Parking is allowed

I have been very impressed with the National Park system which we have been using extensively over the last few weeks. The first thing to be impressed with is the cost. At only $80 for the year [for two named persons – which could be anyone with the named persons in the same vehicle] it is really good value [we have already saved over $200 in enry fees]. The second thing is the quality of the programmes, facilities and education. The parks (forests and monuments) vary amazingly, from the evergaldes in Florida to Arches in Utah. You would need several years to “do” all the parks fully – Yellowstone alone has almost 1000 miles of trails (we did about 0.1% of these) but we have an impression now of the incredible range of geology, geography and biology of the Western half of the USA.

One interesting aside is the socio-cultural make-up of attendees at the park. There have been few hispanic or African-Americans at the parks we’ve attended (this in comparison, for example, to Phoenix zoo where there was a large mix). This seems to be true in the UK as well. I wonder why this is?

The parks system does seem to be underfunded and when $100 billion is being spend on the senseless war in Iraq I will be lobbying for more funding to go to the NPS and less on guns!

So, our adventure draws to a close with a few days on the beach and then a return to San Francisco for a trip to Alcatraz, a trip on a tram and a journey to John Muir woods. It will be strange to be back in the UK – things will seem smaller – and to be back into the grind of work; not to mention being in the same bed for two nights running!

From the sublime to the ridiculous

canyon.jpgHow time flies when you’re having fun. I realised that it has been almost a fortnight since I reminised. So, a travelling time visiting some of the majesty of the American West. I guess it is a clichĂ© but there is a lot of space! Coming from a small crowded island it is easy to forget just how big this country is and how you can drive for 2 hours to get nowhere on the map. The natural wonders are amazing and if you’ve never been, then the Grand Canyons and Bryce Canyon should go on your ‘list of things to do before I die’. The general majesty and splendour of this part of the world makes it worth a visit as well as these specifics. So, that was the sublime – the ridiculous? Las Vegas. A city which pampers to all the worst excesses and negative parts of the human psyche. If you want to overeat, indulge in bizarre sexual practices or gamble away your living then this is the place. Tacky, tastless, fake, shallow all are insufficient to describe the place; this is one city I feel no need to return to.

Language and culture

Travelling on several things have made more impressions. As Churchill said we are two nations divided by a common langauge and there have been times when both accent and content have defeated my and I’m sure those to whom I have been talking. Also there are culture clashes which are difficult. We went to a beach where people came in order not to walk, swim or built sandcastles but to drive! An odd behaviour. There have been others. We have now progressed from the glitz (Hollywood and Disney) to the nature and are out in the desert.

Reflecting on things…

The last few days have been very interesting as we have been in middle America and across the bible belt. One thing is clear is the number of churches in every city, town and hamlet show how the attendance at church is very high. When we were in Mephis the city’s hotels were booked out the next day as a famous evangelist had died and a wake and memorial service drew people from all over the USA. The inflence of the church has been a dominate theme in the life of many of the people we have visited some you would expect (Martin Luther King) and some that I would not have (Elvis). On the subject of Elvis Graceland was a more moving experience than I expected and I came away with a far greater sense of respect for the person of Elvis as well as the performer. The vastness of this land also is reinforced as we have come into the foothills of the Appalachains in this part of the land there are great stretches of nothing, and this is the crowded part of the country, where you could use the roads for those car adverts which have empty stretches and where the trees go on as far as the eye can see.

Things to do before you die …

One of the hopes on this trip was to do some of the ‘things I always wanted to do / see’ and so far have been ticking these off. Going to the Florida keys, the birthplace of MLK, the cafĂ© using in the film wsc.jpgFried Green Tomatos and taking a riverboat on the Mississippi were all things I hoped to do at some point. The west beckons for some more including the grand canyon and the Golden Gate bridge. Also a treat are the ‘off the road’ experiences, the places that you didn’t plan for but turn up including the grotto of places and ‘America’s longest land bridge east of the Rockies’ as well as going to a country fair. I still have hopes of passing the world’s largest ball of string or longest hot dog!

There and back again

After a couple of days in Atlanta recovering from being on the road I’m back with the Kerouac experience. Leaving Atlanta to head for Memphis, Tennesee and looking for more “small scale” local experiences led to finding the ‘American Village’ a project to recreate in complete detail some key buildings from American history as well as ‘American history in minature’ a set of about 30 dioramas from Natives to Nixon – the life long project of one person. On this theme a visit to the Ave Maria Grotto followed which was also the life work of one Brother Zoetl, a Benedictine monk, who re-created in minature buildings from the Holy Land and other famous Christian and Biblical places – Brother Zoetl seemed to be influenced from both the representational and the Gaudi schools of modelling. A fascinating place. It is obviously still cold here as far as the locals are concerned as both places were deserted of visitors and the swimming pool at the motel was ‘closed for the season’ even though we were sweating and the thermometer hit about 27C, an indication of what it must be like in the season – which seems to offically start in May.

Southern hospitality

New Orleans was, “an experience”. Coming in on the interstate you could see the continuing devastation from Katrina even though this was 18 months ago. The houses were 2-3m below the level of the levee which burst on the Lake side and in one area a popualtion of 150,00 is now only 40,000. The trees in the city and especially on the outskirts look like the hurricane happened only a couple of weeks ago and it is sobering to think that in this, the richest country in the world, that still there is this problem. In comparison the downtown area and the French quarter are completed repaired theren is no evidence of the hurricane though prices were much higher here than in any other place we have been.


On a more personal level I was able to fufill a childhood ambition and go on a steam boat on the Mississippi – which took me back to reading Huckleberry Finn as a teenager. Although Mardi Gras is over Mardi Gras world was still open so got to visit and see many of the floats and to wear some of the costumes. I though I was more liberal but some of the outfits were … so where does that strap go … oh! really! are you sure?!

Sandcastles and disasters

sandcastle.jpgThis is the castle that Paul built! Spending my time in important matters whilst sunning on the Floridian Gulf coast I built the mother of all sandcastles and am expecting George to stop by to liberate it at any time. Enjoyable lazy week in Seacreast though marred by no internet connection (can you image such a problem!). Also went to visit the town of seaside an idyllic community where the Trueman show was filmed and where a little seaside cottage with 3 beds will set you back a cool 2 million dollars. Onto New Orleans next for Jazz and Bourbon street.

Get me an alligator sandwich …

Well I’ve now seen an alligator, in the flesh so to speak, and dsc_8679.jpgcouldn’t resist the rather kitch offer to hold a baby ‘ gator which was 2 years old and about 4 feet long (any attempt to bring the USA into the metric system seems doomed to failure. Travels to Key Largo in th footsteps of Hemmingway and then through the everglades was followed by a visit to the Florida Strawberry festival which was just as it says on the tin. The strawberries were wonderful and the carnival and the shows were also fun; I can really recommend pig racing as a fun activity! To food again was something else mostly fried, fatty and fullsome. On thr road again to the Florida panhandle and a week by the seaside – quite literally as the town is called seaside.

Diners, Beaches and Bikes

bikes.jpgAn introduction to the ‘real’ USA, or at least some of it with small town diners, or rather off interstate diners with the kind of food that makes your arteries harder as you walk through the door. The local idea of vegetarianism seems to be an omlet or the pickles off the hamburger so a trip to the local market is on the cards. On the postive sides the beaches on the East coast before you hit ‘condoland’ are spectacular and the local wildlife is also very fine. In Daytona beach we took part (in a spectator sort of a way) with the annual motorcycle festival where 500,000 bikes converge on a small Floridian seaside town. Quite a spectacle.