The West

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

states

My all-time states

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Aboard the California Zephyr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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***

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

My arch enemy

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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San Francisco to San Antonio

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

I awoke to this view #amtrak

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

Ceremonial dipping of the feet into the Pacific #CoastToCoast

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

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

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

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