20 October 2014

Wash up USA

Jamie and Hanna Bear have done a reasonable job of telling you what we have done on our trip through the East Coast of the USA. Generally their reports were light hearted and not to be taken seriously. They replaced the necessity of writing postcards and I hope gave you some pleasure. This Blog is my own wash-up report of the trip and thoughts on what I found and did not find.

I should begin by saying I regret deeply not going sooner. Hanna, since my circumnavigation had encouraged me to plan a visit. I kept putting it off and then since 2010 I was not happy at the thought I should be so far away from her, when her health was clearly on the decline. Last year, she noticed how restless I was and understood instinctively that it was because we had not been travelling abroad since 2010. She knew that all my life I have been moving on every two years or so and needed constant change and new things to see and do, to feel content and happy. Against my judgement she persuaded me to book the flights and had wanted to help me plan it in detail. She would then have enjoyed the tales I told and the pictures I had taken afterwards. Now it is too late and I almost feel I have denied her the pleasure of it all. She was, however, with me in spirit the whole of the way.

I was most fortunate in my choice of travel companion. George, was patient with me and we got on like a house on fire. I shall always be grateful to him for coming along. There were times when I felt that I was dragging him to places I wanted to see and not ones that he wanted to. He never complained and at the end understood the overall idea I had of following the history of this huge country in an effort to understand it. He did all the driving, because he wanted to, had fun doing so, and I did all the navigating. Very early as a junior officer I learnt that officers do not drive, but are driven, so I was happy to let George drive me too. This combination of tasks worked well and I got better at navigating and less stressed when I made a mistake as we went along. I discovered that my iPad works as a navigation tool even when not connected to the Internet. One can plan the route before, while on-line and then set off and it will show you where you are. I used Google Maps and another Map App to good advantage, once I understood how they worked.

Driving and navigating in America is easy. The difficulty, if there is one, is in judging the distances when one is so used to measuring in kilometres. The signs are over generous in saying when a junction is coming up, which can be confusing sometimes. Otherwise if you can read English you can get about. However, the country is huge and the distances are great, so there were a few days when we had long ways to go. In all we drove 3066 kilometres.

I had three main aims in coming to America. Firstly to see my friend Brec again. We had got close during our crossing of the Indian Ocean and while in Malaysia when our first attempt failed. I last saw him in Gibraltar in 2002, but when we met again after 12 years it was as if we had parted yesterday. He and his wife Sandy, were very generous and gracious hosts. It was the undoubted highlight of my trip being with him, seeing his studio and having a short sail on his lovely little yacht OTTER. We will not wait another 12 years before we see each other again either.

My second aim was to photograph the autumn vegetation, the “Indian Summer,” or “Fall” leaves. I did not get the ultimate picture I was looking for, but I do not think I was cheated as we passed through many beautiful valleys and forests as we drove. If anything we were a little early for the best vegetation colours, or a little too far south and should have gone up to Vermont for the best of it.

My third aim was to visit various historic battlefield sites which interested me and about which I had read over the years. I was fully satisfied in what I saw and am grateful to George for putting up with me and this part of the trip. The views I had of the geography have given me a new insight into the conflicts of the battle for independence and the civil war, and have made the stories I have read come more alive. Some of the stories I will visit again now with the pictures I have taken of the places in which they occurred.

So how did we find America? It is a huge country and only when driving through it, do you fully appreciate it. The woods seemed endless, as if the whole country is all covered in forest. To our surprise these forests were all young in age. The really old trees could only be found, by us at least, in the towns and parks we visited. We thought that this was due to two factors. Firstly the felling by the settlers, to build their houses and settlements. Secondly, due to forest fires and we did see the evidence of this in some places. As the land is so large these forests are then allowed to re-naturalise themselves. The trees are all close together, almost like a thick jungle so they can never really grow large, until some are felled to give others space to breathe and grow. This at least is the impression we had from our view of the road, from driving the main routes from New Haven – Boston – Albany – Buffalo – Scranton – Philadelphia – Gettysburg – Washington – Williamsburg – Washington.

The east Coast is undoubtedly beautiful and is where the middle classes live. It is steeped in the early history of the country. The climate was better than I had envisaged and yet when one considers the latitudes we were in, should have come as no surprise. The noise of the crickets, cicadas and tree frogs did surprise. They were everywhere we went. The houses with their porches are nearly all made of wood in the countryside. Porches are such a good idea since the climate is so good in the, spring, summer and autumn, that one can just sit there and chill and watch the world go by.

The cities are something else entirely. Each has its own character as do the people that live there. New York architecture has attitude as do the people that live and work there. It is all brash and on the go and possible up front. The public transport system, as in all other places we visited, is clean efficient and easy to use. Boston was more refined, educated perhaps because of MIT and Harvard. Buffalo was an example of how the recession had hit America. A lot of derelict factories, poorer houses and people. Philadelphia was a good example of middle class America. We lived in Chestnut Hill and it was a pretty commuter dormitory. Washington was quiet, refined and exuded power from every pore of its being. The residents of these cities displayed the same characteristics as the architecture I felt.

All Americans we met are friendly to the core of their being and in some cases, particularly in restaurants, it seemed so overdone that it did not feel sincere anymore. We stayed in two private homes, (other than my good friends Brec and Sandy) and found their hospitality generous and kind. TV seemed to rule the lives of the residents as it was nearly always on in the homes and always in the bars.

American coffee, as I drink lots of coffee, needs a special mention. Everywhere we went we saw men and women hurrying about with a "coffee to go" in their hands. Even the "suits" in Washington were doing so and I saw one going into the White House Compound with one! In most places where they serve it, though, it tastes like Mississippi river water and probably looks like it too. I called this stuff, American mud. This is the main reason we did our best to find a Starbucks, as at least there they had Baristas and the coffee tasted like it should. We did, of course find other Cafes where they had proper baristas and so could get a reasonable cup of it, but they are few and far between.

Apart from two occasions, we stayed in three star hotels which I had found on line. Price was the limiting factor and this showed clearly in the standards we found. Apart from one hotel in Scranton (Brec had said, “who goes to Scranton, there’s nothing there!”) all the hotels offered a miserable “continental” style breakfast on paper or plastic plates and cups and spoons. In some there was no restaurant so you had to go to the lobby to get it. So if such things are important to you then take care when booking a B and B in America. The beds and the rooms though were generally clean and comfortable, even in those hotels which were getting past their prime.

Staying connected was one of the main things we did on this trip. In all places we stayed we had free wifi and so could email and use social media. For the first time I used my iPad in the Cafes we found. Some Facebook friends at least “liked” the links or posts and that the Blog was being read was also evident. However, no one ever placed a comment on the Blog and I have to question why not and whether it is worth the effort of blogging on the move if there is no interaction with my readers. Next year, Insha’Allah, I shall walk the Camino and had thought of blogging on the move, but should I bother carrying all the extra weight if no one is interacting with me? Some comments were placed on Facebook, but not all my important friends are on Facebook. I will need to think on this conundrum. 

I like America and want to go again and see other bits of it. Middle America and the West Coast are clearly on my bucket list now.