New York and New England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Seattle to Portland

After a delightful weekend in Seattle visiting my friends Tim and Jen and their newborn Jack (joined also by Tim’s parents, over from London and meeting their grandson for the first time), I hit the highway in a rented Jeep. My road trip back to SF is to snake along the west coast of the US, through Washington, Oregon and northern California. I will visit the Mount Rainier, Crater Lake and Redwood national parks, as well as the city of Portland.

First glimpse of Mt Rainier, from the Bainbridge ferry

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Mount Rainier’s white peak is visible from Seattle, 100 miles to the north-west. Rain was forecast and, since my experience with a snowy interstate on the Donner Pass the previous weekend, I didn’t fancy getting stuck in a blizzard. This is my excuse for renting a 4×4, although nostalgia also played a role.

The Team America 2007 monster truck, and its spiritual successor

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I entered the national park from the north-east, heading first towards the visitor centre at Sunrise. However, being late October, the road to it was closed, so I made my way around the south side of Mt Rainier to Paradise. Paradise was exactly as the name would suggest: cold, windswept and deserted. Large heaps of snow had been pushed to the edges of a car park surrounded by wooden structures – hotels, restaurants, visitor centres, ranger stations – all of them with signs that basically said “We’ll be back in the spring.” Still, there were some excellent views across the mountains, even if Rainier itself was enveloped in cloud.

This lack of any open facilities was of increasing concern. It was late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, apart from half a bag of chocolate M&Ms and the free mini pretzels from my flight north on Friday. I was heading west to leave the park in search of sustinence, when around a forested bend I saw an oasis: an open inn. 

30 minutes later, satiated by a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese, I left the inn. As I did so, I overheard the advice given to another traveller to be careful driving at twilight, as this is when the deer come out. Sure enough, around the very first bend I encountered a gang of deer scattered across the road. Apart from a chipmunk that I may or may not have hit with my car earlier that day, this was my only encounter with wildlife in Mount Rainier.

As I made my way to the western exit, the park began to live up to its name, as the weather got rainier and rainier. This was my second visit to a US national park; Mount Rainier didn’t live up to the expectations set by my August visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park. While Lassen had weird geology and sulfurous discharges, Rainier was just a little barren. This was at least partly due to the season and partly to the weather, I guess. One cool feature I did find was Narada Falls, where I did what every other visitor with a camera did and took a slightly long exposure photo.

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I spent the night in a Relax Inn near Interstate-5, before heading west on the Washington-6 towards the Pacific coast. Nine years ago, on the east coast, I had lamented the death of small towns. Every town centre was dead, with the only viable businesses being located in the strip malls of chain stores, motels and fast food at either end of the town. Along this particular stretch of western highway, however, small town America was alive and well. I passed through towns with names like Pe Ell, Pluvius and Menlo, each one sporting a general store, a small post office (sometimes just a portakabin) and a gas station with prices 50% higher than normal. Not a chain to be seen, apart from the old fashioned Pepsi signs outside the general stores. I looked around my car to check for a flux capacitor.

Even the people sitting on their porches watching the traffic go by looked like they could be from the 1950s. In one town, a window was draped with the confederate flag. Considering the western states were never a part of the confederacy, I think we can conclude that this was just one guy wanting to make clear to passing motorists that he is a racist asshole. This at least made for some variety from the ‘Make America Great Again!’ yard signs that are usually used to convey this message. (The exclamation point at the end of that slogan tells you everything you need to know about Donald J Trump and his Comic Sans campaign.)

The three contiguous Pacific states are all solidly Democratic, but I have seen a total of zero signs for Clinton since beginning this trip. Even in liberal Seattle, there were plenty of Trump posters – and even a handful for the Libertarian Gary Johnson – but none for Clinton. In rural areas there are, however, thousands of signs for the election of local sheriffs, commissioners, fire chiefs and judges. If there’s one thing Brexit has taught me that it’s not necessarily a good idea to hold a popular vote for a fire chief, as an arsonist is likely to win.

I reached the US-101 road, which runs from northern Washington, through Oregon and all the way down to Los Angeles (entering San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge). I followed the road for about an hour before crossing the Columbia River into Oregon over the magnificent Astoria-Megler Bridge. Astoria was the first US settlement on the Pacific coast, and is now a charming (but not self-consciously so) seaside town with a boardwalk and (seasonal) boardwalk streetcar. I dropped into a colourfully-painted and empty cafe to eat a hearty bowl of clam chowder, with a side of garlic bread in which the garlic appeared to have been substituted for salt. It was lunchtime and I was the only customer, yet the chowder was good and the whole bill came to only $9.

After lunch I strolled along the boardwalk, soundtracked by the mysterious animal noises coming from a warehouse I passed. I’m pretty sure a flock of geese was using the warehouse to host an illegal bare knuckle fight between a pig and a sea lion, but it may just have been an abattoir.

I headed east along the Columbia to Portland, a city I know nothing about other than from watching Portlandia on Netflix. I was disappointed not to find any feminist bookstores, although I did find the huge statue on the Portland Building after which the show is named. The most Portlandia thing I did come across was a designated route through the city for skateboarders.

#portlandia

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I would’ve finished this blog post last night, but I stumbled across the American answer to the Great British Bake Off. Called ‘Forged in Fire’, it pits four men and women against each other to forge knives against the clock. When their knives are finished they are tested against various criteria, including ‘killability’. As I prepare to head south towards Crater Lake I will leave you with this inspirational quote from a contestant who had suffered a minor setback while attaching the handle to his knife:

“Thor himself punched me in the chest and said ‘You can do this’.”