Category Archives: Trans-continental America
Was the first skirmish of the American Revolution really prefaced with the shouted warning “The British are coming”? Highly unlikely. Everybody was still ‘British’ at the time, including the colonists. It has been the hindsight of later historians who invented such anecdotal events to lend realism to the events leading up a Revolution that would make the ‘pond’ a
more definitive frontier than it was.
Stereotypes abound with any regional group. New Englanders are frequently seen as snooty, impatient, elitist and clever, and
the NE of the USA has the greatest agglomeration of WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon protestants) on the continent. Whatever the truth behind stereotypes, it was immediately evident to us that the New Englanders were different from other Americans. More reserved, quieter presence, conservatively dressed………….without the accent, they reminded me of the gentle folk of the Western Isles of Scotland.
Our introduction to the fascinating history of the area began with a guided
tour of the Freedom Trail: a walk through town that took us to the principal sites connected with the uprising that led to the Revolution, and ultimately to the declaration of independence. The Trail takes you past the golden dome of the State House (the blueprint for the Capitol in Washington), the Old Granary Burying ground (burial site of notable patriots), the site of the Boston Massacre (where, in fact, only 5 were killed), the house of Paul Revere (famed for his midnight
ride to alert colonial troops of the arrival of the British), the Old North Church (whose tower was used for hanging the famous two lanterns to warn the patriots) and finally to Bunker Hill, whose obelisk marks where the first pitched battle of the Revolution took place. Even though the whole route is only 2.5 miles, you need a whole day to take it all in, and a pub to revive your drooping spirits afterwards!
In the form of culinary experiences, I did tremendous violence to a lobster as I worked my way through the crustacean with what look like a pair of nut-crackers! I discovered that ‘ziti’ is a type of pasta and ‘zuchini’ is what we call courgette, and Sunday brunch was taken to new heights in Boston.
We decided to celebrate our 35th anniversary a little early by ‘brunching’ at the Top of the Hub (the 52nd floor of the Prudential Tower), and our menu included yoghurt and granola, ginger pancakes and maple syrup, salmon with avocado, duck, all followed by naughty desserts and coffee. Just take a look at some of the aerial views that frequently distracted us from what was on the table!
Of course, our final city-visit of this tour had to be concluded with a tandem ride (this time, with a beach-cruiser style machine), which took us down the length of the Charles River as far as Harvard. But on our final Sunday, given that churches would be open for services, I decided to have a ‘mini-binge’ and visited three, staying for the duration of two services.
The first was a Congregational Church with the most extensive collection of Tiffany windows (and lantern) of any church in the USA; the second was Trinity Church (Episcopalian) reputedly voted one of the ten finest buildings in all America; and the third was the Mother Church of Christian Science (not to be confused with Scientology) whose form of worship took the form of commentary on readings from the teachings of their founder, Mary Baker Eddy. America is a place where you can detect many shades of the Christian message. Sometimes they evolve like mini-enterprises
with pastors who strive to develop communities with their own identity. Sometimes you can drive many miles along an avenue and see upwards of 20 little churches dotted along the verges, almost like a row of commercial outlets, each with its neon signs and digital advertising billboards, beckoning you to come and save your soul next Sunday (and pay your tithes!). Of the three I visited in Boston, Trinity Church was by far the best attended by its devotees, whereas the Mother Church of Christian Science itself could only muster about 40 in its congregation, some of whom were merely visiting, like ourselves.
And so our transcontinental trip across the Americas came to a close. Unlike
the early settlers of the 17th century, our orientation took us from west to east, from the oyster stews of Vancouver to the lobsters of Boston; from the fresh snows of the Athabasca Glacier in the Rockies to the soaring glass towers of New York; from the ‘heartland’ of mid-west America and its warm welcome to the monumental grandeur of Washington DC. When you travel coast-to-coast, you gain a perspective not only of the geographical expanse of the continent, but also of the motley varieties within communities as you travel. A truly remarkable experience, and one that I would heartily recommend if you enjoy a bit of adventure touring.
Have you ever wondered how New York came to be called the Big Apple? There used to be a theory (now discredited) that it derived from a prominent brothel in New York whose madam was called Eve! The truth, however, is a little more prosaic. It seems to derive from the prizes that were awarded at horse-races, which were known as ‘apples’, and John Fitzgerald, a prominent journalist of the 1920s, adopted the name for the city in his articles. An old saying in show business went as follows: “There are many apples on the tree, but only one Big Apple“, contrary to what Tim Rice proclaimed in his song ‘Eva, beware of the city’ with reference, of course, to Buenos Aires.
The smooth, swift Amtrack service whisked us up the coast from Washington in less than three hours. As we pondered over underground maps on a hastily-caught subway train, we suddenly found four of our fellow passengers giving us interesting, but often conflicting, advice as to which stops and changes to make. We warmed immediately to their friendliness, but we were left puzzled about directions! When we eventually arrived at our lodgings in Harlem, whatever little worries we had about their location, they disappeared in a trice. Despite any notoriety the district carried, we found it pleasant and welcoming, and appreciated why this part of New York had once been popular with the
gentry in the late 19th century.
Arriving in a big, brash city like NY can be a little unnerving, especially if the biggest tower block in your own community at home is no more than a three storey town-house! But to meet up with a former student and his partner, who had only recently moved to NY, made the first few hours of our visit very special. Richard and Rachel treated us to brunch(that peculiarly American phenomenon of breakfast and lunch
together) in one of the nicest restaurants in town, and then we made our way up to The Top of the Rock, on the 70th floor of the Rockerfeller Centre, to enjoy the panoramas of the city. Why not the Empire State Building, you might say? Well, it’s not as busy, the views are equally excellent, and you actually get to see the Empire State as part of the deal! But watch out for the high speed elevator. At 1500 feet per minute (15 mph straight up) it’s quite a shock to the eardrums!
When you are in the Big Apple, you simply have to visit all the iconic venues:
Grand Central Station, Times Square, 5th Avenue, Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island ferry, South Street Seaport, the United Nations building and the New York Public Library. But sometimes it is the little known places, that don’t feature in the guides, that really catch your attention. The High Line, for instance, is an elevated walkway that runs down the east side of Manhattan, which has been developed from the old rail tracks that used to connect warehouses with port-side. You can saunter along, enjoy the views, stop for a coffee, and feel free of the hassle of the city.
And what should the gastronome look out for? Being Halloween season, I had to try a pumpkin latte; brunch just had to include fruit pancakes with maple syrup; and go to any food court for lunch and you will be dazzled with the international variety on offer. But try to buy a bottle of wine in a grocery store and all you will find is a light, fizzy, alcohol-reduced look-alike. To find the real stuff, you need to hunt for a liquor store (not always easy to find), and if the storekeeper likes the look of you, you may be allowed inside the fenced-off area where you will find a small selection of very average wines. The laws governing the sale of alcohol across the US are unbelievably varied, many states and counties preserving a total ban on its sale, despite the 21st Amendment of 1933 which repealed the federal laws of prohibition. In New York, only wines and spirits are sold in carefully controlled liquor stores. If you want beer, you go to the convenience store. To
prevent the development of chain stores, each liquor store must have a single owner who lives within the vicinity of the store. All this is a far cry from the light, airy, inviting environment of a Waitrose or Tescos where you can browse a truly international offering of beverages, and where the labels beckon you….. come on, pick me, pick me!
I enjoyed a long conversation with the landlord of our B&B and, amongst other things, I asked him about American humour
and jokes. He said “there are an awful lot of American jokes. One just entered the White House!”. Then I was ‘entertained’ to a long diatribe about the failings of the Obama administration. I once got chatting to an elderly (white caucasian) male in a museum, and he asked me directly what I thought of Obama. Well, not having any political axe to grind, I said I liked the man: he speaks
well, he’s not short on dynamism, and he seems determined to get his policies through. “Yeh?”, he told me “d’you know what I think?” (whatever I said, he was going to tell me anyway!) “he’s the worst accident ever to happen to America! What d’you think of that?”. If I had been prepared with the facts, I might have regaled him with ‘Well, Obama did win over 52% of the popular vote. Didn’t look like an accident to me”, but he had disappeared amongst the exhibits. There went another lost opportunity!
“If you are carrying any food or drink, throw them in the trash can over there”. Such was the welcome to the United States Capitol, the ultimate place to visit when in Washington DC. So we emptied our bags begrudgingly, but the guided tour (which was free of charge!) around the old Senate Chamber, Hall of Columns and the National Statuary Hall made it a small price to pay. The new Visitors’ Centre has opened up the Capitol to the general public as never before. And as we made our way through the Capitol chambers, I caught sight of a small plaque on the floor that revealed the spot where John Quincy Adams (6th President of the US) had had his desk when
he was a Representative in Congress. Why should this little plaque have tweaked my interest? Well, his ancestors hailed from the tiny hamlet of Achurch, of some 20 houses, just a few miles from where I live in the UK (click here), a historical fact that gives this diminutive community disproportionate importance in world history. But fascinating nevertheless.
Washington is a monumental city. There is a plethora of memorials, state buildings, museums and beautiful open spaces to discover, but in this city of national government, there are always threats to national security, real or unreal. In the few days we were there, an internet messaging board put out that the Capitol was occupied by terrorists, and hostages had been taken, and all this was supported by video-clips and photos. It was quickly revealed that it was a hoax, but it had been expertly staged. But not so the threat by a Boston man who had designed a remote-controlled model plane to deliver high explosives to the Capitol, to give a well-deserved ‘jolt’ to the enemies of Allah (click here). This was not a hoax, but had fortunately been nipped in the bud at a very early stage.
A fascinating piece of entertainment throughout our four days in Washington were the ‘abseilers’ on the Washington Monument. The east
coast of the US had suffered an earthquake, and worrying cracks had appeared in the monument, resulting in its closure till safety-checks had been carried out. So enthralling was the drama that TV crews were on permanent stand-by to film the proceedings.
The Capital Bikeshare scheme was just too tempting to ignore. “One day membership only $5” is what I read, but the small print (which I ignored completely) said something quite different! You
can tell what an urban bikeshare virgin I was! When I checked the credit card statement a few days later, I’d been charged a whopping $35 for my 5 hours of fun. But, without question, it was a lot of fun, and worth it. I would recommend it to anyone, but remember swap your bike every 30 minutes to avoid the charges!
Even better was the tandem ride along Pennsylvania Ave, with Jenny ‘wowing’ with delight on the back. Unbelievably, the cycle lanes run up the middle of the Pennsylvania Avenue, and as we proceeded from the White House towards Capitol Hill, we were not only privileged with the perfect view of the Capitol ahead of us, but we could wave ‘presidentially’ at the excited crowds lining both sides of the street as we progressed statesman-like on our ‘limousine-bike’. Can you imagine it?………;0)
We learned so much more about life in the capital (and in the US in general) from a former student of ours who is currently pursuing an accelerated Masters at Georgetown University. Quite a change from a small village environment in the UK!
We mused about visiting some dear friends in Michigan, and calculated the distance from Banff. Little more than an inch on the atlas (I surmised), but Googlemaps shattered our illusions with a more accurate calculation of over 2000 miles, and would require 35 hours of driving (which for us would translate into 4 days, at least). So much for atlases! So the idea of a rental car was quickly ditched, and the services of Delta (aka Air France) were called in. But before I go any further, I have an issue regarding merged companies. Let me share it with you.
When you rely on yourself to do all the research and bookings,
you have to watch out for companies not masquerading as themselves. Take this as an example: I booked our outward flight to Vancouver with Air Transat, at the airport Canadian Affair handled our check-in, and
we found ourselves flying with Thomson Airways! Given that the deal was struck through Lastminute, I have no idea who I was actually doing business with. For our flight to Detroit, I booked with Delta and Air France made the deduction from our credit card account. So, if you are ever puzzled by a possible fraudulent transaction on your credit card, it may simply be a merged company that hasn’t declared all its credentials.
But our ‘diversion’ to Michigan was a priority for us. Reconnecting with friends from the days when I did a Fulbright teaching exchange back in 2005 was going to be a highlight of the trip. (See Letters from America here). With a very warm welcome from my former hosts, Ed and Libby, we were guaranteed a weekend of many delights and surprises: from the history of Motown music to the buzzing energy of a Motown revue as
we dinner-cruised along the Detroit River (check out the Prolifics here); from a journey through American history at the Henry Ford Museum to an all-embracing tour of the beautiful laid-back liberal city of Ann Arbour (with our dear friend Olivia, who bravely exchanged jobs with me back in 2005); from a brisk 40 mile cycle ride with Vince (a former semi-professional roadie) along the beautiful Hines Drive to a relaxing dinner with old friends from Stevenson High School. Four days were far too short a time to be with such good people, but they had their work schedules, and we, on the other hand, well………………what can I say? Retirement is, indeed, a privileged status.
Next stop Washington……………but how to get there? Believing we are never too old for such things, we took the
plunge and booked overnight tickets on the Greyhound Bus, despite the looks of astonishment and words of caution coming from various quarters. That’s the “peoples’ transport” we were told, and a New Zealand couple gave us the worrying details of an experience they had had a few years back. The outcome was, to our relief, far better than our expectations. In fact, one of the coaches was evidently new, air-conditioned, with wifi and leather reclining seats. What more could you expect for $49? And it meant that we entered Washington DC as the dawn was breaking…………
The Everyman’s route into the Canadian Rockies has to be with Via Rail, Canada’s transcontinental rail service which takes four days to reach Toronto from Vancouver. And for our 20 hour journey, we certainly travelled “Everyman-style”, with recliners for sleeping and a $10 pack of blanket, eye-shades and earplugs to ease our way through the night. But the dawn brought stunning views of our traverse into the mountains, and breakfast in the dining car could have been scripted in by Agatha Christie herself! Beyond the magnificent scenery, the easy encounter with fellow passengers was particularly memorable: cattle farmers from Edmonton, Brazilians from Sao Paulo, New Zealanders from Wellington, Vietnamese, and a couple from Vancouver Island whose 41 year old son is the oldest surviving cystic fibrosis sufferer in Canada.
Jasper and Banff are both towns that had their origins as fur-trading posts, but with the advent of the railway they gradually became hot spots for tourists, both winter and summer. They are a convenient gateway into the awe-inspiring National Parks that festoon this part of Canada. When it was time to transfer from Jasper to Banff, we took a tourist coach along the Icefields Parkway, which runs by the Athabasca Falls and Glacier. What had been a heavy rain shower in Jasper the previous
evening (Sept 19th) turned out to be 4 inches of snow on the Parkway. And we were the first to make our footprints on the virgin snow! How cool is that?
Having experienced the Continental Divide in Costa Rica many years ago, I was looking forward to crossing it again, but this time several degrees of latitude further north. What I didn’t appreciate was the confluence of two Divides, that sends the mountain waters in any of four different directions. Here the Great Divide converges with the Laurentian Divide, and is the only known place on earth where two oceanic divides coincide, and where the waters from a single point area feed into three different oceans.
Scientists call this the “hydrological apex of North America”. Simply fascinating.
Some people you encounter will be remembered for years to come. Like the couple we met on the coach who were from New Jersey. We shared a lot of conversation over a wide variety of topics, but as we said goodbye at the end of the tour, he said to us: “Thank you for being teachers of our children. You never know when their lights are going to be switched on”. That comment left me pondering a number of things. Did he, for instance, have the vision of teachers all over the world having an impact on global education, including his own children? Or was he just being kindly appreciative?
A young couple from France certainly left an impact on us, as we
meandered along a riverside walk outside of Banff. Regine and Greg were riding a semi-recumbent tandem (she on the front recumbent, and he on the back as the steersman) fully laden with camping equipment. When I caught the words “Around the world” on the back, I shouted “Are you?” and the unsurprising answer was “Yes”! They stopped and we chatted about their 3 year trip around the world that will take them down the length of the Americas to Chile, then over to Australasia and finally through Asia on their way back home. And we met them in a wood, on a dirt track, as they were looking for a place to picnic………… And, by the way, their little mascot beaver on the front is called Hugo. You can follow their blog by clicking here. But be prepared to practise your French!
The 12 hour flight to Vancouver, through 8 time zones, is like having an injection of lethargy that guarantees your body clock will be out of sync for a few days. By late afternoon your brain is telling you it’s the middle of the night, so you begin to nod off on the bus or skytrain as you head back to the hotel, wondering why your body refuses to respond to your commands.
Vancouver is a city of glass-plated skyscrapers, each reflecting the other as the sun moves round the sky. People abseil from the tops of 60 storey buildings, they have park sculptures that appear to be engaged in raucous joke-telling, and the locals have been criticised for wearing too much casual yoga gear (what is the world coming to?). The wonderfully named sports retailer Lululemon seems to be Vancouver’s biggest purveyor of such garments.
It’s here in the west of Canada, whose europeanization only really began during the murderous years of the gold rush, that they call their indigenous people (with 16,000 years of residency in the area) the First Nations. At least by their name they are given some recognition of priority.
It is in Vancouver that they call a tandem a ‘double bike‘ and they think nordic walking poles are walking sticks used by the elderly! When Jenny climbed on a bus with her poles, the driver was heard to shout the whole length of the vehicle “The lady with the pink backpack needs a seat!”. Jenny could either protest or accept the seat. What’s the point of protesting……?
You can get yourself a $7 travel ticket and enjoy spending the day riding the skytrain, the buses and the waterbus over to North Vancouver. Or you can walk along Coal Harbour admiring the view of Canada Place (which looks like a sailing ship) or the distant mountains, or even the comings and goings of the ubiquitous float-planes that share the same busy stretch of water as huge tankers and passenger ferries. Or be a bit more energetic and rent yourselves a ‘double-bike’ and take a spin around Stanley Park, and discover something of the history of totems (a kind of ‘coat of arms’ of the indigenous Indians), or the statue of the remarkable Harry Winston Jerome, who set a new world record in
1966 for the 100 yards (yes, do you remember those old imperial measurements………they are still alive and well on the American continent!). Or take a stroll around Gastown (the historic centre of Vancouver) and chance upon a clock that actually runs on steam (believe me)!
And before you leave the city you may discover (as we did) that Vancouver was the birthplace of Green Peace in 1971, and we caught them as they were celebrating their 40th birthday. Which left me wondering what special ingredients in this city of reflections triggered such an internationally important protest movement.
Being retired teachers, we have spent many summers contemplating the arrival of September, and the return to classes, with a certain unease. Of late, however, as students and teachers are reluctantly dragging their heels, as they head for their first meetings and classes of the autumn term, we mysteriously find ourselves holding plane tickets, with bags ready packed in the hope that the last vestiges of summer will linger a little longer in the places we might visit. I spent many hours this last summer piecing together the complex jigsaw of an adventure trip across the American continent, starting in Vancouver and ending up in the city which bears the historical tag of being the cradle of the europeanization of the Americas, namely Boston. The journey was to last a month in total, and we were to make extensive use of most of the available means of public transport to get us from one side of the continent to the other. And although this was not intended to be a cycling holiday per se, we did rent tandems and solo bikes in many of the cities we visited, giving a measure of speed and flexibility as we toured the sights.
The following posts are not intended to be a monotonous catalogue of places, events and activities in the usual travelogue style, but rather reflections of a personal nature about people, places and idiosyncrasies that either moved us or simply caught our attention. The journey was a venture that had absolutely no input from any travel agent other than me. Everything I researched, planned and booked had few ABTA and ATOL guarantees, and certainly no travel companies that we could complain to if anything went wrong. So as we headed for Gatwick airport on September 12th for 30 days of travel, Jenny could detect a hint of nervousness on my part as I fingered through the file of documentation, doing a last check that all was in place. And the final result?……….. Well that would be giving away the punchline before the story has been told. So read on as the posts evolve!