What I did on my holidays (part 5)

Thursday 6th November
We woke early to catch a 7am bus to Philadelphia. This was especially difficult for Neil, Mini Matt and Andy who had been in a bar basement until 4am listening to a jazz band who claimed to have a member of the Fugees (although this was debatable).

The Bolt Bus left from a stop a few blocks north of our hostel to make the hardly-scenic journey through industrial New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Interestingly, the bus somehow managed to conjure up a wifi connection for the whole two hour journey, even when we were underneath the Hudson River in a tunnel.

We stepped off the bus on the outskirts of the city centre. Actually, it was the outskirts of ‘centre city’, which is how Philadelphians describe the bit that other Americans call ‘downtown’. Looking along the Delaware River we could see the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the distance, better known as the Rocky Steps. I’ve never seen Rocky or any of the sequels, but apparently Sylvester Stallone’s boxer character used the front steps of the museum in lieu of gym equipment in montage scenes in five of the six movies.

After vaguely reassuring Andy that we may have time to visit the steps later in the day (we didn’t), we walked from 30th Street into the heart of the city. Philadelphia felt a world away from Manhattan. The streets reminded me of the small towns of America that we had spent the majority of our 2007 trip visiting: quiet, low-rise brick buildings lining two-way avenues and streets on which real people went about their daily business.

Philadelphia plays a pivotal role in any history of the USA. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both signed in the city and it was temporarily the nation’s capital in the late 18th century. The old part of Centre City contains several museums on these themes, particularly paying homage to local heroes Benjamin Franklin and the Liberty Bell.

The Liberty Bell museum begins with a series of display boards and videos, emphasising the importance of the bell to all Americans. It allegedly rang out to announce the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (although historians politely advise that this is probably bollocks as the bell tower wouldn’t have supported the weight). Since then, it has travelled the country, representing the principles of American freedom.

In 1846, while chiming for the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, a small crack in the bell turned into a much larger one. The bell hasn’t rung since, although it makes the occasional ‘dunk’ on special occasions.

We paid homage to the bell itself, cordoned off as it was and protected by a Ranger from the National Park Service, then wandered down to the riverside for a visit to the Independence Seaport Museum. This consisted of two dry-docked boats of the US Navy: the USS Becuna and the USS Olympia.

The Becuna is a submarine from World War II which was built in Philadelphia and launched in 1944. More than 70 submariners would somehow live in the tiny, cramped conditions as it patrolled the Pacific looking for Japanese ships. In the final room of the self-guided tour we met an ancient old man who had been one of those submariners.

The veteran told us that he was responsible for the problems currently facing America. He went onto explain that this was because his boat had rescued George HW Bush during WW2; if they hadn’t, then Dubya would never have been born. The old man even produced a signed photograph of the former President that was sent to the rescuers upon Bush taking office in 1989.

After touring the Olympia, a 19th century cruiser, we played on the interactive exhibits in the nearby museum before getting a cab to the railway station. From there we boarded a train to Atlantic City, New Jersey for an evening of James Bond-style glamour among cocktail-sipping high rollers. Except, of course, real life casinos are nothing like 007 would have you believe.

Atlantic City used to be a thriving seaside resort (still immortalised as the setting of the US version of Monopoly), but by the 1960s it had sunk into the kind of decline familiar to Blackpool and other English resorts. In 1976, voters agreed to legalise casinos in an effort to revitalise their city by creating an east coast Las Vegas.

Economically this worked, but at the cost of removing the soul of the city and replacing it with a sink hole of seedy despair. We visited Caesar’s Palace, an enormous casino beside the beach which stank of stale cigar smoke (despite a smoking ban). It consisted of several levels of almost identical floors, filled with slot machines and card tables as far as the eye could see.

The cheapest blackjack and poker tables had a minimum stake of $10 per hand, so instead we took to the more budget option of 25¢ fruit machines and video poker screens. Several hours later we left the casino; I was the only one of our group to leave without a small hole in my pocket, having found a knack for video poker which turned my $20 bet into $42.

We took the Greyhound back to NYC from a bus station full of the kind of shouty weirdos that normally frequent Camden Town in London. The bus was much less comfortable than the Bolt Bus we had taken to Philadelphia and it was almost impossible to find a sleeping position that didn’t lead to a very sore neck. Occasionally, we awoke to find the bus attempting a three-point turn across the highway; it turned out to be the driver’s first day and he was somehow struggling to find New York City. At around 2am, we finally arrived back at the Port Authority Bus Station.

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New York to Washington

Our plans for getting out of New York and down to Washington had swung back and forth many times. One option would take us down the coast, via Atlantic City and inland to DC. The other would go more directly via the cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore, which probably wouldn’t be great for cycling. Because of this, we settled finally on option one, though the sprawling mass of New York meant that the cycling could not actually begin until about 50 miles south of Newark Airport.

Dropping the cyclists off at lunchtime from a carpark in the small town of Browns Mills, I started my first solo drive of any distance towards Atlantic City (as you may recall, Ed was on a Grayhound bus because he couldn’t fit in the car with all the cyclists), although I wasn’t to be alone for long. Less than an hour in, I received a phone call from Neil because his bike had once again failed him. Retracing about 40 miles I collected them from the side of the road and drove west towards any town that may possess a bike shop.

We stopped at a Starbucks where our accents were admired by the staff and I bizarrely had a conversation about David Beckham with the girl behind the counter while buying CDs (I’m not a regular Starbucks visitor, so correct me if this is also the case in the UK, but American Starbucks sell CDs as well as coffee). The sports shop next door directed us to a bike shop which had just the part that Neil needed, so we all hit the road again in our respective vehicles.

By the time I reached Atlantic City, Andy and Alex were waiting at the motel and Ed had been bumming around downtown, mostly chatting up Eastern European cleaners and avoiding being thrown out of casinos for being underage.

I’d love to tell you exciting Bond-esque tales of gambling in the Las Vegas of the east coast, but we decided we couldn’t be bothered heading downtown and instead did our laundry at the Laundromat up the road. Relatively excitingly, our clothes got locked inside as the place closed for the night while we were eating at a nearby diner. As we loitered around the building, trying to shine the car headlights through the glass so as to be able to read the contact phone number inside, a Spanish-speaking man turned up and we were able to convey our problem to him. He returned with his Spanish-speaking friend moments later and they let us retrieve our washing. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Atlantic City can be any less exciting than Las Vegas.

On Saturday morning we awoke to Harry Potter mania; it seemed that every news channel could speak of nothing else (apart from George Bush’s colonoscopy and the fact that power was transferred to Dick Cheney for the duration). The plan for the day was to cycle/drive to the ferry at Cape May and then cycle/drive from Lewes until reaching the Chesapeake Bay bridges to the east of Washington, at which point people would be conveyed in the monster truck to our motel in DC. As with so many well-made plans, it went a bit awry.

About 30 miles into the 50 mile cycle to Cape May, Leo’s tyre split, prompting me to drive back up Route 9 to find them and provide a replacement. Alex and Andy, unhindered by such delays, had made the 12pm ferry, while the rest of us were well set to make the 1.45pm ferry in our respective modes of transport. Neil and Leo made it to the ferry in the nick of time, but when Ed and I arrived (after stopping to buy four copies of Harry Potter) we were told that there was no space for cars until 4.30pm.

We compared our available options and decided that driving around the mouth of the Delaware river and crossing it near Philadelphia would be a better option than sitting in Cape May for three hours. This replaced what would’ve been a 67 mile journey to the bridge with a 150 mile drive to the same point. It is such detours that illustrate the size of this country; at home such a distance would contribute a sizeable chunk of any journey from, say, the north to the south, whereas this 150 mile journey is but a speck on a map of the US.

Wanting to tick another fast food chain off Ed’s list, we stopped at an Arby’s for lunch. Their special twist is that instead of burgers they sell flat strips of beef, folded up and served exactly as though it were a burger. They also serve curly fries as standard and dispense ‘Horsey sauce’. Interestingly, it later turned out that Neil and Leo had already stopped at exactly the same branch of Arby’s while travelling in the opposite direction towards Cape May.

The journey was largely uneventful, with long, straight, empty roads taking full advantage of cruise control. We passed briefly through the USA’s second-smallest state, Delaware, which proudly claims to be the First State, since it ratified the constitution before any of the other 12 founding colonies. I’m not sure whether anything more exciting than this has happened to the state in the 220 years since.

By the time we reached Queenstown, near the magnificent Chesapeake Bay bridges, Andy and Alex were struggling with the heat and Leo and Neil were only just getting started from Lewes, having had more puncture problems after disembarking from the Cape May-Lewes ferry. Ed and I decided to push on over the bridge to DC (we would have to make a second trip whatever, as there are only five seats in the car). I then drove the 50 miles back across, collecting Andy and Alex in Queenstown, before moving further in to Denton where Neil and Leo had been forced to stop cycling due to the encroaching darkness. Finally, I crossed the bridge for a third time and we arrived at the motel shortly before 11pm. We’d been on the road for at least 12 hours, with the cyclists covering more than 100 miles in baking heat, and me driving over 400 miles in total. Already, at a little over 2000 miles, the monster truck has done more mileage with me at the wheel than it had ever done before.

New York, New York: Part 2

On Wednesday morning, we awoke to the sound of a violent thunderstorm in the streets outside the hostel. When we eventually ventured outside, the storm had eased to a drizzle, so we took the subway down to lower Manhattan. (An aside about the subway system: not only is it far shabbier than the London equivalent, but its name causes no end of confusion. I went into a bank to ask for directions to the nearest subway, only to later find that she’d actually directed me to the nearest branch of Subway, the popular sandwich chain.)

We headed down towards the ferry terminal at the southernmost tip of the island, passing Ground Zero on the way. To be honest, the former location of the World Trade Center towers was rather unmoving. Nearly six years on, it no longer resembles anything other than a huge building site in the middle of the financial district.

At the ferry terminal was Castle Clinton, a fort built to defend NYC against the British in the 1812 war. It actually saw no action in the war, though these days it is frequently invaded by Brits such as us because it is used as the ticket office for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

The Statue of Liberty sits in the mouth of the Hudson river and provides a wonderful foreground to the view back at the famous skyline of lower Manhattan. At a viewing platform on the island was an annotated drawing from 1997 of the skyline as it was then. It was this, and not Ground Zero, that was for me the most poignant reminder of 9/11 in the city. The drawing was not a memorial to the terrorist attacks, it was simply an outdated diagram of a skyline that had once been dominated by two enormous buildings that just aren’t there any more. Apart from a small gap where the twin towers once were, the current cityscape looks entirely natural; it is the drawing that looks like somebody has sketched on two outsized towers, perhaps concept drawings of a future development, rather than an accurate drawing of what once was. For two such huge structures to be literally erased from one of the world’s most famous skylines is really very haunting.

Another ferry ride later and we were on Ellis Island, the site of America’s main immigration centre in the early 20th century. Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million people entered the US at Ellis Island, their first sight of the land of the free being the Statue of Liberty and the lower Manhattan skyline. The museum was very interesting, although I totally failed to realise that there was more to it than just the main hall downstairs, thus missing out on most of it. I did find a relative called Mary Entwistle on the Ellis Island database, or rather I found five possible name matches for her.

Back on the sort-of mainland that is Manhattan, we walked through the financial district along Wall St. It was pretty much the same as walking through the equivalent in London, although the New York Stock Exchange was clearly identifiable as the front wall was adorned with an enormous stars and stripes. While grabbing a bite to eat at McDonald’s on Broadway (which had a grand piano on the staircase), we decided that since the previous night’s entertainment had been so good we might as well have a look to see what other shows were available for cheap.

While walking past Ground Zero on the way to Times Square with Neil and Leo, I heard someone call my name from over my shoulder. It was 5pm on a weekday evening, so the street was full of suited businessmen, among whom was the source of the voice: my Engineering pal Rob Collier. He is in New York for his training before he returns to London to move money around for a silly salary. Although I knew he was in the city (and, in fact, we had planned to meet up one evening but had been unable to), it was still rather strange to run into him in a street more than 3000 miles away from Durham. We couldn’t chat for long as he was off for some executive ten-pin bowling, though he was able to point out the swish looking hotel on the skyline where his bank are putting him up in a suite. It looked a bit nicer than our hostel, but I bet his air conditioning system doesn’t do an uncanny impression of the Niagara Falls.

An hour or so later, after buying tickets for Chicago (which we later to found to be entertaining, though nowhere near as good as the Phantom), Andy calls me on my mobile to find out where we were as he was watching news of an explosion at 41st and Lexington Ave. We were two streets to the north, though several avenues to the west, so we decided to head in that direction to find out what was going on.

Strangely, until we were only a few blocks away from the police cordon, nobody seemed to be aware of anything out of the ordinary happening. When we did reach the cordon, there were several dozen people taking photos of what we later learnt to be a burst steam pipe (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6905738.stm, but no panic.

Since we arrived in the States, it has seemed that every news story on TV is connected to terrorism in some way; it’s something of an obsession for the media. Yet here, right where almost every New Yorker you pass in the street would be able to tell you their own personal story of how 9/11 affected them, there is more of a relaxed, accepting attitude to whatever threat the city faces. To them, terrorism isn’t a catch-all word used by politicians in Washington to justify their actions, it is something that has irreversibly altered their lives and which they’ve been forced to accept the reality of. I guess it’s a similar view to that held by Londoners after enduring decades of IRA terrorism, although the scale of what happened to this city on one day in 2001 comes into focus when you see the lists of dead colleagues written on the side of each fire truck that passes.

Anyway, we hung around behind the police cordon, took a few photos and watched what I can only assume to be the FBI arrive (they were driving black cars with blacked-out windows, wore black suits, black ties and black sunglasses – the other possibility was Men in Black), before heading to the Theater District to watch Chicago which was nowhere near as exciting as the actual city of Chicago.

The following morning, our final full day in NYC, Andy, Alex, Ed and I headed for the UN headquarters on the eastern side of Manhattan. En route we visited Grand Central station, which is both grand and pretty central. It was still partially closed as a result of the explosion in the neighbouring street. Outside, it was a strange sight to see Red Cross tents and vans, as well as police and FBI in gas masks (there were concerns that asbestos dust may have been released, though this was later found not to be the case) patrolling the streets of New York. I bought a copy of the New York Post, which is the city’s equivalent of The Sun and was adorned with the headline ‘MIDTOWN VOLCANO!’ and lots of dramatic photos. The New York Times, which I had bought the previous day, looked to be taking a more sober and far less entertaining view on this tragedy so I left it unpurchased in one of the little dispensers that can be found on practically every US street corner.

The UN building is a must-see for any visitor to New York. It is a little island of liberal internationalism within a generally inward-looking, conservative country and the highly informative Swedish tour guide showed us both the General Assembly and Security Council chambers. It is technically international territory, so we stepped out of the US for a few hours to see the displays about how much money the west (read America) spends on the military and how a tiny proportion of that money would be enough to wipe out most of this planet’s ailments. I found it a little strange that the HQ of an organisation so often slated by US politicians could be sited right here in downtown Manhattan.

Stepping back onto US soil, we headed for the Empire State Building. It was the tallest building in the world from its construction in 1931 until 1970, and since 2001 has once again been the peak of New York City. Nevertheless, its position well to the north the financial district (where the twin towers had stood) means that it is unable to show off its height in the New York skyline because it is simply too far behind all the others to look at all special. Even its distinctive shape has been imitated by the Chrysler Building, leaving the Empire State looking forlorn and a little lost. Regardless of this, it is still the tallest thing for hundreds of miles, so we took the elevator right up to the viewing platform on floor 86.

At roughly this point, the clouds (which now enveloped us) decided they’d had enough of holding onto all that moisture and decided to let rip. I got almost as soaked as I did sitting on a boat just metres away from Niagara Falls. When the clouds did eventually lift, though, the view was fantastic and the position in the middle of Manhattan provided a view of the city that a harbourside skyscraper never could.

Macy’s prominently claims to be the world’s largest department store, and I think it may be correct. It goes up ten floors and down at least one, with entertainingly ancient wooden escalators carrying you between the uppermost floors. Also, and I’m not entirely sure how, it extends between 5th and 7th Avenues without being obstructed by 6th. After being deodorised courtesy of the free samples of aftershave that were being sprayed by eager salesmen all over the ground floor, we left Macy’s and headed to the district of Chelsea in search of some culture.

We found it within the many small art galleries in the district. The art was mostly modern, with some really good use of different media, including sculptures, paintings, mechanical chair things (it was very strange) and video.

Finally, on Friday morning we left New York bright and early, putting Ed on a Grayhound to Atlantic City and reclaiming our monster truck from Newark Airport’s long stay parking lot.

New York, New York: Part 1

It’s been a full working week since I last updated the blog and it’s been quite an eventful one at that. When we left off last Sunday evening Neil had a broken bike so was travelling by car until a cycle shop specialising in Trek models could be found. As luck would have it, the small town of Hamburg, NJ had exactly that, so Neil, Ed and I headed there as Alex, Andy and Leo hit the road for the 50 mile journey to New York.

The owner of the cycle shop (who may or may not have been a Bush Republican, as this time we decided to avoid finding out) was optimistic that he could sort it quickly and cheaply, so we headed across the road to a diner where I had a cheeseburger for breakfast. I now understand why Americans love their country so much: in the UK not even McDonald’s will sell you a cheeseburger for breakfast.

As it happened, the bike job was more complex than initially anticipated, so we sought out any activities in the immediate area that we hadn’t already tried. Failing, we decided to go back to the Franklin Mineral Museum which was now open and positively bustling, with two or three cars parked outside. Unfortunately, due to the $6 entrance fee I can only imagine the pleasures being enjoyed by the crowds inside, including the reconstruction of a mine shaft.

After another Dairy Queen ice cream we headed for the interesting sounding Tomahawk Lake, about a 30 minute drive away. It turned out to be a sort of water park with, get this, the longest water slides in the whole of New Jersey. Entrance was $9 each, which initially seemed reasonable, though it turns out this only allowed you to visit the shores of the lake and, if it took your fancy, go for a dip. A further $10 would have to be coughed up for a pass that would allow you to slide further than anyone else in the state.

We decided to pay nothing, as there really wasn’t much time before the bike should’ve been ready, so we went for a drive around Mohawk Lake, hoping to find a quiet beach where we could sit in the sun and do some reading. To our disappointment, though sadly not to our surprise, every beach we passed was privately owned by the wealthy residents of the area and strictly off-limits to the likes of us.

Finally, the bike was ready and we set off towards New York City. I dropped Neil and Ed at Newark Airport’s long-stay car park and set off to find the cyclists who had made it to Jersey City but had been unable to get their bikes on the public transport to the airport. People do not know how to drive in Jersey City. For that matter, people do not know how to lay out roads in Jersey City. The streets were a confusing maze of one-way systems and squid-like intersections, and the drivers were impatient and aggressive. A car park attendant reacted angrily to the prospect of the cyclists loading their bikes onto the back of the monster truck on his turf, and insisted on us moving 5 metres further up the road.

With the bikes loaded inside the car and everything we would need for a few days in the Big Apple to hand, we took the bus under the Hudson and onto Manhattan. Our hostel, the Gershwin Hotel, was an art-filled 20-storey building close to the Empire State Building. The hostel was clearly a popular one as the six of us were slotted into four different dorms, and they had space for us for only one night.

We dined at a restaurant at the base of the Empire State Building, then wandered along Broadway towards Times Square. It is magnificent; imagine London’s Piccadilly Circus on acid and you come close to the experience of Times Square. For a start, it isn’t really a square, it is more of a convergence of several streets, with every building in the vicinity covered from floor to about 10 storeys up with enormous television screens and scrolling text. The area is so bright that the ground appears to be bathed in sunlight.

The following day, we relocated to another hostel in Upper Manhattan, right next to Central Park. This hostel was more basic than the Gershwin, but also significantly less expensive. After returning to downtown by way of a long stroll through and alongside Central Park, we visited the Rockefeller Center. The Center consists of 14 art deco buildings that were entirely funded by John D Rockefeller Jr. The construction work took place during the Great Depression of the 1930s, providing plenty of work for New Yorkers who otherwise would’ve been without it.

We visited New York’s central library (”Now open six days a week!”) and had a tour of a photography exhibition. On stepping out of the peaceful cool air of the grand stone building back into the brightness of the city, we noticed something missing: noise and traffic. While we were busy being cultured, the blocks around the library had been evacuated by the police due to a bomb threat and we found ourselves having to step over NYPD’s ‘Police Line: Do Not Cross’ tape in order to rejoin the rest of the populace.

Nestled among the skyscrapers of New York are a number of churches, each of which provides an incredible area of silence in the middle of one of the busiest cities on the planet. Without exception they were ornately decorated and not much less appealing than Durham Cathedral. After visiting a few of these we headed back to Times Square with the intention of picking up cheap tickets to a Broadway show. We bought half-price tickets to Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theater.

The show was absolutely, mind-blowingly incredible. As well as the fantastic voices of pretty much the whole cast, the innovative use of the sets really made it come alive, including pyrotechnics, actors on wires and falling chandeliers. American theater audiences love to involve themselves in the shows, clapping every solo and even applauding the pre-show announcement to turn off mobile phones. In the row in front of us was a man who still managed to clap at all the wrong moments and, at one point, demonstrated his enjoyment by delivering a loud “yee-haw!”

After the show we found a bar (Irish-themed, like most bars in New York it seems) and enjoyed a few pints. In the bar we found the first American who does not identify our accents as being “London”, and in fact was able to do a northern English impression. His Geordie impression was as dodgy as ours, however. He did have a bit of an advantage, though, having lived in Britain for a number of years.

There’s plenty more New York blog to come, so look out for it over the next few days. Thanks to everyone that’s sent in messages of support for the trip, the cyclists in particular are very appreciative. Also, please remember that they’re putting themselves through this pain for a number of good causes, so if you haven’t already done so please consider giving a donation to one of them by clicking here. I’m writing this from Atlantic City, though the cyclists are already on their way to Washington DC, having decided to skip a stopover in Delaware and push right through.