The West

The average American has visited 12 states. In the last four weeks I have been to 27, plus the District of Columbia, bringing my all-time total to 34 states and DC. On the flip side, I lived in Britain for 31 years and have never visited Ireland.

states

My all-time states

The first US state I ever visited was Illinois, when we landed in Chicago at the start of our trip ten years ago, and it was Chicago that I found myself in again a few days ago. At the end of that first visit to the US I decided that Chicago was my favourite American city. It’s much more laid back than New York, with more interestingly-shaped skyscrapers. It has blues bars and pizza pies and overhead railways with wooden platforms. It has a beach whose only giveaway about not being on a real ocean is the lack of a salty seaweed smell.

Returning a decade on, having subsequently visited so many other great American cities, I wasn’t sure if Chicago would stand up to San Francisco for beauty, Boston for liveability or New Orleans for fun.

I checked into a hostel to the north of downtown Chicago and took a walk through Lincoln Park to the beach. The English language is quite inadequate that we use the same word to describe Lake Windermere, Lake Garda and Lake Michigan. The scale of Michigan and the other great lakes are orders of magnitude above their European counterparts. When you stand on the beach in Chicago, there is not even the tiniest hint that the state of Michigan lies on the other side. Lake Michigan is over 100 miles wide – five times the distance between Dover and Calais.

Chicago is famous for its loaded hotdogs and its deep pan pizzas. The pizzas are made with a buttery pie crust with high sides, piled with toppings in a very particular order. The tomato sauce, as expected, forms the base, but then the meats and vegetables come next, with the cheese covering these. I sought out and ate one; very tasty, but the buttery crust made it rather greasy.

***

The next morning I went straight to Willis Tower (previously, and more famously, known as Sears Tower). For a while, it was the tallest tower in the world and was taller than anything in New York – or, indeed, the western hemisphere – until the new One World Trade Center (aka Freedom Tower) opened a few years ago.

Of course, the views from the top were spectacular. There was a glass box built out of the side that you could walk on, with only an inch of glass between you and a messy death 1450 feet below.

One of my favourite topics in GCSE History was prohibition and the organised crime that sprung up around it. Chicago was at the heart of this, with Al Capone controlling much of the city and his mob carrying out the St Valentine’s Day Massacre here. I had hoped that there’d be a museum about this fascinating, if rather grizzly, period of recent history.

Alas, there was no dedicated museum, but the Chicago History Museum did have a section about it, among exhibits about President Lincoln, civil rights, sports and the migration of the blues to Chicago from the south. The following day, I would also stumble upon a staircase in Union Station that I immediately recognised as the scene of a shootout in The Untouchables, the Kevin Costner movie about Al Capone.

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In the evening, I headed to a blues bar near my hostel. I ate battered shrimp, drank a few beers and enjoyed some gritty blues.

***

The next morning, after a wander around the modern art in Millennium Park, I boarded the California Zephyr bound for San Francisco. The Zephyr is the most scenic of the Amtrak routes and considered to be one of the world’s great railway journeys. The first afternoon aboard is not especially exciting, as it cuts through the cornfields of the midwest, but when you awake the next morning you’re eastern Colorado, approaching Denver and the Rockies.

Aboard the California Zephyr

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As the train follows the Colorado river through the Rockies, the scenery is spectacular. The conductor provides something of a guided tour of the canyons, mountains and passes. I dined opposite a couple in their late 80s who are big fans of the Zephyr. The lady was telling me of her experience as a teacher in New Orleans in the 1950s. She was a white teacher in a segregated school for black children only, which had no books. When she took them on school trips she had to lie to the bus conductor that she was Creole, so that she could sit in the “colored” seats at the back of the bus with her students.

I’d learned a bit about segregation in museums in Austin and Memphis, but to speak to someone who had experienced it as an adult really brought home how recent this awful period of US history was.

I was not quite done with my trip, so rather than continuing all the way to San Francisco, I alighted in Grand Junction, Colorado. Grand Junction is a small city on a plain, surrounded by a ring of flat-topped mountains. I picked up a rental car and drove two hours west into Utah, to Moab.

Moab and the national parks that surround it has been a part of the trip that I’ve been looking forward to. The drive there, mainly along a straight, fast interstate, was itself impressive. The scenery became progressive less terrestrial, the rocks redder and more oddly-shaped.

I checked into my motel, then headed to Arches National Park for sunset. Unfortunately, they’re doing nightly roadworks, so the park had closed at 7pm. Not to worry, there was another national park (there are five in Utah) just a few minutes up the road.

Canyonlands National Park is, as the name suggests, full of vast canyons. No photograph I took could do justice to the utter vastness of the expanses or the depths of the canyons. I watched the sunset, then stuck around the park for a couple of hours until the stars came out. It was a clear night and the only interruption to the dark sky was from a sliver of crescent moon. The Milky Way stretched overhead with a clarity that I’ve never seen before.

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***

In the morning, I joined a 30 minute queue to enter Arches NP. Once through the gates, the road turns back on itself and climbs up the red rocks to the east. Then you emerge onto the surface of Mars. The ground is arid and red. You’re surrounded by oddly shaped red rocks, often balanced on top of each other (entirely naturally) or shaped into arches by millennia of erosion.

My arch enemy

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After several hours exploring the park by car and taking a few short hikes around the arches, I left and drove south of Moab for an hour or so, to find an alternative entrance to Canyonlands NP. This area is known as The Needles, after the narrow, tall rock formations that litter the canyons.

Among the canyons were areas of cratered grey rock. If most of this area looks Martian, this was lunar. Occasionally, these craters will fill with rainwater and trigger a brief flurry of life. Marine eggs, laid during the previous period of dampness, will hatch and an entire lifecycle will take place in a rush before the tiny pool dries up again. I could see little tadpoles.

***

I awoke yesterday in Moab on the penultimate day of this trip. With a train to catch from Grand Junction in the afternoon, I headed first to the Islands in the Sky area of Canyonlands NP and explored a few areas I hadn’t got to at sunset a couple of days earlier.

Long distance Amtrak trains have to share their tracks with freight services, so it’s not unusual for the trains to be delayed by a couple of hours. I boarded my train in Grand Junction two hours later than scheduled at the peak of the onboard dinner service, so they brought a plate of steak and shrimp to my cabin (always go for the most expensive item on the menu to make the most of the food-inclusive roomette ticket).

As I type, the train is winding through the Sierra Nevadas, entering California. This afternoon I will arrive in Emeryville, a short ferry ride from San Francisco.

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27 states in 29 days, by bus, train, car and plane. I’ve seen Texas, the south, the northeast, the midwest and the west. I’ve travelled through deserts, mountains, plains and forests. Americans are often derided for their lack of passports, but with a country as varied and beautiful as this on their doorstep, why would they?

New York and New England

The major metropolises of the world distinguish themselves from lesser cities by being immediately and inarguably recognisable as themselves. You could be dropped blindfolded into Tokyo, Paris or London and know immediately not just what country you’re in, but that you are specifically in that city. I think this is especially true of New York.

New York feels different from Boston, Chicago or LA. The brick apartment buildings with their external fire escapes and the steam spewing from the street vents – familiar from a thousand scene-setting shots in Friends or Seinfeld – could only be New York. Add to this scene the yellow cabs, the distinctive accent, the smell of hotdogs and the gusts of warm air rushing between the skyscrapers.

I got off the Bolt Bus from Washington at 34th St and the sensory excitement of Manhattan tricked me into thinking walking in the hot sun with my backpack all the way to my 57th St hotel would be a good idea. It wasn’t.

This was my third visit to New York, with the previous two trips being week-long and with friends. I had already done all the big tourist things, so I was rather at a loss about what I should do for the 24 hours until my bus out to Boston.

The combination of being hot and bothered from my earlier exertions, and being in one of the world’s great cities but with nothing to do, led me headlong into a ‘travel wall’. I’d been on the road/rail for over two weeks and was probably two weeks away from returning to San Francisco. The trip was costing more than I’d hoped, and the trains for the subsequent legs from Boston to Chicago and to the West were all either expensive, fully booked or both.

I took a long walk (mainly because I always misjudge the size of Manhattan) down to and across the Brooklyn Bridge, and weighed up a series of options for the final week of my trip. Should I cut out Chicago and head straight for Denver? Was it feasible to make it to Montreal? Would visiting Mount Rushmore be worth the two day round trip from Denver?

I returned to my room and did the sensible thing: I made a spreadsheet. There were some trade-offs to make: to get from Boston to Chicago I would reluctantly abandon the train in favour of a quick flight. I would ditch Mount Rushmore, but still break my westerly train journey at Grand Junction, Colorado to spend a couple of days in the Utah national parks.

Tickets for the first half of this journey, from Chicago to Grand Junction, were eye-wateringly expensive (especially considering this is the less scenic stretch of what is widely regarded as a great railway journey). As penance for this extravagance, I decided to stay in a backpacker hostel in Chicago and to feel perpetually guilty about spending my own money so frivolously.

With these plans laid out, I headed to Central Park to meet an old university friend, Rik, and his wife Holly. It was nice, after more than two weeks of only talking to taxi drivers, train passengers and strangers in bars, to see some familiar faces and have proper conversations.

***

I can’t be sure if it was from lying in the grass the previous evening or from bed bugs in my budget hotel, but I woke up to find I’d been the first dozen courses of an insect chef’s tasting menu.

I got up and did what anybody with only a few hours left in the excitement of New York City would do: I found a laundromat. After I’d fed a total of 28 quarters into various soap dispensers, washers and dryers, I gathered up my now clean clothes and paid another $5 to leave them in a left luggage shop.

I walked west to the start of the Manhattan High Line. This former overhead railway line opened in 2009 as a pedestrian walkway with gardens on either side of the path. It’s only a mile or so long, but it’s a very pleasant way to wander through New York, especially on such a hot day.

***

That evening, I arrived by bus into Boston and immediately regretted a packing decision that had seemed sensible in California a couple of weeks earlier. It was pouring with rain and I had no jacket.

I took a Lyft Line to my AirBnb (could I *be* any more millennial?) This was the third AirBnb I’d stayed in on this trip, as they are much cheaper than hotels and motels in the big cities (especially true in Boston, which for some reason is horribly expensive, hotel-wise).

As a solo traveller, I had booked private rooms in other people’s apartments. There’s something quite awkward about this; it’s like you’re a guest in somebody’s house, so you do that thing of not wanting to be any trouble. But then you remember you are paying them $70 to be there, so really you ought to be some trouble.

This particular apartment, for reasons that are never explained, has only one key shared between the two permanent flatmates and the occasional paying guest. This means that every time you enter the apartment building you have to open a key safe, extract the key, unlock the building door, go upstairs, unlock the apartment, go back downstairs, leave the building door ajar so as to not get locked out, lock the key back in its little safe and then finally go back upstairs to actually enter the apartment.

Inside, I was greeted by a lovely elderly dog, though I hardly had contact with the owner. Just in case the unease about being a paying guest in a stranger’s home wasn’t enough, it was hammered home by little acts of passive-aggression like moving my shoes overnight from just inside the front door to just outside.

Anyway, Boston itself is a mostly lovely city. It was a relative oasis of calm after New York and the first of the cities I’d reached on this trip that felt liveable to me. I like compact cities that don’t require an hour on public transport to get from one side to the other (yes, London, I’m looking at you… and LA, you barely count as a city you’re so spread out). Boston falls into this category; from the AirBnb in East Boston to the heart of the historic downtown was literally 15 minutes, and that’s including faffing about with the stupid key.

I joined a walking tour from Fenueil Hall and along much of the Freedom Trail. The local guide was well-informed and lined the route with interesting stories, both revolutionary and modern. Towards the end of the tour we passed a hotel which was where JFK proposed to Jackie, had once employed Ho Chi Minh and had invented the Boston Cream Pie.

With my stomach empty and my mind filled with Boston Cream Pie, I set about reversing the situation. After much confused wandering that always seemed to return me to the same place, I found a market stall selling cream pies. The first thing to stress is that it is not, in either the British or American sense, a pie. It is two sponge cakes with cream sandwiched between and a chocolate icing. It was OK, but to be honest I preferred the Boston creme donut I’d bought from a Dunkin’ Donuts in NYC the previous day.

After an afternoon spent pretending to throw tea chests into the harbour from a real boat (the Boston Tea Party Museum), I walked to the north of the city to Fenway Park. A later conversation with a baseball fan in a Chicago bar would see Fenway described as one of the last great old ballparks.

I’ve been to AT&T Park in San Francisco a few times and, regardless of whether or not you have any interest in baseball, it’s a great place to visit. The stadium is built to provide views across the Bay Bridge and has excellent facilities, but it is almost brand new.

Fenway Park, on the other hand, has been home to the Boston Red Sox since 1912. There are features, such as the viewing window between the field and a non-ticketed bar, which are unlikely to be included in a modern ballpark, and the whole place has an atmosphere befitting baseball’s obsession with its own history.

I arrived ticketless, but soon found someone willing to sell their spare ticket. I haggled them down to half price and took my place in the standing section upon what I learned was the famous Green Monster, an 11m high wall on the left field.

Games at Fenway Park do not get underway promptly. They start with the national anthem, performed by a military band; since this game was against the Toronto Blue Jays, they also played the Canadian anthem. Fans are asked to remove their hats and stand during the national anthems; I did this, but did not join the crowd in putting a hand over my heart. A few rows in front of me an elderly man, presumably a Vietnam veteran, stood to attention and saluted the stars and stripes.

The CEO of one of the Red Sox’s sponsors then came out and threw a ceremonial first pitch, then somebody else came out and threw a second first pitch in honour of a deceased season ticket holder. Finally, a specially selected child screamed “Play ball!” into the public address system and the game got underway.

I stayed for about half of the game, then left having realised that attending a baseball game between Boston and Toronto on your own is not that exciting.

***

The following morning, I crossed the river into Cambridge (home of Harvard and MIT) to pick up a rental car. I had a motel booked in Portland, Maine to the north east of Boston, but decided first to head south to Providence, Rhode Island.

I stopped for lunch near the elegant state capitol building and, from what I saw of it, can confirm that Providence is a pleasant little capital for the union’s smallest state.

From Providence I headed north east to Cape Cod, dipped my feet in the Atlantic to ceremonially complete my coast to coast, then passed back through Boston to reach the scenic coastal route through Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, stopping briefly in Salem on the way.

A drive along the New England coast is like receiving an English geography lesson from a drunk. Almost every town is named after somewhere in England: Manchester-by-the-Sea, Essex, Gloucester, Ipswich Bay, Newbury, Salisbury, Portsmouth, Dover, Nottingham, Epping and so on.

***

After a night on the outskirts of Portland, I pointed my car west towards the White Mountains. Being July, the mountains were very much green, but it was still a pleasant drive across New Hampshire and into Vermont. I must say, having now driven through the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah and the White Mountains, I’m yet to discover scenery in the eastern US to match the redwood forests and dramatic coastlines of northern California.

In Vermont, I stopped at the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory and took a guided tour. Ben & Jerry’s are big on political activism and had a lot of displays about the causes they support; currently they’re pushing voter registration. While it was disappointing to learn that they’d been acquired by Unilever a few years ago, I suppose it’s positive that they’ve been allowed to continue their activism from within this massive conglomerate.

The tour itself was delivered by a woman in a tutu (it was the company’s ‘dress as your childhood hobby’ day), who reeled off a stream of scripted jokes with all the enthusiasm of somebody whose childhood dream of working in an ice cream factory was turning out to be less exciting than she’d hoped.

As I moved inland, it felt like the town names were becoming less English and more continental European: Berlin and Montpelier. Whenever the Bluetooth cut out, the car radio would switch to the station tuned by the previous driver: near Boston this was talk radio about the New England Patriots NFL team, but as I moved deeper into Vermont, the same frequency was occupied by a French language station. I don’t think it was a Quebecois radio station leaking across the Canadian border, as they were discussing US politics and the resignation of Sean Spicer.

I checked into a motel among the strip malls to the south of Burlington. The parade of car dealerships, motels and fast food outlets did not raise particularly high expectations of what I would find in Burlington itself.

I was so wrong. I’m going to go so far as to say that Burlington is the best city (town, really – it’s only got 40,000 inhabitants) in America; certainly the nicest place I’ve visited on this continent. I was there on a Friday evening and ate a bowl of pasta at a pavement cafe while good quality buskers strummed and sang nearby.

The whole place was… nice. But not in a picket-fence-and-apple-pie-1950s-America way. Burlington is a college town and Bernie Sanders was mayor for much of the 1980s. This is an unashamedly liberal enclave, geographically and culturally closer to Montreal than to Boston. The pedestrianised high street had independent, ethically-minded shops. The beggars outside the old-fashioned independent cinema greeted a passing family with compliments, and in return a patrolling policeman was friendly and respectful to the beggars.

If ever you happen to be in western Vermont, go to Burlington. Steal a car if you must. 

***

There seems to be a philosophical divide between Vermont and New Hampshire. While Vermont is socially liberal and progressive, New Hampshire takes a far more libertarian stance. Their licence plate motto is ‘Live free or die’, and this freedom from government interference manifests itself in some odd ways.

Seatbelts are optional for adults in cars, as are motorcycle helmets (a few other states have no motorcycle helmet laws, and you do see people riding around with no more head protection than a bandanna). A better motto might be ‘Live free and die’.

Tennessee to DC

Memphis was described to me as being a more compact New Orleans; big on the blues, but smaller on the stag dos. It has a strong claim to be the birth place of rock and roll, thanks to Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston (actually Ike Turner’s band) being recorded at Sun Studio in 1951. In light of this, the place is teeming with museums to blues and rock and roll, and bars promising live music.

My first stop of the day was to visit the old Lorraine Motel, scene of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. The building is now the National Civil Rights Museum and charts the struggle of African Americans from slavery to today, via Jim Crow, MLK and Obama.

Slavery was described by my Washington tour guide a few days later as being one of the three blights on the American story (the others being the genocide of Native Americans and the internment of Japanese Americans). The slavery exhibits made clear that it is not only the southern states that should feel continuing shame for this crime: the northern states happily profited from trading the product of the southern slavery, and major UK cities like Liverpool and Bristol grew rich from the slave trade.

If the slave trade feels too historically distant to resonate today, segregation should not. Although the legal segregation of buses, theatres and public services (“separate but equal” – it was never equal) was outlawed in the 1950s and 1960s – a shockingly recent time – de facto segregation continues today across America.

Next I headed to the Rock and Soul Museum, which tells the story of – as you might guess – rock and roll music and soul music, beginning with the music sung by cotton pickers (black and white) a century ago, and progressing to the pioneers in the 1950s who began to merge black music (the blues) and white music (country). Obviously, Elvis gets a mention or two as well.

A free shuttle bus took me to Sun Studio, the recording site of Rocket 88 (the first distorted guitar sound allegedly coming from an attempt to repair a damage amplifier cone using newspaper). Sun Studio’s owner, Sam Phillips, discovered and recorded artists including Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

The same shuttle bus then took me on to Graceland, the mansion owned by Elvis Presley from the height of his fame until his death in 1977. It is now an enormous tourist destination, charging anywhere between $44 and $160 per person to visit. I bought an ice cream ($5) and took some photos over the wall (free), then boarded the shuttle bus back to downtown Memphis.

The Lyft driver who had picked me up from the station the previous evening had told me about the Peabody ducks. In the 1930s, the owner of the Peabody Hotel had gone on a hunting trip, got drunk and accidentally returned to Memphis with his live decoy ducks. As a joke, he put them into the lobby fountain. Guests loved them, so they became a permanent fixture.

From 1940 to 1991, Edward Pembroke, a bellman who had previously worked as a circus trainer, took on the role of Duckmaster. Every morning, he would ceremoniously march the ducks from their rooftop home, down the elevators and along a red carpet to the fountain, all accompanied by Sousa’s King Cotton March. In the evenings, the ritual is reversed as the ducks go off to bed.

I arrived 30 minutes before the 5pm duck march and the lobby was already packed with spectators. Bang on time, the Duckmaster gave a little speech and then marched his ducks into the lifts. Memphis has a rich history and culture, but this was my favourite thing.

In segregated Memphis, Beale Street was at the heart of the African American community and grew famous for its blues bars. Today, it is a tourist trap (though nowhere near as bad as Bourbon Street in New Orleans), with bars competing for business with their live music, BBQ ribs and cold beer.

I went to BB King’s Blues Bar, which I later discovered was part of a national chain. The music was nothing special, but they did serve me an excellent plate of pork ribs, macaroni cheese and BBQ beans.

***

From Memphis, the Amtrak line heads north to Chicago, but I wanted to go northeast to Washington, New York and Boston, so I headed to the airport to pickup a rental car. Car rental in Tennessee is eye-wateringly expensive – around four times more than in Texas – so I decided to upgrade to a sports car. In for a penny etc.

Hence, I drove away in a Dodge Challenger, a car apparently famous from Dukes of Hazzard and the new Fast and Furious movie. The woman in the exit booth looked at my paperwork and said “Yo’ drivin’ this mutha all the way to Washington?! Sweet!”

I pointed the Dodge in the direction of Nashville and pushed Go. Actually, I headed a little south first, across the border into Mississippi, then Alabama via Shiloh, site of a civil war battle. There is an enormous, unbridgeable gulf between the kind of people who find historic battlefields exciting and the rest of us. This one had some fake cannons to liven it up, but really it was just a field.

I then picked up the Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs for 444 miles across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, roughly following a Native American path. As I would later learn from Bill Bryson, the parkways were developed in the early 20th century as scenic driving routes with protected scenery on either side. Many have now been consumed by cities, but some – like the Natchez Trace – remain as originally intended.

***

After a night on the outskirts of Nashville, I began the long drive to Washington. From the horrible town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee west of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the northernmost tip of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, via the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina there is a continuous scenic road that runs for 600 miles.

This is an awfully long way – further than London to Inverness – and the views are consistently very nice. However, they are not *that* dramatic – think English countryside mixed with low Alpine meadows – and driving through them for two full days gets quickly quite tedious.

Thankfully, I had some audiobooks to divert me: On the Road by Jack Kerouc and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I struggled to get engrossed in On the Road, as exciting and fascinating as Kerouac’s tales of travel around the US in the 1940s are, his stream of consciousness can grow quite tiresome. I did enjoy hearing about San Francisco at this time; he found himself there repeatedly, always a source of distant wonder for a New Yorker.

I was reminded of A Walk in the Woods when I stumbled upon the Appalachian trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. The book describes Bryson’s attempt to hike the 2,200 mile trail from Georgia to Maine. It was particularly fascinating as he walked through many of the same places that I was now driving, although I was covering his daily distance every 15 or 20 minutes.

***

I emerged from the top of Shenandoah National Park and looked to see where my motel for the night was. It turned out I’d messed up and booked one at the bottom of the Shenandoah – presumably yesterday me had been less optimistic about the likelihood of me completing the second half of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah in one day.

It would take me as long to drive back to the motel as it would to drive to Washington, so I cancelled the motel and booked one just west of the Potomac.

***

Washington is a significant point on this trip for three reasons. Firstly, it’s on the east coast (more or less), so I’ve crossed the continent. Secondly, it is the border between the north and the south, so I was hopeful that mutually incomprehensible accents would no longer be a barrier to communication. And finally, this is the first city I’ve visited on this trip that I’ve been to before.

Because of this, I only planned to stay for one night. After checking into my AirBnb and saying goodbye to the Dodge, I walked straight onto the National Mall. The mall is huge – much bigger than I remember – so I immediately joined a Segway tour. Not only is this a faster way of getting around all the sites with a tour guide, it also gave me an excuse to finally ride on a Segway.

It was a lot of fun and they really are very easy to ride. They aren’t the future of personal transportation, as I suppose the inventor hoped they might be, but they are great for this sort of thing.

Everywhere you turn in Washington there’s a grand white building with classical pillars. The White House itself is relatively unassuming, much less impressive than the adjacent Treasury building. As the tour guide pointed out, this was a home built for a chief executive, not a king. This probably pisses off its current resident.

The architecture and the monuments also tell a story of America as a new nation founded in rebellion against the old world. The three separate but equal branches of government have their headquarters dotted around the mall, often with engraved slogans testifying to America’s founding ideals.

The journey of the USA from a loose collection of newly independent colonies to the world’s only superpower, and the resilience of the constitution on which it was founded is impressive. However, as I stood in front of the Supreme Court I was reminded of the lifelong judicial appointment stolen by Senate Republicans last year in a naked act of partisan cynicism. And the vast amounts of money that pour into campaigns and distort public opinion to support the desires of the wealthiest; a position defended by this supreme court, almost unbelievably, on grounds of free speech.

Anyway, as I type this I am riding a bus across the Hudson and into Manhattan, 200 miles north of the Washington swamp.

Drive-by counties

Apologies, I’m going to take a brief detour from the travel blog to share a political observation. Every state I have visited since I got off the train in Texas last week voted for Donald Trump in the election last November: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina.

And yet, every city I’ve visited in those states – San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville – voted for Clinton. I’ve been hopping from one blue island to the next, rarely dipping my feet into the scary red sea in between.

It’s no great insight that urban areas vote Democrat and rural areas vote Republican. As I speed through the conservative countryside on my way to the next liberal stronghold, there are occasional clues: a large sign in Texas saying that ‘God will punish Democrats’, a Confederate flag flying in Mississippi and the occasional NRA t-shirt or bumper sticker.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans (Trump won Louisiana by 20 points), ACLU volunteers feel comfortable standing in the street asking passers by to help them “resist Trump”. If they swapped places with gun rights t-shirt wearers in small town Texas, I’m not sure either of them could guarantee their safety.

It’s just as true in the western blue states. Driving down the Pacific coast through Washington, Oregon and northern California just a few weeks before the election last year, I was overwhelmed by the number of Trump yard signs. These three states voted Democrat almost entirely because of the liberal populations of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and LA, leaving their rural voters as politically isolated as a liberal in Alabama.

I am reminded of a conversation I had in a bike shop in a small town in New York state in 2007. The shop owner asked us what we thought of the US so far. As a cocky 22 year old, I assumed that a NY cycle shop would be a safe place to make a joke about then-President George W Bush. He didn’t laugh.

After Trump won, commentators talked about “fly over states”, those states that journalists only ever see from 40,000 ft as they cross from LA to NYC. But if we zoom in and switch from plane to car or train, our flyover states become drive-by counties: the rural districts between the big cities of California, Texas or Ohio.

Anyway, these thoughts led me to nod along to something on (#fakenews) CNN the other day about how the liberal bias in the US print media (perceived or real) is probably an urban/rural thing. Journalists for the big newspapers tend to be people interested in living in New York or Washington, and as we (both in Britain and in America) increasingly choose to huddle around opinions we already agree with, this leads to journalists with backgrounds that are less representative of a wider America.

To paraphrase President Obama’s 2008 victory speech, America is not a collection of red states and blue states, but a fragile union of blue cities bobbing in an ocean of red.

New Orleans

The southern accent is famously laid back, so to claw back some of the extra time it takes to say stuff, superfluous letters are removed and words rolled together. San Antonio becomes Santone and New Orleans is N’awlins.

I arrived in N’awlins late on Friday evening, slightly concerned that this famously relaxed city of blues, jazz and Cajun cuisine is now a destination for hen and stag dos (batchelor/ette parties). This thought was raised when, about 30 minutes before arrival, the snack/bar car on the train was closed and those who’d been camped out in there for anywhere up to 48 hours made their way up to the lounge car above, including one particularly drunk man who kept complaining loudly that they’d run out of liquor and that it must’ve been a “white guy in California” who placed the order.

New Orleans is divided into distinct quarters and districts, and my hotel was on Lafayette Square, in the arts district and a ten minute walk from the famous French quarter. However, when you’re on the road for a month with only five days’ worth of clothes, fun must occasionally take a backseat to laundry, so I started Saturday taking my dirty smalls for a walk to the laundromat.

Clothes laundered, I headed to the French quarter in search of some music. Bourbon St is tourist central, a road filled with bars, souvenir shops and late night food emporiums. One of the bars was so concerned about the calibre of people on Bourbon St that it had a strict ban on baseball caps worn backwards or sideways. Its general unpleasantness was not improved by the roadworks down the middle of the street that made it impossible to cross from one side to the other, in places. Partway along I found Musical Legends Park, a small square lined with statues of blues, jazz and rock and roll icons, such as Fats Domino. Within the square was a bar with a live band, so I spent the afternoon there and amused myself by reading Ed’s hilarious (sometimes intentionally so) blog of our trip down the east coast ten years ago, drinking a local lager and listening to some OK blues.

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Following a couple of Facebook recommendations, I headed next to Coop’s bar (pronounced like a chicken house, not the British chain of small supermarkets, insurers and funeral directors), thus starting a chain of tips that would dictate my movements for the rest of the day.

Coop’s was on a street full of tourist tat, but was itself apparently immune to being visited by any of them. Except me of course, but nobody ever counts themself as a tourist. There was no live music, but a jukebox that played an above average amount of Meatloaf. I sat at the bar and chatted to a local couple who recommended I headed next to Frenchmen Street, where I’d be able to find some good music.

So, that’s exactly where I went, finding a small bar below an Italian restaurant with a blues duo in the corner. Everyone here was very friendly, from the barman who, on learning that I teach physics, insisted on emailing me a link to a YouTube video about a child who can read a book without opening it, or some crap, to the New Zealand fisherman who broke all American etiquette when asking for the restroom by bellowing “Where can ya’ take a piss around here, mate?” at the barman.

A group of friends from Alabama, a couple of whom I’d chatted to earlier, kindly came over and told me they were heading to a bar in mid-city called Chickie Wah Wah to watch an Alabaman band play later, and that I was welcome to join them there. With no better plans and getting a little bored of explaining the scientific method to the barman, I ordered a Lyft.

The Lyft driver was most impressed that me, a tourist, would be going to Chickie Wah Wah, a bar not normally frequented by tourists (presumably because its miles away from the French quarter). He also recommended the World War II museum near my hotel and we briefly wondered about whether the Civil War Museum in the Confederate Hall across the street from it might be a bit racist or not (New Orleans has recently removed some Confederate monuments, much to the displeasure of the Ku Klux Klan).

When I arrived at Chickie Wah Wah (it feels no less silly typing that the third time than it did the first) the band on stage (called Steelism) was not from Alabama, but from Nashville, Tennessee. Sort of. The band’s leader (they were instrumental, so I can’t call him the lead singer, but he did all the talking in between) had a strong Essex accent. He expertly played a weird horizontal board guitar, accompanied by a guitarist, as well as a drummer and bassist who weren’t officially part of the band. Steelism’s music is best described as instrumental psychedelic country-blues, strongly influenced by 60s movie soundtracks. Check them out. 

After their set had finished, I chatted to the band leader, who it turns out is from Romford originally. He continued the recommendation chain by telling me about Preservation Hall, an old jazz room in the French quarter.

I hung around a bit longer for the headline set, a country act from Alabama called the Lost Bayou Ramblers; a bearded man with a guitar and a woman with a violin shared the vocals. After a few songs, I headed home.

***

On Sunday morning I took the Lyft driver’s advice and went to the National WWII Museum. Spread across four angular metal-clad buildings, it had clearly had a lot of money spent on it. I paid the extra $10 on top of the $26 entry fee for the ‘4D cinema experience with Tom Hanks’ and the ‘submarine experience’.

The 4D experience was, like most things in the museum, very well produced. It wasn’t the normal 4D thing of 3D glasses and some special effects. Instead, they had a big screen 2D movie, with occasional real objects that dropped in from the ceiling or rose up from the floor, accompanied by lighting effects.

After an eight minute introductory movie in the lobby, which covered the period up to Pearl Harbour, the main show focused on the role of the US military in the Pacific and in Europe from 1941 to 1945. It was all very interesting, until the last five minutes which was an embarrassing flood of rousing music and stars and stripes.

The submarine experience, on the other hand, was uniformly crap. We were each issued a card with a number on, showing the station we would have to occupy inside the ‘submarine’ (a very spacious room with a big screen on the ceiling). I was responsible for loading the torpedos into the tubes; in practice, this meant I was supposed to push some light up buttons, perhaps in some sort of sequence, when issued the order by the video that was playing above our heads. It wasn’t at all clear, and it turned out to be irrelevant, as the torpedos loaded themselves with or without my action. I’m not sure I would be much help at sea. 

The rest of the museum was very American-centric, with little about the suffering of the civilians in Europe or the Pacific. Maybe the Imperial War Museum in London is equally biased, but I recall visiting there a few years ago and being impressed by their home front exhibition and moved by their holocaust exhibition.

***

In the evening I went to Preservation Hall. As recommended by the musician the previous evening, I arrived an hour before the show was scheduled to begin and took second place in the queue.

The entertainment for the hour queuing was provided by an elderly lady with an elaborate New York accent, looking for her friend Peggy who had apparently gone to get a cab. There was nobody within a few blocks who didn’t know about her concern that Peggy had taken a while. Eventually, a few cabs drove by; she waved each one down, asking the perplexed driver if they had seen Peggy, before refusing to let any of them drive off on the grounds that she did need a cab and Peggy might never show up. Eventually, Peggy did show up, as promised, in a cab and we had to go back to staring at the backs of our hands.

Preservation Hall is a small, wooden room with no air conditioning and few lights. The lucky members of the audience get to sit on a bench, while the rest stand at the back. My seat was practically VIP, as I had both a bench and a wall to lean against. The mother and daughter I was sitting next to turned out to be from the small town of Binghamton, New York, and were over the moon when I told them I had visited their town ten years earlier.

At the front of the room, seven men (six old, one young, all African-American) assembled with a trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, piano, double bass and drums, then proceeded to battle each other in a jazz and blues musical tug-of-war for the next 45 minutes.

***

After checking out of the hotel this morning, I had a couple of hours to kill before getting my train. I headed to the French market and found a cafe with a live band. There really is music everywhere in New Orleans; even the buskers and the young boys playing drums on upturned plastic buckets tend to be high quality.

As I enjoyed a cup of gumbo (a stew made with andouille sausage, chicken and rice), a stocky tattooed man requested that the band play ‘House of the Rising Sun’. When they obliged, he went up and asked to join them on stage; they, unsurprisingly, said no, so instead he stood at the side of the stage and insisted on loudly singing the same song in a different style to the band. His wife looked mortified, but not surprised. As they left, he made sure to tell a stranger that he used to play college football.

This behaviour at 11:45am in a terrace cafe, by someone that Americans would probably call an asshole bro, is another transatlantic differentiator. A Brit wouldn’t dream of trying anything like that until after at least 10 pints.

***

I’m now shivering my way through the hot and humid swamps of Mississippi, as the train has its air conditioning turned way too high (or low). The train is bound for Chicago, but I’ll be getting off in Memphis, Tennessee for the next leg of my adventure. 

Texas

The train trundled through El Paso and into Texas, hugging so close to the Mexican border that my phone switched networks. The arid landscapes of Arizona and New Mexico gave way to more colour and life.

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Amtrak trains seem to mainly follow major highways, allowing me to see the advertising boards for rest stops along the way. For mile after mile of empty road, the boards promised “Moccasins”, “Gifts”, “Girl stuff” and “T-shirts!” (only the t-shirts were exciting enough to warrant an exclamation mark). Eventually, the shop would turn out to be a depressed shack with no cars in the car park.

I was due to arrive in San Antonio, Texas at 4:50am central time, or 2:50am Pacific time. The timezones had been quite confusing. I left LA on Pacific daylight time and awoke the next morning in Arizona. Arizona is on mountain time, but doesn’t observe daylight saving time, so I spent a few minutes figuring out whether that meant it was the same time as California or two hours ahead (it was the same). Crossing into New Mexico kept us in the same timezone, but they do observe daylight saving, so we were now an hour ahead of both Arizona and California.

In the evening we crossed into Texas, but the clocks didn’t change because west Texas is also on mountain daylight time. At some point during the night, we crossed into central time, moving our clocks an hour ahead again.

Thankfully, the train was running a couple of hours late anyway, so the attendant woke me at around 6am (central time) with my 30 minute San Antonio warning. I headed straight to the airport to pickup my rental car (from Alamo, naturally). The attendant there, upon learning that I used to live in London, told me he was concerned about his relatives there getting “caught up in an uprising”. This is what the constant fearmongering bullshit of Fox News does to people.

Dining on the Amtrak is a social experience: the attendants actively fill tables so that nobody dines alone. One of my dining companions advised me to check out the river walk while in San Antonio, so that’s exactly where I headed first.

Following serious floods in the early 20th century, dams were built on the San Antonio river and canal sections added, forming a scenic walk through the city. It is now lined with cafes, bars and restaurants, with picturesque bridges, well-maintained gardens and river taxis.

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I followed the river walk along to the Alamo. The Alamo was, in 1836, a religious mission and makeshift fort that became the scene of a bloody siege. Texan soldiers defending the Alamo, including Davey Crockett, were eventually slaughtered by Mexican attackers that outnumbered them by almost 10 to one. The ruthlessness with which the Mexican army left no survivors led to a wave of new recruits for the Texan army from both Texas and the USA. Within weeks, the emboldened Texans had ejected the Mexican army and the Republic of Texas was born.

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Although the republic lasted less than a decade before it joined the USA, Texans are proud of their status as the only state to have once been an independent nation.

Texas is a very big state, around twice the size of Germany, so my three day car rental was only going to allow a brief scratch of the Texan surface. I had a motel booked in Dallas for the night, so I continued north from San Antonio for about an hour to Austin, the state capital.

The People’s Republic of Austin, as it is sometimes disparagingly known as by conservatives elsewhere in the state, is (along with Dallas, Houston and San Antonio) a liberal stronghold in an otherwise republican state. It has a large student population courtesy of UT Austin. However, this being July 4th, everyone was elsewhere and the streets were deserted.

I parked at the state capitol building, a magnificent red granite structure that stands taller than the US capitol in Washington. From here I walked north to the Lyndon B Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. En route I noticed that every building in the city is named after a man with a middle initial:

  • The Darrell K Royal Texas Memorial Stadium
  • The Mike A Myers Stadium and Soccer Field
  • The Stephen F Austin Building
  • The William B Travis Building
  • The Ernest O Thompson Building

From now on, my studio apartment will be known as the Robert P Cowen Bedroom and Kitchen.

I didn’t really have much idea of what a presidential library is, other than from references in the West Wing and Veep. LBJ’s is an excellent museum about America’s 36th president. It tells the story of a man of modest background who became a teacher at a school for Mexican immigrants in Texas, before becoming a master of Senate politicking and eventually assuming the presidency after the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963. While detailing his many proud legacies, especially the civil rights acts that changed this country forever by outlawing segregation, the museum also acknowledged the personal turmoil caused by Johnson’s decision to expand the war against North Vietnam.

I finally reached Dallas in the early evening, just in time to head to the state fair to watch the July 4th fireworks. The state fair was basically a British fun fair with corndogs. I killed time until the fireworks, then decided to make a break for the car park before they were over, in order to beat the crowd. Unfortunately, I have a very poor sense of direction, so I walked in completely the opposite direction for 10 minutes, by which time the fireworks were over and I was now a part of the crowd. Even once I eventually found my car, it took another hour to get away from the fair ground, although this tedium was diverted slightly by the constant firework displays in every direction.

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In the morning I headed straight for Dealey Plaza, the scene of President Kennedy’s assassination. The Texas School Book Depository, Lee Harvey Oswald’s vantage point when he fired on JFK, is now an excellent museum to Kennedy’s life, death and legacy.

Dealey Plaza is relatively unchanged in the 54 years since the assassination; the only significant additions are memorials to the event itself. Simple white crosses are painted onto the road to represent the locations where the two bullets hit Kennedy (at least one other shot missed, and debate still whirls around whether there was a fourth gunshot by an unknown gunman). Plaques mark other points of significance, including the plinth on the grassy knoll that Abraham Zapruder stood on to record his famous footage.

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After a hearty southern lunch of ribs, mashed potato and barbecue beans, I decided to head for Fort Worth, even though this was in the opposite direction to my eventual destination of Houston. The Fort Worth stockyards had also been recommended by dining companions aboard the Texas Eagle train, although I had little idea of what they actually are. It turns out that the stockyards are some sort of wild west themed area. It was briefly diverting to wander around for a few minutes, but not worth the $7 parking.

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***

I awoke the next morning in Houston, a city named after Sam Houston: a man who in his 70 years managed to find the time to sit in both the US House of Representatives (for districts in both Tennessee and Texas) and the Senate, be governor of both Tennessee and Texas, and to be the first president of the Republic of Texas (and also the third president a few years later), either side of leading the army that secured Texan independence from Mexico after the Alamo siege and negotiating Texas joining the USA a decade later.

He also sounded relatively decent, opposing the Texan nationalists who wanted to expel the Native Americans from Texas and supporting the abolition of slavery. This latter position ultimately ended his career as Texan governor when he refused, in vain, to allow his state to join the Confederacy in the civil war.

I knew none of this until I just looked him up on Wikipedia, but with that back catalogue of contributions I think we can all agree that 19th century Texans were not overreaching when they named a city after him.

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Houston is a sprawling city with a dense, shiny high-rise downtown of interesting architecture. My main purpose for being there was to catch the Amtrak to New Orleans the next day, but it is also the home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where mission control, planning and astronaut training take place.

The visitor centre is an interesting, hands-on museum of space science, with road train rides across to tours in the actual space centre. I took the tour around the original mission control facility. This room was the ‘Houston’ in the often misquoted “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” from Apollo 13. It’s also the ‘Houston’ in “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed”, which is, if you ask me, the most significant phrase ever uttered by a member of our species.

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The total computing power available to the heroes that sat in that room in the 1960s was pathetic by modern standards and came entirely from three room-filling computers downstairs. They had access to 8MB of RAM, which is roughly two digital photos. The Apollo program will stand forever as a testament to what humans are capable of.

Outside the visitor centre sits a Boeing 747 with a space shuttle riding piggy-back. The space shuttle is a full-size replica (bafflingly, none of the surviving three space shuttles were retired to Johnson Space Center: one is at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, one in New York and the third near Washington-Dulles Airport in Virginia), but the plane below it is the real one that used to carry the shuttles across the US if needed.

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All of the shuttles were launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and ideally would land on the runway there too. However, if conditions didn’t allow it, the shuttle could also land in California or New Mexico, so would occasionally need relocating thousands of miles back to Florida. This was the job of this stripped-down and reinforced American Airlines jumbo.

***

I write this from the panoramic lounge car of the Sunset Limited Amtrak between Houston and New Orleans. An hour or so ago we entered Louisiana, the fifth state of my trip.

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It is exactly ten years ago this week that, along with four intrepid cyclists and Ed, we began a trip through 12 US states, one Canadian province and the District of Columbia. Read about it here.

San Francisco to San Antonio

This morning I awoke to the gentle rocking of the Texas Eagle Amtrak train. Opening the curtains in my ‘roomette’ I saw a cartoonish landscape of arid desert, only interrupted by the occasional three-pronged cactus and hazy mountains in the distance, towards the Mexican border.

I awoke to this view #amtrak

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Amtrak – the US’s national intercity rail system – seems to be America’s best-kept secret. Everybody I’ve mentioned my travel plans to has expressed surprise that it’s possible to take a train from LA to Texas, let alone knowing about the network that stretches from coast to coast and border to border, covering 46 of the 50 states.

And somehow, when every other interaction with public services in this country screams of underinvestment and over-bureaucracy, the US have managed to maintain a railway network that is comfortable, affordable and even retains the romance of the great railway journeys of another era.

From stepping into the art deco splendour of Los Angeles’ Union station to the lounges and dining cars of the train itself, this is the continental equivalent of crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner. It’s much slower than flying (it took all night for the train to cross California), but the reward for this patience is days and nights of gently transitioning vistas.

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In short, this is exactly how to travel across the US if you have a free month which, as luck would have it, is exactly the situation I find myself in.

***

On Saturday morning I took the Greyhound bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The eight hour journey was interrupted only briefly by a rest stop in the central valley, at which the temperature was a full 15°C hotter than it was in SF. Northern California is roughly at the same latitude as north Africa, but the geography of the San Francisco bay leads to a microclimate that is much cooler than it ought to be.

I was in LA to catch a thrice-weekly train on Sunday evening and had considered going down a day earlier, but couldn’t figure out what I would do for two full days. I wasn’t going to make a solo trip to Disneyland or Universal Studios and I have no interest in riding a bus past the empty homes of movie stars I’ve never heard of.

Los Angeles is huge and almost impossible to navigate without a car. I took a Lyft to my AirBnB in the Glendale/Silverlake neighbourhood, then set out on foot in search of somewhere to eat. I walked along the Los Angeles river, which better resembled a storm drain, passed under a freeway and then found a bleak parade of shops and restaurants. According to Google, the most popular eatery for locals is the Red Lion: a pub which, in spite of its name, insists that it is actually German. I ordered a Lyft to Hollywood.

I didn’t know very much about Hollywood the neighbourhood (as opposed to the media shorthand for the movie industry). It broadly consists of two long boulevards – Hollywood and Sunset – populated by an incongruous mix of glamour, tat and sleaze. The Hollywood Walk of Fame meanders around the sidewalks, representing the stars of movies, television and music with literal stars embedded into the ground.

I went to a burger restaurant for dinner, eating an Impossible Burger. This is a vegetarian patty made somehow to taste almost exactly like actual beef. It’s only available in California at the moment, but was really quite impressive; not *quite* the same as beef, but a decent imposter.

I woke early on Sunday morning and took a Lyft up to Griffith Observatory. Apart from being an interesting science museum, there are also spectacular views across the city and my first sight of the Hollywood sign.

The observatory itself was closed, so I decided to follow the four mile hike across to the Hollywood sign. It was built in the 1920s as a promotional stunt for the Hollywoodland housing development below it, but became such a landmark that it became a permanent feature, eventually being shortened to ‘Hollywood’.

#Hollywood

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Once I’d got as close as I could to the sign without breaking any laws, I took the obligatory selfies and decided to walk back down the hill via the Hollywoodland residential area. This took a lot longer than expected because the roads twist and wind back and around themselves. The houses were architecturally diverse and more modest than I would’ve expected; these were not MTV Cribs.

Eventually I reached Hollywood, immediately remembered how unimpressed I had been the previous evening and summoned a Lyft to drive me to Santa Monica.

For some reason, I had pictured Santa Monica as a classy seaside resort with a nice boardwalk and elegant hotels. It is not like this. It has a pier with a Bubba Gump’s and a series of burger shacks, each claiming to be the last burger on land before being contradicted by an even more westerly burger shack. The pier was teeming with lardy tattooed tourists stuffing their faces with burgers, fries and waffles. I looked on with disapproval, then went for a McDonalds and an ice cream.

A crowd formed at the end of the pier, applauding and recording something below them. A man, accompanied by a violinist, had just proposed next to the Bubba Gump’s. She said yes.

I walked along to Venice beach, which was tacky in a different way, the boardwalk lined with street performers of limited talent. I dipped my feet into the Pacific to symbolically mark the start of my coast-to-coast adventure, then raised the Earth’s albedo a notch by sunning my pasty white chest for an hour. It is now red and sore.

Ceremonial dipping of the feet into the Pacific #CoastToCoast

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Unable to take any more direct sunlight, and still with several hours until my train, I took yet another Lyft, this time to Little Tokyo, which is adjacent to Union station. The distance between Venice beach and downtown LA – 15 miles – is more than double the width of San Francisco. LA is just annoyingly big and everything is way too spread out.

Little Tokyo, though, was excellent. The international school job hunt that culminated in me moving to San Francisco last year was inspired by an excellent holiday to Japan in 2015. Little Tokyo is a microcosm of the food, the culture and the crazy of Japan.

I ate an exquisite bowl of assorted sashimi (raw fish) in a hotel restaurant, then popped into a bar down the street where happy hour pints of Asahi were only $3. I sat at the bar, occupied entirely by Japanese people speaking Japanese. I chatted to a man called Shin about my travels in Japan and met an elderly man called Yoshi who described himself as a teacher of ‘female performance’; this turned out to be a euphemism for drag queens.

Three pints later, I said my arigatos then walked to Union station (at last, somewhere in LA that is walking distance from somewhere else) and climbed aboard a massive double decker train. I found my roomette – a tiny cabin with two seats that fold together to make a bed – and settled in for the 30 hour journey to San Antonio.