My mission is to visit all fifty states in the USA. I have ten to go, so I’ve booked four Amtrak rail journeys. That’s rather over covering my bets, but each of the blurbs said that their journey was the most scenic in the states.
My trips starts at Emeryville, Oakland, where I've arrived from American Samoa. I’m already beginning to think I might have been a little rash. The California Zephyr train to Chicago is positively antique. There is one locomotive, pulling maybe a dozen silver double decker carriages, four of which are sleepers. There’s a formal dining car and an observation car with a café and snacks beneath. It’s freezing on board - the air vents are duct-taped over, as there’s a problem with the system, and it won’t stop blowing cold air. There’s no Wi-Fi and the electric socket says razors only. I think the carriage was built before mobile phones were invented. It’s two and a half days to Chicago. And I can feel the Gang of Three’s virus brewing –their parting gift, which is most unfair, as there definitely weren’t any hugs and kisses.
There’s the usual smog over the whole Bay Area, but the sun comes out as we head west towards Sacramento, though I’m still waiting for the scenery. There are a plethora of iron bridges, cargo boats, gas tanks and the odd refinery. Then some yellow rolling hills and drooping sunflowers.
Now we’re chugging uphill towards the Sierra Nevada. The whistle blows constantly and my ears are popping; there are lakes and pine forests and little towns straight out of westerns. When I say chugging I mean really crawling. We’ve already had one half hour total stop while Union Pacific ‘fix the track’ and a twenty minute wait for a freight train. (Freight trains get priority over Amtrak in the U.S.A., which often results in expensive delays, as they have to compensate to accommodate passengers). If it’s this slow in the foothills what’s it going to be like in the mountains proper? I’m wondering if we ever get to any decent views. I’m seeing a lot of trees.
The journey is accompanied by a barrage of barked tannoy instructions. ‘Wait here’. ‘Do not embark yet’. ‘Do not go to the dining car until the conductor gives the all clear.’ ‘First come, first served. You have been warned.’
I eat lunch with Randy and his adult son and ‘friend’ (they didn’t tell me their names). Randy and Friend have just retired from teaching in San Francisco and are off adventuring. The food is included, as is soda (maximum of three per person per meal) and the menu is a foretaste of things to come. I can choose between a variety of burgers, sliders or cheese quesadillas. Dessert is cheesecake or chocolate cake. They thoughtfully list the calorie count for each item, though that makes it even more stressful, as there aren’t any low calorie options, except for the side salad.
The Angus Burger is a whopping 1088 calories, without the additional cheese slice. Son turns constructing his into an art form, layering various garnishes and drizzling different sauces until it’s a huge tower, which he consumes with alacrity, alongside guacamole and kettle chips. I take my cheesecake ‘to go’ – afternoon snack. At three o’clock the tannoy informs us that the lounge bar café is open and serving again. A lady at Emeryville Station has already given me a pink iced doughnut for my breakfast.
Finally, mountains. Lots more trees, larches this time, but definitely mountains, and more lakes - the Tahoe National Forest. We’re already running two and a half hours late by the time we reach Truckee, the nearest stop to Lake Tahoe which straddles the border with Nevada. Thank goodness I'm breaking the journey to New York with a night in Chicago. At this rate I’m going to be lucky to make the connection a day later.
On the eastern flank of the mountains and on to Reno (the Silver City), the scenery is suddenly very different. The peaks are arid, with rocky crests and tussocks of bluish grass, the edges of the Nevada Desert. The tussocks take on a yellowish tinge and start to sputter out, leaving desert and the stark saw edge mountain ranges that give the name sierra.
Dinner with three delightful Japanese women visiting family and sightseeing. This is a very chatty train. Really good steak and baked potato with sour cream. I think the calorie count has been more than excessive today.
Overnight we’ve trundled through Nevada and into Utah. We’re running even later because they’ve had to change the locomotive and borrow one from Union Pacific. I’ve set my alarm for six, despite the loss of yet another hour as we enter Mountain Time, as I don’t want to miss the promised spectacular views of The Rockies. We’re just leaving Salt Lake City as I go to breakfast, another selection of large cooked meals again. This is going to do long term damage. There’s no possibility of exercise. There’s a pink sunrise over the cordillera and ongoing desert interspersed by a series of very wide mesas. But it’s overcast and my camera is sitting idle, so I may go back to my couch. (It wasn’t a great night, the bed in my little cubicle is very hard.) Tannoy permitting, that is. We’ve already had the hi-de-hi wake-up call at seven.
We pick up the Colorado River just before entering Colorado State and spend the remainder of the day winding through a series of spectacular tiered canyons of yellow, green and red hues. It’s a close up view of river life and I’m waving at white-water rafters drifting down below in their red inflatables and matching helmets. Scarlet complements the green of the canyons and also has the advantage of not showing the blood.
For some time we follow the interstate highway. The engineering is incredible, with three tiers at times, a double carriageway going in each direction and a pedestrian/cycle way down below at river level. Then the train diverts from the roadway. This is a good opportunity to plug the rail trip. ‘You’re getting to see things you can’t see from the car, folks.’ The valley widens and there’s a swath of grassy farmland with round Hockney hay bales as we enter The Rockies proper. It is as stunning as I remember, with plummeting gorges, pine trees, craggy peaks and glacial lakes.
However, it’s getting dusky, as the train is late, the cloud is low and there are thunderstorms rolling around the long valley into Denver (the Mile High City). There’s only the odd glimpse of splendour. The conductor tries to convince us that Denver looks even better when it’s dark. I’m going to have to retrieve those spectacular views from my memory and sing a verse or two of Rocky Mountain High instead.
I abstain from lunch. I don’t think I can fit any more food into my body. Dinner is another round of steak, with a Texan and her two granddaughters. Donald Trump has featured in every dining car conversation so far and I haven’t found anyone in the USA who likes him yet. The cabaret tonight is the ejection of a passenger found smoking marijuana in the toilet. (I think it might have been Son.) A long lecture over the tannoy ensues, labouring the penalties imposed by law for smoking tobacco or drugs on the train (even if it is legal in Colorado). Rocky Mountain High indeed.
Because the train is running so late I get to see Nebraska in daylight. I’ve only driven across a corner of it before (I think). It’s very flat prairie, lots of corn and silos. And it’s still raining, so I’m dozing. Jet lag and my cold are taking their toll.
Into Iowa, where the terrain is much the same, though there is some gentle undulation at times, to add a little interest. The train is now running so late - nearly five hours - that we have had to stop to get renewed permission to cross some native reservation lands, as the original authority has lapsed. I would definitely have missed my connection if I had scheduled the New York train for today. Thank goodness I didn’t plan to board at any intermediate stations on my travels, it would have been worse than waiting at an airport (except maybe Honiara).
I’ve hardly been off the train for three days, the halts have been so short, so a night on solid ground and in a decent bed will be nice. (I ran for anti-cold tablets at Denver and I noticed that the shop floor was swaying.) The bossy conductors are having a mega stressed tannoy time trying to track down passengers who are having connection problems and manage the stops. ‘Do not get off the train at Mount Pleasant unless it is your final stop, or you wish it to be your final stop’.
Sadly, I can’t see much of the towns and villages. There is little around the stations when we do halt. They are mostly very remote, except for odd moments when there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of a brick high street with crenelated store fronts and saloon bars. As we travel east there’s more burgundy, grey and white clapboard nestling in the fields and churches with tall wizard hat steeples.
Finally, Illinois, and there are blue skies celebrating our tardy arrival.
'I have struck a city — a real city — and they call it Chicago… Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.'
Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea - Letters of Travel
'I came to discover that Chicago is that most American of American cities, but one where citizens from more than 130 nations inhabit a rich tapestry of distinctive neighborhoods. Each one of those neighborhoods -- from Greektown to the Ukrainian Village; from Devon to Pilsen to Washington Park -- has its own unique character, its own unique history, its songs, its language. But each is also part of our city -- one city -- a city where I finally found a home.'
Barack Obama, The Huffington Post
Back in Chicago I’m staying in the Congress Plaza Hotel, which was once iconic but is now in need of some TLC. The lobby still smacks of the grand old days, but there is peeling paper in the beige corridors and my room, whilst spacious, isn’t quite sure what it is. The seventies style wavy pattern nets are hung inside the shiny grey curtains and the furniture is white melamine. More interestingly, Al Capone had a permanent suite on the floor below me and ran much of his ‘business’ from here. It’s also supposed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Chicago, though most of the action, thankfully, seems to take place in the other tower.
My train doesn’t leave until the afternoon so I’ve retraced my steps of four years ago, down by the lakeshore, round the edge of the museums, though the parks and all round The Loop. The last, shopping area, is my favourite. The 1930s architecture doesn’t fail to fascinate and this time I can take my time and look for detail, corner clocks, sculptures, the sweeping lines of the subway entrances, the clunky, but oh so atmospheric, iron gantries of the overhead railways and, of course, the scrapers. The trains clatter madly overhead. I had forgotten what crazy names the streets have: Wabash Avenue, East Wacker Drive. And I’ve realised that when the weather forecast says there’s a 10% chance of rain they’ve missed a 0 out.
I’ve noticed that men in the USA are much more likely to hold doors open and offer to help me with my bags than in other parts of the world, which I welcome. I have a bad back. But service behaviour and shop signs seem to get even more aggressive and controlling as I move east. ‘Wait here.' 'Move those bags out of the way' (for no apparent reason – the unfortunate guest is just about to pick them up), 'Straight down there', 'No substitutions or changes for any reason'. Not a please or thank you in evidence.
On the Cardinal train this evening (the bird not the high ranking priest), to The Big Apple. The compartment is an improvement on the Zephyr - I was afraid to touch anything on the last sleeper, as none of it looked too savoury. I went through a whole packet of hygienic wipes cleaning it up. Here, I have a little toilet and tiny fold up sink in my room, though there is absolutely no floor space left at all to deposit my possessions when I’m in bed mode. There’s a boy in the room opposite who the spitting image of the child who Chandler told he was adopted in Friends. Same hair, same clothes. And even louder. I’ve shut the door.
We're straight into Indiana tonight. Its name means, literally Indian lands. First some industry around Lake Michigan, then time to more farmsteads. Flat topped seas of cultivation, enlivened by the setting sun.
Dinner tonight with a friendly couple, Charlie and Anne-Marie, from Pennsylvania, returning home via Philadelphia. No steak on the menu this time, it’s all pre-packaged and microwaved, like plane food, so I’ve had to settle for veggie noodles. Very disappointing, especially as the special, vanilla pudding, is sold out. Already. We’ve only just left. We have already been delayed by an hour – a freight train (going so fast, not). So, if you can’t beat them, join them. I’ve been chatting to the boy opposite. He’s called Hayden, he’s ten, travel mad and had visited all fifty states by the time he was eight. Very impressive. He’s going to look at my Oceania pictures tomorrow, with a view to encouraging his father to take him there.
I’ve woken up to Cincinnati, so we’re now running over two hours late. I’ve found out that the city was named, after Cincinnatus, a Roman called to serve as a dictator, who resigned to go farming, immediately he had solved the problem. The civic buildings are all lit up, very pretty. The sun rises, well sort of, it’s still cloudy, over the sweeping Ohio (Big Sandy) as we cross over into Kentucky and hug the banks of the river for the length of that state, with glimpses back over to Ohio State and the tree laden hills. It’s going to be a busy day. There are lots more states to visit.
We follow the Big Sandy all morning, into West Virginia, (apart from the odd bend that gets lopped off) where it becomes the Kanawha and then the New River. The hills are higher, still tree covered and would be astonishingly pretty if it wasn’t raining. The streams of cloud hanging over the forest valleys are quite atmospheric. I can just make out the ornate gold dome of the capitol building at Charleston.
The New River is a series of weirs, rocks and rapids with attendant inflatable rafts, as it descends into a gorge which is tantalisingly difficult to view because of all the trees lining the riverbank. The New River Gorge Bridge spans it just before Thurmond. It’s used for parachute and bungee jumping. (This area is all recreation and national park.) I've read that that this is the highest bridge in the Americas, but apparently, at 876 feet that's not true. It's third highest.
I’m hopping about from one side of the train to the other, trying to catch any view of West Virginia (Mountain Momma) at all. But the atmosphere on board is miserable - I don’t think it’s just the weather. It's dark and untidy, most of the passengers are snoozing in the business class seats and the conductor hasn’t said a word. It’s very different to the Zephyr. I’m tracking the route on Google so I can try and work out what to see, as sure as hell no one is going to tell me.
Still climbing, the river becomes a trickle and we pass the ‘most famous resort in America’ - Greenbrier - at White Sulphur Springs. The Allegheny Range to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah National Park. (Cue more song, on two counts). Last time I was here I was driving north-south on the Skyline Drive. There’s slightly more habitation around and the clapboard is peeling green. There are little railway museums and artfully restored stations.
Next, Charlottesville in Virginia, which hit the news big time this week, with protests over a white supremacy rally. Before all this kicked off Charlottesville had been given the accolade of best place to live in the USA, based on cost of living, climate and quality of life. Hayden and his father live here and have given me the low down on everything there is to see-and where to take my photos from. It’s very quiet today and hard to imagine the scenes of last week.
Two Kiwis have taken over the opposite room from Hayden and father and they won’t stop talking to me. I’m trying to take pictures of Washington DC and I’m missing the Pentagon and the White House as they keep distracting me while we’re crossing the Potomac. Charlie and Anne- Marie are handing out handfuls of M & Ms. The calorie count is going up, but the microwaved food is so horrible (the offerings that aren’t already sold out) that anything is a bonus. Tonight’s offering was a kind of mangled jambalaya. I'm trying not to think about it or I get nauseous.
It’s dark and the train is now, finally, hurtling along. Perhaps we will make up some of the time we are behind. Friend, Hugh is waiting for me in Brooklyn. There was slight panic when they threatened to cancel his plane because of bad weather, but he’s made it.
1.30 a.m – finally arrive, at Hugh’s apartment. The view across Manhattan to the new World Trade Centre building and the bay is absolutely stunning. I have to take photographs even though it’s so late.
Retracing my steps, this time in Hugh’s car to the little town of Luray, adjacent to one of the entrances to the Skyline Drive, which runs along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The whole trip down to Tennessee, where we intend to view the solar eclipse on Monday, is 750 miles and Google says it will take 12 hours altogether. Today has taken us considerably more than six and we’re about half way. There have been road works and a few traffic bulges. Hugh tells me that these distances are nothing to an American.
Once out of New Jersey the scenery is pretty rolling hills most of the way. We eat lunch in a wonderful local diner in Pennsylvania Dutch country surrounded by round topped barns and corn fields. Dinner is at Uncle Buck’s in Luray which is the Saturday night go-to-place. It’s wooden booths and too loud music, the bass turned right up, southern fried chicken fillets with creamy white sauce and margarita mix.
A drive along the Skyline itself (I've been here before) to admire the hills and valleys from above before we take the Interstate to the Great Smoky Mountains. The road is very long and there’s a lot more traffic. I’m not surprised - there is an eclipse tomorrow - but Hugh is not convinced that the two things are connected. Small town America and many more rolling hills unfurl.
Hugh introduces me to the delights of the Fast Food Nation. Most intersections are lined with outlets and at Roanoke there are several miles of assorted fried or otherwise unhealthy delights. Chick-Fil-A is advocated as tasty, even though they are morally reprehensible, taking an orthodox Christian stance on LGBT issues. But they are closed, as it’s Sunday, so we don’t have to engage in ethical debate over purchasing one. Wendy’s suffices for drinks and later, Dairy Queen for a Royal Ice Cream Blizzard. Hugh has a fried chicken sandwich too. Everything is still calorie listed, but I don’t think anyone takes any notice.
The traffic jams persist and Google keeps adding more minutes to the expected time of arrival until we are almost going backwards. Hugh is protesting now - ‘It’s been a long day’. It has, but I remind him that he is American and these distances are nothing.
We arrive at our cabin overlooking the eponymous Smoky Mountains, forest spreading below us (and Beware of Bears signs), as dusk sets in. The cabin is huge and very middle America - the ultimate in bad taste (IMHO), with jagged stone sinks, log bedframes and pine everywhere. There are three floors, two king-size en suite bedrooms, a games room with a pool table, a home movie theatre, a Jacuzzi and a hot tub on the decking. It’s called Take My Breath Away and the view, at least, reflects the name in the right sense.
Into Gatlinburg for dinner. This is where ski resort meets tacky seaside entertainment. Flashing neon signs, side shows and tawdry gift shops. At our Mexican restaurant we are asked for ID before we can be served alcohol. Bureaucracy gone mad. Back at the cabin, there are a myriad of forest noises outside. When I have to go to the car I run there and back in, watching out for moving shadows.
After much angst, studying maps to establish exactly which areas are best to experience full totality (its all far more complicated than I had realised) and getting up ridiculously early to beat the rush, we select a spot by a stream in the Smoky Mountains Park and settle down to wait for four hours until first contact begins. We take the last available parking space in this area. We have hurriedly bought provisions at the local super market and Hugh has accidentally shop-lifted a soft panama hat. He’s already dressed in a khaki shirt, so now folk keep think he’s a ranger. It could come in useful. He’s already told one woman to move her car.
I was hankering for a full-fledged mountain view, but the stream proves to be a bonus, as it’s very hot. The weather has delivered, despite the unpromising long range forecasts and the sky is absolutely clear. The cool water of the creek is blissful and it all adds to the ethereal experience, watching the moon slide over the sun whilst up to the calves in water, tiny fish (and tube riders shooting the small rapids) wiggling past. As the light disappears and there’s an early dusk, a mottled snake uncoils between a pair of rocks in the water. That’s the only reason to keep glancing backwards as the scene unfolds and we are all so busy fixating on the sun, in our eclipse spectacles, that peaks would have been superfluous in any case. A great experience, and oh so lucky with the weather and conditions.
Hugh and the dollar pound exchange rate between them are going to bankrupt me. Even the supermarket bills are hefty. They do take my breath away. I buy enough margarita ingredients to last us the whole week, in my opinion. We’ve had steak cooked on the barbecue overlooking the mountains tonight. And all the margarita supplies are exhausted.
Today, an exploration of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The traffic we didn’t encounter yesterday all seems to appear on our journey to Clingmans Dome. As the name suggests this is a round topped peak in the centre of the park. In the end we abandon the car and scramble up the steep slope, gasping (it’s 2,100 metres high), to the extraordinary 360 degree view at the top of the lookout, misty blue mountains, like a Chinese painting, stretching, in every direction.
Back at the ranch it’s fried chicken and potato salad (well this is the Deep South) and then a dip in the hot tub, watching the stars.
North Carolina is a very broad state. It takes all day to drive through it to the coast and Duck Island. The traffic is kind, but the scenery is not the best I’ve encountered. We have the mountains at the west end, dramatic in the rain, but they relatively soon peter out. The outer banks (known in American style as OBX) and inlets at journey’s end are also easy on the eye, salt air, sand dunes, weathered clapboard and seafood joints, as we motor along the narrow spits, Currituck Sound on one side, sea on the other. A thunderstorm here adds to the ocean atmosphere. In-between is flatter, monotonous tree lined highways, and well-tended villages enliven these, when we venture off for food or gas. The highlight is the Chick-Fil-A sandwich lunch.
We hire bikes to cycle the nature trail on the Sound side. The views across the flat grass islands are starkly beautiful, the birds elusive and the butterflies tantalising in their refusal to settle. The biggest challenge is the bike, which turns out not to have brakes. I’ve encountered this problem in the past, with unfortunate results, (it’s illegal in the UK) but now Hugh has taught me how to back pedal and I’m reasonably confident on the hills. Fortunately, it’s a relatively level, if bumpy, off-road trail.
The ocean is wild today, as it’s breezy and the dune backed beach consequently too English east coast for anyone other than the stoics. So, the rest of the day is spent at the pool admiring the orange of the umbrellas against the perfect blue sky.
The sky is azure, the breakers crash on the beach, the sea grass wafts gently, the sanderlings wander happily, pointy beaks alert and the crabs scuttle into their holes, their stalky eyes popping. Lobster wrap for lunch, and on the house, because Hugh’s breakfast never arrived. All is well with the world.
It’s a long drive on a fairly flat road. There are some pretty views of rushes and glistening water from the many bridges, across the Sound and then Chesapeake Bay. The usual vast array of fast food outlets and southern BBQ. (Pulled pork and fried cornmeal balls, known for some reason as hush puppies.) There’s also a lot of traffic.
A flight from La Guardia back to Chicago, to commence the remainder of my 50 state challenge. There’s a booth outside the terminal where I can check my bag in as soon as I remove it from the car. (My first, very positive Uber experience. Hugh has shown me how to use the app.) I make the mistake of exclaiming very loudly what a good idea this is. ‘You can tip us if you want to…’
I’m now an expert on Uber. I manage to summon a very large and jolly black lady who is waiting just outside the terminal door when I arrive in Chicago. And it's cheaper than the bus. Magic.
I'm going to Kalamazoo. Today is allocated for a side trip to Michigan, a state I've never visited, tucked up under the Great Lakes as it is. It took some time to decide where in Michigan to go. Detroit is too far from Chicago and the train timetable is very limiting. Many towns only have once a day services that don't leave till the evening. That rules out all the recommended pretty lakeshore destinations. Kalamazoo really has to be visited even though I don't have a gal there.
Initial impressions aren't auspicious. The weather is dull and almost cold. The lady next to me says it's the knock on effect of Hurricane Harvey which is currently battering Texas. And the scenery round the tip of Lake Michigan is decidedly industrial, some of the biggest refineries I've ever seen. But that's Indiana.
It's greener round the corner (I’m sure I could fit that to the Kalamazoo music) though lake glimpses are still few and far between as we head for Michigan City, which confusingly, is still in Indiana. I went back an hour when I arrived in Chicago but I have to put the watch forward again as soon as I go over the border to Indiana.
Now we're heading inland, so it seems I'm not going to view the idyllic little tourist towns at all. However, the conductors are very friendly and are encouraging me to disembark at stations to take pictures of what they believe to be notable views and buildings. They've also made me move to another compartment on the grounds that I wouldn't have made it to Kalamazoo if I'd stayed where I was. Fair enough I suppose. There's a whole string of towns on the local maps that gave their names to cars: Pontiac. Cadillac.
The passengers’ appearance overall is very much what I have come to expect from America in the summer. Attire is predominately casual. A large proportion are wearing shorts. Nearly all the younger women seem to wear them, regardless of how much weight they are carrying. The lack of concern about what others think is good, though the preponderance of overweight people is more concerning. At least fifty percent of the men wear baseball caps and many of them keep them on indoors. Even at dinner.
There are a surprising number of beards, though I think they’re possibly back in fashion. A few older males seem to be competing for parts in Lord of the Rings with waist length white whiskers. Long pony tails are ubiquitous. In total contrast I’ve also seen groups of Amish folk riding the trains. White pleated bonnets and long plain frocks for the women and wide hats, bibbed trousers, beards and pudding basin haircuts for the men and boys (not the beards in the latter case).
Kalamazoo itself turns out to be a refined and well laid out little town. Nineteenth century brick, Art Deco and mock Art Deco blend seamlessly with modern steel and glass. There is a central mall with quirky shops, some appealing bars and cafes and a proliferation of stately civic buildings and churches. The whole is demarcated by wide boulevards decorated with colourful signs and district banners. It's just a shame that it's Monday and it's overcast and the town is so quiet it's almost dead. Most of the bars and cafes and some of the shops are shut. There are a few folk shuffling around, all of whom seem surprisingly keen to chat to me. I suppose they don't have any other audience today.
I pop into the Valley Museum, which has excellent hands on exhibits for children. One of the best I've seen, though I personally don't feel the need to have my photo taken with a mechanical dinosaur.
Back at the station the sun comes out, but I can't retrace my steps in search of excitement. There's only the one train back to Chicago today and today it's bang on time. The conductors are the same, but much less affable. I have to conclude that they were only being nice because they wanted a tip.
An overly exciting start to today’s journey to Seattle, as I arrive once more at the beaux art Union Station to realise I’ve left all my money and passport in the safe at the hotel. Fortunately, I have plenty of time so I commandeer yet another Uber to take me back to the hotel and then once more to the station. The passengers are already in chatty train mode as I queue to board and I’ve been invited to stay with a lady who works at the University of Wisconsin.
The Empire Builder is suitably huge. They’ve bolted two trains together, and with seven sleeping cars in all it’s much longer than the California Zephyr. Otherwise, it’s another antique, similar in design, but this time I have a very narrow closet that I can’t use, as I don’t have anything to hang up except my jacket and I’m wearing that. It’s still dull and rainy. I’m in car number 1, so it’s very close to the dining car, but I won’t be getting any dramatic shots of the carriages ahead circling the bends.
Wisconsin is sunny and therefore the prairies are pretty today, flat farmland, Dutch barns and silos. We’re tootling along in parallel with the western edge of Lake Michigan and the lake edge backdrop to the fields is punctuated with more chimneys belching white smoke, Gandalf style.
Milwaukee next. Jerry Lee Lewis (and then Rod Stewart) asked what made Milwaukee famous. French trappers and German beer I think. It sprawls elegantly along the lakeside and we pass the Miller brewery after the little line of skyscrapers and the intricate bridges across the Menomonee River.
After Milwaukee we head inland. This is called lake country for a different reason. There are countless small lakes peppering the farmland, which is now rolling rather than flat and surprisingly beautiful, with its big skies and flower filled meadows. Past Wisconsin Dells the Wisconsin River carves out canyons and other striated rock formations. There are also a large herds of cattle. Wisconsin is the cheese state. LaCrosse gives its name to the game which was invented by the antic Indians here and from there we cross the Mississippi, which we follow, in its quiet phase, on the Minnesota side, for 140 miles.
It’s predictably gorgeous with bluffs and mountains of various shapes and sizes, but the sun sets all too quickly and I don’t see as much of Minnesota, or the river, as I would like. We reach Minneapolis-St Paul, the Twin Cities, in the dark. Minneapolis is coined from the Indian word Minnie, meaning water and the Greek word for city. The older city, St Paul, was known as Pig’s Eye after its partially blind founder. The two are served by Midway Station which is equidistant from the two cities and also, supposedly, between the North Pole and the Equator. Minneapolis also boasts the largest shopping mall in the USA. Phew.
The toilet in my compartment is out of service. Someone’s blocked it, so that means long nocturnal wanderings.
So far, this train is bang on time. Let’s hope there are no freight trains heading through today. I’ve woken in North Dakota and I’m sad to have missed Fargo, of TV fame, which was reached at three in the morning. Breakfast in Minot, known as the Magic City, because it grew so fast when the railway was built. The menu on this train’s exactly the same as on the Zephyr, but the food isn’t as nicely cooked. At least it is less likely I will eat it. I was going to opt for continental breakfast until I saw it was 794 calories. They’ve pumped out the offending W.C. while we’re stopped, but kept the toilet door locked. So now I have nowhere close to pee and the whole compartment smells of sewage. I’ve also noticed that the best views tend to happen when I go to the bathroom.
Low rounded hills, covered in sand coloured grass, a plethora of small lakes (we are carried over the coulees on trestles and banking) and an increasing number of nodding donkeys. This is oil country – there’s oil storage stations, rows of pick-ups and a small refinery or two. And for the first time a proliferation of mammals to be seen. So far, some deer, horses, wild and tame and a wolf or coyote. (I think wolves are quite rare.) There’s a variety of cattle too and tiny ducklings paddle obediently in line behind their parents. At Williston we encounter the longest river in North America, the Missouri. It’s longer than the Mississippi by twenty miles, even though it’s only a tributary.
Over the border into Montana and now we’re on Mountain Time (though I haven’t seen anything that qualifies as a mountain yet) and the clocks have gone back an hour. We were still forcibly awoken at 7 a.m., so I’m red-eyed again. The bed is still hard and it’s still cold, though no duct tape necessary in this car.
Montana (‘s calling me) is comparatively remote and has no discernible mobile signal to prove it. It’s more arid than North Dakota, greyer with rocky outcrops and very few lakes (mostly dried out), before flattening out into Big Sky Country. Otherwise, it’s still cattle and a few nodding donkeys. The flatter, scrubby area is the Fort Peck reservation where Sitting Bull and the Sioux were banished after Little Big Horn. It’s easy to imagine the Indians massing on the tops of the ridges, western movie style. We’re running along parallel with the Canadian border.
Malta, (the railway official naming it stuck a pen into a world map) and Wagner, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid carried out their last train hold up. (Coincidentally, we’re eating Paul Newman ranch dressing on our lunch salad. At 220 calories a sachet it must be more fattening than the whole of the salad.) At Havre there’s The Border Park, statues of Mounties talking to US policemen. It’s scorching hot when we venture outside the air conditioned train. They definitely don’t position their stations in the most scenic parts of town. We lost half an hour for the inevitable freight train, but impressively they’ve made it up again speeding over the flat plains, though there’s been some consequent jolting. The lines here aren’t as good as those in rich oil country.
Cut Bank would be more appropriately known as Cold Cut. It racks up the lowest midwinter temperatures in the country. It’s the gateway to the eastern Rockies and I can just make out what I’m told is the Canadian border, 25 miles away, through the haze. The peaks of Glacier Park are tinged with a pink sunset haze and are beautifully arranged against the darkening sky.
The best mountain scenery yet, as we wind through the elusive pass sought by Lewis and Clark and along the top of an emerald river in a tree lined gorge. Carol, from Wisconsin, has told me at lunch that I have made a big mistake by not arranging to visit the park. She says it’s just like Switzerland. I really wanted to tell her that if that was true then I might as well go to Switzerland, which is more convenient. But I didn’t and I personally think that the Rockies are very different from the Swiss Alps. Maybe I will have to come back. Most of the train’s passengers seem to be leaving here or going on to Seattle for Alaskan cruises.
We crossed a finger of Idaho last night. I’ve visited before on my first trip to the USA in the 1980s. It seems to be mainly famous for potatoes. It’s frustrating to traverse the stunning mountains in the dark, and annoyingly, the train is now running early, just when I would rather it took more time so I could enjoy the dramatic scenery.
It’s still black outside when I go to a seemingly very early breakfast. (I’m now on Pacific Time again) so that the crew can get us out of the way and prepare for the outward passengers. I feel discarded before I’ve finished when they do this on trains and ships, though I’m sure the crew have a very busy schedule. So, I put the world to rights with Ed from Michigan, (brilliant twirly white moustache) over yogurt, grapes and strawberries. I still haven’t met anyone who owns up to approving of Donald Trump.
A sun rise over some more superbly pretty peaks clothed in pine and fir in Washington State. Icicle Canyon speaks for itself, and then through the Cascade Mountains, partly in an eight mile long tunnel (the longest rail tunnel in the country) and along the Skycomish River (great name). I’m clearing up ready for arrival and searching for my headphones. Taking my torch under the seat is dispiriting. The dust and detritus of twenty years (and a pair of socks) is accumulated there.
We emerge at Everitt on Puget Sound and follow the coast past fingers of islands down to Seattle. Every time I’ve visited Vancouver, just to the north, it’s rained and today is maintaining the north-west coast tradition. The train goes directly past my hotel, which is right by the waterfront. Unfortunately, it goes a mile and half past.
Seattle is my new favourite place for the afternoon. The locals have dubbed it The Emerald City (no sign of the Wizard of Oz), with the views across the water and towards the Cascade Mountains. It’s the home of Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft, to boot. The city is built staggered up a hill, with criss-crossing roadways and a complex network of elevators. Because of the different levels it’s easy to lose your way. It’s good exercise.
It is, unsurprisingly, reminiscent of Vancouver, with brownstones and old style globe street lights, and I keep thinking I’m in Canada. However, Seattle has more vibrancy, especially at Pike’s Place Market. This is packed with crafts and heaps of tempting farm produce, but is most notably a sea food lovers’ paradise. Stacks of fish and orange crustaceans are packed on ice and there’s a polished sales performance as the stall holders, in their striped aprons, propel the fish across the counters like circus jugglers. It’s heaving with tourists. Unsurprisingly, many of them are Japanese.
The weather has improved again, so I hurry to admire the scenery and scrapers from the Skydeck on top of the Columbia Centre, the tallest building in Seattle, which, like most American cities has plenty of scrapers. There is much internet debate over whether to choose this view, or the much more famous Space Needle. This one is twice the height, half the price and doesn’t have a queue. You can also take photos of the Space Needle from here. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Two ladies in the market have told me that they visited both this morning, but they can’t tell me which is best, as it was cloudy and they couldn’t see anything.
The proximity of the train track means more of the rattling and shrill whistling I thought I had left behind for a couple of nights. The hotel wrongly believes it is compensating by providing ear plugs.
Today, the Seattle Center and the Chihuly Garden. I wander along the esplanade past numerous sculptures to get there. One of my favourite artists doesn’t disappoint, though I feel he would do well to adopt the ‘less is more’ perspective at times, there are so many glass sculptures crammed into small flower beds. I’ve got the Earlybird Ticket, but the queue for the adjacent Space Needle is already long and I am happy to abjure it. The remainder of the park is closed today, as the annual Bumbershoot Festival is going on all weekend, so I climb onto the monorail to the downtown shops.
The ride is singularly uninteresting, but it saves me a mile of walking. Here, the big department stores, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Barneys, are arranged along the hill together, more like a quiet Oxford Street than the relentless, more common, indoor malls. It’s a relaxing experience wandering around the streets and back along the waterfront on a gorgeous day. The many piers are lined with seafood restaurants and I’m having my fourth or fifth bowl of clam chowder, which like margaritas, I feel duty bound to test at every opportunity. There’s not a cloud in the sky, but the sun is tempered by the freshness of early autumn and the salt of a gentle sea breeze.
I’m off down the west coast to Los Angeles on my last Amtrak experience. I’m so familiar with the roomettes on the Amtrak trains now that I have everything in place super fast. This room is almost identical to the last. There’s possibly less fluff under the seat, but the windows are absolutely filthy. Hand wipes remove the worst of it. It’s a very busy train. There’s a loud party of eight in the same compartment. They’ve moved off to monopolize the observatory car (which is quaintly known as the parlour car on this train). I suppose it’s the better of two evils.
And I’m being stalked by a Californian named Kurt. He marched up and introduced himself to me in the waiting room at Seattle, which I thought a little odd. He’s just gone past my cabin and is saying to the attendant, ‘The babe in room 5 is very pleasant’. Spooky. I hope the call bell works. My room is at least, on the coast side, so I’m hoping for good views.
We even start twenty minutes late today, first passing Boeing Field, where the planes are tested, and are then treated to ongoing excellent glimpses of towering Mount Rainier (the Americans pronounce it Ran-eer), which has been looming elusively to the south of Seattle. A little later, Mount Saint Helens, half the top blasted off but still snow laden. As always the most significant views are almost entirely obliterated by overhead cables. And when there is a gap then a goods train goes by, or, as has commonly been the case, trees. The wheels in this compartment sound as if they need a good dose of WD40. I’m trying to shut it out or it’s going to drive me crazy.
I ask the attendant where I should watch out for the best mountain views. She replies that she doesn’t know as she is always too busy working to notice. She has spent the entire journey so far in her compartment, gossiping to one of the other (male) stewards.
Same menu, same calories and a real snippy martinet in charge this time. The waiter is making 'talk too much signs' behind her back with his hands and I’m trying not to laugh. A really interesting lunch, with a lady from Vancouver whose brother is the curator for the Guggenheim museums and Josh, a young man embarking on a huge adventure, leaving Washington for the first time ever, to go and live with his cousins at Delano in California.
And now- big fanfare-we are entering Oregon, pulling over the river into Portland. So this is my fiftieth state! The Willamette River, south of here is exceptionally pretty and busy with weekend power boat trippers. Now it’s the turn of Mount Hood, the tallest peak in Oregon, to tantalise from behind the freight trains. While I’m balancing on the stair rail, rushing my life trying to take pictures I notice that the curtain is now pulled on the attendant’s car. It’s definitely still occupied and by more than one person.
At dinner the car supervisor is complaining loudly about the waiter from lunchtime. Team spirit on board is obviously excellent. They are still having a good time issuing instructions to the poor browbeaten passengers. ‘Do not come to the dining car until your name is called. Do not sit down. Wait in line. Do not sit down. We will assist you to your seat. Do not go downstairs. Do not step off the train’ .And so on and on…
It’s been another beautiful day but there are forest fires raging throughout the west, and as the train ascends over the Southern Cascades, potentially beautiful river and mountain views are enveloped in a pall of smoke, presided over by a crimson sun. It’s both frustrating and ethereal at the same time.
I awake to Emeryville, California, where my rail journeys began, and now I’m heading south running alongside The Bay in this huge state, which takes up 900 miles of Pacific coastline. The news warns me that California is in the middle of an unprecedented heatwave. We’re following the old Spanish mission road, El Camino Real and it’s 37 degrees outside, suitably matching the dried grass of the dark green bobbled hills of Silicon Valley. Salinas is known as the Salad Bowl of the World. and the guide says they grow garlic, mushrooms and artichokes here. All I can see are fields of cabbages. Maybe it’s a second crop.
There are some stupendous mountain views over the Cuesta Ridge as the train descends round hairpin bends and across an 85 foot trestle. As I’m drinking it all in I’m entertained by a lawyer who, on learning I’m from London, informs me, bitterly, that he should be there now, on his bachelor party. His ex-fiancé (of ten years) called off the wedding a few days ago and has gone to London instead, on his tickets, with his best friend. The latter had got him to confide all his secrets and then spilled the lot to the fiancé. The lawyer is on the train with a female companion. I am totally confused as to which gender fiancé and best friend are and whether they have run off together or are just making reprisals, but it sounds like a jolly good plot for a Jennifer Aniston movie to me.
The train finally emerges on the coast for the much lauded hundred miles of coast: surf, surfers, sand dunes and cliffs. It’s another atmospheric viewing. The sky is darkly cloudy; whether it’s smoke or rain I’m unsure, but I suspect it’s a mixture of both. I’ve received an emergency warning text telling me that I am about to be evacuated from the fire’s path and now the train has been halted for over four hours because there are trees down on the line north of Santa Barbara and they are waiting for them to be removed. It’s Sunday and it’s Labor Day weekend. So now I don’t get to see Santa Barbara, which was an anticipated highlight. I am very late into Los Angeles.
I’m back at the start of this American Odyssey. My head is scrambled with all the different time zones I’ve crossed. It feels as if the earth is moving. Below me, from the plane window, I can see what appears to be a very large canyon – a huge crack in the earth’s surface… yes it is- the Grand Canyon. An unexpected treat. My wallet is frazzled well beyond my expectation. I have Brexit and tips galore to thank for this. But I have completed the USA - all fifty states!
Last stop Bermuda.
Tina and I are achieving a long held ambition - to drive Route 66. It runs right through the USA from Chicago to Santa Monica in Los Angeles. She's Louise - on the grounds that she looks a little like Susan Sarandon. So I'm Thelma. Incidentally, referring to Route 66 is the only time when Americans pronounce the word 'route' properly...
We're beginning in Chicago, the third largest city in the USA and a tourist favourite. The name Chicago is derived from a French rendering of the indigenous Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa for a wild relative of the onion, as there was a lot of wild garlic growing in the area when it was first recorded in 1679. Chicago has had several nicknames throughout its history: Chi-Town, Second City, City of the Big Shoulders and of course, The Windy City, Chicago developed in the 1800s as the Nation's Railway Hub.
But Chicago is probably most famous for its 1930s architecture and the Gangster Era, when Prohibition was repealed. The 1920s saw gangsters, including Al Capone, Dion O'Banion, Bugs Moran and Tony Accardo battle law enforcement and each other on the streets of Chicago. And Chicago was the location of the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, when Al Capone sent men to gun down members of a rival gang, North Side, led by Bugs Moran
There is a cool front sweeping across the country, so it's 'only' mid 70s and raining. Time to hit the museums of Chicago. This involves walking about eight miles in all, almost half of this round the galleries themselves. The aquarium, (complete with dolphin show and 4D experience - 4D involves getting wet and being poked in the back) the Field Museum (The Natural History Museum meets The British Museum) and The Art Institute (pretty good collection of impressionist paintings). Louise (Tina) is ecstatic.
Chicago has a great vibe. It feels a little older than most American cities and it has long buzzy shopping streets full of brownstones, star spangled banners and neon signs. And of course, lots of skyscrapers.
We find signs for the beginning and end of Route 66 on adjoining streets and pose for pictures under both. Does that mean we've done it already?
It's sunny! And now I can see Lake Michigan sparkling and sweeping on forever, from the hotel window. There are flotillas of teeny white boats bobbing around. It must be a day for skyscrapers then, in the city where they were born. Breakfast in Lou Mitchell's old fashioned wooden diner, voted 'best breakfast in the USA’. It's pretty good and we get free doughnut holes (I thought that would be a handful of nothing, but it's the scooped out middles) and little round caramel chocolates called milk duds. Route 66 signs all over the walls, so we have to take photos.
Eating otherwise is a traumatic experience. Ordering alone is stressful, as every item comes with a choice. And the choice is usually burgers, burgers or burgers.
Then up the old Sears tower (now Willis). It was the highest building in the world, but then Dubai took over. And now, apparently it's not even as tall as the new World Trade Centre, which is nearly finished. Anyway, brilliant view and the scrapers are fewer, but more interesting than the ones in the Big Apple. Curlicues, domes and gilt edging. Then a boat trip up the river and out on the lake to see the skyline view. Just to make sure we have really seen every scraper from every angle we then zoom up the John Hancock tower to check out the view from the other end of Downtown. (See how American I am already?)
Then a musical evening. First, duelling pianos in a bar where the musicians play driving and car songs for us, and then, a bit worse for wear due to the accompanying margaritas, we head for the Chicago Chop House. More live music, steaks, and more margaritas. Somehow, the bill comes to 334 dollars. I think it will be iron rations only for the next two days...
Turns out we have already seen all the sights due to our marathon efforts on Wednesday. And the weather is iffy again. So I spend most of the day getting my camera repaired. At least it has started to play up when I am somewhere that I have a chance of dealing with it. I find a little Russian guy who does it in 4 hours. The repair costs exactly the same as yesterday's dinner. Supper tonight is the doggy bag remains of yesterday's extravaganza.
Chicago to St Louis - well it didn't look far on the map. And we only got lost three times. But they like to place the brown Route 66 signs just in front of left turns on three lane highways, so it’s all a little disconcerting. The road twists and turns across the Interstate routes. It's crumbly and has an unbelievable camber, so we threaten to end up in the ditch all too often. Sometimes there is more than one Route 66. The historic one and the historic historic one. Sometimes there is no Route 66 at all. This is definitely small town America. Prairie prairie quite contrary. Mile after mile of rippling green corn, gleaming silos and white clapboard houses with emerald manicured lawns, neatly arranged in semi circles. The obligatory Stars and Stripes flutter above.
We have a Ford Explorer, a giant of a thing. It's like driving along in a coach, peering down on everyone else. Serendipitously our number plate is 6966. Make what you like of that. We also have guide books depicting all the kitschy must see Route 66 sights. Restored fifties petrol stations, cosy diners with flashing red welcome signs, giant statues and murals are common. Get your Chicks on Route 66, Dicks on Route 66 and so on. And the slightly more esoteric. A phone booth on top of a courthouse roof? Lincoln mania - he was born here. It soon becomes clear that if we stop and search for all the recommended sights, the trip will take us a year. So we drive on, singing, to the Mississippi. There is a lot of road!
Another song to sing - Meet me in St Louis. The obvious attraction to meet under is the 190-metre Gateway Arch. It is the world's tallest arch and you can travel up it in a precarious looking lift. The other most noticeable feature is the sports stadia. The most famous sports team is the St. Louis Cardinals (Major League Baseball), but there are also the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League, and the St. Louis BattleHawks of the formed XFL.
Dinner at the very hip Oyster Bar on Broadway. The ultimate in shack chic. All coloured lights and wooden tables. And very good live R & B. Nice cocktails too....
Today promises to be exciting. An Al Qaeda red alert and a severe weather warning for heavy rain in Missouri. There is a belt of thunderstorms veering across the country. We are warned not to park near any creeks... This is where most of the pioneers set off west. It’s a bit different for us. We have to navigate the endless shopping outlet suburbs of St. Louis. But then we hit the Ozark Hills, lush green forests and little winding roads. It's a bit like Sussex. And we instantly get lost. So it's the wrong sort of excitement for us and that is very much the pattern for the day. It rains a lot, but no flash floods.
We are already pretty much take it or leave it now when it comes to Route 66 signs. They are everywhere (though confusingly sometimes blue in Missouri), except at junctions when you need them. Giants abound. Everything is the biggest and best. The tallest totem in the world. The biggest gift shop in the world, the largest rocking chair. What sort of inferiority complex dreams this lot up? We drive through Cuba (Mural City) and are staying in Lebanon so it's a worldwide tour too. We board in a forties motel - Munger Moss - and eat in a redneck diner. Moonshine margaritas and hickory smoked ribs. The meals are giant sized too. And so are a lot of the people.
Southwest through a corner of Kansas to Oklahoma City. The scenery not as I imagined, when I read my Steinbeck. It's all velvety green rolling hills, ponds, and haystacks. Maybe it’s the unseasonal rain. We can see the road unwinding in front of us like an endless Big Dipper. The sun is now out and the thermometer has climbed steadily, topping out at 106 degrees. We’re frightened to open the car doors in case we get fried. The undulations have been interspersed with little cowboy and mining towns. Adobe brick, crenellations, boardwalks, more flashing signs and lots of fat men with long pointy beards. They would make good dwarves if it wasn't for the dungarees and baseball caps.
Each little town has a tumble down store selling memorabilia that is run by a delightful wizened little old man. Or so it seems. We have been pursued all day by a squad of French tourers on motor bikes. And we have only got lost once. This is because we have almost got the hang of this now. We have armed ourselves with a GPS, a road atlas, a zillion free tourist guides and a newly acquired turn by turn guide. But when we can, we just follow the Harleys.
Hot, hot, hot, melting. We tip 107 degrees today. A quick zip through downtown Oklahoma. Amazingly there are oil derricks and nodding donkeys in the grounds of the domed Capitol Building. I'm told that Oklahoma now has more oil than any other state. That accounts for all the greenery.
Thank God for the reversing camera on our private tank. How else would we get back on the right road? Tina wants to do most of the driving. I'm not sure if this is because she doesn't trust me behind the wheel or because she doesn't want to navigate. But mine isn't the easy option. I have to concentrate the whole time. I've only got to nod off for one minute and Tina is careering off in the wrong direction.
We meander back and forth across the Interstates, often on the frontage roads, with pantechnicons thundering above. The scenery is fascinating as it changes continually. Today it’s more how I imagined Oklahoma to be. Cinnamon soil and dead flat except for the odd mesa. There are Chisholm Trail markers and I'm recalling John Wayne in his leather chaps urging his cattle along in the searing heat. It must have been hard work.
Then off and over the border to Amarillo. (Time for Tony Christie). Texas is pretty flat too, but green and spiky. With huge skies. Everything in Texas is huge, of course. We've just seen the biggest cross in the Western Hemisphere. There's a cowboy there, head on his saddle, hat tipped over face, sleeping under a tree. Just like the movies. He says he is riding to California and it will take him another three months.
Amarillo might take some finding but there's little extraordinary to see. Its a bustling city with busy interstates crossing it. There's a Route 66–Sixth Street Historic District a hub for dining and antiques, with art deco and Spanish Revival buildings, We're staying at the Big Texan Motel. Biggest of everything. The staff here are certainly hugely rude. Everyone else along the route so far has been really friendly and chatty. Though the Texans are bigger and brasher. The motel serves 72 ounce steaks in a giant saloon bar. All plush velvet, cowboys and moose heads. The best rooms are set up like colourful little gold rush town hotels with swing doors. But the nasty receptionist has put us in the Horse Hotel instead…..
We motor on across the Texas Panhandle. Today it's even flatter, flatter than Holland with far more windmills, though these are old fashioned metal pumps or whole seas of modern turbines. And we've just driven past a ranch with 28,000 cattle. We didn't count them but you can smell them. We have a surfeit of Longhorn logos. Or real horns, on the front of limousines.
We're collecting creatures too. There are so many insects that we can hardly see out of the windscreen for brown squiggles. The radiator grille is stacked full of carcasses. There are even whole locusts in there.
We visit an art installation. Some artists collectively called Ant Ranch were commissioned to shove ten psychedelically patterned Cadillacs into the middle of a field. You can add your own graffiti. (Yesterday we saw Bug Ranch, an ironic take on this, with four VW beetles.) An early lunch at the Midway Point Cafe. Only 1391 miles to go. Everything that moves (or doesn't) in the cafe bears a Route 66 logo, including the salt cellars. Dennis, the friendly owner, serves us his 'ugly pies'. They look ok to me. Perhaps they're called this because they are very sweet and make you fat.
In New Mexico the landscape is instantly softer. Blue-green hues, some gentle undulation again and delicate pork pie mesas. A little further in is a great long line of turbines perched on the top of a ridge like the Zulu army massing at Rorke’s Drift. Though I suppose that here it should be the Cheyenne.
It's a little cooler today, as there is more wind. The locals say it stops blowing for two days in October. And we can take it easy as we've just gained an hour. The hills grow taller and we roll through a canyon past the Rio Grande. This really is cowboy and Indian country.
Albuquerque is the biggest city in New Mexico. (Yet another song - in fact more than one....) There's a plate glass modern downtown, whilst Adobe Navajo and Hopi craft and jewellery shops line the cobbled streets of Old Town Albuquerque, which dates to 1706 . There's San Felipe de Neri Church, five museums, and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, which traces the area’s tribal history.
Everyone here seems to be Mexican. Well, it is New Mexico. I dust off my Spanish and we dine on pork and chilli. We are still suffering the next morning.
A relatively lazy day. A round trip of just 100 miles odd through the mountains and mesas (one eye open for Red Indians) to Santa Fe. This seems much less of a challenge than mainstream 66, but the GPS has a hissy fit and freezes every time I try to enter the words Santa Fe. So, we get lost again, ending up in the middle of a field. When we eventually arrive it is much smaller than Albuquerque but even more Mexican. Everything is low lying adobe.
But my God do you need money to shop here. It's all pristine art galleries, up market clothes shops and high end jewellery. Madam declines to negotiate for a discount on 1200 dollar boots thank you. We do go into a café though and rashly order carrot cake. We still haven't learned that we should only order one dish between the two of us in the USA. These slabs of cake are gargantuan. So we request take out containers and it's gateaux for every meal that day.
There have been more changes in scenery today than in Henry V. Travelling from Albuquerque to Holbrook in Arizona we have seen mesas, red desert, yellow desert, green plains, sand dunes, mountains, lava, limestone escarpments and climbed 7,300 feet over the Continental Divide. The temperature has veered from 55 degrees in the rain to well over 100 later. Our lips are parched after only ten minutes in the desert. How did these cowboys manage? We have only gone wrong once and that wasn't our fault. They shut the road. There are also uranium mines, a nuclear museum and the site of the first atom bomb test. Native Indian pueblos, trading posts and a glitzy Route 66 casino.
And all this before we hit the Petrified Forest National Park. Fabulous scenery in the Painted Desert first with multi-hued mesas. I liked the blue ones best.
Then to the 'forest,' which consists of petrified logs arranged artistically around, as they have been dug out of the lava and sand. We have to be interrogated to make sure we haven't taken any pieces away with us. Rangers keep popping up to check on us. Tina admires one lady’s eyebrows so we take her photo. (So far Tina has had her picture taken with a park ranger, a transvestite, a policewoman, John Wayne and Teeny Tiny, my travelling bear.) When we get out of the park there are lines of shops selling more pieces of petrified wood than we have seen in the whole forest.
We are staying in a very basic town called Holbrook in a very basic motel. It is right next to the rail road. Every time a train goes by the ground shakes. It's like being in an earthquake.
Winslow and we stand on the corner along with everyone else to Take It Easy. The second verse of the Eagles song refers to a time when Jackson Browne's automobile malfunctioned in Winslow, Arizona, requiring him to spend a long day there. In 1999, in responding to the lyrics that made it famous, the city of Winslow erected a life-size bronze statue and mural commemorating the song at the Standin' on the Corner Park.
Then a quick zip to Meteor Crater. The crater was created about 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene era ( think open grassland dotted with woodlands inhabited by mammoths and giant ground sloths. This giant hole (diameter 1200 metres) was excavated by the impact of a nickel-iron meteorite about 50 metres across.
It's interesting, but a bit of a rip off at 16 dollars to peer over the edge and visit the tiny museum. Despite historic attempts to take the crater into public ownership , it remains in the hands of the Barringer family. They proclaim it to be the "best-preserved meteorite crater on Earth". Since the crater is privately owned, it is not protected as a national monument, but it was designated a National Natural Landmark in November 1967
We are muralled out and blasé about tepees by now. So a side trip to Phoenix south across greener bobbly desert is called for. I expect that the scenery will become ever more arid. Wrong again. It's all pine forest, pretty green and very hilly. In fact there are a lot of twisty turny mountain roads through the forest.
And then more desert, but mountainous desert with more twisty turny roads. This is the land of the Apache. Much fiercer than the Navajo if the films are to be believed. I'm anticipating them creeping up on us, but then things get even better. Cacti. Proper tall spiky cacti with prongs. It really is just like the movies. This is confirmed by the proliferation of ranches called The Ponderosa or The High Chaparral. I am a little disconcerted when I scramble out to take the obligatory pictures as I am assailed by gunfire. Am I really in a movie? Fortunately, it seems to be coming from a little further away, in the scrub. We beat a hasty retreat and kick back in Scottsdale. Palm trees and swimming pools.
This is where the Route 66 action really begins. Now we have a Mustang and sweep off north towards the Grand Canyon. It's a shame that the thunderstorms pursue us and we have to make a hasty and illegal stop on the Interstate to put the roof up. It seems for a while as if our canyon plans will all be dashed. But then the lightning retreats and the sun peeps out. We get our views across the spectacular toasty buttes of the canyon. And amused French tourists take our diving off the edge of the canyon Thelma and Louise photos.
First, back to Route 66 at Flagstaff for about a hundred miles. I have missed the road's quirkiness and endless variety. There is plenty of kitsch at Seligman, with mannequins cavorting in the road. Unfortunately, it attracts the tour buses from Vegas and so this is the first Route 66 spot that is heaving.
Then, on to Vegas itself, which, of course, is also heaving. En route, still more changes of scene. To begin with, exceptionally pretty forests and mountains with refreshingly cool crisp air. A complete rainbow - not quite shot of the storms yet - but mostly the sky is unflinchingly blue.
Then wide open spaces as The Mother Road deviates its furthest from the Interstates. Though I suppose I should have expressed that the other way round. Some meadows spread with custardy carpets of blooms, a canyon or two. Some very flat dirty yellow landscape with odd fluffy cacti as we skirt the Mojave Desert.
Then, another turn off at Kingman and past the Hoover Dam. The Hoover Dam is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, right on the border between Nevada and Arizona. Its construction, during the Great Depression, cost over one hundred lives. It was referred to as the Hoover Dam after President Herbert Hoover in bills passed by Congress during its construction, but was perversely renamed Boulder Dam by the Roosevelt administration in power when it was finished. The Hoover Dam name was later restored by Congress. The dam created Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, when it's full and a popular recreational area. More dry smouldering mountains as we enter Nevada, and then the glittering lights of Vegas.
I know that my title is a cliché but the whole place is a cliché. Predictably the GPS has another strop and takes us on a tour of virtually the whole city before we arrive at our hotel tetchy and glowing. At one point the temperature reads 119 degrees.
Our room has a huge bathroom with a window into it, two flat screen TVs, a dishwasher (?) and a view down the strip and across the desert. The neon is commencing its action.
We eat a huge breakfast in the largest and most highly rated buffet in Vegas. Our room is extremely high up, on the fifty- fifth floor and it has a balcony (unusual in Vegas as there have been too many jumpers in the past). However, we are both too giddily frightened to venture out onto it. It is about as hot as it gets on the planet. There is so much traffic on the strip that the cars can't move.
A stroll and a bus down The Strip. We are awed by the famous fountains weaving sinuously at The Bellagio, volcanoes exploding and pirates dancing with sirens. The hotels are so enormous that it takes fifteen minutes to navigate across the frontage of just one. And that's if you can find a way through, as they cunningly try to inveigle you into the casinos. The people here are even more gargantuan than elsewhere. The restaurants serve the cheapest, most outstanding food in the USA - so they say.
I prefer the more happening vibe at Fremont Street, which is packed with tourists, live bands, wannabes dressed as every character you could possibly think of, swathes of flashing lights and (what else) The Biggest Screen on the Planet, splashing across the arcade roof.
Back down The Strip we buy super deal cowboy boots (what am I going to do with these in the South Pacific?) and stop for a drink in St. Mark's Square in Venice, watching the gondolas sweeping by. The Venetian (with The Palazzo) is the biggest hotel in the world and of course we get lost under its fake puffy cloudy skies. Then off to Paris to book seats for the Jersey Boys tonight. It's the best show in town, of course. Some time by one of the pools before we set off. It's the 'quietest', but it's jammed totally full of bodies.
It’s a very long day on the road, not helped by the fact that we oversleep due to our late show. The desert goes on forever and its brown scrubby desert now. The road is a veritable Big Dipper and we leave our stomachs behind at every crest. The temperature goes up and up. The only excitement is when the petrol gauge (sorry gas) starts to dip dangerously low in the middle of nowhere. It wouldn't be so bad if we could stick to the Interstate, but all the traffic lights from San Bernardino into the suburbs of LA on 66 make the journey interminable.
I get the impression that the Californians think that they don’t have to try very hard when it comes to Route 66. There are a few signs dotted around. But they have the beautiful people instead. The beautiful people, I have to say, give no quarter on the roads. It's hell on earth when we are allowed onto a freeway, careering round bends and getting cut up on both sides. It’s just like The Wacky Races. I discover that the brake on my side of the car is pretty ineffective. As well as the cartoons they have the movies. Everywhere we visit has been in a film. The Baghdad Cafe, Victorville (Kill Bill), Barstow, (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). If it hasn't been in a film it's advertising its availability to be in one.
We progress slowly from the desert to the old winery and orange grove country. Palm trees proliferate and the countryside becomes green again as we wind through the foothills for the whole afternoon and evening. The foothills of what? I never did discover.
It's almost too dark to pick out the Hollywood sign as we lurch down Sunset Boulevard and through Beverley Hills. The Ferris wheel on Santa Monica Pier is glowing red and the End of the Trail sign is almost indecipherable. But we did it.
We are staying in Venice Beach. Brighton meets Blackpool. The beach is more Blackpool - huge and sandy. It's a pretty edgy area full of street performers and bars. But it verges on sleazy as well. We walk just up the road to Santa Monica, immediately going up market. Salcombe meets the French Riviera. Big expensive hotels and seafood bars. And this is Baywatch country. Lifeguards in red cozzies.
Afterwards we drive up Rodeo Drive with the roof down, though waving cameras out of the window rather spoils the effect. There are certainly lots of beautiful people here. I note that it seems de rigeur to have a tattoo nowadays to be a beautiful person proper. Not only are the beautiful people aggressive on the road they are very loud too. Everyone has a relationship to discuss at the top of their voice as they walk along the street. Usually with someone on the other end of a cell phone.
Hollywood is cold and wet, but there are the classic sights: Graumann's Chinese theatre and its pavement stars, Universal Studios (Jaws and the set for Desperate Housewives), The Sister Act church, the sign on the hills behind and a tour of Hollywood Houses, with a commentary on who is supposed to live where.
The LA galleries are well worth the time - there are heaps of them. One of the most notable is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), in the Miracle Mile vicinity of Los Angeles. LACMA is on Museum Row, adjacent to the La Brea Tar Pits (George C. Page Museum). It's the biggest museum in the western USA. Up the coast, the Getty Museum. It's collection grew so big that it had to be split into two campuses. ]The Getty Center is located in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles and features pre-twentieth-century European paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, decorative arts, and photographs. The original Getty museum, the Getty Villa, is located in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles and displays art from Ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria. this is the one with with its over the top architecture and incredible views
And I acquire a taste for appletinis.
Not the best day. We decide to drive a hundred miles south to San Diego, nearly on the Mexican border, but everyone else seems to have the same idea. And there are a lot of people in California. The traffic is so ghastly on the freeway that we eventually give up a little short of our destination and spend the afternoon on the beach at La Jolla. Apparently there are road works, and a ball game and some horse racing all going on. The beach is just as crowded as the road, but entertaining. There are giant seagulls (what else?). They have the beach well under control. We watch one fly down and poop on the guy picnicking in front of us. The guy screeches and runs into the sea to wash. And the seagull swoops in and snatches his sandwich. Very funny.
Another meandering day. We wander north up the coast on an aptly named scenic highway that perches precariously above the ocean and then flattens out through the vineyards. Tina has finally realised what 'PED XING' painted on the road means. We hang out with the stars again, this time in Malibu, eating brunch at the mountain racquet club and trying to work out who lives where. There are basketball games on Venice Beach. The teams are a motley crew, but if the announcer is to be believed the players are all famous movie stars or ex Globetrotters. It's a good rah-rah atmosphere.
The clouds linger over the peaks, as they have all the time we have been here, and, come to think of it, every time I have visited LA. We are sitting on the beach as it's our last day, but we're shivering. We get tantalising glimpses of blue sky and scenic views. That really sums California up. It's beautiful and extreme, promises much and doesn't always deliver. When there is a prize on offer you get knocked over in the scrimmage. But I'm sad that my Route 66 excursion has finished. It has been a great trip. Now I'm off to the airport. Part II of the adventure is about to commence. The Cook Islands next.
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