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.

Tracks over the mountains

The building of railways around the world in the 19th century inspired some impressive feats of engineering.

Among them must surely be included Horseshoe Curve, just west of Altoona in central Pennsylvania, that was completed in 1854 by the Pennsylvania Railroad as a way to lessen the grade over the Allegheny Mountains. Today, its three tracks are operated by the Norfolk Southern Railway, carrying mainly freight, but with Amtrak passenger trains passing through each day.

It is indeed a main artery connecting Pennsylvania’s coalfields with the east coast. During World War II it was considered a strategic target by Nazi Germany because of the armaments and other materiel being transported to the east coast for shipment to Europe.

In the past year I had come across several videos of trains passing Horseshoe Curve, and determined that if I ever had the chance, I would visit.

And that’s precisely what Steph and I did during our recent trip around northeast and Atlantic states. The trains, often pulled and pushed (or braked going downhill) by as many as five or six locomotives, are just mind-blowing in their length. Just see on the video below, of a coal train negotiating the curve, that the leading locomotives are already out of sight before the last cars have appeared around the upper bend (on the right).

Here are some Horseshoe Curve statistics.

During the 45 minutes we sat by the trackside, three freight trains lumbered through. One of them was actually halted on the Curve to check the brakes of the lead locomotive 4115. An audio link between the railroad controllers and engineers was relayed at the track side viewing point so we could understand what was going on.

USA 2019: nine days, ten Northeast and Atlantic states

Steph and I are now relaxing with family in Minnesota.

We have just completed our 2019 road trip: almost 2050 miles across ten states (in yellow), and crossing state lines thirteen times (MA-RI-CT-NY-PA-NJ-DE-PA-MD-WV-VA-MD-DE-MD).

Our visit to the USA started at 03:00 on Tuesday 3 September, when we dragged ourselves out of bed to head to Birmingham Airport (BHX) to catch the 06:00 KLM flight to Amsterdam(AMS). We were surprised to find the airport heaving even at that early hour. While this flight departed on time, on arrival in Amsterdam we discovered, to our (slight) dismay that the onward Delta flight to Boston (BOS) was delayed at least two hours because of the late arrival of the incoming aircraft (from JFK, where severe weather has disrupted many flights the previous day).

But, to give Delta Airlines due credit, they turned the aircraft around quickly and we departed only slightly over two hours delayed. However, as you can imagine that had a knock-on for our arrival in BOS.

Immigration there was a bit of a nightmare. I had hoped to be on the road before 15:00 for the 93 mile drive south for our first night at Orleans on Cape Cod. Because of the various delays, it was closer to 18:00 before we headed out of the car rental center, immediately hitting Boston rush-hour traffic, and then crawling slowly south for at least 35 miles.

Budget car rental assigned us a Jeep Wrangler, perhaps a little bigger than I had contemplated, but it was comfortable and solid on the road.

I had planned to be at Orleans well before nightfall. It wasn’t to be, and I had to drive the last hour in the dark, not something I relish at the best of times. For the final 15-20 miles of the trip, US-6 narrowed to two-way (known locally as ‘Suicide Alley’). Nonetheless, we made it in one piece and enjoyed a good night’s rest.

We spent the first morning on Cape Cod, checking out various beaches, before traveling into Provincetown to view (from a distance) the Pilgrim Monument, erected between 1907 and 1910 to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. We also visited the site where Marconi built a transatlantic wireless communication station just after the turn of the 20th century.

Then we headed west to Newport, Rhode Island and the Beavertail Lighthouse at the southern tip of Conanicut Island at the entrance to Narragansett Bay, crossing the impressive Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge in the process.

Beavertail Lighthouse.

Then it was on to Plainfield, CT for our second night.

The next day we headed down to the Connecticut coast at Old Saybrook at the mouth of the Connecticut River, before turning west to have a picnic lunch and a walk on the beach at Silver Sands State Park in Milford, some 15 miles west of New Haven (home to Yale University).

Crossing the causeway at Old Saybrook on CT-154

The ‘dangerous’ sand bar out to Charles Island where is access is not permitted during the breeding season of various sea birds.

In the northwest of the state we visited Kent Falls State Park, before heading to Poughkeepsie (pronounced Puckipsee, home to Vassar College) on the banks of the Hudson River (and close to Hyde Park, the home of President Franklin D Roosevelt that we didn’t have time to visit).

Kent Falls State Park

In Poughkeepsie we found an excellent restaurant, The Tomato Cafe on Collegeview Ave just outside Vassar, and enjoyed probably the best meal of the trip.

From Poughkeepsie we had a long drive west into Pennsylvania before heading south and east to end up near Atlantic City on New Jersey’s coast. From the coast we headed west into Pennsylvania at Gettysburg.

Our day started early, crossing the Hudson River on US-44 at Poughkeepsie despite my satnav refusing to calculate a crossing there.

Crossing the Mid-Hudson Bridge at Poughkeepsie

Our first destination was the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania, and Dingmans Falls, just a mile west of US209, in particular. On the way there we came across the remains of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, whose construction started in 1823 to carry coal from the Pennsylvania coal fields.

The Visitor Center at Dingmans Falls was closed during our visit, but the boardwalk trail to the Falls themselves was an easy walk of just under a mile. However, the climb up to the top of the Falls was a little more challenging.

About 20 miles south of Dingmans Falls, the Delaware River cuts through the mountains and heads east. It forms the stateline between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We stopped for a bite to eat at the Kittatinny Point rest area on the New Jersey side.

Looking west (from central northern New Jersey) towards the Delaware Gap.

By this time we were becoming a little concerned about reports of exactly where, on the Atlantic Coast, Hurricane Dorian would make landfall. High winds had been predicted for Atlantic City, and some rain, but as the storm was moving quite slowly, we had no idea if it would affect us or not.

We had already seen forecasts of severe weather in northern New Jersey (just south of New York) and we weren’t disappointed! I misread my satnav and exited from the highway one exit too soon, and found myself heading over the Raritan River at Perth Amboy on the wrong bridge. Fortunately my satnav quickly sorted me out, sending me back north over another bridge on Convery Boulevard, and entering the Garden State Parkway where I had originally intended. We only lost about 10 minutes, but driving among six or more lanes of fast-moving traffic in a downpour and with all the road spray was not an experience I would wish to repeat.

When we arrived at our hotel in Absecon (a few miles outside Atlantic City) it was certainly windy, the clouds were lowering, but there was no immediate threat of the hurricane hitting or any flooding, although our hotel (a rather inferior Travelodge) faced the marshes fronting the ocean.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny however, and hardly a breath of wind. Dorian had passed us by and headed out east into the Atlantic. What a difference a day makes!

The Atlantic City skyline from the northwest, sans hurricane.

So we drove into the center of the city, and walked up and down Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk for a couple of hours.

Longwood Gardens near Kennett Square in Pennsylvania (west of Philadelphia and northwest from Wilmington, DE) was not on our original itinerary. However, through a Facebook chat with a former colleague, accountant Lisa Panes, from IRRI in the Philippines, she mentioned that a visit to Longwood would be worthwhile. I’d never heard of the gardens before, but then discovered they are considered among the best in the USA. And not only that, just a few miles east of the original route I’d planned.

We spent four glorious hours wandering around the gardens. I’ll be writing about the gardens (and other locations we visited) in a separate blog post.

Tired and rather hot, we set off on the last leg to Gettysburg, passing through the heart of Amish country, at Intercourse, PA.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. After breakfast we set off to the Gettysburg battlefield visitor center, received battlefield guide maps, and decided which routes to take. Over the whole site, seemingly every few yards, there are monuments to different regiments, both Federal and Confederate, and the many skirmishes that took place there over a period of three days in July 1863. Very poignant.

We also went into town to view Gettysburg station where President Lincoln arrived on 18 November 1863, just over four months after the battle.

At the end of the visit we strolled around the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and saw the spot where, on 19 November 1863, Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. Have 272 words ever been more powerful?

After lunch we headed northwest from Gettysburg to Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, PA, a feat of railway engineering that was completed in 1854, would you believe.

From there, it was an 80 mile drive south to Frostburg in the mountains of northwest Maryland, a most beautiful landscape that I hadn’t expected. Our hotel there, a Quality Inn, was the best of the trip, about 1½ miles south of the town center, where we also had a lovely meal in an Italian restaurant, Giuseppe’s.

The next two days took us from Frostburg south through the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia, before turning east into Virginia to spend nights in Appomattox (where General Robert E Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865), and Colonial Williamsburg.

Seneca Rocks, in Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Monongahela National Forest, almost 74 miles south of Frostburg.

A typical West Virginia landscape in the Monongahela National Forest.

The McLean home at Appomattox Court House where General Lee surrendered to General Grant.

Colonial Williamsburg was not quite what I expected. It’s like a living museum, with quite a number of original buildings but many that have been reconstructed.

Our last day, Wednesday, was spent traveling north up the Delmarva Peninsula, stopping off for an hour at Lewes beach, before the last (and heavy traffic) push into Baltimore, for our final night close to Baltimore International Airport (BWI) from where we flew next day to Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP). This last day also included crossing the impressive Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnels, almost 18 miles in length.

On the east Virginia shore, there’s an observation rest area where some of the bridges and causeway can be seen in the distance.

20190911 016

It was over 90F on the beach at Lewes.

So, for another year, our USA road trip is over. We averaged just over 240 miles per day (discounting the first day trip south to Orleans), and only on two days did we travel more than 300 miles (unlike in 2018, for instance, when most days were over 300 miles, and often closer to or more than 400 miles). So, in that sense, this year’s trip was easier, even though I felt the trip took more out of me than I had expected. Must be an age thing.

Overall, I was pleased with the Jeep. We spent only $203 on gasoline and achieved an impressive (considering the size of the vehicle) 26 mpg; $804 on hotels (or about £645 at current—and disappointing, Brexit -induced—exchange rates), and maybe $350 or so on meals.

Where to in 2020? Maybe the Rocky Mountain states, or do we bite the bullet and tour the southern states from Georgia through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas? Decisions, decisions!

The vexation of vexillology . . . or name that flag!

I’m no Sheldon Cooper (thank goodness!), but I do find flags fascinating. There’s more to flags than just colored pieces of cloth fluttering in the breeze.

Indeed there’s a whole world of interesting vexillological facts out there waiting to be discovered. Vexillology is the study of flags.

I’m no vexillologist. By no means, but I do have more than a passing interest.

Flags are symbols of national pride. In the UK we don’t fly the Union Flag (Union Jack is its name when flown at sea) very much, only on government buildings and the like, or special occasions. It’s rare to see the flag flying from residences. However,in my many visits to the USA however, I’m always surprised at just how many households fly the Stars and Stripes on a daily basis.

The largest flags I’ve ever seen were being proudly flown in the center of Mexico City and outside government buildings in Brasilia.

L: raising the national flag of Mexico in El Zócalo, Mexico City; R: the national flag of Brazil flying over the Praça dos Três Poderes in the center of Brasilia. Source: Wikipedia.

Source: HuffPost

Many countries have a strict code about how, where, and when flags can be flown. When I moved to Peru in 1973 I was surprised to discover that it was a legal obligation to fly the national flag from every building on independence day, 28 July.

In the UK we are much relaxed about how the image of the national flag can be used and reproduced on merchandise and the like. Who doesn’t remember the Union Flag outfit worn by Ginger Spice Geri Halliwell in the 1990s?

Across The Pond, how many Americans were impressed by their President groping Old Glory? You can grab it by the flagpole.

Source: Metro News

Flags are, however, increasingly one of the most visible manifestations of a virulent authoritarian far-right nationalism that is re-emerging in so many European countries and elsewhere around the world. Watch any news broadcasts that report demonstrations of organizations like the English Defence League and you will see the English Cross of St George on display in abundance.

Source: BBC

In their hands, the English flag has become a symbol FOR hate and intolerance. In this way they emulate the symbolism of the swastika and abundant flags at the Nuremberg Rallies during the Nazi rise to power in post-First World War Germany, almost a century ago.


There’s so much to learn about flags. So, how did I come to take more than a passing interest?

It began in the early 1990s when I was head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI in the Philippines, with responsibility for the International Rice Genebank, the largest genebank for rice in the world.

On joining IRRI in 1991, I was amazed (and somewhat dismayed) at the number of visitors who came to the institute and were shown around the genebank. The way these visits were managed was not sustainable, because they were a constant interruption to the important workflow of the genebank, and a potential threat to the long-term security of the seeds themselves.

We needed to improve how we showed visitors the importance of rice genetic resources and the role of the genebank. So, in addition to improving the infrastructure of the genebank, we set about designing a better visitor experience. I’ve written elsewhere about the ‘tourism’ of genebanks.

Around 1994 (if memory serves me well) we held an Open House for institute employees and from the wider Los Baños academic community, an event that proved very successful, attracting more than 1000 visitors during the day.

One of the displays—and still in use today more than 20 years later—was a wall-mounted world map, with the countries shown by different rice seeds. We needed flags for each of the countries, and in the early 1990s, the internet resources that we rely on today were just not available. However, I happened to make a visit to UNDP in New York, that has its HQ just across the street from the UN Building overlooking the East River in Manhattan. After my meetings (I was trying to raise funds to support a germplasm exchange network, INGER) I decided to cross the street and visit the UN. In the gift shop I came across a large wall poster showing all the flags of UN Member States, which I duly purchased. We cut out all the flags and pinned them to our rice map.

Former head of the Genetic Resources Center (and my successor), Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton explains the work of the International Rice Genebank to Bill Gates during his visit to IRRI in April 2015. Credit: IRRI


When Klaus Lampe became Director General in 1988 he decided that the institute’s donors should be recognised by flying their flags on the buildings surrounding the ornamental pond, which can be seen in the image below.

I notice things. I can’t help it. Either something is right or it’s not right. One day, almost a couple of decades ago, as I came out of the admin building I noticed that one of the flags flying proudly didn’t seem quite right. It was the flag of Japan, one of IRRI’s most important donors and partners.

IRRI was flying the 1870 flag (the lower flag the image below) and not the 1999 version.

As you can see, the dimensions of the two flags are slightly different, 2:3 in the upper 1999 flag, and 7:10 in the lower 1870 version. While the size of the crimson disc, symbolizing the sun, has the same dimensions relative to the height of the flag, it is centered in the 1999 flag, but very slightly towards the hoist (on the left in this image) in the 1870 example.

I just knew that what I had seen online was not the version on display.

In developing our donor database in the Office for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) we wanted to show donor flags. Looking online, I came across two interesting sites

from which we could download jpeg or gif images of each of the flags. And on both sites there is a wealth of information about the history and design of all the flags. These are websites where it’s possible to become quite distracted and ‘waste’ a lot of time.


Some flags are instantly recognisable, and among those must sure rank the Union Flag, the Stars and Stripes, and the flags of Brazil, Canada, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, for example.

The flag of Nepal is unique. It’s the only flag that is not a rectangle, but instead based on two separate pennants.

Others are quite similar to one another, both in design and colors. Some have vertical stripes, others horizontal. The combination of colors is the same, or almost so. And two countries have identical flags. But which ones?

Can you name these flags? Answers (left to right) at the end of the blog.

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Do take a look at the flags websites I have listed. In particular the historical details on the Flags of the World are fascinating indeed.