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.

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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.

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’.

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.

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.

The 49 Mile Scoot

In preparation for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, the San Francisco Downtown Association plotted out a 49 mile driving route that took in as many of the city’s best views as possible. Today, a slightly updated version of the route is marked out by a discontinuous string of blue signs featuring an aloof seagull.

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Map courtesy of SFToDo http://www.sftodo.com/scenic-49-mile-drive.html

According to Wikipedia, neither tourists or locals are much bothered by it, due to “its length, its labyrinthine route, and the difficulty of driving through a bustling city”. These are all fair points. 49 miles is a long way, especially with a significant chunk of the route snaking backwards and forwards through the busy downtown streets. Even if you tried to drive it all, many parts (especially those in the centre of the city) would be impossible to properly take in due to a lack of parking spaces.

It would be much better to walk or cycle, but again 49 miles is a long way. I am not walking or cycling 49 miles around the city, especially the ascent up to Twin Peaks. Enter stage left: Scoot.

Scoot is a San Francisco startup that has hundreds of red electric scooters dotted around the city. Within certain areas, you can pretty much pick them up and drop them off wherever you want. Like everything else in this city, they are controlled by a smartphone app (there’s no dashboard other than a phone dock). They can be ridden on a normal US drivers’ licence (which I now have), have a maximum speed of 30mph and the battery lasts up to 20 miles.

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My steed

Now, those of you with GCSE Maths will have spotted a problem. The 49 mile scenic route is 49 miles long (actually, the modern route is closer to 47 miles). The battery lasts 20 miles. I am going to need multiple Scoots, so a little planning will be required to make sure the neighbourhoods covered by Scoot (especially those with charging stations, where I’m more likely to find a bike with a longer range left on the battery) are roughly in the places where I anticipate needing to change bikes. There’s a very long stretch from the Presidio, down to Lake Merced and back up to the Golden Gate Park that is not covered by Scoot, so I’ll need to leave the Presidio with plenty of ions in the electrolyte, so to speak.

Also, the 30mph limit means I’m not allowed to ride it on highways. Annoyingly, the scenic route briefly takes I-280 in the east of the city, but there’s a normal street that runs parallel to it (and is presumably marginally more scenic than an interstate highway anyway).

With these logistical hurdles in mind, I ate a sandwich, grabbed my camera and sought out the nearest Scoot with a decent amount of charge: it was a five minute walk from my apartment. The scenic route is supposed to be followed anti-clockwise (to do otherwise would cause no end of one-way hassle downtown), but can be picked up from anywhere along its length. The closest starting point for me is the Golden Gate Park’s 19th Avenue entrance, so that is where I began.

I’ve been to the Golden Gate Park lots of times: it’s only three blocks from home and I cycle through it most days to get to work. However, it’s so big (20% larger than New York’s Central Park) that there are vast swathes that I’ve never visited. The first new area on my 49 Mile Scoot was the pleasant Stow Lake, tucked away off Martin Luther King Jr Drive.

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From the park, I followed the scenic route south. For large stretches of the route, there are no seagull signs. Where the seagull signs do appear, they tend to just confirm that you are on the correct road by pointing straight ahead, but fail to reappear at a junction where you might actually need one. Thankfully, a combination of a printout map and the GPS from my docked phone made navigating the route mostly straightforward.

Eventually, I turned onto Twin Peaks Boulevard, a winding road that strongly resembled those in the video game GTA San Andreas.

When the road could take me no further, I abandoned my Scoot and climbed the final few metres up both of the Twin Peaks on foot. The 360º vista from the top captured the whole Bay Area: the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin to the north; downtown SF and Oakland to the east; and the peninsula to the south.

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The Golden Gate from Twin Peaks

It was one of those views that’s hard to let go of, but 49 is a lot of miles and I’d only done about five of them so far. I rolled back down the other side into the Castro and to Mission Dolores.

Mission San Francisco de Asis, to give its full name, is the oldest building in San Francisco, dating back to June 1776. In Britain, that would be considered contemporary architecture, but Mission Dolores is about two weeks older than the United States (of which California did not become a member for another 75 years anyway), so on the American scale this is *ancient*.

The big stone basilica that I spent most of my time photographing turns out not to be the original Mission Dolores at all. I later learnt that it was only built in 1915, making it younger than three of my grandparents. Credit where it’s due, though, there’s some very impressive carving gone into it.

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The big fancy one built in 1915

The actually old building is a more frugal church next door, which I serendipitously photographed because it had one of the seagull signs in front of it.

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The old one, build in 1776, with a seagull sign in front

I headed along Cesar Chavez to make my first scooter swap at one of the Scoot charging stations. A fresh battery under my bum, I zoomed east, determinedly avoiding the I-280, but accidentally joining US-101 for a few hundred metres instead. I reached the Embarcadero at precisely the same time as a Giants game was starting, meaning lots of gridlocked traffic for me to carefully wobble my scooter through.

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AT&T Park

AT&T Park is a great example of a sports stadium designed to make the most of its location. It is open on two sides to allow a view across the bay (although this also makes it so cold that the fans often wear ski jackets). Despite the Giants having a dreadful start to 2017, the stadium sells out night after night, which is particularly impressive given the small population of San Francisco.

Continuing along the Embarcadero, I passed under the Bay Bridge (a structure that would surely be more famous if it wasn’t living in the shadow of its showy red friend to the north), turning left at the ferry building and into downtown San Francisco.

The scenic route takes weird meanders along lots of pretty nondescript urban avenues. I can’t help wondering if this might have been done to make up the length to 49 miles, due to the significance of this number (1849 was the gold rush, the city is supposedly 49 square miles – it’s actually 47 – and it’s represented in the NFL by the San Francisco 49ers, though they actually play their games in San Jose these days).

Anyway, there’s not much to note for a while apart from the big dome of city hall and a slight feeling of unease while stopped in the Tenderloin traffic.

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City hall

I emerge in Japantown. Like many things Japanese, it is relatively compact: not more than a few blocks of Japanese restaurants and this concrete pagoda.

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Japantown

Japantown is dwarfed by its Asian neighbour to the east. Chinatown is one of four Chinatowns in San Francisco, and is the largest outside of Asia.

After passing through Chinatown’s Gateway Arch, the Scooter crawls up the steep slopes, past Coit Tower before freewheeling down to the piers of the Marina. I was hungry and needed a pee, so decided to say goodbye to Scoot #2. I ate a lobster roll and did the next part of the route, along to Fort Mason, on foot.

Scoot #3 had 16 miles in the tank/battery, and I had no idea whether this would be enough to cover the aforementioned Scoot desert. I headed west into the Presidio, once a military fort and now a park, most famous for having the Golden Gate Bridge sticking out of its northern edge.

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The Golden Gate from Fort Mason

 

 

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Palace of Fine Arts

One of my favourite things about San Francisco is its ability to catch you by surprise with a spectacular view in an unexpected place. Because of the steep hills to the north of the downtown area, there are lots of streets that have spectacular views across the bay to Marin. Similarly, the Golden Gate Bridge can sneak up when you least expect it. On a clear day, five footsteps from my front door will give you a view of the tops of the towers, but there are plenty of better vantage points in the Sunset (which is too far away to be expected to have such good views of the bridge).

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The Golden Gate from Fort Mason

The only bit of the 49 mile scenic route that is non-circuitous is when it sends you down to Fort Point, at the base of the Golden Gate’s south tower, but it’s well worth the diversion.

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Fort Point

If you look away from the Golden Gate for a moment, you trip over other unexpected views. Like this one:

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From the Presidio, I rode west past Lands End to Ocean Beach, which is where I took my final photo:

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Ocean Beach, taken from the Cliff House. To the left are the windmills in the Golden Gate Park

The route then goes directly south along the Great Highway, which unexpectedly turned into a 50mph road that wasn’t strictly Scootable, around Lake Merced and back up Sunset Boulevard. I had an eye on the battery level (presented in the app as a countdown of the number of remaining miles) while I played a game of estimating how many miles it might be to 22nd and Kirkham, the nearest ‘blue zone’ (where Scoots can be parked).

As the battery level got lower, I realised there was no way I could complete the remaining journey up Sunset Boulevard to the GG Park with this scooter, so I instead aimed for a charging station on 12th and Judah (I figured it would be poor etiquette to park an almost empty Scoot on the street). The battery indicator dropped again… 3 miles… 2 miles… 1 mile. 0 miles. Would I have to push the scooter the rest of the way?

No, I put on my best physics hat and took advantage of the downhills to freewheel most of the way to the charging station. At this point, it would’ve been much easier to just go home (which was tempting, as I’d been going all day), but I would not let the 49 mile scenic route defeat me.

I picked up Scoot #4 and rode back to Sunset Boulevard (albeit at a more northerly point than where I left it – don’t tell) and into the western part of the Golden Gate Park, before exiting on 19th Avenue where I’d begun seven hours and four scooters earlier.

Was it worth it? Mostly, yes. I visited a number of places I haven’t been to in the nine months I’ve lived here, and Twin Peaks was a particular highlight.

Would I do the whole route again? Nope. There are easier ways of seeing San Francisco’s highlights than by riding a series of electric scooters along the 49 Mile Scenic Route.

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My approximate route

Following through on a Trump

I wasn’t going to blog about the election result; plenty of people with better informed views have already written thousands of words about President-elect Trump. However, the last 24 hours have been quite troubling and, if nothing else, I’d like to clarify my own thoughts by writing them down. This year, the world – in particular both my own country and the country I’m currently calling home – has embraced right-wing populism in a way that reminds me too closely of my GCSE History topic about Germany between the wars.

This evening, my usual cycle route home was blocked by a long protest march along Market Street. Thousands of mainly young people – probably many of my students – marched noisily, angrily and peacefully against the president that their country had elected, but that more than 90% of this city had rejected.

Their protest against a duly-elected leader of a democracy is obviously futile. But it wasn’t about achieving anything, it was merely a faucet of emotion, releasing the anger and upset that had been simmering all day. It was also the first time I’ve ever seen a protest which hasn’t been hijacked by the Socialist Workers’ Party, so that’s something.

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This morning, while waiting at a pedestrian crossing, a woman turned to me and said, “Nobody is happy today”. I made my way into school to find that a lesson had been cancelled and replaced by an assembly. One-by-one, students and staff took to the microphone to talk about how the news made them feel.

One or two cried, some were angry, a few spoke hopefully of how this result might spur young people into becoming more engaged in politics. Students from sexual, ethnic and religious minorities spoke of their fears for their safety, especially if they leave the liberal bubble of San Francisco to go to college in another state.

Watching these inspirational young people was a timely reminder that Trump, no matter the damage he may seek to inflict, does not represent the future of America. His politics were rejected by the young and by the growing non-white populations. This is an interlude, not a coda.

I woke up this morning with the same sick feeling I’d felt twice before in the last 18 months: first after the surprise Tory majority in May 2015, then after reading about Brexit in a Glastonbury tent. Much has been made about how both Trump and Brexit – and the abandonment of the centre ground by both the Conservatives and Labour – are signs of the death of liberalism. This is, of course, nonsense.

48% of Britons voted to remain a part of the EU. More people voted for Clinton than Trump (let’s shout this loud and clear: Trump was right about the system being rigged). These were not landslides. Liberalism isn’t dead, it’s just met its match.

Those of us on the liberal-left, who would now be called the elite by billionaires and stockbrokers, have a fight to both deal with the economic root causes of the rise of right-wing populism and also to firmly reject the bigotry that rides on its coat tails.

Millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic are legitimately pissed off. Their jobs have gone and will mostly never come back. Some have gone abroad, some are no longer needed. Last night, as I took an Uber home from a depressing party organised by the Democrats, I reflected on the likelihood that the car would be driven by a robot within five years.

There are 37,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in San Francisco alone (a city 10 times smaller than London). What are these guys going to do when the computer takes over? Is anybody’s job safe? Who says every classroom will need a teacher in 30 years time? According to a US government report, those earning under $20 an hour have an 83% chance of losing their job to a machine eventually.

Maybe, like the Luddites, we should smash the looms. Ban Uber, stop the march of the robots and AI. But here’s where the divided nation comes in. I’m a middle class professional with disposable income and I like this stuff. I like that I can get home from the city at night for under $5 by sharing my Uber with two strangers that an algorithm has determined are going in the same direction. I’d like it even more if it cost me $2 because I’m paying for a computer to push the pedals and turn the steering wheel.

There’s a robot vacuum cleaner buzzing around me right now. People like me love this stuff. It makes life easier, often more affordable and lets me use my leisure time more productively.

So, both Brexit and Trump were about half of a country reasserting itself and pointing that things aren’t going quite so well for them. Leaving the European Union will do little to address this, and Trump’s trickle-down economics certainly won’t. But that doesn’t matter: both campaigns, for the first time in decades, spoke to the concerns of these populations.

There’s no obvious solution beyond better education, to ensure that future generations are prepared for the world that’s coming, not the one that’s been. Maybe a guaranteed basic income can help those left behind.

Taking a leaf from national socialism, both these campaigns harnessed the power of scapegoats: Romanians, Muslims, Mexicans. I suppose it’s far easier to blame these outsiders for your problems than it is to make the more complex arguments about globalisation.

Sure, there are legitimate concerns about immigration, not just about the economic impacts, but also the cultural effects on local communities. However, it’s very easy for these debates to become racially charged, especially when Farage, Trump and Le Pen speak so frequently at the pitch of a dog whistle. And guess what? When you start being racist, when your campaign is supported by the BNP or the KKK, liberals like me will walk away and ignore you again.

My biggest short term fear about Trump is that those American racists who have felt compelled by political correctness (a.k.a. being polite) to keep their mouths shut, have now been given a permission slip to let all this pent up bigotry out. Racist incidents spiked after Brexit, and a French-speaking colleague has already been abused on public transport, shortly before the election.

Well, that’s nearly the end of this stream of consciousness. As today went on, despair and anger gave way to the hope that actually Trump was saying most of the really awful stuff for effect, like the childish troll he is. Or maybe the saner Republicans in Congress will rein him in. Or perhaps he’ll be impeached, except that would put Mike Pence in charge: a less odious human, but a politician with some quite repulsive views.

Who knows what will happen? America (or at least slightly under half of the slightly over half who voted) has just rejected the most qualified candidate ever in favour of the least experienced candidate ever, a man whose record of abuse would exclude him from most jobs. We live in interesting times.

Portland to San Francisco

I headed south east from Portland along route 26, bypassing the exciting sounding town of Boring and into the Mount Hood National Forest. I passed briefly through the unappealing sounding Government Camp, which actually turned out to be a twee Alpine ski resort, featuring such hilariously-named establishments as the Huckleberry Inn.

Once the trees finished, the landscape opened into a broad expanse of flat-topped hills and yellow grassland. I was entering central Oregon and it felt like the mountains and redwood forests of the Pacific coast had given way to the old west. Route 26 carried on through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation: an area of federal land, independent of Oregon and governed by the Warm Springs tribes.

The first town after the Indian reservation is, amusingly, called Madras (yes, yes, different Indians). Continuing south on the 97 took me through a string of run-down towns of various sizes. One of these towns, Chemult, was to provide my bed for the night. I had opted for the $50 per night Budget Inn over the $100 per night Eagle Crater Lake Inn. This decision was entirely justified; not because the Budget Inn was nice – it wasn’t, it was a dump – but because the Eagle Crater Lake Inn looked equally bad.

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The Budget Inn was a row of about a dozen rooms in a wooden building so flimsy that slamming the door in one room caused all of the others to shake. It reminded me immediately of my all-time worst motel experience in Flint, Michigan, but it was clean. The only dining option in town was a Subway attached to the gas station that the motel backed onto. I ate, watched TV for a while and slept.

I awoke to pouring rain, which didn’t bode well for the visibility at Crater Lake National Park, which was the reason why I’d taken this eastern detour of hundreds of miles. My rental car displayed the temperature in Fahrenheit, a scale I have no intention of ever being familiar with. I know that water freezes at 32F and boils at 212F; the lower of these two values was of most relevance to me, as I wondered whether the torrential rain would give way to snow as I ascended.

Sure enough, as I drove up the road to Crater Lake, the temperature ticked steadily downwards. When it reached 35F the rain became noticeably sleety. 34F… 33F… 32F… bang on queue, the downpour was replaced by big gentle snow flakes and the road began to cover over. By the time I reached Rim Village, the snow was deep and visibility was minimal. This meant that I could see nothing of the allegedly spectacular lake that I’d travelled so far to see.

Remarkably, the cafe and gift shop was open. I ordered a cheeseburger, much to the excitement of the staff who told me it was their first cheeseburger of the year.

“In October?” I asked
“We get a new menu each season. Cheeseburger is on the winter menu.”
“And when did the winter menu start?”
“Today”

So what they were really excited about was that I was the first person that day to order their cheeseburger. While three people set about cooking it, a chatted to the server. He had a peculiarly slow way of saying anything, so the only advice I got from him was that I should one day go and visit the Integratron near Los Angeles. He kept talking about energy in a way that made the physics teacher inside me scream in anguish, and was just getting onto the topic of UFO sightings when my cheeseburger arrived. Sitting lonely in the middle of a large plate, it met the minimum requirements of being a cheeseburger: bread, a thin grey patty and a slice of cheese.

I drove back down the other side of the mountain, heading west. I guess the altitude stayed higher for longer than on the other side, as I travelled much further before leaving the snow. While still inside the national park I saw a car being hauled out of a snowdrift by a park ranger’s pickup truck. This made me feel pretty smug about hiring a 4×4, although even my Jeep lost grip a few times.

A couple of miles west of the national park exit, I came across a large pickup truck stranded at the side of the road. I pulled over to see if there was anything I could do to help. As there was no mobile phone reception, he asked me to check there was a tow truck on its way when I next reached civilisation.

I drove for another 30 minutes or so and was well below the snow line before I eventually found a forest ranger station, where I dropped in to tell them about the stranded driver. Hopefully someone did actually go and rescue him…

I headed west, through dense redwood forests, until I reached Crescent City on the Pacific coast in northern California. My motel was pleasant (certainly compared to the Budget Inn) as were the coastal views. Crescent City itself, however, appeared to be nothing but a sprawl of semi-derelict motels and fast food chains, desperately competing with each other for a handful of late October visitors. One motel was even offering a free cheese pizza in return for custom (their generosity did not stretch to any toppings).

The following morning – the last day of my trip – I headed to the Trees of Mystery, a tourist attraction a few miles down the US-101. It is to forests what Ripley’s Believe It or Not is to museums; in fact, some of the strangely-shaped trees are apparently replicated at Ripley’s. These included the Elephant Tree (it had a branch that looked like an elephant’s trunk) and the Cathedral (several trees squashed together to form a natural chapel shape).

There was also a pointless cable car ride to the top of a hill. You are advised to only walk back down if you are an advanced hiker in proper shoes, so naturally I attempted it in a pair of Converse. It was only a mile long, though a little steep and slippy in places.

After exiting via the gift shop, I hit the road for a very long drive back to San Francisco. It was about 330 miles and I had originally planned to split it across two days, but decided to finish a day early instead. I only got a few miles before I was distracted again, this time by a drive thru tree.

Much of my interest in American road trips comes from reading Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent, in which he does two large loops around the east and west of the USA to recreate the holidays of his youth. During the western loop he recalls a 1950s postcard from some relatives who visited a drive thru tree and longs to go there himself. Sadly, he never got close enough to the large coastal redwoods to fulfil this, so in his honour I made sure that I didn’t pass on the opportunity.

I dropped $5 into the honesty box and waited in line behind the tree while a family from Texas took photos of themselves driving through it. When it was my turn, I drove through slowly, sparing only a couple of cm on either side. This particular hole-in-a-tree clearly predates the American penchant for SUVs; anything larger than my relatively modest Jeep would’ve got stuck.

My final journey back to San Francisco was uneventful, apart from my stupid decision to leave US-101 and take the nice coastal road along California-1 instead. This added two hours to my journey and involved a lot of twisty roads through forests in the dark, and one emergency stop to save the life of a deer.