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?

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.

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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.

Somewhere over my shoulder is the deepest lake in the US

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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.

Watching this car being towed out of trouble, I felt pretty smug about my 4×4 rental

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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).

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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.

I drove *through* a tree this morning

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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.

All The Way To Reno

According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com – which is the gospel on such matters – California has a greater than 99.9% chance of sending its 55 electoral votes to elect Hillary Clinton. To put it another way: both of California’s candidates for the Senate are Democrats. It’s about as blue a state as there is.

Debate watch party #debate

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This makes campaigning here, especially in San Francisco (83% Democrat), a waste of time for both parties. The only campaigning I saw at a recent free music festival was by the Greens, a party most famous for providing the self-righteous with a way of electing George W Bush back in 2000.

That is why I spent this weekend in Reno, Nevada on a campaign trip organised by the Democratic Party. Nevada is a much closer race, with Clinton narrowly leading in the polls. The Senate race here is a dead-heat.

Door knocking for Hillary in a swing state

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The weekend began at 5.15am on Saturday as I was picked up as part of a three-person car share organised by the California Democrats. By 9am, we’d crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains into Nevada and, after stopping to let me pee in a roadside bush, we arrived at a volunteer’s house in Reno. These volunteers, mainly retirees and students, have been working almost thanklessly for well over a year, right through the primaries and the general campaign. They really are the unsung heroes of a democracy that is often perceived as dominated by big-money advertising, large set-piece rallies and televised debates.

We were provided with a list of addresses and jumped back in the car to go and meet the voters on the doorstep. This is a “get out the (early) vote” operation, so all of the voters are supposedly supporters of Hillary Clinton and our job was to remind them of that fact and highlight the availability of early voting in Nevada, which allows citizens to vote in any one of a few dozen public places at any time between next weekend and election day a few weeks later. These face-to-face meetings are also a good opportunity to push the “down ticket” Senate and House races to ensure that Hillary supporters would also help elect Democrats to Congress.

I’d already received a little bit of training in how to pronounce Nevada correctly (Nev-AH-da, not Nev-AR-da). This wasn’t because I am British, but because Californians get this wrong too. As it was, I only used the N-word on the doorstep once, which may explain how not a single voter batted an eyelid at the British guy telling them how to vote. Either that or they’ve finally gotten over colonialism.

The one time I said “Nevada” was in the context of the saddest conversation I had all weekend. A Clinton supporter – a Latina woman – told me she probably wouldn’t be voting because “the people higher up will vote on who wins”. Her friend hovering in the background was furious with her for this combination of disenchantment and ignorance. I broke cover and confessed that I didn’t have a vote, but that she – as a swing state voter – had the opportunity to have a real impact on the outcome of this election. She didn’t want Trump to win, yet she was unconvinced that there was any point voting to help stop it.

There was little evidence of Trump or his supporters around, save for the Trump sign I found in a dumpster and the two cartoonish Trump supporters who shouted “Vote Trump” at us from across the street. Little did they know that I was actually an immigrant who could do no such thing.

Right where it belongs #dumptrump

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After a day of canvassing in the affluent suburbs of north-west Reno, I checked into my hotel in the Circus Circus casino. This had been recommended to me by the campaign, giving a small discount. And I can heartily recommend it to you, if you’re a fan of paying $100 for any of the following:

  • A bed without breakfast
  • A hard mattress topped with a blanket and sheets
  • Easy access to a casino with free circus shows (unavailable until November 2016)
  • Low-grade toilet paper

I’m being unfair. Yes, I could’ve stayed more cheaply at a nearby motel, but then I wouldn’t have received a booklet packed with money-off vouchers for Circus Circus and the two near-identical casinos down the road. It was with this in my back pocket that I stepped out into the pouring rain to seek out my 2-for-1 beer. I drank my two pints of Coors Light (a homeopathic version of lager) in a dingy casino bar while listening to a hen party argue about Donald Trump and Secret Santas.

Remarkably, I was able to have all of this fun, inhale an all-you-can-eat bbq rib dinner and stare at some people playing roulette, and still be in bed by 9.30pm.

Day two of campaigning was a somewhat less pleasant experience. The stormy weather of the previous night had not abated and we were sent to a more challenging neighbourhood. After variously being frightened by loose pitbulls; followed incessantly by a cute (but unrelenting) Bolognese dog; shouted at by a man who didn’t believe a woman should be president; lectured by a self-confessed felon who thinks that Clinton will take his guns away; and coughed at by a sick woman who spoke no English, we finished up and headed home.

The rain made for a slow journey, that got even slower when it turned to snow over the Donner Pass. Thanks to my mum for pointing out that an expedition stuck in snow here in 1846 resorted to cannibalism. I assume this is why the donner kebab is so-called.

It's snowing…

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For the benefit of those who’d like to know what else I’ve been up to in the two months I’ve been in San Francisco but haven’t bothered blogging about, here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • A road trip to Santa Cruz, via the coastal road on the way down and the Redwood State Park on the way back
  • A road trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • A gourmet ice cream tasting evening with a group of other people who are new to the city
  • A drinks evening for Brits in San Francisco
  • Occasional games of football (soccer) in Presidio
  • Watching baseball at the Giants’ stadium with work friends
  • A pub quiz on a Monday night that wasn’t as good as the Monday Night Quiz
  • Presenting Mega Seating Plan at the Bay App Festival, following a back-to-school period which saw my app reach 5000 registered users
  • Watching the second presidential debate with the Hillary campaign
  • Learning French in evening classes at my school
  • Attending the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, featuring Cyndi Lawper and a guy from The Eagles
  • Watching some free comedy in Golden Gate Park
  • Writing a bit of comedy, but not getting around to actually trying it out on the San Francisco open mic circuit yet
  • Watching the US equivalent of the Red Arrows – the Blue Angels – pull stunts over and around the Golden Gate Bridge

And so on… I’ve been busy.

Next weekend I’m flying up to see Tim and Jen (and meet Jack for the first time) in Seattle and returning via a long road trip down the west coast. I intend to blog.

Flat

Despite San Francisco being famously hilly, it has excellent cycle infrastructure, including a route known as ‘The Wiggle’ that eases westbound cyclists home by avoiding the steepest inclines. This afternoon, as my Brompton and I struggled up the final gentle climb of The Wiggle, an overtaking cyclist shouted “You do know it’s flat, right?” to me as he sped past.

The Wiggle

The Wiggle

Naturally, I was rather annoyed by this breach in cycling etiquette. How dare he cast aspersions on my lack of uphill fitness? It may not have been L’Alpe d’Huez, but it certainly wasn’t flat and it came at the end of a series of tiring hills at the end of a busy week. Who was he to judge? Etc.

I continued to stew about this for a minute or two, before my brain caught up and realised what you probably guessed about a paragraph ago: he wasn’t referring to the road, but to my punctured rear tyre. What I had assumed to be an act of cruelty was actually one of kindness, and I rightly felt bad about the less-than-gracious face I had pulled at this courteous stranger.

The point of me telling you this story about a single word that has two meanings is to facilitate a segue (or, if you’re hipster enough, a Segway) into a discussion of single meanings that have two words associated with them. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for the Brit-in-the-USA moan about American English.

Google tells me that it was George Bernard Shaw who first described England and America as “two countries divided by a common language”. This is quickly obvious to British tourists here, as they begin their vacation by unloading the trunk of their automobile onto the sidewalk. It gets more tricky once you start to live and work here.

Last week I moved into a studio in the Sunset district. Like a Thatcherite theme park, over here you have to pay a private company to collect your bins every week and to set this up you have to call the company and request the service. For a Brit fresh off the boat, this call resembles a one-sided game of Taboo, in which the words “bin” and “rubbish” are forbidden, but you also worry that they might think you’re taking the piss if you say “trash can” in an English accent.

Sunset

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But by far the hardest linguistic adjustment I’ve had to make is starting work as a teacher in a US high school. The US system appears to be mercifully free of the never ending catalogue of acronyms that have taken over British education (“Here’s a WAGOLL of some DIRT completed by an SEND student with EBD, ASD and a little ADHD. Is this A* student G, T, G&T or MA? Pass my G&T.”) However, there’s still plenty of room for confusion.

So, on the off-chance that this blog is ever read by a teacher who happens to be transferring from the UK to the US (or vice versa), here is my guide:

UK: Year 10
US: Grade 9 – a.k.a. freshmen

UK: Year 11
US: Grade 10 – a.k.a. sophomores

UK: Year 12
US: Grade 11 – a.k.a. juniors

UK: Year 13
US: Grade 12 – a.k.a. seniors

UK: Form tutor
US: Advisor

UK: Timetable
US: Schedule

UK: Class
US: Section

UK: Late
US: Tardy

UK: Special educational needs
US: Learning challenges

UK: University
US: School or college

UK: Maths
US: Math

UK: Sport
US: Sports

UK: State school
US: Public school

UK: Public school
US: Private school

UK: World history
US: American history

…and I haven’t even considered the French terminology that is freely used at my school.

Anyway, returning to my opening story, I had to take my bike on the bus the rest of the way home to my ground floor flat or, as it’s known here, my first floor apartment. Given I can’t cope with two meanings of ‘flat’, it’s probably for the best they’ve got a separate word to describe my home.

What I did on my holidays (part 1)

Saturday 1st November 2008

At an eyeball-achingly early time, Andy, John, Matt, Matt and I dragged ourselves to Heathrow Airport via seemingly half the tube network. We’d checked in for our flight online the previous evening and only had hand luggage, so were afforded the luxury of minimal queues to board Virgin Atlantic flight V003, bound for New York JFK.

The flight was actually the most comfortable I’ve ever experienced; the food was more than edible (starter, main, bread roll, dessert, wine and even a cheese course), there was actually leg-room and the back of the seat in front contained a wonderful media player. On demand, we could watch movies, TV shows, play battleships with our neighbours and even send abusive messages to John.

We took the impatiently long subway train from JFK right into the heart of Manhattan at Times Square. I had arranged for us to meet Neil outside the neon-signed NYPD station at 4pm. After a journey of 3500 miles, we arrived just 10 minutes late. Neil, however, had given up waiting and gone back to the suite in the Hilton that he’d rented for the previous night. Two phone calls and 15 minutes later we were all reunited under the dazzling lights of Times Square.

We walked a dozen blocks south to find our hostel on 8th Avenue and 30th Street. It appeared to be a little seedy outside, situated as it was above a Subway (the sandwich chain store, not the NYC underground system) and an apparently 24-hour florists. Regardless, the hostel was clean, secure, delightfully cheap and, importantly, very central.

After dropping our bags, we headed directly along 33rd Street towards the Rockefeller Center. Or rather that’s what I thought it was, instead of the Empire State Building which it actually was.  The fact that I (a buildings engineer) had failed to correctly identify perhaps the most famous skyscraper in the world proved to be an endless well of ridicule for my travel companions over the next week. In my defence, it does look a lot different from the photographs when you’re standing at the bottom of it looking east (although I have been up it before, so really should have known better).

We ate in a restaurant at the bottom that Andy, Neil and I had remembered to be very tasty from our previous visit to New York. Unfortunately it appeared that more than two weeks of American food in 2007 had done something to our taste buds that couldn’t be replicated after 8 hours of Virgin Atlantic in 2008; on this occasion the food wasn’t all that great. Never mind.

Up we went in the great elevators of the Empire State Building. I recommend that any visitors to New York save this particular rite until the sun has set; the Big Apple is as beautiful by night as it is loud and grubby by day. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but in my view there are many more attractive cities in the world than New York, but at night it turns into a magnificent array of lights that simply refuse to be ignored. There’s only one downside to looking at this metropolis from the top of the Empire State Building, and that is that you can’t see the Empire State Building.

 

Sunday 2nd November 2008

After a night of jet-lag recovery, we decided to walk from our hostel down to the financial district. Although we were staying on 30th Street, it turns out the numbering doesn’t begin from the sourthernmost tip of Manhattan, so we were barely halfway there after covering the 30 blocks to 1st Street.

We walked passed a terrifying Orwellian skyscraper with no windows; in fact, the only break in the smooth concrete surface was for a row of enormous ventilation grills about halfway up. Later research established that this was the AT&T Switching Center, filled with equipment that would prefer not to receive daylight and workers who presumably wished that they did.

We visited Ground Zero, the former site of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It is now a bustling building site for the Freedom Tower which is due to rise from the ashes by 2013. We called into the nearby St Paul’s Church which became a refuge for recovery workers in the days and months after the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. It is now treated as a memorial site to those who died.

From here we headed down Wall Street and to the stock exchange. The turmoil that this area had both caused and suffered over the last few months was absent on this quiet Sunday morning. The area was silent but for the chattering of tourists and the clicking of their cameras. After making appropriately abusive gestures towards these cathedrals of greed, we stepped down into the subway and headed north to Times Square to watch some F1.

We settled down in the enormous ESPN bar and took a table close to screen number two of the twelve on the video wall. Our table had a small LCD screen on it too, so we turned off the American football and tuned it into the Brazilian Grand Prix. Perfect.

Unfortunately, the waiting staff weren’t quite so happy with our seating arrangements. It turned out we were meant to have been seated by one of them, so we had therefore jumped a queue by just sitting down. This was rubbish, as there was no queue and several empty tables. Nevertheless, they actively ignored us until we almost literally waved in their faces. Eventually we were served, on the condition that we spend at least $10 per person per hour; this wasn’t a problem considering the price of the beer.

We watched Lewis Hamilton win the Formula 1 World Championship on the very last corner of the final lap of the final race of the season, cheering happily in a cavern full of oblivious NFL fans. On a high and with a couple of tall beers inside us we marched up 6th Avenue towards Central Park in order to see the New York Marathon. On the way, we successfully adapted the lyrics of almost every Broadway musical to be about the 2008 Presidential election. Some examples included “Obama Mia” and “Hakuna Obama”. The album will be out in time for Christmas.

We stood at the half-mile to go marker of the marathon and were appalled by the lack of excitement being exhibited by the crowd compared to the London marathon earlier in the year. We attempted to make up for this by cheering the names emblazoned on every running vest that crawled, limped and jogged past us. It roused a few smiles just in time for the bank of press cameras a few metres further along the course.

For the evening we found a southern-style BBQ house a couple of blocks from our hostel. For $22 they offered all-you-can-eat ribs and all-you-can-drink Bud Lite, with a time limit of two hours. It turns out this is made profitable due to an apparent allergy of the waiting staff to serving customers their ribs and their beer. Their incompetency, however, was ultimately to our advantage, as they failed to notice that only three of our party had ordered the all-you-can-drink, yet none of us ever seemed to have an empty glass…

The final blog

So, we’ve arrived. The cyclists left the motel relatively early, at about 8am, with no complaints or grumbles about the hour or what lay ahead for the day. They all knew that the 48 mile journey from Marathon to Key West would be the last time they would cycle on this trip. About an hour later, I set off along Route 1, counting down the mile markers as I gradually approached zero and stopping only to pick up a bottle of champagne from a liquor store along the way.

I hadn’t passed any of the cyclists along the route, so when I arrived at the Southernmost Point, I had expected to find the cyclists already there. As it happens, they were still some distance away, so I loaded my change into a parking meter, abandoned the monster truck and set off in search of a beachwear shop so that I could finally buy some replacement swimming shorts. Finally, I managed to buy some – from a pharmacy of all places.

The Southernmost Point is a brightly painted bollard indicating that the long queue of tourists waiting to be photographed next to it are at the most southern point of the USA and only 90 miles from Cuba. The fact that one can clearly see other points that are further south did not deter the tourists, nor did it deter us from making this symbolic place the end point of the cycle ride.

I waited by the bollard for the cyclists. Eventually, Andy and Alex arrived in their trip tee-shirts (kindly provided by Armstrong UK), shortly followed by Neil and Leo. Leo’s leg was alarmingly wrapped in bandages, but thankfully it was just a spot of sunburn and not a final day cycling injury.

With everyone now dressed in the trip tee-shirts, I popped open the bottle of bubbly and poured it into some disposable Holiday Inn plastic cups. This attracted some attention from the queue of tourists, so before long we had a rapt audience listening to our tales and taking photos of us beside the Southernmost Point.

When the champagne was drained and the plaudits were subsiding, we sought out a beach on which to spend the afternoon. Most of the ones marked on the map appeared to have been replaced by building sites (presumably to turn them into private beaches for the guests at the expensive seafront hotels), but eventually we found one further to the east. Compared to the wonderful beaches at Myrtle Beach and Daytona Beach, this one was frankly a bit disappointing. The sand smelt of rotting seaweed and the sea itself was murky and shallow. Still, we splashed about for a while before checking into our motel at the east end of the island.

In the evening, we arrived in the main town centre of Key West moments too late to see the famous sunset. We dined at a seafood buffet restaurant where nutcrackers were provided to crack open the crab legs. Neil tentatively attempted to overcome his seafood phobia with mixed results, but found happiness in the ice cream section of the buffet.

On Tuesday we spent a day on another beach which was closer to the town centre, but still not particularly nice as far as beaches go. Determined to see the sunset, we headed to a bar on the north side of the island where the cyclists (i.e. not the designated driver) drank effeminate-looking cocktails. According to the Lonely Planet guide, 40% of Key West is gay, though we’re not sure if this includes the naval base. Even the taxis on this island are pink.

Annoyingly, cloud obscured any view of the sunset, so we moved on to an alleyway claiming to be the smallest bar in Key West. It really was tiny; the drinkers were a combination of people like us who had been lured in off the street and people who had been in there all day. One of the regulars bizarrely warned us to “never get caught pissing on a skunk”, which is unarguably a sound piece of advice.

The following day, it was my turn to see what all the cyclists were making a fuss about. In order that we could leave the car at the free parking of our motel, I dropped the others in town, drove back to the motel and then cycled the three miles or so back in. I don’t know what the big deal was; cycling is easy!

Andy and Alex had signed up for a scuba dive outing, while Neil, Leo and I had paid about a third of the price for a snorkelling trip off the same boat. The scuba divers had spent the morning in the swimming pool and were given detailed instructions and a mountain of equipment on the boat, whereas the snorkelers (the three of us, plus a young Dutch boy and his mother) were simply given a mask, snorkel and flippers and told to jump off the back of the boat. This was fine by us, as it meant we were allowed to swim freely around the reefs for a couple of hours, while the scuba divers had to follow their instructors around.

Apart from a couple of panicky moments when we saw a red jellyfish bobbing towards us, the snorkelling was great. We saw huge shoals of brightly coloured fish swimming only inches away from us; it was just a pity that the overcast weather reduced visibility slightly.

In 1982 the federal government decided it was time to do something about all the drugs and illegal immigrants that were entering Florida via the Keys. They built a roadblock at Homestead and checked every vehicle leaving or entering the Keys, causing severe delays and inconvenience for the residents. In response, the PR-savvy mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, issued a Declaration of Independence, announcing the secession of the Keys from the USA. The Conch Republic was formed with Wardlow as its new Prime Minister, and it immediately declared war on the US, surrendering one minute later. They then applied for $1 billion in aid from the USA which, unsurprisingly, they are still waiting for.

Of course, the Conch Republic was never intended to be anything more than a PR stunt to boost tourism to the Keys, although they did briefly repel a US military island invasion practice with water cannons. More than 20 years later, the Conch Republic and its pink shell symbol live on as a camp tourism trap. The best bit, though, is their motto: “We seceded where others failed”.

On Thursday morning we lay in and missed breakfast, so we went to the Waffle House that was connected to our motel. The waitress warned us as she took our drinks order that they were out of both waffles and orange juice; this made Leo irate. The service was crappy, the food was rough (the hash brown was essentially almost-raw grated potato) and the officially non-existent waffle batter was being splashed across the floor by the staff. In the end, however, it was OK because our waitress was so inattentive that she entirely failed to bill us for one of our meals; she got a $5 tip for this.

We had intended to ride the Conch Train (a guided tourist road train) around Key West, but it turned out to be $27 per person. Instead, we split into two groups: Neil and Leo went off to some pirate museum, while Alex, Andy and I visited Truman’s Little White House. The Little White House was President Truman’s retreat away from the formalities of Washington DC. Even in the face of press criticism, he spent 10% of his Presidency in Key West between 1945 and 1953. Apparently, he got more work done there than he did in Washington, perhaps because of the relaxed atmosphere and the loud shirt competition he forced upon his staff. The tour of the Little White House was given by a woman from London who had a bizarre habit of doing dreadful Churchill impressions occasionally.

Moving along the road, we visited Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home, where the writer had lived during the 1930s. Having never acquainted myself with “Papa’s” work, almost everything the entertaining tour guide told us was news. Interestingly, the house is a home to around 50 cats and, even more interestingly, half of them have six toes per paw. They are all descendents of a mouser that was given to Hemingway by some sailors.

Cultured to the brim, our next museum was the Key West branch of a chain that I’d been pleading to visit for weeks. Ripley’s Believe it or Not began as a series of newspaper cartoons in 1918, featuring weird and unbelievable facts; the museums of the same name feature exhibits and images to illustrate some of these facts. We bought our tickets with our tongues firmly in our cheeks, but left hours later, grinning. Almost to our disappointment, Ripley’s Believe it or Not is actually, genuinely quite good.

Yet again, we tried to watch Key West’s famous sunset, but unfortunately it was once again obscured by the only clouds in the sky. Nevertheless, it was pretty impressive and we watched it until the sky’s darkening was accelerated by storm clouds rolling over. We ate at a Jamaican restaurant where the food was distinctly average, but perhaps we should have considered that the owners of a restaurant called Jamaican Me Crazy may have actually thought of the name-pun before they thought about whether they could cook Jamaican cuisine.

On Friday morning we packed up to leave Key West, stopping only to buy Key Lime Pie (a local delicacy and absolutely delicious) and for Neil to buy Key Lime Wine (a less well-known local delicacy which is apparently “surprisingly nice”). On the way along the Keys we walked a trail in search of the endangered Key Deer; we saw a few through the undergrowth. Our journey was bizarre for two reasons: firstly, we were travelling north for the first time since we reached Toronto six weeks ago. Secondly, we were retracing steps that I had previously driven and the cyclists had already ridden. This was the beginning of the end of our adventure.

Hours later we arrived at the final motel of our trip, just south of Miami in Florida City. We couldn’t get settled for long, though, as we had an appointment in Miami. The previous evening I had checked the baseball listings to find that finally our visit to a city coincided with a game. In this case, it was the Florida Marlins at home to the San Francisco Giants.
After a little confusion as to where the stadium was, we paid our $16 (how cheap is that?) and took our seats in the empty stands at the start of the third innings of a total of nine. Baseball is a strange game; it is even slower than test cricket, but with those awkward quiet moments filled with cheerleaders, mascots and co-ordinated crowd sing-a-longs of unwieldy club songs to prevent any problems with the audience’s attention span.

As far as I could tell, baseball is essentially a complicated version of the British schoolgirl’s favourite, rounders, except a run is scored perhaps only two or three times in three hours. A frequent American criticism of football/soccer is that it is too low scoring; I think maybe they need to look again at baseball.

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the game and I’m sure it can have the same hypnotic appeal as test cricket, but even the atmosphere was a little disappointing. Considering the crowd has literally minutes between moments of excitement, they have done a pretty poor job of spending this time productively by coming up with amusing songs or chants. In fact, they have just one chant: “Let’s go Marlins”, which is shouted repeatedly until eventually three batters have been outed on each team nine times, then everyone goes home without caring all that much about the final score. The following evening the same players repeat the match, and then again the next night and the night after that.

This morning we awoke to the news that Hurricane Dean was unlikely to come close to Florida, but was predicted to strike Jamaica full-on. The newscasters seemed far more concerned about whether Jamaica would take the bite out of the storm before it hits Texas than they did about what would actually happen to Jamaica and its people. I also noticed that despite it being a big island right in the middle of the on-screen map, Cuba is never ever mentioned by weather forecasters or reporters. Dean might well be about to hit southern Cuba, but as far as the US networks are concerned, it doesn’t exist. It’s as though an enormous Communist elephant is sitting off the Florida coast, but nobody wants to admit it.

Andy, Alex and I set off into the Everglades (Neil had been bitten by insects all night, so decided that stepping into a mosquito’s den for the day was not a good idea). At the visitor centre in Flamingo (a town with no flamingos at the far western end of the Everglades road), we saw a rare sight: a saltwater crocodile swimming around the marina. Alligators are very common in the Everglades, but their skinnier, greener cousins are quite rare here, although it is the only place in the world where both live side by side.

Crocodiles and alligators are tough, primitive creatures. They have evolved little since dinosaurs existed more than 65 million years ago, making them just about the closest things to them alive today. It is an indicator of how perfectly evolved they are that they have barely changed in a period of time 250 times longer than humans have existed for.
After being harangued by mosquitoes on a few forested trails, we took to the boardwalks back at the eastern end of the Everglades. In the surrounding marshes we saw several alligators and I was alarmed to see that the source of a loud squawking was a pair of large vultures sitting on the branch above my head.

We returned to the motel to begin the solemn task of emptying the monster truck of six weeks of accumulated crap. After vacuuming and washing the car, we went for our final evening meal in the USA at a seafood and steak house down the road. I ordered surf and turf again, and this time it was perfect. I now do see why people make such a fuss about lobster. To round things off, we ordered five slices of Key Lime Pie.

So that’s about it. Tomorrow evening, we board flights IB6120 and IB3164 (for the benefit of our parents), arriving in Heathrow at 2.45pm on Monday. Six weeks is a long time and we’ve seen so much since stepping off that plane in Chicago back in early July. We’ve witnessed one of the planet’s greatest natural wonders in Niagara Falls, and one of mankind’s greatest ever achievements at the shuttle launch in Florida. Along the way, we witnessed a tragedy unfold as a steam pipe exploded in New York City, enjoyed the theme parks of Orlando and were treated as a novelty in the Deep South, simply for being English.

By the time we reach Miami Airport tomorrow, I’ll have driven my monster truck almost exactly 5000 miles. If you were to drive in a straight line from London, that sort of mileage would take you to Zimbabwe, Brazil or almost to North Korea.
It is a very long way, but it is nothing compared to the 1600 miles or so that the cyclists have pushed and pulled themselves through to get from Niagara to Key West. Every one of them has put themselves through a personal hell at one time or another in order to drag that bike up a hill or along a scorching hot road, so my first thank you is to them for allowing me to tag along on their adventure with minimal discomfort of my own.

Secondly, thank you to our kind sponsors, Armstrong UK, who provided us with free clothing for the trip. Also a thank you to my other college son (the one I didn’t run into in Orlando), Andrew Goodchild, who I believe built the http://www.unihouse.co.uk website, which has certainly made the financial side of the trip so much easier to handle. If you live in a student house, you really should give it a try.

Thanks to everyone who has opened their wallet and sponsored one of our five good causes: your money is going directly where it is needed. Through donations to my nominated charity, Wateraid, there are at least ten people in the developing world who now have access to a lasting supply of clean water. Those ten people would probably be dead without your generosity.

I’d also like to thank everyone who has followed our trip on this website and everyone who has offered us support over the last month and a half. The number of people visiting every day (close to 150) has been way beyond what any of us could have expected. People that we met once along our travels and even people we have never met have been logging on, so thank you for giving all of us an incentive to blog our experiences.

Finally, I’d like to thank America for having us. This country has been surprisingly… surprising. It is easy to feel that one already knows the country, having been bombarded by its culture back in the UK. In fact, it has provided the unexpected at almost every turn, which has made the blog more interesting if nothing else.

Thanks for reading my glorified holiday diary. I’m off to London to get a job and pay off this trip.

Rob

The story in Alex’s words…

The story so far in Alex’s words…So after being sat on a bike for 84.5 hours we have finally made it to Key West and I decided it was time that I wrote something for the website. Arriving was very surreal – we stopped 5 miles outside of the town to change from our rather sweaty lycra into our very stylish Team America T-Shirts so everyone knew what we had done and for a bit of self promotion. The final few miles were slightly hairy as the roads were a little busier, the hard shoulder had disappeared and Andy was trying to film us reaching the finishing post. The plan was to head to Mile 0 on Route 1 before turning left to go to the Southernmost Point of Continental America; we didn’t find Mile 0 as it was further north than we thought and we ended up in a housing estate feeling a little confused so we headed for the sea and found Rob perched on a flowerbed waiting for us by the large red and yellow bollard and queue of tourists that marks the Southernmost point.


For the first time in our 23 days on the bikes Neil and Leo had left without a mobile phone, this was not going to be a problem as we were going to meet them for breakfast just before the 7 mile bridge however they never turned up because they got puncture and decided to push on to get breakfast further down the road. This meant we couldn’t contact them to find out how far from Key West they were so we waited for them to show up hoping they had not broken down or been mowed down! Fortunately they showed up 45 minutes later and we joined the queue to get our picture taken by the bollard whilst Rob nipped back to the car to collect T-shirts for Neil and Leo. He reappeared with their T-shirts and our cooler which contained a bottle of champagne on ice. What a legend! We toasted our success and soon had a crowd taking our picture and quizzing us on our trip. I felt a little bit like a minor celebrity as everyone wanted to know what we had done and what it was like. Very weird considering it had started as a random pipe dream in the bar one night never really believing that it would actually happen. Overall it was just a feeling of massive relief and joy that we had reached our destination and completed the trip.

The trip itself has been fantastic; much better than I thought it would be. The cycling has been incredibly tough – the mountains in the north were long and steep and the days in the south were like cycling through an oven. But we have got to see some beautiful parts of the country and meet some fantastic people. We have had our scary moments as well – dodging trucks on our way into New York, avoiding dogs in the south and trying to distinguish the live snakes from the assorted debris that litters the side of the roads.

I now must say a few thank yous; firstly to Rob who has been amazing throughout the trip. He has done most of organising and booking motel and has not complained once when he has had to go out of his way to pick one of us up or drop something off for the cyclist. Without him we would not have made it and he has put up with the smell of 4 peoples very sweaty kit that has not been washed as often as it should without complaint.

Secondly to all of the people we have met along the way that have been so friendly and supportive. We have been given a lot of free gifts that have helped us along the way; from the person who pulled into the side of the road to offer us some ice cold bottles of water to the lady who gave us a towel after we had been caught in a thunderstorm. All have been massively appreciated and most of them will not know about this website or the journey we have undertaken. I will also take this opportunity to thank all the people who have sponsored us, I know it has meant a lot to Andy, Neil and Leo when they have been on the bikes and helped them to continue cycling towards the finish line.

Finally I must say thanks to the other riders especially Andy who has helped me keep going through some of the tougher parts of the trip. This support has been crucial to keep me going through the tougher days even when he sets off at 23 mph in 100°F claiming it to be gentle pace.

I’m now looking forward to putting my feet up in Key West and not getting on the bike for a few days before heading home. It’s going to be a bit of a culture shock when we get back to the UK but am looking forward to getting a curry.

Alex