the piano with his feet, even hung from the rafters and played with his feet. I think he missed out on being an 1980s hair band player so is making up today. The shoeless guitarist looked like Boomhauer from dat dang-ole King of the Hill man.
I wished we had gone to more country clubs as I`d only really seen one country band, but a house party was calling. The theme was Christmas in August and many of the female guests were dressed in green lycra dresses with tinsel. Most amusing. Halfway through a huge group of dirty punks arrived, all riding bicycles, and descended upon the house. The fashion in bikes in Boston was single-speed messenger bikes, in Nashville it is for "tall bikes". A tall bike is essentially a comically-oversized bike, often made from two frames welded together, with the saddle about neck-height. The bikes have no brakes besides a foot on the tyre. I rode one and fell off from this great height, landing on my back unscathed, due to braking too hard and losing all my speed.
I wasn`t quite ready to leave the party when my friends were, so I drove them home and then I returned to the party to finish what I had started. With a girl called Georgia.
A late night at the house party and an uncomfortable sofa meant I tried to sleep in as late as possible. When I finally hit the road it was gone noon. I drove to the far corner of Tennessee to its largest city, Memphis. I was staying with a very nice cat lady. I describe her thus as she had no fewer than eight cats (and a fish) in her one-bedroom house, all of whom had amusing sci-fi/fantasy names like Drexel, Morpheus, Andromeda, etc.
My goal in Memphis was, for once, not to wander around sweating aimlessly, but solely to go out on Beale Street for the music. Luckily it was a Saturday night, but unluckily the city was at one of its most hectic times (according to my host Simone at least), since there were two huge concerts and a bikers` convention that day.
We hit Beale Street around 10pm and it was already jam packed. The entire block was cordoned off and IDs were being checked just to enter the block. There was a huge number of police, using cherry-pickers to watch the crowd. Simply as an observation, the crowd`s ethnic distribution changed markedly over the evening: at the start, it was a mixed crowd on the street and in the bars; by 2am it was an exclusively white crowd in the bars and exclusvily black crowd on the street. The white kids were all preppy idiots (pastel-coloured polo shirt tucked into their canvas or khaki shorts, with leather deck shoes or flip flops, and silly floppy haircuts; dancing like drunk monkeys), the black kids were wearing suitably hilarous black kids` clothes (bling, baseball caps, basketball shirts and shorts that are worn 6" too low, showing their underwear at the top and touching their glowing white socks at the bottom; not smiling and not looking like they`re having any fun at all).
The street`s vibe reminded me of Rue Bourbon in New Orleans at Mardi Gras time, the only differences being less packed (ie you could actually move) and fewer boobs (none, in fact). There was the same atmosphere and the same drinking on the street (hurrah!).
We ate and then went to some bars for blues. One bar we went to had only the front of the building, just one wall in four, supported by a metal frame. The other three walls and the roof had been removed. We danced there until closing at the rather early time of 2am. By 3am I was falling asleep on the sofa, trying desperately to hold a conversation with the insomniac Simone (who needs 4 hours` sleep a night and rises at 4am normally.
My night was disturbed by the cats jumping on me, and at one point I awoke to the sound of one of the vomiting... on my bedsheet. Nice.
How nice to spend a Sunday doing little. For the first time I spent the entire day with a surfer just hanging out - and that is all we did, from 1pm til midnight we just boozed and chatted.
We returned to the downtown area, Beale St again, to catch more music without the crowds. In a public bandstand was playing a blues band who, as we arrived, were in the process of inviting youths up to join them for a jam. Sadly the youths all sucked, and it was painful to listen to them. They knew no blues, only college rock, had no sense of rhythm, played the same damn four chords ad nauseum, and were just terrible. Luckily the band were skilled enough to carry them and I was grateful when the drummer decided to wind the numbers down. After the kids got off stage the band themselves could really shine and were a pleasure to watch as well as to hear: I love watching a guitarist who plays with his face as much as with his hands.
One guitarist in the BB King bar, an 87 year old black gentleman, was playing a Dean flying-V.... not exactly known for being a blues instrument, more famous for being Darrell "Dimebag" Abbott`s choice of axe for wielding in heavy metal circles.
Several more bands and bars later we went for dinner in Midtown before heading home with a bottle of wine. A friend of my host came over for a drink. He was a Furry. That means he gets his kicks by dressing as an animal. In fact this guy, delightful as he was, was the king of the Memphis Furries, being the organiser of some kind of anthropomorphic animal character festival in the city. I don`t think it helped my understanding that Simone`s real name, her Native American totem name, is Raven.
Today was incredibly busy, involving a national historic landmark, a factory tour, a presidential library and a national park; spanning three states.
My first stop of the day was Graceland, Elvis Presley`s Memphis home. I`m not really a fan of Elvis but I could not get the Paul Simon tune out of my head so I decided to visit. Luckily I had the foresight to go early, 9am, but even by then it was still rammed. After being driven the 100 yards from ticket booth to front door we were able to enter the house - behind 100 other people. Although I did not have to queue for long, the progress around the mansion was painfully slow - all these people filing past a room all taking snaps and oggling.
The house`s decor is suitably eccentric, including shagpile on the ceilings, a room with 3 TVs adjacent to eachother, a racquetball court and a two-staired basement.
I was disappointed not to see any freaks, anyone wailing or even sniveling, not even at the grave; I saw no ghost-hunters, no-one convinced he`s still alive, and no homemade shrines. Graceland is a must-see for any tourist in Memphis but offers one of the worst values-for-money in the whole country.
From Graceland I returned to Downtown to tour the Gibson guitar factory. This was the highlight of my day, of course. In Memphis the semis are made, with the Les Pauls and bluegrass instruments in Gibson`s range being made in the original Kalamazoo, MI, factory and in Nashville, TN.
We went around the plant and saw instruments being made just a few feet from our noses. I won`t belabour the entire process, but will just mention one unusual aspect. When the three sides of the guitar`s body are joined, a white material is put along the edge to strengthen it and to made it look pretty. Rather than trying to mask this before painting, they simply spray-paint the whole thing, and then meticulously scratch off the paint from over the edges and from over the logo on the headstock. The plant has two halves - the worker half and the musician half. "Ordinary" luthiers assemble the wooden parts and then guitarists put the strings and bridge together before playing each one. I think that would be a fun job, but I did wonder how long it would take a new guy starting the job to want to kill his colleague, the guys who test the guitars.... how long could they hold out before beating someone over the head with the freshly-finished guitar and screaming, "learn a new damn tune to play when testing!"
That reminds me, I was chatting with the salesman in the shop and asked him which tunes he hears day in, day out. My guesses were wrong. The answers were that when people play the double-SG they always play Stairway to Heaven, when playing the acoustics, Blackbird; and the regular SG model, AC/DC`s Thunderstruck. Interesting. I suspect that in the Fender shop the answers are different. I was flattered to receive a compliment on my banjo skills, especially in Tennessee. I replied that I`m not bad... for an Englishman.
I drove to Little Rock, Arkansas, home of Bill Clinton. I visited the William J Clinton Presidential Center, a futuristic-looking building on the banks of the Arkansas river in downtown LR. The museum was OK, although it did rather blow Bill`s trumpet (more so than the Carter Center in Atlanta blow`s Jimmy`s). I was looking forward to the juicy details of Zippergate but these were rather glossed-over :(
My last call was Hot Springs National Park, which spans the town of Hot Springs. This is a turn-of-the-century spa town, which had a good 10 baths along the high street. Annoyingly only one is still open, and that keeps retarded opening hours, so I could not test the waters. However the high street is lined with fountains that tap the hot spring water, and the local drink from them. See the video in which I try the water and speak to a resident.
I then drove the scenic route from Hot Springs, through the town of Y City (this wins my award for Most Stupid Name), through Fort Smith and over the river into Oklahoma (or should that be Oklahoma!). I`m now crashing at the first motel in over the state line.
[With just 2 days left we have yet to have a winner in the "Name that tune" contest. See the videos.]
My standard speech, which I had given many many times to new friends, details how I am visiting the outer states and ignoring "the crap ones in the middle." In Washington Erin scolded me for such a description and at that point I decided to extend me trip to cover four of the five central states that I was omitting: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.
From the Oklahoma/Arkansas border I basically dashed through the remaining states at break-neck speed. All I wanted to do was to dip my toe into each state. Not just drive through, that would not satisfy me, but to actually see a city, however briefly.
My first stop was Tulsa, Oklahoma. It`s a reasonable-sized city towards the east of the state, made famous to me by the Gene Pitney song. I stopped downtown and walked through the 105-degree (41 C) dry heat (ah! dryness, what a relief!) to eat lunch in a park while chatting to a local worker on a cigarette break. Tulsa is OK.
I saw no sunflower fields in Oklahoma.
From there I went north to Wichita, Kansas, made famous to me by the White Stripes song, Seven Nation Army. By this point it was tea time and I was anxious to get to Missouri before dark, so my stop was even more brief. I visited Old Town, but this was crap, and then went straight to the river to snap The Keeper of the Plains, a large statue of a Native American (perhaps a Kiowa-Comanche?), set at the confluence of the Big and Arkansas rivers.
I then went all the way to the Kansas Cities, crossing endless rolling prairie. I expected Kansas to be arid and brown, which is how I pictured it after reading The Wizard of Oz, but it`s actually very green.
I saw no sunflower fields in Kansas, either.
The city (or cities) of Kansas City is strange. Legally there are two distinct cities: Kansas City, Kansas; and Kansas City, Missouri; and I imaged that these would be separated by a river and would face each other as rivals, very much like Buda and Pest, but in fact it`s just one continuous metropolis. You can`t even tell when you cross the state line. Cody in Albuquerque explained that there was a rivalry but I could not detect any in my flying visit.
I stayed with a surfer, Kimberley, in the Missouri side, where I had an entire floor to myself.
Rising at 05:30 and on the road by 06:30, I hoped to reach St Louis by 9am, but I hadn`t realised how large Missouri is. It took four hours to cross the state, arriving in the bustling city while it was still cool.
I went to the world-famous Arch, officially title the Jefferson Westward Expansion Memorial, which is a beautiful 1960s steel arch on the banks of the Mississippi. Perhaps in the 60s, like with so many Worlds Fair sites, they all anticipated we`d be happy to travel in tiny bubble-shaped vehicles, and so installed a set of such devices to haul tourists up to the top. The 4.5-foot capsule rode up a curved track inside the arch and brought me to the observation deck for great views vertically downwards over the river and the city.
The Mississippi, as far upstream as we were, is already huge, fast-flowing, and of a thick brown consistency. It was possible to see logs and other flotsam wending its way towards New Orleans at quite a pace.
The rest of the drive was long and boring. I crossed 6 states: Kansas (my route through Kansas City took me back into Kansas), Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and finally Georgia. The trip was 800 miles and is the longest I have ever driven and possibly ever will. I`ll certainly never complain or even think twice about a drive to Scotland or the Alps. I can handle anything now. For comparison, 800 miles is the same distance as John O`Groats to Truro, Cornwall (I needed only another 35 miles to have reached the same distance as to Land`s End); from Atlanta to Trenton, NJ; or Budapest to Geneve.
I arrived back Chez Searle gone 10pm, one helluva long day. It was wonderful to be greeted by friendly faces and to have a hug containing genuine affection after so long with emptiness. I was exhaused but wired from the drive and two whole bottles of Five Hour Energy, so champage and beer was just the ticket.
I am about to unpack the car and prepare it for sale, after which I will write my conclusions about the trip.
I`ve been off the road now for around a week and it still hasn`t really sunk in. I feel like I am in limbo, with the joy of my travels on one side and the precipice of real life before me.
My journey took me through 44 states/districts, including 36 brand new ones that I`d not seen. They were: Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, through Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. On separate occasions I have also visited Nevada and North and South Carolina several times each.
America is easily the most beautiful and varied country in the world, certainly of the many I have been to. It has absolutely everything a traveler could want, from beaches to mountains, deserts to lakes, prairies to forests; and has some of the coolest cities too. I have therefore been taught very well on this trip to go easy on those Americans who`ve never left their own country: so long as they are well-traveled within the US they should not be ridiculed for having no passport.
I have done some once-in-a-lifetime things and seen some stunning places, so beautiful that I am unlikely to see anything like them again. Certainly sleeping on the beach of the Colorado river at the bottom of the Grand Canyon was among the highlights, as were the hikes to Angel`s Landing (Zion) and Yosemite Point. A day at Niagara Falls also stands out. It`s hard to say which is the most beautiful state, as they are all so different. I think a good way to decide which is the most impressive is by how frequently one has to pull over to take a photo of the next amazing vista as each corner is turned. In this mode, Utah wins hands-down.
There are some world-class cities in America and I have visited all of them: the alphas are New York, Los Angeles and Chicago; the beta San Francisco; and the gammas Boston, Dallas, Washington, Atlanta and Minneapolis. Each of these has its own character and, with the exception of Los Angeles and Dallas, a lot of charm. For me Boston and Washington were the most enjoyable, and LA and NYC the most over-rated (if I want to see nuts and dirt I could follow a squirrel to its cache). The newer mid-size cities, such as those in the same league as Wichita, are forgettable. A mid-size city on the east coast, however, will always be stunning and fascinating.
I surfed for around 48 nights, camped 16, hosteled 41 nights, and motelled/hotelled for just 5 nights, sometimes when I was stuck or sometimes when I simply needed a decent night`s sleep. Couch surfing in cities allowed me to see and do things that an `ordinary` tourist would possibly not have seen, or in some cases certainly never have seen: going to clubs with locals, to house parties, to after-parties, to the beach without worrying about one`s stuff, to the best restaurants and the seediest bars. Surfing was definitely exhausting, partly because of all the partying, partly because of the basic sleeping arrangements, but also because of the sheer nervous energy expended meeting so many interesting people day after day.
Hosteling was also a lot of fun. I didn`t know there were quite so many hostels in the US, as it`s a common belief that there are, in fact, none. Again meeting people, like-minded outward-bound people specifically, was awesome. You`ll never find a "do y`all speak English in England?" idiot in a hostel, nor one of those freaks who has never left their own home state. The Americans one meets are the type who want to meet outsiders, to hear about others` views on their country and its foreign policy, and to simply hang-out with cool folk regardless of nationality. One never meets the flag-waving, chest-beating, Bush-voting, Fox-watching idiots you find at Republican conventions. No, only the best people stay in hostels.
Americans - those who fit into the above groups at least - are easily the nicest and most hospitable people in the world. Nowhere else would such trust and generosity have been shown to me. People would take me into their home and even take me out for dinner and drinks just to hang out with a traveler, and a foreign one at that. People took pride in showing me their home city, at one point a host`s eyes filled with tears as she had an "I love this city" moment while we were out. Americans do not deserve the stereotypes that the rest of the world places upon them. Not only on this trip but in my entire 2.5 years in the US I have busted the various myths. Americans are among the most beautiful people, inside and out. If the American people ran the world, rather than the American politicians, it could be a far better planet.
The National Park service is a wonderful concept. I`ve been to around 60 national parks, national monuments, national historical monuments, national cemeteries, national seashores, national rivers, national these, national those.... The best are in the Four Corners area, there are half a dozen within a few hours, all of them the Big Guns. In fact I have been to all the Big Gun-class national parks, of which Bryce or Arches was my favourite.
My budget was $100 per day for 60 days, but I ended up traveling for 115 days. My total expenditure was $6,900, of which $2,200 was on petrol, $1500 on food, $1000 on sights, and $1400 on accommodation. All in all that is a pretty cheap way to live for the best part of 4 months.
American food is particularly bad anywhere outside of a restaurant, where the quality and value is superb. It annoys me that British food gets such a bad rap when it`s actually very good, especially compared to what is seen in US supermarkets: genetically-modified everything (apples the size of your head), meat that is impregnated with hormones and "rib-meat", bread that is made of air and cheese that has never been near a cow. I therefore tried to avoid these as much as possible, and my lunch was often a loaf of decent bread or a tin of (cold) soup. I have therefore lost 20lb in 4 months, which represents 12% of my body mass... without trying and while still indulging in burger and fries at least once a week. This simply proves what most people have known for a long time, but which is overpowered on American TV by the "it`s not your fault you`re fat; here, these pills will help" attitude. The maxim is simple: eat less, do more.
There`s something I would like to bring to your attention. It`s some of the comments left for me by surfers as references. Many use lots of positive adjectives about how great a guest I am, which I will not be so big-headed to list here, but I will show only those that demonstrate a point I have been trying to make for 2.5 years. In describing me: "kind, respectful, perfect guest"; "courteous with a penchant for humor"; "very considerate, courteous, and respectful"; " very respectable and respectful"; "very polite.... and considerate"; "considerate.... and he busted my American-made politeness meter". The reason I focus on these is because I finally have proof that, to those whom I like, I am not rude, not disrespectful, and not discouteous. To those who considered me rude.... well, what can I say?! Link: http://www.couchsurfing.com/people/dc197
I extend my thanks to everyone who helped me on this trip, particularly to the Couch Surfing community, to those who showed me hospitality outside of CS such as Peter, Liz, James and Lisa; to Laura and Nick for putting me up before and after my trip, and everyone who read and posted on the blog.
I`ve not worked, nor have I slept properly, for four months. It will be strange to return to the real world and to be back on a dull 9-5 routine, knowing exactly where I will be at any given time or day, without the thrill - and stress - of taking life one 12-hour stretch at a time. Having seen and done such amazing things, life in Cubicle City is going to see me day dreaming nostalgically every day. I warn you in advance, my dear friends, that for the rest of our lives you must brace yourself for my starting every other sentence with "when I was traveling America....". I implore you to be patient with me..... and to Get Jealous.