Perception is truth

Is it just me? The older I get (I’ll be 71 one month from now) the faster time seems to fly by.

This came home to me quite vividly yesterday morning. Ever since we’ve been married (46 years now) Steph and I enjoy an early morning cup of tea in bed. It’s my job to make the tea from Monday to Friday, Steph’s at the weekend. Anyway, after we were up and dressed, I was about to go downstairs for breakfast carrying the tea tray, and not bothering to turn on the light, even though it’s quite dark these days at 07:15.

I had to stop and tell myself that it would be foolish to slip in the dark and damage my leg as I did in January 2016 when I fell and broke my leg. Then reality hit home. It’s almost four years since my accident. Four years! Where has the time gone?

Notwithstanding that I was very busy in those four years, it seems just like yesterday that I was whisked away by ambulance to the local hospital.

And I got to thinking about things past and present. Through social media and this blog I’ve made contact with a number of friends from school days and university. I haven’t met any of my Southampton University classmates since we graduated almost 50 years ago in July 1970.

In my mind’s eye they are still the same, even though I have aged. Does anyone else have the same issue?

1968 – at the end of a botany field course on the west coast of Ireland at Lisdoonvarna.

July 1970 and October 2019. Spot the difference!

Older? Definitely. Wiser? Maybe.

There are so many memories from those years, still fresh in my mind. What did I do last week? Heaven knows.

But I was taken back to my university days recently when I received something the university alumni office. It was a Map of the Tracks, on which alumni memories (and music tracks associated with those memories) were posted.

That got me thinking. I didn’t go to many live concerts. But three stick in my mind. In January 1968, Pink Floyd supported T. Rex. On another occasion, the Alan Price Set played the Students’ Union. Alan Price had played keyboards with The Animals.

But the concert that is most vivid in my mind was late 1967 or early 1968. Or was it later in 1968 at the beginning of the new academic year? Nevertheless, I’m inclined to recall it was during Freshers’ Week in October 1967, just as I started at Southampton.

So who has stayed in my mind all these years? The Crazy World of Arthur Brown! He performed what would become their hit Fire that did well on both sides of the Atlantic after its release in June 1968.

What a performance! Brown came on stage with this contraption on his head, shooting flames, and it wasn’t long before his hair caught fire. Quickly doused (this wasn’t the first time that this happened, apparently) the performance continued. What a night.

Here he is in all his pyrotechnic glory.

 

Crossing rivers, valleys, and mountains in the eastern USA

I don’t particularly like driving. Never have. Especially on the UK’s crowded roads. But it’s a necessity that I live with.

On the other hand, driving around the USA has been a much more pleasant experience. I have enjoyed¹ the road trips (covering at least 12,000 miles) that Steph and I have made around the USA since 2011.

Budget® Car Rental gave us a Jeep Wrangler this year.

Why? Well, for one thing, most of the the routes I have chosen have not been congested, and it’s possible to drive mile upon mile and hardly see another vehicle. In many places, even in the remotest locations, road surfaces are quite good, or indeed, very good. Also, having lived in countries where they drive on the ‘wrong’ side (Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines) for almost three decades, driving on the right in the USA doesn’t faze me.

Those who follow my blog, or come across my stories from time to time, will know that I try and illustrate these quite liberally with photos that I have (mostly) taken myself. But on many of our trips across America there are often no places to stop conveniently and take in the landscape.

On a couple of occasions, when we traveled through the redwoods of northern California, or, more recently, worked our way through the Appalachians, for example, Steph held a video camera. But that’s never been a satisfactory solution.

So, earlier this year, I decided to invest in a Nextbase dashcam, which I used during our most recent trip to record the whole nine days. Hours of video to scan, and decide on the best clips. Was it worth it, you might very well ask? I think so, especially as the software bundled with the cam permits me to capture individual frames as images that I can use in the same way as those from my DSLR.

I try to choose routes along scenic byways, where we’ll often see important features in the landscape. During this year’s trip we took in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area along the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area follows the course of the Delaware River (map), and forms the state line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We traveled down the valley on the PA side, northeast to southwest. At the southern end, the Delaware River takes a sharp turn east cutting through a significant mountain ridge.

The Gap at Kittatinny Point in New Jersey

There are a couple of visitors centers. In the north of the area is Dingmans Falls Visitor Center, and the falls close by. This video takes you from the entrance to the Recreation Area in the north, to Dingmans Falls, and south to the Gap, before emerging in New Jersey and looking back westwards to the Gap.

The Monongahela National Forest (19) is one of 26 national forests nationwide.

NPS_delaware-water-gap-map

We’ve been fortunate to pass through several others during previous road trips: Green Mountain/White Mountain (15) in the northeast; Daniel Boone (10) in Kentucky; Allegheny (1) in western Pennsylvania; Black Hills (3) in South Dakota; Shoshone (25) and Bridger-Teton in Wyoming; and Coconino (8) in Arizona; and many more forests and wilderness areas that are not necessarily part of the national forest system.

Monongahela covers a vast area of the ridges and valleys of West Virginia. We traveled southwest down the valleys, but as our destination on that day was Appomattox in central Virginia, we had to keep turning east, climbing and descending ridges in frequent succession.

We stopped at the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center to take a look (from a distance) at the rocks themselves, an enormous quartzite crag, which apparently the only true peak on the east coast.

Criss-crossing these ridges and valleys was where many battles and skirmishes were fought during the Civil War from 1861-1865. It’s hard enough driving over these ridges, never mind tramping mile after mile, hauling wagons with matériel and provisions, ill-clothed and ill-shod, and then having to fight a battle. Awe inspiring!.

Driving across the USA opens one’s eyes to the enormity of the country, the vastness of the landscapes that open up ahead. And on this particular trip, the scale of the challenge to ford rivers, even the ocean, came home to me as we passed over some remarkable bridges, exquisite examples of civil engineering. So, rather than trying to describe each of the bridges that caught my attention take a look at these two videos (speeded up as were the others above). Also check out the map to see where they are located.

I decided to make a separate video of the crossing of Chesapeake Bay that connects Virginia at Norfolk (and its naval base) with the Delmarva Peninsula to the east. Built on stilts across the bay, and incorporating two deep tunnels and a higher bridge on the eastern end, I was blown away by the scale of the project.

At the north end of Chesapeake Bay there is another long crossing, shown at the end in the first bridge video.

I hope you enjoy these vignettes of travel through the eastern USA, as much as we did driving there and putting together the videos.

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¹ There are aspects of driving in the USA that still irk me, however. Such as:

  • Vehicles entering interstates at high speed, and not matching their speed to existing traffic.
  • Overtaking on both sides.
  • Rear brake lights that are also indicators on many models.
  • Locals who are reluctant to overtake on clear roads, but will tailgate.

And there are rules of the road that one has to be aware / careful of:

  • Low speed limits, typically 55 mph on US and state roads (although from my experience this year, hardly anyone seems to take notice of these limits.
  • Stopping rules for school buses – this caught me out once in northern California, as I thought only vehicles on the same side as the bus had to stop. No; both carriageways have to stop.
  • Turning right on a red light can be confusing.
  • Pedestrian rights when one is turning left, even on a green light.
  • Priority rules at all-way stop signs. There are few roundabouts that I’ve come across in the USA, although a few more than usual during this year’s trip.
  • One can get caught out (especially approaching traffic lights) when entering a right or left lane, and having to make a turn.

Beauty born of destruction

Until about four months ago, I’d never heard of Longwood Gardens. A friend and former colleague, Lisa Panes, at the International Rice Research Institute (in the Philippines where I used to work) had posted some lovely photos on Facebook and I asked her where they were taken.

I then discovered that the gardens lay just a few miles to the east of a route I had already planned on our recent road trip between Atlantic City on the New Jersey coast and Gettysburg in central southern Pennsylvania, northwest of Wilmington, DE and almost due west of Philadelphia, PA. And that Longwood is one of the best rated gardens in the country!

Since both Steph and I (Steph in particular) enjoy visiting gardens of all sorts, we decided to make the small diversion and include Longwood in our itinerary. And what a worthwhile visit it was.

The park covers 1100 acres (interactive map), of which 400 are open to the public. And what can only be described as the biggest conservatory I have ever seen, covering 4 acres.

So what’s the origin of this beautiful place?

Longwood Gardens were created in 1906 by Pierre Samuel du Pont, scion of the industrial chemicals du Pont family, and great grandson of the company’s founder, Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, who settled in America (from his native France) in 1800. The original purpose of the du Pont company was the manufacture of black powder explosives.

Eleuthère Irénée du Pont (1771-1834) on the left, and his great grandson Pierre Samuel (1870-1954) on the right.

The origins of Longwood trace back to an arboretum established by twins Joshua and Samuel Peirce.

After George Washington Peirce’s death the Park began to decline as was about to be acquired by a development company intent on cutting down the trees. That’s when Pierre Samuel stepped in to rescue the Peirce farm and Park, and to save the many magnificent trees. He set about realising his vision for the gardens and also remodelled the Peirce farmhouse on the property (now known as the Peirce-du Pont House).

The Flower Walk was the first part of the garden to be laid out.

Making our way back to the main entrance, we walked through the Flower Garden Walk. Although it was probably past its best in early September, there was nevertheless enough in bloom to appreciate just how magnificent it must look at the the height of summer.

But the Gardens’ pièce de résistance is the magnificent conservatory, the first parts of which were completed in the early 1920s and further sections added throughout the decade.

du Pont built a huge Fountain Garden in front of and facing the conservatory. What a display! du Pont built another water garden, the Italian Water Garden, to the east of the house which appears at the end of the video.

All in all, we had a lovely visit to Longwood Gardens, and I’m so grateful to my friend Lisa for putting the Gardens on my radar. If you are ever in this part of eastern Pennsylvania, please do make a beeline for Longwood. You won’t be disappointed. From what I can glean from the Gardens website, they are open all year round. I can imagine walking round the park with snow on the ground, and then experiencing the pleasure of a hot Conservatory afterwards.

I have posted a more extensive album of photos here.

The most recognisable geographical feature

Cape Cod. It defines the coastline of Massachusetts, jutting out into the northwest Atlantic Ocean. Next stop: Europe. It must surely be one of the most recognisable geographical features in North America, maybe the entire planet.

During our recent nine day road trip through ten northeast and Atlantic states, Cape Cod was the first destination.

We had flown into Boston the day before, and because the flight path that day took us southeast of the airport, we had a fantastic view of the Cape before the aircraft banked north for its final approach. The 93 mile drive south from Boston’s Logan International Airport was not as straightforward as I had planned. Our flight had been delayed by two hours out of Amsterdam, and it was closer to 6 pm before we were on the road south, becoming mixed up in Boston rush hour traffic for almost 35 miles, then completing the final 20 miles or so to our hotel in Orleans in the dark (something which I had hoped to avoid, never being comfortable with night driving). But we made it in one piece, settled down for a good night’s sleep (sadly not achieved) in expectation of an interesting exploration of the Cape Cod National Seashore the following day. We were not disappointed.

Just 4 miles north of Orleans we stopped at the Cape Cod National Seashore Salt Pond Visitor Center, something which I hadn’t planned to do, but was very pleased that we took the opportunity.

The National Park Service staff were extremely helpful (as they are everywhere), providing maps and other pamphlets, and suggestions of where to visit; the Visitor Center had an excellent museum about life on Cape Cod. There’s information about the indigenous inhabitants of the Cape, and the history of the whaling industry. Some remarkable examples of scrimshaw are also displayed.

Heading north, we arrived at the Province Lands Visitor Center on the north coast of the Cape. While the center was closed for some plumbing maintenance work, the observation platform on the roof was still accessible from which there was a panoramic view over the dunes to the miles of beaches.

We moved on to the car park at Race Point Beach, and wandered down on to the beach. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and the sea was as calm as a millpond. Even though it was overcast, it wasn’t cold, and families were enjoying time on the beach, as well as anglers casting their lines. Prominent signs warned of the dangers of swimming because white sharks are common along the coast in search of seals. We were amused to see a small first aid kit on the beach, which we didn’t think would be much use if one did encounter a white shark.

From Race Point Beach we headed to Herring Cove Beach on the western tip of the Cape, which overlooks Cape Cod Bay. By then the sun had broken through, and it was a little windier there, waves breaking on the shore in quick succession.

Herring Cove Beach, with Race Point Lighthouse in the distance

Next stop was the small community of Provincetown (which swells enormously during the summer, a favorite destination of the LBGT community as evidenced by the many rainbow flags flown from many properties). It was here on 11 November 1620 that the Pilgrim Fathers (who had set sail from Plymouth in England some months earlier bound for the Colony of Virginia). Although they came ashore at Provincetown, they eventually settled at Plymouth across Cape Cod Bay. The skyline at Provincetown is dominated by a granite tower, the Pilgrim Monument, almost 253 feet (77 m) tall, built between 1907 and 1910 to commemorate the landfall of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 and the signing of the Mayflower Compact that established the governance for Plymouth County.

There’s only one way on and off Cape Cod, so to continue our journey west into Rhode Island and beyond, we had to retrace our steps south. But we took in the site of the Marconi Wireless Station that was opened in 1903 from where the first transatlantic wireless transmission between the US and Europe was made.

When RMS Titanic hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage in April 1912, wireless operators here alerted the crew of RMS Carpathia to the unfolding tragedy and sending the ship to help with the rescue of survivors.

There’s almost nothing remaining of the original station and antenna, victims of cliff erosion. We did see some metalwork and piles of bricks that might have been part of the station.

After a picnic lunch we continued our journey south and west towards our next night’s stop, in Plainfield, Connecticut via Newport, Rhode Island and the Beavertail Lighthouse on the tip of Jamestown island in Narragansett Bay.

In this video, you can experience something of our road trip through Cape Cod.

You can view more photos of Cape Cod and Beavertail Lighthouse here.

 

Bringing a bloody conflict to an end

Separated by 213 miles and almost two years, the battlefield of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, and Appomattox Court House in Virginia must be two of the most significant sites of the American Civil War, a war that ravaged the country for more than four years from April 1861, and cost more than 700,000 lives (a higher proportion with respect to population than any other conflict in which the USA has been a belligerent).

If they know anything about the Civil War at all, many people will have heard of Gettysburg, an unexpected and unplanned battle that took place in central southern Pennsylvania over three days from 1 July 1863, and just over half way through the four year struggle. And remembered not just for President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered on 19 November 1863 (of which more later). Gettysburg was perhaps the pivotal moment of the war in favor of the Union, as Confederate General Robert E Lee’s invasion of the North faltered and he retreated south back into Virginia.

Appomattox Court House will perhaps be less familiar. It’s the site, in central Virginia, where General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union Lt. General Ulysses S Grant’s Army of the Potomac on Palm Sunday, 9 April 1865. The surrender came after one of the last engagements of the war (in which Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer’s cavalry played an important role). And while the war did linger further west for a couple more months, it was effectively over when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.

During our recent road trip through ten northeast and Atlantic states, Steph and I took in both Gettysburg and Appomattox Court House.

I have been interested in American Civil War history for quite a number of years, and take the opportunity, whenever possible, to visit historic sites. I made a special beeline for these two sites on this year’s road trip. I wasn’t sure whether Steph would be as keen as myself, but she assured me that the visits were equally interesting to her. Made more so, I believe, by the excellent facilities, exhibits, and literature provided by the National Park Service (NPS) of the US Department of the Interior (doing a great job despite the ‘attacks’ on its budget by the current Trump administration).

The bloodiest battle
The Gettysburg battlefield covers a huge area (map), and more or less surrounds the town of the same name which, in 1863, had a population of around 2500, quite sizeable for that era.

The first engagements began to the northwest of the town center, when Federal (Union) and Confederate units ‘collided’. Over the next three days, the battle spread south and east. While much of the terrain is rolling and open, wooded areas provided cover for units on both side from which to attack. And in a couple of places such as Culps Hill and Little Round Top, the armies clashed over steep and rocky terrain.

The attacks and repulses on both sides were savage, and attrition rates high. For example, the First Minnesota regiment lost 85% of its men dead or wounded in one day during Gettysburg, the highest of the war.

The only other major battlefield I’ve visited before was the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana, where Custer’s 7th Cavalry was defeated by an alliance of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in June 1876.

Gettysburg is on a far greater scale, and monuments (some small, some very large indeed) to the dead and wounded of many regiments are scattered but numerous right across the battlefield.

Our tour of the battlefield took about four hours. Rather than follow the recommended chronological route, taking in the locations of the battle as they unfolded, we headed first to Culps Hill where there is an observation tower that gives an excellent view over the entire battlefield. Another tower, on the west side affords views over sites where the Confederates were dug in, near the Virginia Monument (a huge statue of Lee on horseback) and near where the disastrous Pickett’s Charge by Confederates on the Union center was repulsed on 3 July, and Lee was forced to withdraw.

It was a bright sunny day on our visit, a quiet morning that was so different from what was experienced 156 years ago. It was very moving as well. In this video you can experience something of what we did during our tour of the battlefield.

Our final stop was the Soldier’s National Monument where, on 19 November 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, just 272 words long (POTUS 45 could learn something from Lincoln’s brief but telling oratory).

Lincoln had arrived in Gettysburg by train from Washington the previous day (exactly 85 years before I was born), and stayed overnight in David Wills’ house in the town square, just a block from the station.

The Confederates surrender
Two days later, we were at Appomattox Court House, which lies a couple miles east of Appomattox Station (town). Yes, there is a county court house there, but it was a small settlement that had grown up before Appomattox itself.

There are more than 30 buildings on the site, some original and some reconstructed (the NPS clearly indicates which). But the fact that some buildings are reconstructed does not detract in any way from the importance and significance of the site.

The court house was originally built in 1846 but burnt down in 1892; it was reconstructed in 1964 and is now the Visitor Center which houses an excellent museum on two floors.

The most significant building however, is the McLean House, a fine residence over three floors with outhouses for slaves, where the deeds of surrender were signed by Lee on 9 April 1865.

This house is also a reconstruction. After the surrender ceremony was over, and Lee had returned to his army to announce the terms of the surrender, Union officers relieved the McLeans of many pieces of furniture, including the two tables at which Lee and Grant sat. Today, these original tables are carefully preserved in museums, but the McLean House has faithful replicas on display. The poignancy of the surrender room, the front parlor, cannot be underestimated.

The tables at which Lee (L) and Grant (R) signed the deeds of surrender

Wilmer McLean was a well-to-do farmer who had brought his family west after the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861, the first of the Civil War. His farm was in the middle of the battlefield. Four years later, he was again surrounded by conflict—and peace! He is reported to have stated: The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.

Grant offered Lee generous terms of surrender. Soldiers of the Army of North Virginia were paroled, allowed to return home, and even take their horses with them. Paroles were hastily printed in the Clover Hill Tavern just across the street from the court house.

However, the optimism of peace was shattered less than a week later when Lincoln was assassinated by secessionist sympathiser John Wilkes Booth in the Ford’s Theater in Washington.

During our trip we saw two very different aspects of the Civil War. But the war is not just battles and statistics. It’s also about people. The average age of soldiers on both sides was 20. They were mostly single and Protestant. Many came from farming stock. In one way, the Civil War is unique. It’s probably the first war that was fully documented photographically. Not only do we know the names of the soldiers who served. We also have recorded, for posterity, their likenesses in early photographs.

I’m currently reading this excellent book published by National Geographic (that I picked up, secondhand, in St Paul for under $10). And the human cost of war is certainly brought home in the various accounts and anecdotes retold therein.

After the war, there was (as might be expected) considerable analysis and introspection about the causes of the war, its conduct, outcome, and why soldiers served as they did. The NPS has put together three excellent pamphlets which I have combined in the image below (just click to open a larger image).

In two road trips, this year and two years ago when we crossed the Appalachians from Georgia through Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, I have traveled through much of the territory where the armies of the Union and Confederacy came to blows. It’s unforgiving terrain, and the thought that hundreds of thousands of soldiers, many poorly clothed, with ill-fitting shoes (or no shoes at all!) tramped backwards and forwards across these hills at the behest of their commanders fills me with awe and horror. This short video, taken from the top of Brasstown Bald (the highest point in Georgia) is typical of the terrain over which much of the conflict was fought.

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There are more photos of Gettysburg here, and Appomattox Court House here.