Twins, Brewers and Cubs

Minneapolis was the first major city we’d visited since leaving Salt Lake City over a week earlier. Armed with a list of recommendations from a few midwestern friends, we headed to Psycho Suzi’s bar in the north of the city. From the front, it looked like a Baptist church and inside it looked like a generic wine bar. The back patio, though, was themed like a Hawaiian tiki bar, facing out over the Mississippi.

We ordered a Pu Pu platter. In hindsight, we could’ve inferred from its name that it wouldn’t be the nicest of meals. One of the items was ‘Minnesotan sushi’, which was a pickle wrapped in a bit of ham.

From Psycho Suzi’s we headed to a speakeasy in the uptown district. Speakeasies in post-21st amendment America are just hipster-filled bars that don’t put a sign up outside. This particular bar involved going down a sketchy back alley and finding a doorway with a red light over it. The door was locked, so we knocked and were led to a booth table in the basement.

A fake fireplace occasionally opened to allow waiters into and out of the kitchen, but it wasn’t clear how to order a drink. Then, without warning, a mirror on the wall in our booth opened and a man’s face appeared to take our cocktail order. This happened several times through the evening, and did not get any less alarming.

***

In the morning, we headed east across Minnesota and Wisconsin, taking a detour via Green Bay because I thought it might be nice to drive down Lake Michigan. In reality, the interstate was as dull as ever and didn’t even pass that close to the lake. In search of something interesting, we drove past Mannitowac county jail, famous for being at the centre of Netflix’s ‘Making a Murderer’ documentary. It was, unsurprisingly, not interesting either.

We spent the night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a pleasant city on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was pouring with rain, so we took an Uber to a downtown bar for dinner. Every time I order a meal in the US, I am accompanied by an anxiety about ever finishing it. I hate to leave good food on a plate, but the portion sizes are almost always ridiculous. A couple of nights later we would share a Chicago deep pan pizza that, even in its smallest size, could happily feed three people and even then they would probably stagger out, clutching their bellies.

***

Our final day of driving was also our shortest: under 100 miles from Milwaukee to Chicago, but we had some important business to attend to first. Six Flags Great America is a theme park and water park with something like 14 different roller coasters. We rode some of them, paid $10 extra to go into the water park (followed by $15 for a towel and $14 to rent a locker) and then rode some water slides too.

Chicago is the first US city I ever visited, back in 2007. It remains one of my favourites because it just looks like an American city should, with skyscraper-lined streets, cast iron fire escapes and ornate wooden train platforms overhead. It is architecturally far more interesting than New York City, it is compact and flat, and it has some excellent blues.

On the way into the city we drove by the Home Alone house, slowly enough that I could snap some photos, then parked up at the same hostel that I’d stayed in last summer and headed out to a nearby blues bar. It was indescribably good.

Over the next couple of days, we went up the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, ate an excessive amount of deep-pan pizza (see above), spent hours in the air conditioned Art Institute to escape the absurdly hot and humid weather outside, then watched the Chicago Cubs play baseball.

I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced weather as humid as Friday in Chicago. After a dinner of too much barbecue meat, we took an Uber back to the hostel. The car was covered in stars ‘n’ stripes streamers, banners and hats, and the driver gave us an unusual safety briefing at the start of the journey, before then talking non-stop for the 12 minute journey. When I stepped from the air conditioned car, my glasses instantly steamed up.

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Too much meat

***

I type this from JFK airport in New York, from where I will take my final flight home in a few hours. In the two years I have lived in the USA (plus a previous trip 11 years ago), I have visited 42 states + DC, visited 24 of America’s 59 national parks (and countless national monuments, historic sites and landmarks). I escaped the UK just after the Brexit vote and inadvertently found myself in a country flirting with fascism (although I tried to do my bit to prevent it).

In August 2016, I travelled to the other side of the world to a city where I knew nobody, and then I made some friends. I taught some amazing students and had the privilege of taking them on trips to India and Thailand, as well as to Oregon to observe a total solar eclipse.

I learned pretty quickly that we Brits culturally probably have more in common with our European neighbours than with our former North American colonies. I also learned that saying my own name in my own accent causes confusion to American ears: “Rope?” “Romain?” “Ropp?”

San Francisco is a beautiful city. Having visited most of the others, I can say with confidence that it is the most beautiful city in the USA. On a sunny day, I will never get bored of seeing the Golden Gate bridge peeping over the horizon, but it is the less expected sights that win it for me. Walk 10 minutes in any direction in San Francisco and you will stumble upon a magnificent old church, or a colourful house, or a surprise view of Alcatraz.

SF (never “San Fran” or “Frisco”) is welcoming, friendly and very liberal, but one of my earliest memories is of a strong smell of urine. Homelessness, frequently linked to serious untreated mental illness, pervades this city, and the problem seems to be getting worse. Somehow a city so progressive is unable to figure out how to humanely help these people. Meanwhile, the booming tech sector’s six-figure-earning millennials have pushed rents for those of us who aren’t homeless to eye-watering levels.

The western United States in general, but particularly California, has the most incredible countryside. On my first drive down the coastal road to Santa Cruz, I caught myself grinning in disbelief that I could live somewhere so stunning. The national parks of Utah and Arizona are like alien landscapes, with colours and distances that my little English brain could not comprehend. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton: every one of these parks is utterly beautiful in totally different ways.

I leave the USA delighted by how much I’ve had the privilege to see and do over the last couple of years. I look forward to family, friends, British food, British TV and not paying nearly $2000/month in rent for a tiny studio in the suburbs. But I will miss my San Franciscan friends, the Californian weather and the great American road trips. Will I return? I think there’s too much that annoys me about American life for it ever to be my permanent home, but enough to draw me back to this diverse land from time to time.

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Corn. Mostly just corn.

South Dakota is roadside sign country. They are the only distraction along the straight cornfield-lined highways and fall into one of three categories. You have the political adverts, usually in opposition to abortion, though rarely in agreement about how many weeks it takes for a foetus to develop a heartbeat. Then you have the adverts for attorneys, usually promising to get you out of a traffic ticket; my favourite of this genre was Motorcycle Attorneys, though it wasn’t entirely clear if they are attorneys that help motorcyclists, or attorneys that will arrive to meetings on motorcycles.

The final type is for specific businesses located up to 100 miles in the distance. Often these were for firework superstores, the prevalence of which seemed to be far in excess of the needs of this sparsely-populated area. Heading east on I-90 from Rapid City, the signs are almost all for Wall Drug, apparently a drug store that offers “5 cent coffee”, “Western wear” and a “Shootin’ range”. After about 50 miles of this, you’re worn down to such an extent that you pull off the interstate, if only to figure out where a pharmacy can find space for a gun range.

Wall Drug, it turns out, is a sprawling 70,000 square feet of shops, cafes and gimmicks, all themed like the old west, plus a large animatronic dinosaur. It was, in a word, crap.

Wall Drug

A better reason to exit the interstate at the town of Wall is to visit Badlands National Park. Many of America’s national parks have the delightful quality of hiding their greatest treasures until you’re inside the park. Badlands does exactly this: the surrounding area and the approach roads are a continuation of the dull plain state scenery of flat cornfields. But, upon passing the entry booth into the national park, a ridiculous scenery of striped rocky mounds stretches for miles, before vanishing just as quickly as you exit.

Somehow, in such an otherwise empty landscape, this corner of South Dakota is not only home to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and Badlands (and, lest we forget, Wall Drug), but also Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. During the Cold War, over 1000 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles were spread across the plain states, ready to launch nuclear devastation on the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. The logic was that by spacing them out so much (and also maintaining nuclear bombers and submarines), the US would always be able to respond to a first attack by the USSR. Since the 90s, these sites have largely been dismantled, but a couple have been preserved and converted into this interesting museum.

Our route between Badlands and Minuteman was plotted by Google Maps but, as can happen in places like this, turned out to be along cut up, muddy, unpaved tracks through farmland. More than once we had to stare down a bull in order to proceed, and the car ended up covered in mud.

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This was to be our longest day, and we were still 250 miles from our penultimate stop: Monowi, Nebraska. I had stumbled upon this article on the BBC website a few months ago, and we decided immediately that we should visit. Monowi is the only incorporated city in the US with a population of one. In the 1950s there were 150 people, but since her husband died in 2004 Elsie Eiler has been the only resident. She serves as mayor, clerk and secretary, as well as running the Monowi Tavern, that opened exactly 47 years ago, to the day.

Despite her isolation, she receives daily visits from both regulars and tourists alike. In the guest book, I counted 14 other visitors on that day alone, from across the US and the world. We had a quick drink with Elsie and then headed across the Missouri and back into South Dakota for the night.

***

After a night in the bustling metropolis of Wagner, South Dakota (population 1,566), we started out on what would be the dullest day of driving on this trip. The most exciting (and I use the term very loosely) stop was the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. This is a basketball and music events arena, decorated with annually-changing ‘crop art’. Inside, it stinks of popcorn and the café mostly just sells corn. Across the street is a gift shop dedicated to the Corn Palace and to corn in general.

Typing about the Corn Palace is deeply tedious, and I’m sure reading about it is worse, but just imagine how dull the landscape is that this is a popular tourist attraction, drawing half a million people a year. Across the street from the Corn Palace is Bible Land, a large stone castle containing a biblical gift shop. We didn’t go in but, according to the TripAdvisor reviews, you can get a discount if you correctly answer biblical questions. So, if you are into corn and/or god, Mitchell is the town for you. Otherwise, drop a little paint onto your steering wheel and watch that dry instead.

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Next time: Mid-western cities

Revolvers to Rushmore

In my previous post I mentioned there was a gun range across the street from our motel. Now, one of my biggest problems with this country is its weird fascination with firearms and its refusal to implement even the most sensible limits on the apparently inalienable right to possess anything up to and including a tactical nuclear bomb. If I could build a time machine, I’d pop back to the 18th century and suggest they clarify exactly what they mean about “a right to bear arms” and “a well-organised militia”, just to save some hassle down the line.

But, for $39 I could fire an 1873 Colt revolver, just like a real cowboy. Who knows when I’ll get a chance like that again?

It was fun. The revolver made a satisfying bang and punched neat holes in a target 20 feet away. When we first arrived, the shooting instructor asked us where we’d come from. She was perfectly happy with the ‘England’ bit, but visibly flinched at ‘San Francisco’. Bloody coastal liberals, coming over here and shooting our antique guns.

After an underwhelming breakfast featuring biscuits and gravy (for the benefit of British readers, biscuits are not biscuits and gravy is not gravy), we headed northeast into Montana, stopping en route at Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, a great big rock in an otherwise quite empty landscape that was visited by Lewis and Clark on their westward expedition. It apparently contains etched drawings from Native Americans, as well as the signature of Captain Clark: the only surviving evidence of their journey west in the early 19th century.

It is possible to climb Pompey’s Pillar to get views over the area, but as we arrived a thunderstorm drew in and climbing to the highest point for miles (in torrential rain) did not sound like a good idea. In the visitor centre, an old man spontaneously quizzed me on the colonial ownership of various tracts of American land. I passed the test and we moved on.

We checked into a motel in the town of Glendive, Montana. In the lobby, the front page of a local newspaper described how an escaped zoo kangaroo had caused a car crash.

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***

In the morning, we popped across the border into North Dakota to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was so forgettable that, as I type this 24 hours later, I can remember nothing of particular interest about it, apart from the presence of lots of prairie dogs. The name suggests these are something like coyotes, roaming the plains looking to feast on British tourists on national park trails. They are, in fact, cute little herbivorous rodents who burrow little holes all over the prairies.

We travelled south, back across Montana and Wyoming to Devil’s Tower National Monument. I’ve never watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but this 265m high rock column was apparently the scene of an alien invasion. It is an extraordinary sight, like nothing else in the surrounding area. As the Anglo-American travel writer Bill Bryson noted in the Lost Continent, it’s impossible to imagine what else Steven Spielberg could have used if Devil’s Tower was not available.

Our destination for the day was Rapid City, South Dakota, which I had assumed would be a tacky town purely devoted to providing cheap accommodation and fast food to Mount Rushmore visitors. It definitely did do both of those things, but also had a pleasant downtown where we could eat pizza in a craft ale bar. Along the main street were a series of statues of American presidents on each street corner, like a Hollywood Walk of Fame for history nerds.

The 20 mile drive to Mount Rushmore was an entertaining case study in just how tenuously someone could attempt to profit from geographical proximity to this carved rockface. National Presidential Wax Museum? Check. Mount Rushmore Rollercoaster? Check. The American dream is truly the inalienable freedom to surround nice things with utter crap.

When you read about Mount Rushmore, reviews evenly split between “Wow, it’s everything I ever dreamed about and more, I will die happy” and “Smaller than I thought”. Our enjoyment was damped a little by the torrential rain, which gave Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln the appearance of crying big salty tears at the state of the union.

Which Roosevelt is it, did you just ask? Theodore, since work began before FDR took office. And since you asked, here’s a fun fact about the Roosevelt presidents. They are related, but quite distantly (fifth cousins), but are much more closely related through marriage. FDR married Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore’s niece, making her married name technically Eleanor Roosevelt née Roosevelt.

The carving itself is very impressive. Though it’s difficult to get a sense of scale from the viewing area, each head is 60ft tall, so one of their presidential eyeballs would be about the height of a person. You could probably climb into Jefferson’s nostril and have a root around. Birds could nest underneath Roosevelt’s moustache.

Of course, the gift shop is filled with a dazzling array of utter crap, carved into the shape of something approximating Mount Rushmore by somebody who didn’t actually have a picture of it to hand. I bought a 3D fridge magnet and a block of shaped chocolate, which neither looked like each other nor Mount Rushmore.

About 15 miles away from Mount Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial. In the 1940s, as Rushmore was being completed, one of its sculptors, Korczak Ziolkowski, was commissioned by Chief Henry Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota to carve a statue of Crazy Horse. In the more than 70 years since, only the face has been completed. Ziolkowski died in the 1980s, but his children and grandchildren continue the work. One day, it will be the largest statue in the world; the eyes alone are 5m wide.

For the next few decades at least, it will remain a building site. Visitors can ordinarily take a bus tour to get a closer view, though the wet weather meant that we had to make do with the view from the visitor centre. It’s impossible to get a sense of scale from that distance, but against the backdrop of a stormy sky, Sitting Bull’s disembodied face gazed serenely into the distance. The statue could have been completed long ago if they’d accepted the millions in federal dollars, but I think there’s something far more impressive about multiple generations working on a project that may never be completed in their own lifetimes.

Next time… the plain states.

Mormons to Cowboys

After two mostly excellent years, I have finally left San Francisco. I’ll write about my thoughts on leaving the US when I actually do, in a couple of weeks’ time. In the meantime, I’m embarking on yet another road trip, this time accompanied by my old friend Matt, and this time across the north of the US. Over the next twelve days, we will travel from the Mormon Mecca that is Salt Lake City to the Windy City of Chicago. En route, we will take in four national parks, a couple of big cities and Mount Rushmore.

With the contents of my apartment variously sold to colleagues, donated to Goodwill or squeezed into a handful of bags, I took a flight to Salt Lake City to meet Matt. We checked into an absurdly large hotel complex called Little America that was next door to an even more absurdly large hotel complex called Great America. A few blocks to the north was an enormous Mormon temple crowned with a large gold statue of the angel that Joseph Smith claims visited, surrounded by dozens of Mormon administrative buildings. 62% of the residents of Utah are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with 16 million across the world, so I guess there’s quite a lot of bureaucracy required to keep track of all those marriage certificates.

In my couple of years in the US, I’ve come across a few Cheesecake Factories, but never actually eaten in one because, well, they sound terrible. It sounds like a less versatile version of Waffle House, and dining in a Waffle House is one of the very worst experiences it is possible have in America. But Matt insisted that a Cheesecake Factory is not like that, and he was correct. This Cheesecake Factory was all wood panelling and chandeliers, with a spiral bound menu that had frankly too many options for them to have realistically been able to cook them all to any standard.

Anyway, we ate some food, but were too full to eat any of the cheesecake which, I like to think, was being prepared on enormous production lines in the back of this Cheesecake Factory. Matt wasn’t allowed a beer because he didn’t have his passport on him; I flashed my California ID and had a cider. As gripping as this story is, perhaps two paragraphs on Cheesecake Factory is quite enough.

***

In the morning, we began a 300-mile drive north towards Grand Teton National Park. It was a pretty uneventful journey up I-15, crossing from Utah into Idaho and then into Wyoming. After a short while, Matt spotted a sign for a Museum of Clean. It gave no further information and we saw no further adverts until we arrived there nearly 100 miles later. Entry was just $6 each, and in return we could enjoy the 75,000 square feet of exhibits dedicated to cleaning. There were at least two areas dedicated to old vacuum cleaners, plus a brand-new whole-floor exhibit called World of Vacuum Cleaners.

You might imagine that we were the only people stopping in small town Idaho to visit a museum mainly about cleaning floors and a little bit about cleaning teeth. Your imagination would be wrong. There were at least four other people in there, including a man who had lost his wife in all the excitement.

Standing proudly in the two-storey entrance lobby was what claims to be the world’s largest janitor. I take some issue with this statement. For a start, it was not a live janitor (enough, the pub lawyer in me might assume, for me to be able to demand a $6 refund). It was not even a statue of a janitor; it was a statue of the owner of the museum dressed as a janitor. Guinness World Records will be hearing about this.

Before I move on from the Museum of Clean (and when we did try to leave, the receptionist expressed some surprise that we could take in all of its delights in a mere 30 minutes), I’d like you to spare a thought for generations of school children in the town of Pocatello, Idaho. Every year, they’d be treated to the excited anticipation of a field trip, and every bloody year the school bus would pull into the empty car park of the Museum of Clean.

Grand Teton (as you will know from looking up naughty words in a French dictionary, this translates as ‘Big Tit’) is not the most immediately impressive of national parks, but its jagged snow-capped peaks and mirror glass lakes do rack up the likes on Instagram. You have to feel a little for Grand Teton, as it is located right next to Yellowstone, the oldest of America’s national parks and one of the most dramatic.

After an afternoon in Grand Teton, we stayed in a log cabin lodge in the no-man’s land between the two parks, the land for which was bought by a Rockefeller in the 1920s to prevent it being overrun with the crap motels and fast food outlets that normally emerge near national parks.

Tetons at night

Tetons at night

***

Yellowstone National Park was created back in 1872, long before Wyoming became a state. It sits atop a 40 mile wide supervolcano that last erupted 600,000 years ago. If it goes off again, it would spread ash across most of the West and Midwest, probably triggering a global catastrophe. A delightful side effect of this massive ticking timebomb sitting beneath Yellowstone is that it has generated a collection of weird and wonderful natural attractions on the surface.

The most famous of these is Old Faithful, a geyser that shoots 30,000 litres of boiling water up to 50m into the air with astonishing regularity. It’s possible to predict the next eruption to an accuracy of ± 10 minutes, which makes it the perfect tourist attraction for the National Park Service. Every couple of hours, the vast car park fills up with hundreds of cars, the inhabitants of which waddle over to the viewing boardwalk that surrounds Old Faithful.

It constantly spews steam with varying intensities and, as the eruption approaches, little spurts of water too. As the predicted eruption time comes and goes, a few members of the crowd grow impatient and wander back to their cars. Then, with only a couple of minutes left in the predicted window, an enormous plume of scalding water shoots high into the air, the park rangers breathe a sigh of relief and go off to update the sign for the next eruption.

By far the most spectacular of Yellowstone’s attractions is Grand Prismatic Spring, a cobalt blue pool surrounded by a muddy spectral halo. It’s the kind of view that, if you’d seen in a photograph, would assume was the product of some heavy photoshopping, but it really does look that stunning.

There are frequent danger signs in Yellowstone, alerting us to the hazards of interacting with bears and bison. It is home to both grizzly and black bears, the former of which is more aggressive than the latter. Unfortunately, your calculation as to quite how much to fill your trousers as a bear gallops towards you is complicated by the fact that both flavours of bear vary in colour from blonde to black. The black bear has a slightly longer snout, you think to yourself, as it swings its paw across your face. In your final moments of consciousness, you try to decide whether the claws could be described as ‘short and dark’ or ‘long and light’.

After two years of being scared of encountering bears, of either variety, in national parks across this country, I finally saw one in Yellowstone. We hit a traffic jam, which turned out to have been caused by dozens of cars stopping to have a look at a bear with light brown fur about 50m away in the woods. I positioned myself behind a defensive line of other tourists and snapped some photos through a long lens.

Yellowstone is also home to bison, elk and deer, but these don’t scare me quite as much as bears.

Bison

Bison

Deer

We exited Yellowstone through the eastern road towards Cody, Wyoming. The scenery here was beautiful in a very different way from the geological peculiarities of the Yellowstone caldera. The road meandered alongside Yellowstone Lake, before following a river that carved through rugged landscape that felt more like Scotland than the Wild West. A bright double rainbow bridged the valley as we drove further into Wyoming, the emptiest state in the USA.

Rainbow

This is a state so unpopulated that it only qualifies for one congressman (California has 53). 500,000 Americans call it home, 1% of whom reside in the small town of Cody. It is, in many ways, a classic edge-of-national-park town of motels, gas stations and diners (delightfully chain free), but in between these were a few reminders that Wyoming is the old west. Spaghetti westerns may have been filmed in California, but Wyoming is real cowboy country. We entered town past a rodeo (sadly we arrived too late to watch it) and stayed in a motel across the street from a shooting range.

Next time… Wyoming to South Dakota, via Montana and North Dakota.

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.

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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.

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.

***

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.

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.