Traveling the Lincoln Highway – in literature and life

The Lincoln Highway. America’s first transcontinental highway, opened in October 1913. Three thousand, three hundred and eighty-nine miles!

If you’re traveling east to west, it begins in Times Square in New York and, originally crossing twelve states, ends at Lincoln Park in San Francisco on the west coast in California. Originally there was a ‘Colorado Loop’, removed in 1915, and in 1928, the route was realigned to take in northern West Virginia.

Over the years, however, the Lincoln Highway was subsumed into the US numbered highway system, with much of the section between Pennsylvania and Wyoming becoming part of US 30. Nowadays, I-80 west of Chicago follows much the same route as far as I can determine, although in places to the south of US 30.

So what’s this interest in the Lincoln Highway, and US 30?

Well, I’ve just finished reading The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, published in 2021. It’s an unusual tale of three teenagers and an eight year old boy who travel from Nebraska to New York. However, from the outset, the intention was for Emmett Watson and younger brother Billy (the main characters), to take the Lincoln Highway westwards to California in search of their mother who had abandoned the family some years earlier. And the only idea of where she might be is a series of postcards sent over nine days after she departed, from locations along the Lincoln Highway.

But instead of trying to explain the rationale of the book, let author Amor Towles tell you himself.

Towles’ previous books, Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow were published in 2011 and 2016, respectively, to considerable acclaim. I found The Lincoln Highway somewhat of a strange read, even though several reviewers gave it high praise. I decided to take it up after a friend posted a comment on Twitter about her enjoyment of this book.

I’m not so sure. About one third of the way through, I had to put it to one side for a while. I found the pace, and the literary tangents, not to my liking. Although, on reflection, it’s precisely those tangential narratives that are the mainstay of the novel. I guess I’d been expecting to read a more traditional travelogue about the Lincoln Highway. In many respects it is, but not the one I ‘hoped’ for. And since the narrative commences in Nebraska, about half way along the Highway, it emphasizes the in medias res approach of the author (and his characters), where the narrative skips forwards and back.

At the end of the novel we finally see Emmett and Billy heading to Times Square to commence that long journey westwards: the whole route, not just the western half that was promised at the beginning.

I try not to read too much into any novel that I take up. I had enough of literary analysis when I studied English Literature in high school for my pre-university exams. I like a narrative to take me along, and I particularly like to see how an author uses language to paint literary images. Amos Towle has a most acceptable writing style.

However, there’s another aspect of the Lincoln Highway that grabbed my attention. Being of a geographic bent, I went online to discover more about this particular transcontinental artery.

Since 2011, Steph and I have made some special road trips across America, and in the last one, in 2019, before the Covid pandemic prevented our return to the USA, we traveled from Massachusetts, through New England, around New York, down through New Jersey, across Pennsylvania, and south through Maryland and Virginia, before flying on to Minneapolis-St Paul from Baltimore.

Much of our route through Pennsylvania was on US 30, and indeed during earlier road trips we had crossed or traveled short distances along the same route in Ohio (at Canton), in Indiana, and Iowa. Now, we didn’t make our road trips in a vintage Studebaker like Emmett and Billy (and their ‘companions’ Duchess and Woolly). But, when I saw the cover of The Lincoln Highway, it took me back to the road trip Steph and I made to the American Southwest in 2011, when we checked out that other iconic highway, Route 66, near Holbrook and the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

Perhaps it’s just the call of wide open spaces, but American road trip narratives have almost become a genre of their own, and one that I would like to contribute to more myself, given half the chance.

You can check out some more of our road trips under ‘USA’ on this page.





What a transatlantic coincidence . . .

I never was a Led Zeppelin fan, Stairway to Heaven and all that.

Led Zeppelin formed when I was an undergraduate student in 1968, and were probably at their height of fame during the 1970s when I was away in South and Central America. The band just didn’t figure on my musical radar. And by the time I returned to the UK in 1981, Led Zeppelin were no longer active. Of course I knew about them, but their music, (whatever genre it was, heavy metal or not) never found favor with me.

I knew all about lead singer Robert Plant, long mane of blond hair, bare chest and the like. I never paid much attention to his ability as a vocalist. Until October 2007 that is.

In an extraordinary collaboration, Plant teamed up with multi-Grammy Award winner bluegrass singer and musician Alison Krauss, releasing Raising Sand to wide acclaim.

I’d first encountered the music of Alison Krauss around 2008 when I was on home leave that year, and later wrote about her and Union Station in 2012 (one of the first posts I wrote). But I’d not come across Raising Sand then. It wasn’t until I retired and returned to the UK that I first came across that album. And in the intervening years, it has become a firm favorite. The second track, Killing the Blues,  is my favorite track, and here are Plant and Krauss performing on the BBC show, Later . . . with Jools Holland.

Now, fourteen years later, they have renewed their distinctive collaboration with the release of Raising the Roof in November 2021. Both albums were produced by T Bone Burnett.

This album was a present from my wife last Christmas. I’m still working through it, and not certain yet which is my favorite track. Nevertheless, Raising the Roof is as good as Raising Sand, and has also been widely praised. The fifth track, Searching for my Love, is a perfect vehicle for Plant’s vocals.

The ninth track, Last Kind Words Blues is a good example of how Krauss and Plant cross genres. It was written and originally recorded by country blues singer Geeshie Wiley in 1930.

Yesterday, I’d come across an iPod Nano that I had misplaced for more than a year. I normally use that iPod in the car, so decided to copy Raising the Roof on to it (and another iPod Classic).

It was mid-afternoon, almost 15:30. I was sitting in the living room, reading one of Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series novels, and listening to Raising the Roof. My cellphone was on charge across the room, but I did hear the distinctive ping of a WhatsApp message but didn’t immediately bother to check it out.

It was from my elder daughter Hannah who lives in St Paul, Minnesota. It would have been almost 09:30 over there. Sitting at her desk (working from home for the past two years during the Covid pandemic) she had been listening to public radio, and heard an item about Raising the Roof.

As you can see from my reply, it was quite a coincidence that I should be listening to that album (probably the eleventh track Going Where the Lonely Go) at the very moment she sent me the message.


A lifetime of events . . .

I was born in November 1948. Clement Attlee was the Labour Prime Minister, and the National Health Service (NHS) had been launched just a few months earlier, on 5 July. I was the 160,000th baby born under the NHS, or thereabouts.

I’m now 73, and don’t deny that I probably spend more time than is good for me reflecting on things past. Inevitable I guess, since I look ahead to fewer years than those I’ve already enjoyed.

During my lifetime there have been some remarkable—many tragic—events that historians will analyze and write about for years to come. What world (and local) events have found a place in the recesses of your mind? Where were you at the time? How many of my memories appear on your list?

I grew up in Congleton, Cheshire. For obvious reasons I don’t remember anything about the first couple years or so of my life. In July 1950 the Korean War broke out and continued until an armistice was signed at the end of July three years later. And we’re still living with the fallout from that conflict seven decades later!

On 6 February 1952, King George VI passed away, and his elder daughter Elizabeth (then away in Kenya with her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) ascended the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. I have no recollection whatsoever of that event, and hardly any of the coronation on 2 June 1953. But I do have photographic proof, however, because all the children in our neighborhood in Congleton dressed up for the occasion. The Queen’s accession is topical right now, as she celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, the longest-serving monarch in the country’s history.

Coronation Day, 2 June 1953; at the bottom of Howey Lane.
Back Row L → R : Margaret Jackson; Jennifer Duncalfe; Josie Moulton; Meg Moulton; Susan Carter; Ed Jackson; Richard Barzdo; NK: Peter Duncalfe; NK; George Foster; David Hurst; Stephen Carter; Martin Jackson. Front Row L → R : NK; Carol Brennan; NK: Alan Brennan: Robert Barzdo; NK; Mike Jackson.

Gamel Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt (Source: Wikipedia).

We moved to Leek ( a market town in North Staffordshire just 12 miles southeast of Congleton) in April 1956. I’d celebrated my 7th birthday the previous November. The defining event perhaps of 1956 was the Suez Crisis, which lasted for just over a week from 29 October, leading to the humiliation of the United Kingdom and France that jointly had tried to regain authority over the Suez Canal from Egypt. The events of that week mean little to me now, but the one thing that I do remember very clearly was petrol (gasoline) rationing, which began in mid-December and lasted for four months. Handing over coupons in exchange for fuel made quite an impression on my young mind.

Rationing was lifted in May 1957. During the energy crisis of the early 1970s (after I’d already moved to Peru) the UK government contemplated introducing petrol rationing once again, but this did not materialize.

Incidentally, general rationing introduced during World War II lasted until July 1954. I can just about remember running errands for my mother to the corner shop near our house in Moody Street in Congleton, and handing over ration coupons.

Khrushchev and Kennedy (Source: Wikipedia).

October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Just a month before my 14th birthday. Was that standoff between Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and President Kennedy the closest the world came to full-scale nuclear war? I think the consensus is Yes! I remember that fateful day, 22 October if my memory serves me right when Khrushchev and the Soviets blinked first, and the stand-off between these two nuclear powers began to de-escalate. I was in high school, and there was certainly an air of anticipation, anxiety even, as the deadline approached. We all breathed a sigh of relief when no mushroom clouds appeared on the horizon. That’s how seriously we believed the situation to be, naive or otherwise.

A couple of things jog my memory from August 1963. Yeah, yeah, yeah! On the 23rd, The Beatles released She Loves You, perhaps the hit single that signaled their meteoric rise to fame and fortune.

Having seen them ‘performing’ She Loves You on a Saturday TV program, I realized this was something special. I was fourteen, and staying with an aunt and uncle who kept a pub in Staines.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, one of the most notorious (but badly planned and incompetently executed) robberies took place in Buckinghamshire when a gang held up a Royal Mail train, stealing more than £2.6 million (=£56 million at today’s value). Known as The Great Train Robbery, it was a daring raid and has, over the decades, been absorbed into popular culture. The morning after the robbery, the airwaves were broadcasting nothing but accounts of the previous night’s event, and how the police were already tracking the gang down. Most were eventually brought to justice, although several did flee overseas.

President Kennedy with wife Jacqueline in Dallas shortly before his assassination.

However the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963, 12:30 CST (18:30 GMT) was surely one of the life-defining moments of the 20th century. Everyone knows where they were when his assassination was announced. The whole world was stunned. I had been watching early evening television, when the program was interrupted, maybe a little after 19:00 to announce Kennedy’s death. For the rest of the night there were no further broadcasts, just solemn music, and a static image. It was, undoubtedly, a turning point in American politics. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson won re-election in 1964, and introduced far-reaching civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Movement suffered a significant loss with the assassination of 39 year old Martin Luther King in April 1968. By then the right-wing backlash against the Johnson liberal agenda had begun, and when he decided not to contest the 1968 election, that opened the door to Nixon (and Reagan at the end of the decade after Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency).

In June 1967, the Six Day War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states (Egypt, Syria, and Jordan) ended in victory for Israel and its annexation of and expansion into Palestinian lands on the West Bank. Almost 55 years on and the world sees this as yet another unresolved conflict and a potential tinderbox in the future. I am unable to offer any support for the Israelis as they continue to expand their stranglehold over the Palestinian territories.

What was the significance in my life? Well, I was studying for and beginning to sit my Advanced Level (university entrance) exams, and my exam anxiety was certainly increased as uncertainty about the outcome of the war, and possible involvement of the superpowers, was contemplated around the world.

Earthrise, taken by William Anders. (Source: Wikipedia)

During the Christmas 1968 vacation, I was home in Leek from the University of Southampton. As during previous Christmas breaks, I had a temporary job with the Post Office, delivering the Christmas mail. Quite a bit of snow fell during those days, and it was not particularly pleasant trudging around the streets with a heavy sack of mail over my shoulder. Also, I was keen to get back home to watch the latest news from the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon, captained by Frank Borman, and the first crew to leave Earth orbit.

It’s also remarkable to remember that only seven months  (and three missions later) that Apollo 11 landed two men on the surface of the Moon in July. I was away in Norfolk on a botany field course. And, much against the wishes of the course tutors, we rented a TV so that we could watch the first steps live.

Richard Nixon had been re-elected POTUS in the November 1972 general election, only to see his presidency unravel in 1973 and 1974 as the Watergate scandal caught up with him, and leading to his resignation in August 1974. After I moved to Peru in January 1973, I did not have day-to-day access to news in English but I did subscribe weekly to Time and Newsweek. I didn’t throw any of the magazines away, not even in August that year when Steph and I decided to move apartments. The pile of magazines came with us. And it was after Nixon’s resignation, and we were thinking about moving once again, that I decided to have another look through all those copies. The American political cartoonists had Nixon’s number from very early on in the scandal, and each week, some of the very best were published. I made a scrapbook of all those cartoons; here’s a link.

Closer to home were The Troubles in Northern Ireland, with a surge in violence in the early 1970s and beyond. Bloody Sunday (on 30 January 1972) was, in some ways, the beginning of the worst of the sectarian violence over three decades until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Four days before I departed for Lima, on 1 January 1973, the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC) only to leave 47 years later (more of Brexit below).

In April 1975 the Vietnam War effectively came to an end when the army of North Vietnam rolled into Saigon in the south. Three images epitomize the horrors of that war: naked 9 years old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running down the road following a napalm attack on her village (there is a happy ending); the execution of a suspected Vietcong official in Saigon; and the chaotic evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon (reminiscent of the evacuation recently from Kabul)

I was back in the UK by April 1981, launching my second career as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. In late March 1982 I took a party of MSc students to Israel to attend a two week course on crop wild relatives and their conservation. It was while we were there that Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) in the South Atlantic, claiming that they were sovereign Argentinian territory. We had lots of discussions how the British government would respond, with several of my students dismissing any idea that there would (or could) be any military response so many thousands of miles from the UK. They (and the Argentinians) hadn’t reckoned with The Iron Lady, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The response was swift, and on reflection, quite brutal. The Falklands War lasted a mere ten weeks, ending with defeat for Argentina. It was a war that should never have started. It did however cement Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.

What about the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 26 April 1986 in the Ukraine? To what extent did this have any impact on your community? The whole area around Chernobyl remains a safety exclusion zone. The disaster reminds us of the dangers of lax regulation of a nuclear industry, at a time when countries are looking to disinvest in fossil fuels. The effects were felt as far west as the UK where radioactive caesium-137 was detected in upland areas of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and northern England, affecting the movement of livestock.

One of the most infamous occurrences of the Cold War must surely be the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, and its aftermath, brutally dividing the citizens of that city. But that all changed in November 1989 when the wall came tumbling down, signalling the collapse over the next few years of the Eastern Bloc of Communist countries, in particular the Soviet Union in December 1991. I passed through the wall on a visit to East Germany in March 1990. Given the current dangerous situation on the Ukraine-Russia border there are those within the Russian hierarchy who wish to turn the clock back.

At the same time, Yugoslavia began to break up between June 1991 and 1992 with the inexorable slide to war in the Balkans between 1992 and 1995. I was working abroad again at that time, and didn’t have regular access to TV news bulletins, so perhaps was ‘spared’ some of the daily horrors of that war even though we were aware of atrocities like the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995.

And talking of moving abroad, there was an event in June 1991 that almost put paid to my travel plans. In the Philippines, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo was the second most powerful eruption of the 20th century. And combined with the arrival of Typhoon Yunya, the towns and villages surrounding the volcano were deluged with volcanic ash and that, mixed with rain, formed a concrete-like layer (lahar) that buried some communities meters deep. Ash fell on Manila 91 km to the southeast and closed the international airport. Ash even fell on Los Baños (my destination) a further 70 km south. With the closure of the airport I did wonder when I might be able to travel to the Philippines to begin my new job at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

The spread of the ash cloud between 14 and 25 April 2010.

Ironically, the eruption of another volcano 19 years later almost delayed my return to the UK after retiring from IRRI. Between 20 March and 23 June 2010, the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano spewed an enormous ash cloud over much of Europe closing down aviation for several weeks. We left the Philippines on 2 May arriving home the following day.

It must have been mid-morning, 1 September 1997, and Steph and I were shopping in the US embassy commissary in Manila. Another British couple arrived and asked if we’d heard the news that Diana, Princess of Wales had died in a automobile accident in Paris some hours earlier. I can’t deny that I had little time for this rather shallow woman, but she was an iconic celebrity on the world stage. What took me by surprise was the overt outpouring of grief, not only in the UK but in many in the countries around the world. I was amazed how my Filipino staff reacted to her death. Quite extraordinary scenes in London during her funeral.

Another tragic natural disaster was the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami that affected 14 countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, with more than 227,000 persons losing their lives. One aspect of the reporting of the disaster in the British media particularly disgusted me. By then we’d already had daily access to BBC news broadcasts. And as was typical of reporting on disasters around the world, it was assessed by the number of British citizens who lost their lives. It seemed as though all the other deaths were somehow collateral and didn’t matter. It certainly affected the psyche of millions in the region. The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan on 11 March 2011 was Mother Nature’s repeat performance, but one that was extensively captured on video the destructive power of tidal waves for the first time. It also led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

(Source: Wikipedia – official White House photo by Pete Souza).

Let’s, for just a moment, turn to something far more positive and uplifting. What could that be? The election of Barack Obama as the 44th POTUS, the first black American to hold that post was not only a momentous occasion in the United States but worldwide. After eight years of Dubya, Obama’s elevation to the highest office in the land was a breath of fresh air. His empathy, charisma, and oratory to inspire set him so apart from his predecessor. Of course he didn’t get everything right. But in light of what was to come after Obama, GW Bush does not, in hindsight, seem to have been the appalling POTUS that many perceived or implied during his eight year occupancy of the White House.

And so to the 2016 general election, when Donald J Trump, Cockwomble-in-Chief became Number 45. What an unmitigated (and dangerous) outcome for the USA.

For many of us in the UK (48% of those who voted) 2016 was also a disastrous year, with the referendum on membership of the European Union (EU) leading to our exit: Brexit! And still Brexiters are trying to conjure up advantages and opportunities of leaving the EU when all the data point in the opposite direction.

As I conclude this post, we are still in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, although the government here in the UK would have us believe otherwise. So many invocations of British exceptionalism over the past two years make me almost ashamed to claim British nationality. Boris Johnson‘s government is mired in scandal and corruption and one can only wonder how he’s managed to hang on this long.

Just at the time when we need a strong government to help rebuild the economy and society as the pandemic wanes (hopefully), and in the face of Russian aggressive moves on Ukraine’s eastern frontier. It seems that we are closer to a wider conflict in Europe than since the Second World War. For f***s sake, what does Vladimir Putin think he’s playing at? While also recognizing that the NATO alliance hasn’t got everything right either, this warmongering on both sides is, to me at least, inexplicable. It’s not as though the world doesn’t have enough issues to confront: emergence from the Covid pandemic, regional conflicts, and climate change to mention just three. I’m sorry to end this post on such a depressing note. I wish I could be more optimistic. Hope springs eternal, but is certainly being challenged right now.


705,000 words and counting . . .

I published my first blog post exactly ten years ago today.

It was a modest piece, just 131 words (the average is now 10x longer), plus one image, a link to a Wikipedia article, one to a video I placed on YouTube, and another two on the BBC News website, about a visit Steph and I had made to an early 19th century steam-fired pumping station along the Kennet and Avon Canal in Wiltshire.

Modest beginnings, indeed. Just click on the image below to take a peek.

After I retired in April 2010 and returned to the UK, our daughters Hannah and Philippa urged me to write down my reminiscences of life at two international agricultural research institutes in Peru (the International Potato Center – CIP) and the Philippines (the International Rice Research Institute – IRRI), and as lecturer in plant biology at the University of Birmingham in the 1980s.

I began toying with the idea of a personal blog around September 2011. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but the thought of staring at a blank piece of paper and beginning at Day 1, so to speak, was rather daunting. I think it was Hannah who suggested I should think about writing a blog. So I did. And it would allow me to combine writing with my other interest: photography.

I did some background research on possible blog platforms and did a few test runs on one or two before settling on WordPress. It appeared to offer the sort of flexibility (and ease of editing) that I was looking for, being able to combine text and images, and hyperlinks to other sites and the like. So for a couple or months I dabbled with different ‘themes’ and color schemes, before settling on the Dusk to Dawn theme. It was originally a design in various shades of blue until I settled on the scheme I’m using today. But that can always change.

And, of course, I had to give my blog a name. That wasn’t so easy. You see, I’d decided that I wasn’t going to limit my blog to just a single theme. I wanted to write about anything that took my fancy: my work experiences, genetic resources, science, music, travel, politics. Hardly any sport, though. I’m not really a sporty type. Anyway, you name it, I think by now I’ve written about it.

I’m not quite sure how I came up with A Balanced Diet, and I’m sure I must have disappointed even a few foodies who landed on my blog seeking words of nutritional or culinary wisdom.

Anyway, since that first blog, things have moved on rather a lot:

  • I have published (including this one), 635 posts, more than one a week.
  • I’ve written more than 705,000 words.
  • I’ve uploaded almost 15,000 images most of which are my own, 83 videos (although I’ve linked to many more on YouTube), 213 documents, and 64 audio files.
  • There have been 138,761 visitors from 207 ‘countries’, but for 56 of these there were 10 or fewer visitors. Since there are only 193 member states of the UN, WordPress also lists separately places like Jersey and Guernsey in the UK, the EU (Brussels presumably) and some others that are not independent (like some of the French overseas territories). Even so, quite impressive.

I link to Wikipedia for a lot of background information (and yes, I do make an annual subscription to Wikipedia) or original websites. This permits me to give just a broad outline on many topics without having to go into great detail that can be found elsewhere.

Now I mentioned that I’m not a sporty type, yet the most visited post is one ostensibly about cricket. This is Jackson’s Top 10:

  1. ‘The bowler is Holding, the batsman’s Willey’ (2013-08, on cricket commentators)
  2. Walking in Hadrian’s footsteps . . . (2021-08, Roman history, especially in the northeast of England)
  3. Potatoes – the real treasure of the Incas . . . (2012-02, the South American Andes, home of the potato)
  4. “I’m all for censorship. If ever I see a double entendre, I whip it out.” Kenneth Horne (2013-03, comedy from one of my favorites from the 1960s)
  5. Leek – Queen of the Moorlands (updated 2018-11, my home town in North Staffordshire)
  6. Cockwomble-in-Chief (2020-06, all about Donald Trump)
  7. A knotty dilemma . . . what to wear to an investiture at Buckingham Palace (2012-03, my OBE investiture)
  8. Please sir, I want some more (2017-10, my Charles Dickens marathon)
  9. They’re changing the guard at Buckingham Palace . . . (2012-03, my OBE investiture)
  10. “There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man”. (2015-02, a 1968 botany field course in the west of Ireland)

My story about 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dr Norman Borlaug, is number 11.

Some of the posts I’ve enjoyed writing most have been about potatoes and rice, or genebanks. And travel, especially our road trips across the USA. Then there are the visits we have made to National Trust and English Heritage properties here in the UK since 2011 and which must account, I guess, for a significant amount of the UK traffic. Just check out the archive or page links on the right hand panel.

At the back end of 2021, I guess from about October onwards, I suffered my first serious writer’s block, and had little enthusiasm for sitting down at my laptop. I’ve only written 10 posts since then.

But now, at last, I feel the muse beginning to grab my attention once again, and hopefully my output will increase.

I started this blog for my own amusement. Others have found some of the stories interesting. I hope you will continue to return to A Balanced Diet. Here’s to the next 705,000 words!