Archive | September, 2014

BACK TO AMERICA.

28 Sep

I’ve been putting off going back to America for many years, upset by its aggressive foreign policy and its seemingly rampant gun culture. Over the decades, I’ve lost count of the countries the Americans have invaded or bombed and the horrific mass shootings in their schools, malls, cinemas and any other public space one can think of.
I first visited the States in the early 90’s to take my son, Ian, to the Florida theme parks – Disneyland, Universal Studios, Sea World and the like. They were great but seemed to represent a fantasy world rather than the real America. Our experience got more authentic when we drove on the Florida Turnpike from Orlando down to Fort Lauderdale and Miami. We sampled the laid-back beach culture, the pastel coloured Art Deco hotels and the Latin-flavoured melting pot of cultures. I remember the shiny diners with the Michelle Pfeiffer style waitresses ( in my dreams) offering endless refills from their coffee pots held high. I remember the swaying palms, the blue skies, the blazing sun, the big, brown pelicans perched around the marina, the dramatic clusters of skyscapers, the tropical storms, the “Have a nice days” and the sudden change of expression when a tip failed to please. It was fascinating and highly enjoyable. Ian must have enjoyed it too for he later returned to study at Miami University as part of his American Studies degree.
However, that’s a long time ago in a pre-digital, pre-Internet age ( at least for me.) This year, 2014, I finally had the time, the money and the inclination to return over the “pond.” I felt I had to go soon before I got too old and too decrepit for long-haul flights. Of course, I’d actually been to America many times in the past decades, the America of all those Westerns, road-movies, rom-coms and film-noir on the silver screen. Then there was the America immortalised in thousands of pop, rock and blues songs that have formed much of the soundtrack of my life. America has also invaded my own country, the UK, through its malls, out of town/car orientated shopping centres, fast food chains, coffee shops and even Drive Thru’s. On top of all this is the America of Silicon valley, the Internet, social networking, smart phones and all the bewildering paraphernalia of the communications revolution. In many ways it has been as if I was in America already, the UK often being described as its 51st State. But not even all that can compare with the real thing — the real American experience. No amount of High Definition can adequately prepare one for the immensity and grandeur of the landscapes and the incredible variety of wild life.. Suddenly, it seemed incredible that I had only been once.
So it was that in September, my wife, Chris and I found ourselves on a near 10 hour flight from London to Denver, Colorado, the “Mile High City.” Faced with the myriad of attractions that such a vast country has to offer, it was a daunting task deciding where to go. The lure of New York City was almost irresistible as were the attractions of San Francisco and California on the opposite coast. Many people visit the fascinating cities and attractions of the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, but omit the huge mass of land in between. Jonathan Raban in his travel book ” Hunting for Mr Heartbreak”, writes about the “fly-over States”. How many people visit Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle in the west and then at some other time: New York, Washington DC or Boston in the east, but miss out the vast continent that lies in between? Wyoming, Montana or Utah, despite their incredible natural wonders, are only worth a brief glimpse through the clouds before in-flight entertainment on the back of the seat in front re-grabs the attention.
I decided that the most compelling parts of the USA had to be: the Great Plains, the great high Deserts and the great Rocky Mountain ranges made famous in countless Hollywood westerns. I wanted to visit the America of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. I wanted to find out more about : Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo. I yearned to see that little house on the prairie, visualise the wagon trains of the recent past trundling along the Oregon trail, witness the scenic wonders of Yellowstone Park, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. So it was that we did an epic road trip through: Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Arizona and finally Nevada, starting in Denver and ending up on Las Vegas.
The experience was spectacular and memorable. If I had to sum up my impressions of North West and South West USA in one word, that word would be “BIG”. I saw big skies, big landscapes, and big buildings ( in the cities). I ate big meals and encountered a lot of big people. As a supposed writer, I know I shouldn’t be over-using one adjective. In subsequent paragraphs, please feel free to substitute : “huge”, “immense”, “vast”,” gigantic” or “enormous” whenever you feel like it. The sheer size of everything was simply awe-inspiring and is the most indelible impression left with me. No wonder many Americans don’t even own a passport. They might think — “Why travel abroad when America offers just about everything?” What they are short of, in my opinion, is history and a rich artistic culture. The USA is a very young nation and still struggles with its sense of identity. Thus there is a lot of saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. However the States offer natural wonders in abundance. The great rolling plains seem endless. The mountains are towering and formidable. We got neck ache staring up at the huge, sheer cliffs of Zion Canyon and suffered temporary vertigo gazing into the chasm of the Grand Canyon.
The American people were unstintingly friendly and gregarious. There was no hint of that aggressive stance their country often presents to the world. It was great meeting American people even though we got off to a slightly sinister start by being photographed and finger-printed by an unsmiling passport officer at Denver. Everyone else we met made up for that bad start. I’m glad I overcame my prejudices and went to see all those wonderful sights. Chris and I always felt safe — we didn’t see one gun or meet one threatening person. One gets a warped impression if one only judges a place on the TV news. Every country has its problems and contradictions, but the natural splendours and wild life I witnessed swept away any lingering doubts. I was bowled over and glad that I had at last returned to the USA.

38,000 feet Above Lake Winnepeg.

24 Sep

It’s twenty minutes past midnight but the sun is still streaming through the window. In fact my neighbour has just had to pull the blind down. All my friends and relatives back in Britain will be tucked up in bed as their day is over and night has fallen. However, my day just seems to go on and on. I am travelling backwards in time, constantly chasing the sun and escaping the moon.
I’m flying westwards to Denver, Colorado. It’s another “holiday of a lifetime” that I have been lucky enough to indulge in since retirement. The plane is full of silver-haired retirees like myself. We are getting in our long-haul journeys while we can. Our watches tell us we are in the small hours, but it’s only early evening local time. A surreal situation has emerged. Our minds are still active but our bodies are weary. The long journey is messing with our internal clocks.
The inside of the aircraft cabin is dominated by the unrelenting drone of the engines. I have been trapped here for 7 hours with another near 3 hours still to go. If I allow myself to think about it, I might well have a panic attack. I instruct myself to stay calm and breathe steadily. I’m distracted by looking down on to the white Canadian clouds, momentarily recalling Joni Mitchell recalling “life’s illusions.” Every now and then I get up to flex my legs and waggle my toes to try to avoid getting a DVT. My mouth feels stale and my body very tired. I started this endless day clean-shaven and fresh, but now I sport the sandpaper cheeks of unwelcome designer stubble.
It should be the middle of the night but I’ve just been served a sandwich and a cup of tea. It’s bizarre. Now I’ve been given a scone, a small pot of cream and some jam which is squeezed out of a tiny tube. I try to eat and drink while cramped in my seat. The electronic screen in front of me says we are flying over Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba at 38,000 feet. It’s not often one gets to say that!