Reliving some of our best USA visits

2020 was meant to be a positive year of change. In early January we placed our house in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire on the market, with the hope (expectation?) of a quick sale. Instead, it’s a year on hold.

By the end of 2019 we had already decided (after pondering this decision for a couple of years or more) to leave the Midlands and move north to the Newcastle upon Tyne area, to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family: husband Andi, and sons Elvis (8) and Felix (6).

Steph and I are not getting any younger (70 and 71, respectively) and we decided that if we were going to make a move, we’d better get on with it while we had the enthusiasm, and continuing good health. Newcastle is almost 250 miles from where we currently live.

Back in January we thought we might be in Newcastle by mid-year, early autumn at the latest. That was before Covid-19 reared its ugly head. We are now in lockdown, and will be for the foreseeable future. Heaven knows when we might eventually push through with a sale.

So, with the expectation of this house move, we had already decided not to make our ‘annual’ visit to the USA (and road trip as in past years) to stay with our elder daughter Hannah and her family in Minnesota: husband Michael, Callum (9) and Zoë (7). Instead, they had decided to join us all in the Newcastle area for a two week vacation from early August. That’s also on hold until conditions improve and is unlikely now until 2021.

Since retirement in 2010, Steph and I have been making these US visits, and taking another holiday here in the UK, such as to Scotland in 2015, Northern Ireland in 2017, Cornwall in 2018, and East Sussex and Kent last year. As followers of this blog will know, Steph and I are avid members of both the National Trust and English Heritage. Alas, those day trips are also on hold.

Anyway, to cheer myself in the absence of any holiday breaks this year, I decided to look through the various blog posts I have published about many of the places we have visited in the USA—shown on the map below—and then give you my top five choices. As you can see from the map, there are several regions of the USA that we’ve not yet explored: Colorado, Utah and Idaho, southern Midwest, and southern states.

The dark red symbols indicate various national parks or other landscapes we have visited. Each has a link to the relevant blog post. The green symbols show cities where I have spent some days over the years.

It’s very hard to make a choice of my top five. But here they are, in no particular order (the links below open photo albums):

Having said that, Canyon de Chelly really is my No. 1, and I would return there tomorrow given half a chance. So why not include the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone in my top five? They would certainly be in the top 10.

We have been so fortunate to have had such great opportunities to travel around the USA. And we look forward to many more, filling in some of the gaps as we go.

I hope you enjoy looking at these road trip sites as much as we did visiting them over the past decade.


 

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.

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!

Around the world through 191 airports . . . and counting

I took my first flight, in the summer of 1966 when I was seventeen. Fifty-three years ago.

It was a short hop, just 137 nm and less than one hour, on a four-engine Vickers Viscount turboprop from Glasgow Airport (GLA, then known as Abbotsinch) to the low-lying island of Benbecula (BEB) in the Outer Hebrides, between North and South Uist. I was to spend a week there bird-watching at the RSPB’s newly-established Balranald reserve.

In the intervening years, Glasgow Airport has become an important international hub for the west of Scotland. In 1966, Benbecula had just one small building, almost a hut, serving as the terminal. When I passed by a few years ago during a vacation in Scotland, it didn’t look as though it had grown much.

Since that first flight I have taken hundreds more and, as far as I can recall, taken off from or landed at a further 189 airports worldwide. Navigate around the map below, or use this link to open a full screen version to see which ones.

Each airport is identified using its three letter IATA code. Just click on any symbol to see the full name, and a Wikipedia link for more details on each airport.

The airports I have departed from or traveled to are shown as dark red symbols. Also included in this group are the airports (actually quite a small number) where I changed flights, to the same airline or another one, but did not leave the airport itself. Airports that were operational during the years I was flying regularly, but have now been superseded by new ones such as in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hyderabad (India), and Durban (South Africa), to name just four cities are listed in this category. In most cases, the old airports still operate commercially in one form or another, but not generally for international flights.

If passengers could not disembark during a lay-over or only spent a brief time in the airport terminal before continuing on the same flight, then I’ve used a blue symbol.

Three airports (shown in yellow) have since closed. In Hong Kong, the infamous Kai Tak airport in Kowloon was closed in July 1998 when operations moved to Chek Lap Kok, west of the city. The site is being redeveloped.

When I visited the Caribbean island of Montserrat in November 1979, we landed on a small strip on the east coast. It now lies under several meters of volcanic ash following the disastrous eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano between 1995 and 1999.

A third, at the Mayan city of Tikal in the rainforest of northeast Guatemala, is no longer operational. I can see from a satellite image on Google Maps that buildings now line either side of what appears to have been the runway. Steph and I flew there in August 1977 on an Aviateca DC-3. Nowadays, I assume that visitors to Tikal must either travel by road (there were none in 1977) or fly into the international airport (FRS) at Flores, a city north of Tikal.

An Aviateca DC-3 at Tikal in 1971.

Finally, three airports (all in central Peru) are shown in green. These were airfields or landing strips not served by commercial flights where I traveled by light aircraft.

Steph and I flew from San Ramon (SPRM) on the east side of the Andes to Puerto Bermudez on this Cessna. We didn’t have seats, and on the return flight sat on empty beer crates, sharing the cabin with three dead pigs!


The second flight I took, in early 1969, was back to GLA from London Heathrow (LHR) to attend a student folk dance festival at Strathclyde University in that city.

My third flight (and first outside the UK), in April 1972, was to Izmir, Turkey to attend an international conference on plant genetic resources. With my friend and former colleague, Brian Ford-Lloyd, we flew from Birmingham (BHX) via LHR to Izmir (IGL – now replaced by a new airport south of the city) through Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport (ISL) formerly known as Yeşilköy Airport. On the return journey, Brian and I almost missed our flight from Istanbul to London. With all the ambient noise in the terminal and inadequate tannoy, we hadn’t heard the flight departure announcement and were blithely sitting there without a care in the world. Eventually someone from Turkish Airlines came looking for us, and escorted us across the apron to board the 707 through a rear door. Embarrassed? Just a little.


The first long-distance flight I took (5677 nm, and only my fourth flight) was in January 1973, to Lima to join the International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist. On a Boeing 707 operated by BOAC (the predecessor of British Airways), this was a long flight, with intermediate stops in Antigua (ANU) in the Caribbean, Caracas (CCS) in Venezuela, Bogota (BOG) in Colombia, before the final sector to Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport (LIM).

Steph joined me in Peru in July 1973, and flew the same route (but starting at LHR), only her second flight (the first being school trip to France in the 1960s).


In compiling this list of airports, I’m also reminded of the many flights that passed through them, and my impressions of each terminal and facilities. After all, transit through an airport is an important part of the overall trip experience. In some instances you can spend almost as much time in the airport as in the air, having to cope with the hassle (challenges in some cases) of checking in, passing through security, the boarding process (which can go smoothly or not depending on how ‘friendly’ the ground staff are) on departure, and immigration, baggage pickup (always stressful), and finally, customs control on arrival. So many steps. So many opportunities for something to go awry. I think we tend to almost discount trips when everything goes to plan. It’s what we hope for, expect even.

However, let’s have a look at the particular challenges of some airports, based just on where they are located, and their difficulty for pilots. Now I’ve never landed in Paro (PBH) in Bhutan (regarded as one of the most ‘dangerous’ airports in the world, flown visually throughout (check out this video to see what I mean), or the gateway to Mt Everest, Lukla (LUA) in Nepal.

But landing at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak¹ was always interesting (even when there were no weather issues), and that I’ve seen referred to as the ‘heart attack’ approach, banking steeply to the right on final, and seemingly skimming the roof tops.

While in Lima (1973-1976) I made a few internal flights but nothing international.

I flew into Cuzco (CUZ) a couple of times. It is surrounded by mountains, and flights can only land from and take off to the east. A new international airport is being built (controversially) at Chinchero north of the city, an important area for indigenous agriculture (potatoes and maize!) and cultural heritage.

The airport at Juliaca (JUL, for Puno on Lake Titicaca) lies at 12,500 feet (or 3800 m), and has one of the longest runways in Latin America. I’ve been there two or three times.

It wasn’t until I moved to Costa Rica (1976-1980) to lead CIP’s research program, that I began to travel more regularly around my ‘patch’ from Mexico to Panama and out into the Caribbean Islands.

San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is surrounded by volcanic peaks up to 3000 m. This was my local airport for almost five years (we lived in Turrialba, 82 km to the east), and it could be quite badly fogged in from time to time. I remember one time returning from Guatemala City on the late evening Pan Am 707 flight. We had to circle overhead the airport for more than half an hour, until the fog cleared. However, just as we were about to touch down, the Captain applied full power and aborted the approach. At the last moment, the fog had obscured his view of the runway. He banked away steeply to the left and, according to the driver who came to pick me up, our aircraft skimmed the terminal building!

One could always expect a white knuckle approach into Tegucigalpa’s Toncontín  International Airport (TGU) in Honduras. Just before landing, aircraft have to bank steeply to the left then skim a hill at the end of the runway, before dropping quickly on to the runway and braking hard to avoid skidding off the end of the runway (which has happened several times). Here’s a B-737 cockpit view of landing there, the aircraft (but generally the 737-100 or 737-200) I often flew into TGU.

The take-off roll at Mexico City (MEX) can last a minute or more, because of the altitude of the airport (7300 feet, 2230 m). The airport has parallel runways almost 4 km long. In 1979, I was returning to Guatemala City with a colleague, and we boarded an Aviateca B-727, a new aircraft. The take-off seemed to last forever. In fact, the Captain lifted the nose just before the end of the runway, and we skimmed the landing lights by only a small height. Then, on landing at Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport (GUA, also surrounded by several volcanoes which can make for a tricky approach) we burst a tyre and skidded off the runway, coming to a halt some distance from the terminal building.

Turbulence always makes me nervous. The airspace around the approach to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (NRT) is always busy, and often subject to bumpy air. Many’s the time I’ve bounced into and out of NRT, but fortunately never experiencing the very severe turbulence affecting some flights.


It wasn’t until I moved to the Philippines in 1991 (until April 2010) that I began to fly on a regular basis, mostly intercontinental flights to the USA or Europe, but also around Asia.

My first foray into Asia was in 1982 when I attended a conference in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, flying into the old Halim Perdanakusuma International Airport (HLP) on a KLM B-747 from Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport (AMS).

AMS and Frankfurt (FRA) became hubs for many of my flights, business and pleasure, until I discovered Emirates (EK) in 2000 when they commenced flights out of Manila to Dubai (DXB) and on to BHX, on a wide-bodied B-777.

And it was during these years that I got to travel into Africa for the first time. In January 1993 I flew to Addis Ababa (ADD) from Manila (MNL) via the old Bangkok Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) on an Ethiopian Airlines flight. On another occasion I took Singapore Airlines from MNL to Johannesburg (JNB) via Singapore (SIN), with a South African Airways (SAA) connection in JNB to Lusaka (LUN), Zambia. It was 27 April 1994, and South Africa was holding its first democratic election, won by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) Party. Having traveled on Business Class, I was settling into the the SAA lounge at JNB when a bomb was detonated in the departure hall above my head. We were all evacuated on to the grass outside, passing through the devastated hall on the way, until we were allowed back into the terminal after several hours. Fortunately it was a fine autumn morning, bright and sunny although a little chilly.

Arrival at Lagos Murtala Muhammed International Airport (LOS) was, for many years, quite stressful. Greeted on arrival with sinister looking individuals not in uniform demanding one’s passport was one thing, but on departure there was always pressure from immigration and security staff at every point in the departure demanding to look through one’s hand-luggage and ‘ask’ for a bribe, a token of ‘friendship’. It didn’t matter what the item might be, one was always faced with the same old question: ‘What have you got for me in your case?’ Invariably I would answer: ‘A nice big friendly smile’ and passed on with no further toll levied. By the time I made my last visit in the early 2000s, those practices had more or less disappeared.

I’ve always found immigration into the United States somewhat intimidating. Whether immigration officers are told to be generally difficult, I don’t know, but they do ask some rather strange questions. On one occasion, in September 1978, when our elder daughter Hannah was just four or so months old, we flew back to the UK from Costa Rica via Miami (MIA). This was Hannah’s first flight – and she nearly didn’t make it.

In those days, MIA (and probably many other ports of entry into the USA) did not have a transit facility. Even if just changing flights, you had to pass through immigration requiring a US visa. Hannah was registered in Steph’s passport, and we did not realize that Steph’s visa did not cover Hannah as well. At first, the immigration officer was reluctant to allow us to pass, but after discussing the situation for more than 30 minutes, she did allow us to proceed to our next flight. Needless to say I had to get Hannah a separate visa at the US Embassy in San Jose on our return, attending an interview on Hannah’s behalf to answer all those silly visa application questions. No, Hannah had never been a Communist, or convicted of war crimes.

This transit situation reminds me of another instance when I was traveling with a Peruvian colleague to the Caribbean islands from Santo Domingo (SDQ) in the Dominican Republic via San Juan (SJU) in Puerto Rico. I had a US visa, Oscar did not. We had a lay-over of several hours between flights in SJU. Eventually Oscar was permitted to join me in the airport terminal, on the condition that he was accompanied by an armed guard at all times.


In 2005 I was caught up in a major strike at Northwest Airlines (NWA, now absorbed into Delta Air Lines). I had a business trip to the USA, to attend a meeting in Houston, Texas. By then, Hannah had been living in St Paul, Minnesota for several years, and I’d schedule any trip to the US at a weekend via Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP) so I could spend time with her and Michael (now my son-in-law). The day after I arrived in St Paul, a strike was called at NWA that lasted for some weeks, causing my travel plans to be thrown into considerable confusion. Fortunately, NWA handled the situation well, and transferred me on to other airlines, mainly United. I flew to George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston via St Louis (STL). From Houston, I traveled to New York (JFK) for meetings at UNDP. But because of the NWA strike, there was no flight home to the Philippines from MSP. Instead, I flew direct to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to connect with a United non-stop flight to Hong Kong (HKK, at Kai Tak). And that’s how I came take the world’s longest flight in those days: 17½ hours, 6773 nm. The flight was full. I already had a First Class upgrade from NW that was honored by United, so was rather more comfortable than those in the back over such a long flight. But would we make the flight non-stop? That was the concern raised by our Captain as we taxied out to the runway. He told us that because of the length (and weight) of the full flight, and expected headwinds, there was a 30% chance we might have to land in Beijing (PEK) to refuel. In the eventuality we must have glided on empty from PEK to HKG. Then, in HKG, I transferred to a Canadian Airlines flight for the last sector into MNL.

The whole trip covered more than 17,000 nm.

Then in November 2016, when making a review of genebanks, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I flew to Melbourne (MEL), Australia for four nights, on EK from BHX via DXB. The DXB-MEL sector was the second longest flight I have ever taken at 14 hours or so, and 6283 nm, fortunately on the great A380. This trip was, in total, longer than the US trip I just described above, at 18,625 nm.

Enjoying a wee dram at the bar at the rear upper deck of the A380.


Recently, I came across an item on the CNN travel website, listing Singapore’s Changi Airport (SIN) as No. 1 on its list for 2019, the seventh year in a row that it had received the accolade. Even LHR was on the list, at No. 8. That surprised me, given the problems it has experienced in terms of processing incoming passengers through immigration. It’s an airport I have avoided for many years.

When I first began flying, five decades ago, airport terminals were quite rudimentary in many respects, and even until recently some international airports have failed to make the grade. Many airports didn’t even have air bridges to board the aircraft, and you had to walk to the aircraft in all weathers, or be bused out to the aircraft.

Airports have become prestige projects for many countries, almost cities with many opportunities to fleece us of our hard won cash, flaunting so many luxury products.

It’s no wonder that SIN is No. 1. It’s a fabulous airport, almost a tourist attraction in its own right. As are airports like Dubai (DXB), the airport I have traveled through frequently on home leave. EK via DXB also became my airline of choice for flights into Europe on business.

Some like Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) are so huge, there’s an internal transportation system to move from one part of the airport to another. New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) is large – and badly designed. I remember one time arriving there on American Airlines (AA, from MEX I think) to connect with a British Airways (BA) flight to BHX. All the terminals at JFK are arranged around a circle, and there were shuttle buses—in one direction only—connecting them. I arrived in the American terminal which was next door to the BA terminal, but to its right. There was no way to walk from the AA terminal to the BA one. I had to take the shuttle bus all the way round, stopping at every terminal on the way to drop-off and pick-up passengers. It was a busy afternoon. It took almost 90 minutes, and I thought I was going to miss my flight, that was, in any case, delayed. I haven’t been to JFK for a couple of decades so don’t know if this set-up is the same.

On these long-haul flights, we were permitted to fly in Business Class. Having picked up so many air miles I could, on occasion, upgrade my seat to First Class. What a privilege. Flying Business Class also meant access to airline lounges where one could escape to a more relaxing environment before boarding. Given the parlous state of many airport terminals (especially the toilets) this really was a boon.


And to wrap up this post, I’ve been thinking of some of my favorite airports. On clear days, the approaches into SJO or CUZ could be marvelous, with fantastic views over the surrounding mountains. Likewise GUA. In Asia, the approach to Luang Prabang (LPQ) was scenically very beautiful.

But I guess the airports that have caught my attention are those that just worked, like SIN or DXB, BHX even. Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport or NAIA (MNL) Terminal 1 (which we used throughout our 19 years in the Philippines, before the new Terminal 3 opened to international traffic in 2011) lacked many facilities, with little space for passengers to wait comfortably for their flights. However, I have to admit it was one of the fastest and easiest I’ve ever transited in terms of immigration procedures. In 1996, I flew back to the Philippines with our younger daughter Philippa on a KLM flight from AMS. We touched down, on time, around 16:30, and we were leaving the airport with four bags, having taxied to the terminal, disembarked, passed through immigration and customs, within fifteen minutes. That’s right, fifteen minutes! That must be a record. But that was NAIA for you. I was only delayed seriously on one occasion in all those years.

So many airports, so many flights. So many memories, also. And, on reflection, mostly good. After all, that’s what has allowed me to explore this interesting world of ours.


¹ It’s also noteworthy how many of the aircraft shown in the video are B-747s, a plane that is becoming an increasingly rare sight at many airports around the world, many having been pensioned off and replaced by more fuel efficient twin-engined aircraft like the B-777 and B-787 from Boeing, or the A330 and A350 from Airbus.

Of Prime Ministers and Presidents . . .

Earlier today, I was lying in bed sipping a mug of tea and listening to the news on BBC Radio 4. And wondering what progress (or lack thereof) there had been regarding negotiations between the Tories and Labour to resolve the Brexit impasse that has bedeviled politics in this country for far too long.

I couldn’t help speculating that this whole Brexit debacle will be the one and only thing that Prime Minister Theresa May will be remembered for. Political legacies are the basis of history. So whenever some historian or other comes to analyze her legacy, the Brexit negotiations will be at the top of any list, whether they actually lead to Brexit or not. We’ll find out over the next week. Maybe.

Then, that got me thinking about earlier Prime Ministers and what they are remembered for. Not necessarily their full legacies. And Presidents of the United States as well. One of the reasons for this is that I can think of no point in my lifetime (I was born in November 1948) when there were two more inept occupants of No 10 Downing Street and the White House.

While I can recall Presidents of other countries, of France, of Peru, Costa Rica, or the Philippines where I lived for many years, or countries like South Africa that had leaders who performed on the world stage, like Nelson Mandela for example, or his predecessor, FW de Klerk, the last apartheid head of state, even German Chancellors, I’m much more familiar with US politics and political figures.

Why my interest in US politics? That began in January 1973, when I moved to Peru, and my weekly news roundup came courtesy of Time and Newsweek. It was, after all, also the time of Watergate. And I’ve followed US politics closely ever since. However, let’s start with Prime Ministers.


Since November 1948 there have been fifteen Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom (Harold Wilson headed two separate administrations).*

L-R: Clement Attlee (Labour), Jul 1945-Oct 1951; Sir Winston Churchill (Conservative), Oct 1951-Apr 1955; Sir Anthony Eden (Conservative), Apr 1955-Jan 1957.

L-R: Harold Macmillan (Conservative), Jan 1957-Oct 1963; Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Oct 1963-Oct 1964; Harold Wilson (Labour), Oct 1964-Jun 1970.

L-R: Edward Heath (Conservative), June 1970-Mar 1974; Harold Wilson (Labour), Mar 1974-Apr 1976; James Callaghan (Labour), Apr 1976-May 1979.

L-R: Margaret Thatcher (Conservative), May 1979-Nov 1990; John Major (Conservative), Nov 1990-May 1997; Tony Blair (Labour), May 1997-Jun 2007.

L-R: Gordon Brown (Labour), Jun 2007-May 2010; David Cameron (Conservative, in coalition with Lib Dems), May 2010-Jul 2016; Theresa May (Conservative), Jul 2016-present.

So what are these fourteen individuals remembered for, good or bad?

My first recollections of politics in the UK came with the administration of Sir Anthony Eden. His time in office must surely be remembered for the Suez Crisis (or second Arab-Israeli War) of late 1956, when UK and French forces waded in on the side of Israel to seize control of the Suez Canal. What I particularly remember was rationing of petrol (gasoline), and using coupons to purchase fuel for the car. The UK’s subsequent humiliation led to Eden’s resignation shortly afterwards.

In 1945, the Labour Party led by Clement Attlee surprisingly won a General Election, defeating the Conservatives led by Sir Winston Churchill, the successful war-time Prime Minister. Undoubtedly, Clement’s legacy is the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS), in July 1947. I was approximately the 190,063rd baby born under the NHS!

Churchill had his political revenge in 1951. While his second administration oversaw the end of hostilities of the Korean War, and an armistice, there was a deepening of the Cold War that had commenced immediately after the end of Second World War. Churchill had coined the phrase ‘Iron Curtain’ in 1946.

On Eden’s resignation, Harold Macmillan became leader of the Conservatives and Prime Minister, and headed an administration that saw the first sustained economic revival since the war. Macmillan is famous for two sayings. The first, Most of our people have never had it so good (from a speech in 1957) relates to the growing economic prosperity. The second, I was determined that no British government should be brought down by the action of two tarts, concerns the 1963 political scandal, the Profumo Affair, that irreparably damaged Macmillan’s government. Macmillan resigned in October that year.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home became Prime Minister on Macmillan’s retirement (having renounced his peerage, as the 14th Earl of Home), and headed a Conservative administration for just one year, being defeated in the October 1964 General Election by the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson. Douglas-Home is perhaps best remembered for his stint (1960-1963) as Foreign Secretary rather than his premiership.

Wilson won the 1964 election with a majority of just four MPs. In 1967, his government was forced to devalue the currency, the GB pound (£), and Wilson is remembered (and criticized) for his pound in your pocket speech in which he assured listeners that the pound had not lost its value. In 1965, during Wilson’s first administration, the political decision was made (on cost grounds) to cancel the TSR-2 strike and reconnaissance aircraft, considered one of the most sophisticated planes to have been designed in the UK. As one aeronautical engineer said at the time, All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right.

The first Wilson administration saw the outbreak of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which intensified and continued right up to the administration of Tony Blair in 1998 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Labour Party was defeated in the June 1970 General Election (the first election I ever voted in) by the Conservatives under Edward Heath. Heath’s administration lasted just under four years. But his significant contribution was to lead the country into membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) in January 1973 (just as I was leaving to work in Peru). Forty-six years later the nation is divided over its continued membership of the European Union (successor to the EEC and European Community, EC).

Harold Wilson returned to power in the 1974 General Election. Continued membership of the EC was at the forefront of UK politics. In an unprecedented move in the nation’s political history, a referendum was held on 5 June 1975 in which a substantial majority voted for continued membership. How times have changed!

Wilson resigned in March 1976, and was replaced by his Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan. Callaghan’s government lasted just three years, buffeted by economic stresses, and his downfall followed the disastrous 1978-79 Winter of Discontent.

In 1979, the nation had its first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She had ousted Edward Heath as leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. Her premiership is remembered for three issues. First was her forceful response to the invasion of the Falklands Islands by Argentina in April-June 1982. But two issues eventually brought her down. The introduction of the Community Charge (commonly known as the Poll Tax) in 1989 was highly unpopular. Industrial relations during her premiership also deteriorated. The Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 was a major industrial action in protest at the closure of coal pits. It was prolonged, violent at times, and divided communities, many of which have hardly yet recovered the loss of jobs. By November 1990, Thatcher had been visited by senior Tory politicians and told to go. She resigned and was replaced by her Chancellor, John Major.

I left the UK in July 1991 to work in the Philippines, returning in May 2010, just before a General Election in which I was not eligible to vote. Thus I have very little direct experience of the premierships of John Major, and his successors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (both Labour leaders).

John Major was Prime Minister during the first Gulf War in 1991. He helped negotiate the Maastricht Treaty that same year that led to further European integration and the formation of the European Union. After the government withdrew the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Black Wednesday on 16 September 1992, there was a fall in confidence in Conservative economic policies, a situation from which Major hardly recovered. However, he remained in office until May 1997, and even won a General Election. Under John Major the privatization of British Railways began; the monopoly was broken up and individual franchises sold to operate the nation’s rail system.

Tony Blair led Labour to a landslide victory over the Tories in the General Election of May 1997. Blair, at age 43, was the youngest Prime Minister since 1812. He went on to win two more elections in 2001 and 2005. He had very high popularity ratings for his handling of the response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in August 1997. Under his administration the Human Rights and the National Minimum Wage Acts were introduced, and the Good Friday Agreement finally brought peace to Northern Ireland.

On the other hand, Tony Blair will probably be remembered most for his cozy foreign policy relationship with US President George W Bush and his involvement of UK forces in the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. For these actions he will never be forgiven by a significant portion of the population, and it’s fair to say that his reputation has been permanently damaged despite the many good things achieved by his centrist Labour administration. Blair resigned on 27 June 2007, and Gordon Brown (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) immediately assumed the premiership.

Gordon Brown was in office until May 2010 when he was defeated by David Cameron and the Conservatives. His most notable achievement was to steer the nation through all the challenges of the 2008 global recession, bailing out the banks and helping to stabilize financial systems here and around the world.

David Cameron did not achieve a House of Commons majority in the May 2010 election, and was forced to seek support of the Lib Dems in a coalition government. Budget austerity was the watchword of this government, the introduction of tuition fees for university students, and other financial measures from which the nation is still suffering. This was also a consequence of the recession before Cameron came to power.

One of the early pieces of legislation from the Coalition was the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, that has had its consequences subsequently.

Cameron also sought to negotiate revised membership terms for the UK in the European Union and, as a sop to the right wing faction in his party, he foolishly promised to hold a referendum on continued membership of the EU if the Tories were returned to power in 2015. He didn’t expect to win an outright majority, and when he did, he was in hock to anti-EU factions among his MPs.

The fateful referendum was held on 23 June 2016, and although Remain was official government policy, the result was a Leave majority of 52 to 48%. A decision that we continue to rue three years on. On losing the referendum, Cameron immediately resigned leaving the contest wide open for his successor. Although originally a favorite to succeed Cameron, Brexiteer Boris Johnson withdrew before polling began among Tory MPs and constituency members, leaving former Home Secretary Theresa May as the only candidate. She became Prime Minister on 11 July 2016.

And she has proven to be one of the most inept politicians I can ever remember, without empathy (viz. her response to the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in June 2017 around the time of the general Election), a cold fish, who has led the nation down a disastrous Brexit path. She was so inept as to call an early General Election in 2017 (despite the Fixed-term Parliaments Act), losing her overall majority, and since then propped up by ten Democratic Unionist Party MPs from Northern Ireland. But due to major policy splits in her own party, she has been unable to push through her EU Withdrawal Agreement. It has been defeated three times in the past eight weeks, and unless something comes of the discussions between the Conservatives and Labour over the next week, the UK will crash out of the EU on 12 April. Theresa May will also be remembered, and in a very bad light, for her anti-immigration stance and policies she introduced when Home Secretary.

Fortunately, it seems she will not be Prime Minister for much longer. But will it be a question of out of the frying pan and into the fire? Boris Johnson as her replacement? Heaven forfend!

Let’s now turn to the Presidents of the Unites States, or POTUS.


From Harry Truman to Donald Trump, there have been thirteen Presidents of the United States since 1948.

L-R: Harry S Truman (33rd, Democrat), 1945-1953; Dwight D Eisenhower (34th, Republican), 1953-1961; John F Kennedy (35th, Democrat), 1961-1963.

L-R: Lyndon B Johnson (36th, Democrat), 1963-1969; Richard M Nixon (37th, Republican) 1969-1974; Gerald Ford (38th, Republican) 1974-1977.

L-R: Jimmy Carter (39th, Democrat) 1977-1981; Ronald Reagan (40th, Republican) 1981-1989; George HW Bush (41st, Republican) 1989-1993.

L-R: Bill Clinton (42nd, Democrat) 1993-2001; George W Bush (43rd, Republican) 2001-2009; Barack Obama (44th, Democrat) 2009-2017; Donald J Trump (45th, Republican) 2017-present.

Harry Truman assumed the presidency on 12 April 1945 on the death of Franklin D Roosevelt. Truman will undoubtedly be remembered as the first head of state to authorize the use of atomic weapons, with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. The Cold War began under his presidency. He was responsible for the Berlin Airlift in 1948, but also saw the start of the Korean War. He famously won re-election in 1948, defeating Thomas Dewey; even newspapers had gone to press declaring Dewey as the winner.

Truman was succeeded by General Dwight Eisenhower who had been Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War. Eisenhower served two terms. This was the era of the Cold War. And one consequence of that was the 1960 U-2 spyplane incident during his last year in office. The US Interstate Highway System was inaugurated during his presidency.

The presidency of John F Kennedy was all too short. It had promised so much more, but an assassin’s bullet robbed the nation of that promise in November 1963. I remember vividly the moment that programs were suspended on TV in the UK to announce his death. And what grief there was, not just in the USA, but globally.

In May 1961, Kennedy announced a plan to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth before the end of the decade. He did not live to see that dream realized eight years later.

In August 1961, the East Germans under Soviet encouragement began to build the Berlin Wall, that was to remain in place for the next 28 years. Kennedy visited Berlin in June 1963, making his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech.

Perhaps Kennedy will be remembered for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. It was a period of heightened tension that we also felt in the UK. I clearly remember waiting in class on that fateful day, wondering if Armageddon was about to happen. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev backed down. Crisis averted.

Who knows what Kennedy would have achieved, despite his prolific womanizing, had his life not been cut short.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the 36th POTUS on Kennedy’s death. He served out the rest of Kennedy’s term, and won one for himself in 1964, but did not seek re-election to a second term as he was entitled to do in 1968. Johnson has two legacies. Let me state the positive one first: his enactment of Civil Rights Act in 1964, and other progressive legislation.

But he was also responsible for the escalation of the Vietnam War, that damaged his credibility with the electorate.

Democrats lost the White House in the election of 1968, that brought Richard Milhous Nixon to power. And how he abused that power. Nixon is synonymous with Watergate, impeachment proceedings, and resignation. Yet, Nixon had two significant achievements: rapprochement with China in 1972, and détente with the Soviet Union leading to the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Nixon had already lost his Vice President Spiro Agnew to scandal before he himself was forced from office. Several months later, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford was appointed Vice President, and assumed the presidency on Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. He was the first person to have held both the Vice Presidency and Presidency without being elected to office. Perhaps Ford will be best remembered for his September 1974 full and unconditional pardon for any crimes [Nixon] might have committed against the United States while president. Ford lost the 1976 election to Georgia governor and outsider Jimmy Carter.

Carter served only one term. His denouement was the Iran hostage crisis that lasted from November 1979 to January 1981. He was perceived as a weak leader, the rescue of the hostages in Tehran having failed. The crisis ultimately led to Carter losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. Minutes after Reagan was sworn into office the hostages were released by Iran.

Since leaving the presidency in 1981, Carter and his wife Rosalind have shown themselves to be exemplary citizens through their work to wage peace, fight disease and build hope. Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in March 1981, just a few weeks after his inauguration as the 40th POTUS. A former governor of California, Reagan took the Republican Party to a more conservative side of politics. While he will be remembered for his escalation of the Cold War (his ‘Star Wars’ initiative) after a period of better relations with the Soviet Union under Jimmy Carter, Reagan nevertheless attended the Reyjavik summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the end of the Cold War and the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.

Reagan was re-elected in 1984, defeating Jimmy Carter’s Vice President, Minnesotan Walter Mondale.

George HW Bush was elected as 41st POTUS, and served just one term. He was defeated by Arkansan Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign. Bush was a Second World War fighter ace in the US Navy, and one of the youngest to serve in that capacity.

The most significant event of Bush’s presidency was the Gulf War, that pushed Saddam Hussein back from his occupation of Kuwait, but left much unfinished business that would be completed by his son George W Bush who was elected as the 43rd president in 2000.

Bill Clinton will undoubtedly be remembered for just one thing: the Monica Lewinsky scandal that almost led to his impeachment. Clinton, in my opinion, was one of the most gifted speakers I have ever heard. Without notes or teleprompters he could hold an audience spellbound as he embraced a wide range of topics in his speeches. The economy boomed under his presidency, and he left office with one of the highest approval ratings ever.

George W Bush came to the presidency somewhat controversially. It was all about hanging chads and the recount in Florida that eventually handed the election to Bush. Later in 2001 he was faced with the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, that then led on to the invasions of Afghanistan and Irag, that I alluded to earlier.

With the election of Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, as the 44th POTUS, the presidency entered an eight year period of relative calm, but above all decency. Obama is a charismatic orator, but perhaps his presidency did not achieve as much as was hoped for or expected. His signature achievement was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that was signed into law in March 2010. It must have been significant because ever since No 45 assumed the presidency he and Senate Republicans have been doing their darndest to repeal the Act. The same can be said for other legislation and initiatives that Obama sponsored. Donald Trump seems hell bent on eradicating any aspect of Obama’s legacy.

And, at last, that brings me on to Donald J Trump, No 45, elected to the presidency with around 3 million fewer votes in the popular vote than his Democrat rival, Hillary Clinton, but squeaked in through winning the Electoral College 304 to 227.

What can I say about Donald Trump that has not been said more eloquently elsewhere? He is perhaps the most odious and inept (and allegedly corrupt) individual elected to the presidency. However, whatever happens over the next 18 months before the 2020 election, and whether Trump is re-elected, he has already secured a legacy. How? He has achieved something, twice, that all presidents aspire to but rarely do. Two of his nominees were appointed Justices on the Supreme Court, thereby ensuring a conservative bias on the bench, and Trump influencing a conservative political agenda for decades to come. He may even yet have a third nominee appointed. It depends if and when octogenarian Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbs to ill health (or worse) and a replacement has to be found.

But how would I sum up his presidency to date? There is but one word: NARCISSISM.

The presidency, what he says, what he does, how he interacts with others all comes down to just one thing: himself. It affects his whole outlook on the world, his embrace of ‘fake news’, his weak relationship with the truth, his attacks on friends and foes alike.

Never have we seen the like in the White House. Donald Trump makes even Richard Nixon look presidential. And that’s saying something.


* All images of Prime Ministers and US Presidents from Wikipedia.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 19: O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Steph and I really enjoy our visits to the USA. Over the years, we have experienced much of what this beautiful, fascinating, diverse, challenging, often bewildering (to the outsider, at least), and HUGE (or should that be ‘yuge’?) country has to offer.

And now that we have family there (our elder daughter Hannah studied in Minnesota, was married there in 2006, and she and her family live in St Paul), there’s an added incentive to visit the USA annually.

Since retiring in 2010, we have made some spectacular road trips to explore the country. In fact there are now few states (shown in white) that we have not visited, and just two (Nevada and Alaska) where sitting in an airport was as close as I got. Just click the various links below to open earlier blog posts or photo albums.

On one flight from Japan to the USA on Delta Airlines, we were diverted to Anchorage, Alaska because of a medical emergency, then spent three hours or so on the tarmac before continuing our journey. In Las Vegas, Nevada we transferred to a domestic flight having arrived from the Philippines.

The first time we ever set foot in the USA was in April 1975, but that was only to transfer flights in New York’s JFK airport. Steph and I had left Peru about a week or so earlier on our way back to the UK where I would write and present my PhD thesis at The University of Birmingham later that year.

I was working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, and the center’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, had offered me a postdoctoral position (provided I successfully defended my thesis) and a posting in Central America. So our trip home took us to Costa Rica for about 3-5 days (via an overnight stop in Panama City), a brief stopover of about the same length in Mexico to visit former CIP friends, and then on to New York on an Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, the first wide-bodied aircraft we had flown. From New York we took British Airways (on our first Boeing 747) to Manchester.

In April 1976 Steph and I moved to Costa Rica and remained there until November 1980. As CIP’s Regional Representative (and potato production specialist), I worked throughout Mexico, Central America, and several countries of the Caribbean. Travel from Costa Rica out to the Caribbean islands (mainly the Dominican Republic, but occasionally other islands where potatoes figured in the agricultural cycle for at least some period of the year) inevitably involved flights through Miami in Florida, and I soon got to know Miami International Airport intimately. Because transit through Miami was a good opportunity to stock up on items we couldn’t readily purchase in Costa Rica, I would always try and schedule my return flights via Miami, arriving there in the early morning and taking the late LACSA flight to San José, giving me several hours for shopping in one of the nearby malls in Dade County. Each year when we flew back to the UK on our annual leave, we took flights via Miami to London.


However, the first big challenge of any visit to the USA is actually entering the country. The immigration experience is not always a pleasant or easy one.

When traveling in the 1970s, unlike today when we enjoy visa-free ESTA travel (unless Brexit changes that), it was necessary to have a visa to enter the USA, even if only transferring flights, as was frequently the case in Miami. There were no transit facilities.

In September 1978, when our elder daughter Hannah was about five months, we traveled to the UK on leave. Things started to go pear-shaped on presentation at the immigration desk in Miami. Although Hannah was registered in Steph’s passport she apparently needed her own visa; Steph’s visa was not good for the both of them. After some intense discussion for perhaps 30 minutes or more, we were finally allowed to enter the USA (and headed straight to a day room in the airport hotel), but with the advice/warning that Hannah’s visa needed to be sorted in London.

To cut a long story short, we chanced our arm on the return journey without a visa for Hannah, and I sorted that soon after at the US embassy in San Jose. I had to take six month old Hannah for an ‘interview’ and answer, on her behalf, all the nonsensical questions that one has to answer, about ever being a Communist or a Nazi. I felt like providing sarcastic responses to these, but held my tongue. All babies are communist, right?

On another occasion I traveled with a Peruvian colleague, Oscar Hidalgo (who was based in Mexico), to the Dominican Republic, and from there to St Kitts and Barbados, starting our trip in Nicaragua. If memory serves me well, we took a flight operated by the Spanish airline Iberia from Managua to Santo Domingo. So far, so good.

But to travel on to St Kitts, we had to transit in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I had a US visa; Oscar did not. Our transit time was about four hours, and although Oscar was eventually permitted to enter the airport, he had an armed guard by his side throughout the whole period, ensuring that he didn’t become an illegal immigrant!


Steph and Hannah at the Golden Gate Bridge, on the north side in Marin County, in July 1979

In July 1979, I attended the annual meeting of the Potato Association of America in Vancouver, and Steph and Hannah (then 15 months) came along for the ride. Flying from Costa Rica via Guatemala City (a hub for American airline Panamerican in those days), we took a short break of about three days for sight seeing in San Francisco, our first and only visit to that extraordinary city.

From Vancouver we drove to Edmonton, then flew down to Madison, Wisconsin where I visited the university for a couple of days, and also the USDA Potato Introduction Station at Sturgeon Bay in Door County alongside Lake Michigan in the northeast of the state.

In March 1981, after I had resigned from CIP to return to an academic post in the UK, we flew to New York (on a Lufthansa DC-10), spending three nights there before heading on to London with British Airways.

Steph and Hannah at the top of the Empire State Building in New York, in March 1981

During the 1980s, I visited the USA only once, to attend a scientific conference in St Louis, Missouri, held at the Missouri Botanical Garden in the summer of 1982. This was the first time that I saw the Mississippi River, and also the Missouri a few miles upstream where we had a conference dinner at a restaurant on its southern bank. I had no inkling then that the Mississippi would eventually become a regular feature of our visits to the USA.


When we moved to the Philippines in 1991, my work with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) took me the USA on a regular basis, to visit the USDA genebank in Fort Collins, Colorado, to attend meetings at the World Bank in Washington, DC (a city I visited many times), or scientific conferences in Seattle (Washington), Minneapolis (Minnesota), Charlotte (North Carolina), Baltimore (Maryland), Stuttgart (Arkansas), and Salt Lake City (Utah).

Steph and I also visited old friends in Seattle in May 2000, and toured the Olympic Peninsula with them.

L: Sea stack at Ruby Beach on the Pacific coast of the Olympic Peninsula; R: snowfield at Hurricane Ridge on the north of the Olympic Peninsula.

When Hannah joined Macalester College in St Paul in the autumn of 1998, I would, as far as possible, route my trips via the Twin Cities, and got to know the area quite well.


But it wasn’t until after I had retired that Steph and I really set about exploring the country.

Our first road trip in May-June 2011 took us to canyon country in Arizona and New Mexico, beginning in Phoenix, AZ and ending in Albuquerque, NM taking in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, the Painted Desert, and Bandolier National Monument, among a number of locations.


A year later we explored the Minnesota Riviera along Lake Superior, and north to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area.


In 2016, after I’d broken my leg in January, we made just a short trip to find the source of the Mississippi in central Minnesota.


June 2013 saw us on the Oregon coast, spending time with Hannah and family in a house overlooking the spectacular coastline at Oceanside just south of Cape Meares, where the photo below was taken.

Then Steph and I headed south into northern California to take in the coastal redwoods. But not before stopping off at Crater Lake, OR.

Crater Lake, OR


In 2014 we made the first of three road trips of more than 2500 miles. Heading west from St Paul, we took in the Badlands and Mount Rushmore of South Dakota, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, before heading up the Beartooth Highway (America’s most beautiful?) to enter Yellowstone National Park from the north.


In September 2015, having made a long tour of Scotland in May, we decided on just a mini-break in the Windy City, Chicago, and traveled there by train from St Paul on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.


In 2017, we made the long road trip from Atlanta in Georgia to St Paul, taking in eleven states: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and back into Minnesota. Among the many attractions were the streets and parks of Savannah, the Appalachians, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and following the meandering Mississippi north through Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa.


That was 2017. Last year we drove from Massachussetts to Minnesota (there is a link to the other four posts in this series), crossing Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.


So what does 2019 hold in store. We’d like to explore the Deep South: Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but also taking in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and south as far as San Antonio (and The Alamo) in Texas. But we have no firm plans yet. It all depends on how the UK leaves the European Union (Brexit!) at the end of March, and whether this affects our ability to travel easily. There are so many unknowns, but we are not booking any flights or car rental until the situation is clearer.

I think we would fly into Atlanta, and head southwest into Alabama. I’d like to visit Vicksburg in Mississippi (site of an important siege during the American Civil War), and on to New Orleans of course. We wouldn’t try and drive back to Minnesota; it would be too far, so we’ll need to look into flights from San Antonio to MSP. Another consideration is when to travel. Mid-summer would be too hot and humid; not comfortable at all. So I guess it could be in September or early October, but will we come up against the hurricane season?

Although I have visited Washington, DC many times, I’ve never really toured the city. Steph hasn’t visited. So a visit there and to Virginia (Williamsburg, Monticello, and Mount Vernon), the Civil War battlefields of Virginia, Pennsylvania (Gettysburg), and Maryland, and the other Atlantic states (Delaware and New Jersey) is another trip we must plan.


At the beginning of this post I mentioned that the USA is beautiful, fascinating, diverse, challenging, bewildering, and huge country.

From the distances we have traveled there’s no doubt about just how huge the country is; the landscapes go on forever. These landscapes—forests, river valleys, mountains, plains, deserts, and coasts—are stunningly beautiful. In fact, I find it hard to describe them, so will let my photography speak for me.

The USA is so many countries rolled into one. The people are so different from one region to another, with very different perspectives on life. And challenging perspectives for me as an outsider, on religion (which plays such an important, and perhaps overly so, role in daily life), the love affair with guns, and the election of someone as President who is clearly not fit to hold that office. A political system that permits a president to be elected although losing the popular vote by 3 million votes or more seems bizarre (not that the first past the post parliamentary constituency system in the UK has much to commend it right now).

But it’s the paradoxes of the USA that I find bewildering.

We always enjoy returning to Minnesota however, and although we have mostly visited during the summer months, we did experience a Minnesota winter at Christmas 2007. Apart from the winters, Minnesota and Minnesotans are mellow!


One last point. If I had to choose to return to just one of places we have visited, which would it be?

Without a doubt – the Canyon de Chelly. It was one of the most remarkable places I have ever visited. The closest town is Chinle, and that’s in Navajo Reservation territory. No alcohol in the restaurants, so I’d have to make sure I brought some cold beers along. It was quite a shock when we visited in 2011 and I couldn’t order a beer with my steak.


 

Relaxing in Minnesota

Following our epic drive in mid-June from Maine to Minnesota (after already having crossed Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, and explored parts of western Maine for six days), Steph and I settled into a couple of weeks of relaxation with our elder daughter Hannah and family in St Paul, MN before heading back to the UK on 10 July.

My son-in-law, Michael, is – like me – a beer aficionado, and keeps a well-stocked cellar of many different beers. It’s wonderful to see how the beer culture has blossomed in the USA, no longer just Budweiser or Coors. I had opportunity to enjoy a variety of beers. Those IPAs are so good, if not a little hoppy sometimes. However, my 2018 favorite was a Czech-style pilsener, Dakota Soul from the Summit Brewing Company based in St Paul.

Relaxing in St Paul was also an opportunity catch up with some of my blogging, while Steph spent time in Hannah’s garden making sure everything was coping with the very hot weather. Notwithstanding the regular watering, we did experience a couple of quite spectacular downpours the like of which I haven’t seen for some time.

And our lively grandchildren, Callum (eight just two days ago) and Zoë (6) kept us on our toes. For one of the two weeks we stayed in St Paul, I was their summer camp chauffeur, dropping them off at the bus just after 8 am each day, and picking them up late in the afternoon. We were also ‘babysitters’ over six days and five nights. That’s the first time we’ve taken on this role; it was the first time that Hannah and Michael left the children with grandparents for more than just an overnight stay, while they celebrated their 40th birthdays with a visit to California’s Napa Valley.

Outcome? I think Callum and Zoë survived us – no permanent harm done!

There’s quite a lot of ambiguity associated with looking after someone else’s children – and they know it! Even though it was made clear to both that ‘Grandad and Grandma were in charge’, you’re often faced with situations asking yourself how Mum and Dad would react. Obviously we haven’t looked after small children for more than three decades since Hannah and Philippa were small. Although we had TV in the 1980s, there were no video games, or subscription channels like Netflix offering up a continuous menu of cartoons.

Both Hannah and Philippa had quite a large circle of friends within easy distance of home, some just a few doors away. So whenever the weather was fine – or even if it was not – one or the other would be round a friend’s house, or the friends at ours. It’s a sign of the times but ‘play dates’ have to be arranged for both Hannah’s and Philippa’s children. This is not only a reflection of busy lives for Mums and Dads, but also that no friends live next door.

We had fun with Callum and Zoë, although they might not perhaps reflect well on the occasions when I had to ‘lay down the law’. We went bike riding (they did the riding while we followed on foot), and explored the fascinating glacial potholes at the Interstate State Park 53 miles northeast from St Paul beside the St Croix River at Taylors Fall.

Afterwards we spent time at a splendid children’s playground at Stillwater. We ate out one night, went out for breakfast on the Sunday, and had a BBQ. Here are some more photos of that outing.

Grandma Mary (Michael’s mother) took the children to the Minnesota Zoo one day so Steph and I could enjoy a day at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (here are the 2018 photos), somewhere we have visited a couple of times in the past.

Beautiful echinaceas, a typical species of the prairies

And any visit to St Paul would not be complete without checking out the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park (map).

We’ve been going there since 2006 when it was the venue for Hannah and Michael’s wedding. The floral displays change with the seasons, and we always enjoy seeing what the gardeners have prepared for their many visitors. This summer’s display was much more subdued compared to other years.

May 2006

December 2007

July 2016

June 2017

June 2018

I would certainly recommend a visit to Como Park  if you’re ever in St Paul. There is also a small zoo and fun fair, very popular with the children.

The Mississippi River is just 50 m from Hannah’s front door, but at least 50 m below. There are some lovely walks and parks along the river, Hidden Falls Regional Park, about a mile from Hannah’s, being one of them. But the river was high this year, with flooding closing several of the walks nearby. The St Croix River at Stillwater was the highest we have ever experienced.

Beside the Mississippi at Hidden Falls Regional Park.

The St Croix River at Stillwater. That’s Wisconsin on the far (east) bank.

Finally, this commentary about relaxing in Minnesota would not be complete without mention of Hobbes, a lovely ginger rescue cat who has his moments, going from sweet and docile to full on attack mode at the drop of a feather. But over our time at Hannah and Michael’s he did begin to relax with us and, more often than not, this is how he spent much of his time.

Blown away by Mt Washington . . .

Or, rather, blown away on top of Mt Washington.

Compared to the mountain ranges in the west of the USA, Mt Washington (at 6288 ft – 1917 m) and nearby peaks in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains are mere foothills. From their base, however, they still look pretty impressive. Mt Washington is the highest mountain in the northeastern USA and experiences some pretty spectacular weather.

Steph and I got our first glimpse of Mt Washington as we crossed New Hampshire recently on the first part of our road trip that also took us through Massachusetts and Vermont on our way to Maine to spend a week there with our elder daughter Hannah and her family, who had flown in from Minnesota.

I’d chosen a route from Burlington, VT taking us north towards the Canadian border, then dipping down to the southeast through the White Mountains close to Bretton Woods, site of the momentous 1944 conference that aimed at regulat[ing] the international monetary and financial order after the conclusion of World War II. The conference led to the founding of the World Bank (or International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) and the International Monetary Fund.

Having worked for many years for two of the centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), that had been established in 1971 under the auspices of the World Bank, I was interested to see the location where it had all started, so to speak.

And as we skirted a bend on US302, heading southeast, there was the famous hotel off to the left, nestling under the Presidential Range. In the middle was Mt Washington (just left of center in the photo below), clearly higher than surrounding peaks, and on which we could just make out some infrastructure we later discovered to be part of an observation station.

During our week in Maine we made several excursions, and one of those was the seven mile drive on the Mt Washington Auto Road that takes you to just below the summit, from 1500 ft the park entrance west off NH16 (White Mountain Road).

Amazingly, construction of the Auto Road (originally the Carriage Road) commenced in 1854, and was completed in 1861, opening to the public on 8 August that year. Over the past 157 years, more than 4 million tourists have reached the summit.

The fastest ascent on foot (in 2004) took just a few seconds short of 57 minutes (and only seven minutes quicker by bike). By car, Mt Washington has been climbed in just 6 minutes 9 seconds (in 2014). We took rather longer, at least 30 minutes, as we stopped whenever possible to enjoy the spectacular views, as well as negotiating some of the curves rather gingerly.

The road is paved most of the way, although near the summit there is a short gravel section.

The summit can also be reached by a cog railway! The train ascends on the western flank of the mountain; the station is situated a short distance beyond the hotel at Bretton Woods.

The cog railway, heading ‘vertically’ up the mountain can be seen just right of center.

Apparently the summit is hidden in clouds for about 60% of the year. Not so on the day of our visit. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, and the views, in all directions, were just awesome.

That’s Bretton Woods in the distance . . .

It wasn’t too windy either, blowing between 40-60 mph. Even so, we struggled to keep upright at the summit signpost.

60 mph is nothing on Mt Washington. On 12 April 1934 the world record wind speed (observed by humans) was recorded at 231 mph! Can you imagine that? Besides a small cafeteria, there is a small but interesting exhibition at the summit, with some of the instruments used and observations recorded on that momentous day 84 years ago.

I guess we spent a little under two hours at the summit, enjoying the panoramas in all directions. We couldn’t have hoped for a better day. Once we were down, there was time to relax in the sun, enjoy a picnic, and even take forty winks. We were even given a certificate for ascending the mountain.

So, if you are ever in the vicinity, and the weather looks half decent, I’d recommend the drive up the Auto Road. We weren’t disappointed.

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Here is a link to a bigger album of photos taken at Mt Washington.

Sometimes, history just passes me by . . . particularly in Ohio

William Tecumseh Sherman. Red-haired. Union Major-General in the American Civil War. Outstanding military strategist. Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Mastermind of the March to the Sea (that culminated in the capture of Savannah, GA) and the Carolinas Campaign, both of which contributed significantly to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Born in 1820, Sherman was a native of Lancaster, Ohio (map). I wish I’d known that just a few weeks ago.

As Steph and I crossed Ohio on our road trip from Massachusetts to Minnesota, we passed through Lancaster on the route I’d planned from Canton, OH to Bloomington, IN. I do recall saying to Steph how prosperous it looked compared to others.

I only learned of the Sherman connection from a biography that I’m reading right now¹, and which I picked up at my favorite bookstore in St Paul, Half Price Books on Ford Parkway in the Highland Park area. This year I added three more to my American Civil War collection.

I could have made the Sherman connection in Lancaster had I looked in my rear-view mirror at the right moment, but I was too intent on following the sat nav instructions.  There, on a west-facing wall on Main Street (we were heading west) is a full height mural of Sherman. I didn’t see it, more’s the pity. I would have stopped to explore further.

During the first part of our 2017 USA road trip, from Atlanta, GA (which Sherman ransacked in 1864) to Savannah, our route more or less mirrored Sherman’s March to the Sea. In the historic neighborhoods of Savannah his name appears on several historical markers, as you might expect.

And there were other surprises. Just 18 miles northeast of Lancaster is the small community of Somerset, OH. It has a lovely town square, in the middle of which is an impressive statue of a mounted soldier, Philip Sheridan, a Major-General of Cavalry during the Civil War, who was eventually promoted to four star rank. Sheridan grew up in Somerset. After the Civil War he served on the Great Plains during the Indian Wars. He was also instrumental in developing Yellowstone as a national park.

Despite its incredibly bloody outcomes and destructive consequences, the American Civil War, 1861-65 holds a certain fascination. To a large extent, it was the first war to be extensively documented photographically, many of the images coming from the lens of Mathew Brady.

But in terms of the war’s theater of operations, much of the fighting took place east of the Mississippi River, across the southern states, and into the maritime states as far north as Pennsylvania.

Imagine the topography, especially in the Appalachians, across which huge armies marched and fought each other. Imagine the effort needed to transport tens of thousands of men and their equipment and supplies over almost impenetrable terrain, along river valleys, crossing ridges, swamps, and huge rivers, while constantly being harassed by and engaging with the enemy.

We saw much of this landscape along our 2017 road trip. At Cumberland Gap there were even reminders how the opposing armies had fought to gain the upper hand and strategic overlook that was afforded on the hills surrounding this important pass through the mountains.

In that Sherman biography, I also learned that his superior, Major-General (then Brigadier General) Ulysses S Grant² (yet another Buckeye from Point Pleasant [map], just across the Ohio River from where we traveled this year) had his headquarters at Cairo (map) at the southern tip of Illinois in 1861, just a couple of miles north of Fort Defiance on the promontory at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Fort Defiance was on our route west in 2017.

Southwest from Canton, OH we passed by close to Dover (map), birthplace of one the Civil War’s most notorious Confederate raiders or bushwhackers, William Clarke Quantrill³. His theater of operations was the Kansas-Missouri border, an area that was already experiencing conflict between abolitionists and those who wanted to keep slavery in Missouri as early as 1858. Quantrill’s Raiders were the perpetrators of one of the Civil War’s most outrageous atrocity, the Lawrence (Kansas) massacre. Sherman’s brother-in-law, Thomas Ewing, Jr was a key Union general opposing Quantrill.

So while I may have missed out on some interesting historical aspects during this year’s road trip, that was not the case in 2011 when we toured extensively in Arizona and New Mexico. Earlier that year I had read an interesting biography of mountain man and Indian fighter Kit Carson whose campaigns against the Navajo are well documented. I planned parts of the trip around locations where he had been active. He is buried in Taos, NM, and after spending time at the Canyon de Chelly (site of a massacre of Navajos) in northeast Arizona, we headed for Taos.

Spider Rock in the Canyon de Chelly.

History is undoubtedly one of my principal hobbies, and occupies much of my reading. On retirement eight years ago I almost enrolled for a history degree with the Open University, but eventually decided to keep it just as a hobby. I read very little fiction, and the catalyst for my 2017 challenge – to read all of the novels by Charles Dickens – was a book (also bought at Half Price Books) about the terrible plight of children (early in the 19th century) in factories and cotton mills in the north of England.

Here in the UK, Steph and I are very active members of the National Trust and English Heritage. Whenever we get the opportunity, we head off to one of their many properties (stately homes, castles, archaeological sites, gardens) open to the public. And we learn a little more each time about the history of this country and the people who shaped events over the centuries, for better or worse.

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¹ Robert L O’Connell (2014). Fierce Patriot – The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-8212-1.

² I picked up this biography of Grant which I have yet to start: HW Brands (2012). Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-307-47515-2.

³ I started this book about Quantrill’s Raiders first. Jesse and Frank James were members of Quantrill’s guerilla band. Edward E Leslie (1998). The Devil Knows How to Ride – the True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80865-X.

 

Driving on the ‘wrong’ side

Since 2011, my wife and I have made several long-distance road trips across the USA. And although I’d driven some short distances around Seattle and the Twin Cities of Minnesota, I’d never done any serious driving until then. So, it’s not uncommon for someone to ask whether I find driving in the USA difficult.

Answer: not really. Most don’t know that I spent over 27 years driving on the ‘wrong’ side, i.e. the right, while living in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines.

So driving on the ‘wrong’ side is as normal for me as driving in the UK, on the ‘right’ side on the left. It’s just a case of learning the dos and don’ts, and the manners of the road.

Driving in the USA is (mostly) a pleasure (and straightforward), since away from the cities and main highways, the roads are generally quite quiet. However, some of the Interstates can be quite daunting, especially when two or more come together or diverge like large bowls of spaghetti, often with three or more lanes. Choosing which lane to occupy and when is a challenge. My sat nav during our latest trip was a godsend.

Finding your way around however is not too difficult. The road numbering system is quite clear, but the same road can have more than one name if two highways merge for a section. The Interstates (like the motorways in the UK or autobahns in Germany for example) connect centers of population across the country and are a legacy of President Dwight D Eisenhower, from the 1950s. Then there are the US highways, state roads, and county roads. Each has its own road symbol.

US highways are often divided highways, or dual carriageways as we say in the UK. The one big difference between the Interstates and US highways however, are junctions on the latter (often controlled by traffic lights) where you might have to stop. Most state and county roads are single lane carriageways in each direction.

Compared to the UK, speed limits are generally lower in the US. The norm for Interstates is 70 mph (I’ve seen 75) with a minimum of 40 mph. The maximum speed on US highways is 60 mph (occasionally 65), but most often 55 mph widely applied across the country. In towns the limit is often as low as 25 mph, and special lower restrictions (15 mph) often apply near schools when in session.

Speed limits and driving restrictions around school and school buses are rigorously enforced. When a school bus stops, lights flashing and the Stop sign extended from the rear offside of the bus, you’d better stop or else, whether you’re behind or approaching the bus. I must admit that I didn’t initially realize that the rule applied to oncoming traffic. I remember when we were traveling on US101 in northern California that I passed a stationary bus. Luckily there was no speed cop waiting to ‘ambush’ me.

Roads are more congested with trucks (lorries) in the UK than in the USA, but trucks are behemoths in the USA in comparison, and consistently travel at much higher speeds, often well over 70 mph on the Interstates.

This was one ‘extra’ size load that we saw in Wisconsin.

The idea of overtaking on both sides is something I still cannot reconcile. But it’s common in the USA on roads with more than two lanes. Just maneuvering between lanes can be a nightmare, having to check fast-approaching vehicles on both sides. Also, drivers tend to join a highway high speed; they ‘take no prisoners’, and just keep coming on despite other traffic approaching and occupying the lane they will join.

I often find US drivers reluctant to overtake on single carriageway roads. Admittedly there are oftentimes fewer opportunities to overtake. As I mentioned, we like to take the byways when making one of our road trips, mostly on single carriageway highways, and I try to keep more or less to the speed limit. So I find it aggravating when a ‘local’ starts to tailgate me, ‘encouraging’ me to go faster. But when the opportunity to overtake presents itself, they just remain tucked in behind. Clearly they want to go faster but are not prepared to exceed the speed limit to overtake.

Turning right on a red light takes some getting used to. I now understand that unless it specifically states not to turn, it’s OK to make that turn. Not something we’re used to in the UK. Red means red! And also, having to be aware that if you turn right on a red light, there may be pedestrians crossing as they will have right of way.

‘Right lane must turn right’ (or left) is a common sign on most roads. In fact, it’s useful to have a sort of slip road for departing traffic even on single carriageway highways. But it can be confusing at a junction, when you suddenly find yourself in the right lane and are forced to turn even though you want to go straight ahead. Fortunately my sat nav helped in this respect, and having become accustomed to this situation, I try to position myself in the left lane at a junction to avoid an unwanted manoeuvre.

Roundabouts are common in the UK. Near my home in Bromsgrove there are five within the space of 2 miles. Not so in the USA. Instead there of full stop, all way junctions, governed by a particular road etiquette: the first vehicle arriving at the junction gets to manoeuvre first, but only after coming to a full stop.

When I look over what I have just written, it seems to me that my driving concerns in the USA are not really very important at all. We’ve now covered somewhere in the region of 15,000 miles I guess in our trips. Plenty of time to get accustomed to driving on the wrong side.

However, thinking about the dos and don’ts of driving made me ponder on some other aspects of visiting the USA. And, as it happens, I came across this article, by Sophie-Claire Hoeller (a trilingual journalist who grew up in Germany) in Business Insider: 51 things Americans are doing wrong.

For ease of reading, I also copied her list of ‘things’ into a file.

So, how do these resonate with me? Several on the list are bugbears of mine: (4) Portion sizes; (6) Tipping; (7) Taxes; (12) So. Many. Questions; (16) Checking ID; and (49) Serving a salad first.

I never cease to be amazed by the amount of food that is served in restaurants. Portions are huge compared to the UK. No wonder there’s an obesity problem. I’d rather portions were smaller and bills lower.

Ten per cent is the norm in the UK when tipping – if you think the service warranted a tip. Not so in the USA, where tops as high as 25% are the norm AND expected. I agree with journalist Sophie-Claire. Why should I pay someone else’s wages? In one restaurant recently, where I’d left a 15% tip on the table for our server, I was faced with adding a tip of 25% (no lesser amount) – or none – when using my debit card at the checkout.

Why don’t retailers in the US just include the sales tax in the price listed? How many times have I been caught out at the till, having to add on the tax. Thank goodness for plastic money, and although I used my debit card more this last trip for everyday expenses than I had in previous years, I still ended up with a purse-full of small change. The grandchildren’s piggy banks benefited!

While we were traveling from Massachusetts to Minnesota, we would buy sandwiches, often from Subway, so we could stop anywhere on the route to have our lunch. Then the questions start: wheat or wholemeal, Italian, this meat or that, cheese, mayo, pickles . . . etc., etc. Phew!

I’m almost 70, yet, when buying a couple of cases of beer at Target in St Paul recently, I was asked for my ID! Fortunately the lady at the checkout was from Scandinavia (and had lived in the UK for several years) so recognized my UK photo driving licence. She told me that normally it would have to be a US or Canadian driving licence or passport. Good grief, 70 years old and having to present a passport just to buy a beer! And then there was $2.36 sales tax to add to the offer of $25 for two cases that had attracted my attention.

Salads should be served on the side. Period. I got a strange look from one server when I asked her to bring my salad with the entree. That’s how I like to eat my salad, not as a meal in itself before any other course.

Yes, the UK and USA, two countries separated by a common language (and with Trump in charge, many other things unfortunately), according to George Bernard Shaw. But we enjoy our visits there. It’s a vast – and sometimes quirky – country. Lots more to explore!

 

Planning a USA road trip

Steph and I like to explore.

Since 2011, we have made five major road trips across the USA, and two of shorter duration.

That first year, we headed for Arizona and New Mexico, taking in the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and other interesting sites in those dry climates.

We decided to stay closer to home (home being where our daughter Hannah and her family live in St Paul MN) in 2012, just visiting the Boundary Waters Wilderness Region and the Gun Flint Trail of northern Minnesota .

2013 saw us on the Pacific coast of Oregon, and a trip as far south as Sacramento in California, taking in Oregon’s Crater Lake and the Californian redwoods on the way.

We headed west from St Paul across the prairies in 2014, the first of our really long trips, taking in the Badlands and Mt Rushmore in South Dakota, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, and Yellowstone National Park.

We toured Scotland in May-June 2015 so decided not to make any road trip in the USA, instead choosing to take Amtrak to Chicago for three days.

I broke my leg in January 2016, so any long road trip was out of the question. However, we made a short trip north of the Twin Cities to find the source of the Mississippi River.

The Appalachians called us in 2017, so we flew into Atlanta and drove back to Minnesota through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia,Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa.

We were equally ambitious this year, taking in New England (Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) before heading west to Niagara Falls in New York, and then south and west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, before heading north into Michigan, crossing Lake Michigan on the car ferry, and driving across Wisconsin to end up, once again, in the Twin Cities.

Until this year, I had planned our trips using various maps. For the Arizona/New Mexico and Oregon/California trips in 2011 and 2013, and for trips around Minnesota, I purchased a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for each state. These are very detailed and comprehensive, and show even the most minor of roads. Since we like to take highways and byways (US roads, state highways, and even county roads) as much as possible and avoid the busy Interstates, these DeLorme publications allowed me to draw up quite detailed itineraries.

But they are heavy! And once we planned to drive from Georgia to Minnesota in 2017, carrying around a DeLorme Atlas for each state was not an option.

Instead, I purchased Rand McNally road maps for each state, and plotted a route using Google maps, then transferring it to the map itself, as shown in the image below. I also verified the route using Google Street View, especially to check out the various road junctions.

Steph was the navigator – which had the unfortunate consequence that she had to have her head in a map day in and day out. To assist with navigation I also drew up detailed route instructions on separate cards for each day. One of these is shown in the upper image above. These provided information on the road numbers (roads in the US can carry more than one number as roads combine for short or long distances), junctions, and any other special feature or attraction that we had decided to visit.

However, at Christmas 2017, I received a Garmin DriveSmart™ 51 LMT‑S GPS Navigator with a 5″ display, which came with UK and Ireland maps installed (that are regularly updated).

One of the features I really like is the accompanying BaseCamp software installed on my laptop that allows me to plan routes, with any degree of detail, and transfer them to the sat nav. Once I’d got the hang of its idiosyncrasies, I began plotting routes from home in the UK, finding the best options, and at the same time learning the various features of the sat nav itself.

In BaseCamp I found the easiest way to plot a route was to choose the starting and destination waypoints, and let the software ‘find’ the optimum route. In this example below, I plotted a route from Niagara Falls NY to Canton OH, which was the third day of our recent trip after leaving Maine.

As you can see if you open a larger image, the route calculated would have taken us on the interstate close to the shore of Lake Erie. But I wanted to cut across country and travel through the Allegheny Forest of Pennsylvania.

BaseCamp allows you to shape any route by adding ‘via points’, as many as needed to develop an unambiguous route when it is recalculated by the sat nav itself once transferred.

Then, once all the via points have been added, your final route, below, is transferred to the sat nav.

My Garmin proved invaluable during this trip, especially when we did travel on the Interstates, and these merged with one another, giving me advice when lane changes were necessary, changes to speed limits, and always anticipating any junctions half a mile ahead.

We only had a couple of glitches. Once, after we’d arrived at our hotel, I discovered the reason why the sat nav had asked me to make a U-turn on one street earlier in the day. I’d programmed in the same via point twice. Another time, in deepest Ohio, one of the roads I’d chosen was closed some miles ahead, so we had to follow a set detour. The sat nav didn’t like that, urging me to make a U-turn, or turn at the next junction. Having completed the detour, our original route appeared on the screen, and on we continued. On another occasion, crossing Kentucky along the Ohio River, we had to make another detour, and suddenly the icon for the vehicle was moving across a blank screen – until we reached another road that it recognized. I think we had been diverted on to a new road that wasn’t programmed into the USA maps I’d bought before the trip.

With the installed UK and Ireland maps, I receive updates all the time. The USA (and Canada and Mexico) maps are a one-time purchase, not particularly cheap, but well worth it. It’s just a pity that Garmin does not offer regular updates for these purchased add-on maps as well.

The sat nav is great, but we also found it useful to have a map to refer to see the bigger picture. We were able to find road maps for some states in hotel receptions or at state information centers.

And one of the biggest advantages of using a sat nav? Steph no longer has to navigate hour after hour, and can enjoy looking at the changing landscapes. I wouldn’t say I was particularly stressed on any of my earlier road trips. But with the sat nav I did find that my anticipation level was much lower, and I could also enjoy seeing the countryside we were passing through, knowing that I would be navigated safely to our destinations, especially through built-up areas.

Massachusetts to Minnesota (4): heading west through NY, PA, OH, KY and IN, then on to MN

Leaving Niagara Falls via the Niagara Scenic Parkway on the Sunday morning, we headed south, skirting Buffalo and the eastern shore of Lake Erie towards Pennsylvania, and the Allegheny National Forest. Our destination was Canton in Ohio, just south of Akron, a journey of 313 miles.

Along the Niagara Scenic Byway, there are two impressive bridges across the Niagara River on I-190.

There was little traffic around Buffalo, fortunately, even though it was a fine morning for Father’s Day. Soon enough we were outside the city limits and heading south into Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania was a ‘new’ state for us (as were OH and IN), and I particularly wanted to travel through the Allegheny National Forest.

We travel on the interstates as little as possible, taking US highways and county roads in preference. You get to see a lot more of rural America that way. But roads are none too wide with few places to stop. And certainly no easy stops for photography. So on these two days we have little to show, photographic-wise, for our long days on the road.

The next morning we had an early start as we decided to cover the whole route that I’d planned, some 447 miles south through Ohio, crossing the Ohio River into Kentucky, before crossing the river again further west into Indiana to reach our next destination, Bloomington.

The drive through OH took us through some delightful towns and villages, and productive agricultural landscapes. Although we saw road signs to be aware of Amish buggies on the road, we only saw a couple.

Somerset is a small town about 110 miles south of Canton. In the middle of its impressive town square (which had a very English feel to it) there was a statue to a famous son of Somerset, Union General Phil Sheridan.

We also passed by Dover OH, home to infamous Confederate guerilla leader William Clarke Quantrill (I just bought a biography to read), and also Bainbridge, home to the first dental school in the USA, opened in 1825.

Eventually we reached the Ohio River at Aberdeen OH. The Ohio is a very impressive river and as I commented in a post after last year’s road trip, its flow is greater than the Mississippi. No wonder that rivers like the Ohio were used to open up the interior of the country.

This is the bridge that carries US68 into Kentucky. We crossed a little further west on the William H Harsha Bridge, carrying US62.

Aberdeen is also the terminus of Zane’s Trace, the first continuous road through Ohio, from 1798.

Crossing into northern Kentucky, we were less than 50 miles north of where we had driven through the state in 2017. Then it was over the Ohio again, and into southeast Indiana. Our good friend and former IRRI colleague Bill Hardy (a native born Hoosier) told us that we should see the southern part of the state, since the northern half was flat and rather uninteresting, maize upon mile of maize. He was right. The drive into Bloomington was delightful in the early evening sunshine, with Highway 46 weaving through the trees, up and down dale.

After a restful night in Bloomington (yet another Comfort Inn!) we set off the next day for the penultimate sector of our trip that would take us to Ludington on Lake Michigan in the state of that name. This was another long drive, over 400 miles, north to Gary IN, and then wending our way north along the eastern shore of the lake.

Just over the state line into Michigan we stopped to have a quick picnic lunch at a rest area (and Michigan information center) on I-94. We were very impressed with the amount of tourist literature and maps available at the information center; Michigan certainly knows how to sell itself.

Just north of the state line we took a short detour to Warren Dunes State Park. Lake Michigan is like a vast internal sea, and along its shores, certainly the eastern shore, there are huge sand dunes, now covered with mature woodland. The sand is extremely soft, and hard to walk across. Just like being at the seaside, and although the day was overcast, enough brave souls were enjoying beach to the maximum.

This is Tower Hill Dune that rises to more than 230 feet above Lake Michigan.

Then it was back on the road again, heading for our last night stop of the trip, at Ludington, before taking the ferry across Lake Michigan the next morning to Manitowoc on the Wisconsin shore.

The ferry, SS Badger, across Lake Michigan is operated by LMC – Lake Michigan Carferry. Badger is the last coal-fired ferry operating in the world.

It is 393 feet long, and has a beam of almost 60 feet. It was built in 1953 in Sturgeon Bay, WI. Its sister ship, Spartan, has been laid up in Ludington for many years. Originally the ferries carried rail cars.

The 60 mile crossing of the lake takes four hours, but you gain 1 hour moving from Eastern Standard Time to Central Time. As it was a Wednesday in mid-June, before the height of the tourist season, the boat was far from busy. The slow, easy-paced crossing was just my opportunity to catch up on some sleep, in readiness for the final push into the Twin Cities from Manitowoc across Wisconsin, some 321 miles.

We were at the dockside a little after 07:30, and they started to board the vehicles shortly afterwards for an on-time departure from Ludington at 09:00. Vehicles are driven on board by company staff. So before we sailed we had a good look around the vessel.

Soon enough we were headed out of Ludington harbor.

And before we knew it, Manitowoc was coming into view, and everyone was getting ready to disembark.

I had planned a route across Wisconsin that took us from Manitowoc through Stevens Point on US10. We took I-43 north for a couple of miles or so, then came off to take US10, only to see a sign stating that the road was closed some miles ahead. With that, I changed the settings on my satnav to take the quickest route to St Paul, rejoining I-43 around Green Bay, and west on Highway 29, until we joined I-94 west of Chippewa Falls for the final 75 miles into the Twin Cities. Highway 29 was a nightmare. Although a dual carriageway (a divided highway) it just went on and on, unrelentingly, in a straight line across Wisconsin. However, we did arrive to Hannah and Michael’s almost an hour earlier than anticipated.

Thus ended our 2018 road trip across twelve states: MA, VT, NH, ME, NY, PA, OH, KY, IN, MI, WI, and MN.

In nine days we covered 2741 miles, plus another 477 miles in Maine itself during the six days we stayed at the cabin. We used 133 gallons of gasoline, at a cost of $384 ($2.89/gallon, less than half of what we would have to pay in the UK for the same amount of fuel), at an average consumption of 24.19 mpg.

I’m already planning for 2019; Georgia to Texas through the southern states seems a distinct possibility.

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See the other posts in this series:

Massachusetts to Minnesota (1): the first three days in MA, VT and NH

Massachusetts to Minnesota (2): a week in Maine

Massachusetts to Minnesota (3): onwards to Niagara Falls

Massachusetts to Minnesota (3): onwards to Niagara Falls

Leaving Waterford, ME for Niagara Falls early on the morning of 15 June, we allowed two days for this sector of our trip, 366 miles on the first day, and 289 on the second.

We headed west to the Kancamagus Highway through the southern part of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and a slow climb to reach the the pass at 2855 feet. The cloud level was quite low, and at some scenic overlooks there was sometimes very little to see. But luck was on our side, and we did have some spectacular views in all directions, particularly at Pemigewasset Overlook northwards.

There were many road signs warning of the presence of moose along the highway throughout much of the trip in New England. But we saw neither hide nor hair, not even an antler. Roadkill raccoons were two a penny. This road sign (courtesy of Trip Advisor) warns drivers at the start of the Kancamagus Highway.

Once across the mountains, we turned south for about 30 miles on I-93, to join US4 to cross Vermont, a section we had more or less traveled the week before.

About 10 miles south on I-93 we saw a sign for road works ahead, and we could see the traffic slowing. But then I could also see vehicles moving beyond the ‘obstruction’, one at a time. Funny situation, I thought to myself. Anyway, to cut a long story short, agents (maybe 20 or more, plus dogs) of the US Customs & Border Protection were checking all vehicles for occupants. And, having British passports, we were asked to pull over while I retrieved our passports from a suitcase in the back. Once checked, we were waved on our way. By coincidence, I had read earlier that day a story about these ‘border checks’ miles and miles from any international border (with Canada in our case, or in the south with Mexico).

Once in Vermont we passed through a pretty town named Woodstock. No, not that one – that’s in NY. There was an interesting covered bridge, constructed in 1969 to replace an iron one that had been put across the river in 1877. Apparently this wooden construction was cheaper than other options.

Our destination for this night was Herkimer, NY, about 10 miles east of Utica. Crossing from Vermont into New York, we headed north into the Adirondacks Regions and west around Indian Lake, following for the first part, the valley of the Hudson River.

The following day, we headed west from Herkimer towards Ithaca (home of Cornell University). We passed through many delightful villages, among them Sauquoit where Steph spotted a memorial plaque. I regret not stopping, since it commemorated Asa Gray, born 18 November 1810 (same birthday as me), who is considered the preeminent American botanist of the 19th century.

We enjoyed the rolling landscape, dotted with small farms, the chapels in the villages.

St Paul’s Church, Paris Hill, established in 1797. This is the oldest parish in Western New York, from 1838.

At Ithaca, we stopped to have a picnic lunch beside Lake Cayuga, one of the Finger Lakes that characterize this part of upstate New York.

This is also wine country, and the views across Lake Seneca heading north towards Geneva were stunning. Wineries everywhere!

As we had a prior engagement in Niagara Falls NY that evening, I changed our route, joining I-90 west just north of Geneva rather than cutting across country (a much longer route) as I originally intended.

We arrived in Niagara Falls just before 5 pm, and after checking into our hotel close to the city center and the Falls, we decided to stretch our legs by taking the short walk to the American Falls. The light was just right, and although it was quite busy, I’m sure later in the season this site could be heaving with tourists.

So what was this prior engagement? We had arranged to meet my cousin Patsy and her husband David, who had driven down from Ottawa the day before and were staying on the Canadian side. They had never been to Niagara Falls before either. I had met Patsy just once, in the summer of 1972 a few months before I headed off to Peru. Patsy (just 12 then) and her elder sister Karen had come over to the UK with their mother Bridie, one of my Mum’s younger sisters, to meet the Healy side of the family.

We had arranged to meet for dinner at a small Italian restaurant, La Cuccina Di Mamma on Rainbow Boulevard. What a lovely time we had: great company, good food, and heaps of reminiscing! Steph and David were most indulgent towards Patsy and me.

The next day we were up early to take advantage of the good weather, and to view the Horseshoe Falls from Terrapin Point on Goat Island, and the American Falls in the other direction from Luna Island.

The best views of the Falls (mist permitting) are from the Canadian side, but we decided not to cross over. Instead, Patsy sent me these two photos of the American and Horseshoe Falls from their side of the border.

And this short (<3 minute video) illustrates the awesome power of the falls, with a flow of 675,000 gallons/second over the Horseshoe Falls, and 75,000 gallons/second over the American Falls (both relating to summer daytime flow).

Around 10 am, we’d explored all that we wanted, and so set off on the next stage of our journey, 760 miles over two days southwest through New York into Pennsylvania, Ohio, a brief stretch through Kentucky along the Ohio River, and on to Bloomington, Indiana.

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See the other posts in this series:

Massachusetts to Minnesota (1): the first three days in MA, VT and NH

Massachusetts to Minnesota (2): a week in Maine

Massachusetts to Minnesota (4): heading west through NY, PA, OH, KY and IN, then on to MN

Massachusetts to Minnesota (2): a week in Maine

It has been great to meet up with our elder daughter, Hannah, and her family (Michael, Callum, and Zoë) for a week in a cabin at Waterford in Maine, taking a short break in our road trip. They flew in from St Paul (Minnesota) three days after we landed in the USA, and on the day that we drove over from Burlington in Vermont, crossing the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

And what fun we have all had together. It’s wonderful to see them again. It has been a year since we were last over on this side of the Atlantic.

On Saturday we decided not to stray far from the cabin, just the short distance to Hawk Mountain to take in the breathtaking panoramas south and west of Waterford.

Sunday was Michael’s 40th birthday so we celebrated by a visit to Attitash Mountain Resort, about 50 miles west of the cabin along US302. This map shows all the excursions we made during the six days we spent in Maine.

I’d been expecting huge crowds, and long queues for the rides. But no! Although school was out in some areas, the resort was quiet, and we could take as many rides up and down the mountain as we liked, and no waiting.

There were two rides that we enjoyed: the Alpine Coaster, and the Alpine slide. Never having experienced either, Steph decided to ride with Hannah on her Coaster ride; I took Zoë. Callum rode with Michael.

I’d seen videos on YouTube of alpine coasters around the USA. The one at Attitash is advertised as the longest. This is what it looks like.

Michael managed to capture me on his cellphone during one of my descents.

The Coaster was quite a bone shaker. More fun for us ‘oldies’ was the mile long and awesome descent on the Alpine Slide. It’s a bit like the Olympic luge. And we could all take our own carts, even Callum and Zoë.

Here’s what it looks like from a rider’s perspective, from a video I found on YouTube.

To begin the ride, it was necessary to take the chairlift up the mountain, about a 10 minute ride, with incredible views over the surrounding mountains.

And when it all got too much, it was nice just to sit back, relax in the sun, and watch the others having the time of their lives.

Being Michael’s special day, we stopped off for dinner at a recommended restaurant, where he enjoyed lobster, and the rest of us something not quite so exotic. The end to a great day.

After all the excitement of the previous day, we decided to take it easy on the Monday. So Hannah and Michael took the children around McWain Pond in a canoe.

Meanwhile, this was a great opportunity for me to enjoy yet another cold beer in the sunshine, and Steph to knock off another couple of chapters of the book she’d brought with her.

On the Tuesday we set off for Mt Washington, at 6228 feet the highest mountain in the northeast of the USA, and where the highest wind speed was recorded in the 1930s.

We passed by Mt Washington near Bretton Woods on the west side of the mountain while traveling across New Hampshire the week before.

It’s a seven mile drive up to the summit, and we enjoyed a 360° panorama at the top. We were lucky. For more than 60% of days, the summit is completely fogged in. While it was windy (40-60 mph), it was just about manageable.

There’s also a cog railway that climbs to the top, bringing even more tourists who don’t relish the drive. While we were at the summit several trains arrived, and I was fortunate to capture this shot of three at the summit.

After the slow descent, and heating of the brakes, we found a nice spot to enjoy a picnic, let the car cool down, and a rest for ourselves.

On the way back to Waterford, we finally came across one of New England’s famous covered bridges – at Jackson, NH! They really are fascinating, and from what I could tell from various plaques and information online, they are really cherished.

Wednesday and Thursday were our big excursion to the coast, to Camden on Penobscot Bay for an all-day sail around the bay on Sailing Vessel Owl with Capt Aaron (Lincoln) at the helm, a direct descendant of folks who came to the USA in the 1680s.

Michael used to sail these waters with his mother and stepfather when he was a boy, and was keen for Callum and Zoë to enjoy the same experience. We left the cabin by 06:30, and were ready for boarding the Owl around 09:30.

We set off east into the bay, arriving at the passage between North Haven and Vinalhaven (map) by lunchtime, in time for a short shore excursion on a small island. Until our return it had been warm and sunny, and mostly smooth. But as we set sail for the return to Camden, the wind got up, the waves increased and the temperature fell.

After a long day at sea, about 9 hours, we arrived back in the harbor, and enjoyed a welcome meal of freshly caught haddock. Since the drive from the cabin had taken about 2½ hours, we had already decided to spend the night in Camden, returning mid-morning the next day.

But before we left, we took a stroll around this pretty town and its harbor. In a small park overlooking the harbor there is a statue memorial to soldiers who fell in the American Civil War of the 1860s, referred to interestingly as The Great Rebellion.

There’s considerable wealth in Camden, given the large houses and boats moored in the harbor, owned by some of America’s most illustrious families.

Before heading back to the cabin at Waterford, Steph and I decided to take a look around Rockport, just a couple of miles south of Camden. On the point of a peninsula east of the town, the simple and beautiful Vesper Hill Chapel was built in 1962, and is dedicated to all young people who found God in their lives.

Then it was time to head west so that we would have enough time to pack, and prepare for the long trip even further westwards the next day.

Such was our week in Maine, enjoying time with Hannah and Michael, and the grandchildren. Callum and Zoë took everything in their stride, full of beans, and always ready for the next adventure. They keep us young!

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See the other posts in this series:

Massachusetts to Minnesota (1): the first three days in MA, VT and NH

Massachusetts to Minnesota (3): onwards to Niagara Falls

Massachusetts to Minnesota (4): heading west through NY, PA, OH, KY and IN, then on to MN

Massachusetts to Minnesota (1): the first three days in MA, VT and NH

It’s that time of the year, and here we are, on the road again in the USA. Another potentially daunting road trip that will take us from Boston, Massachusetts (MA) to St Paul, Minnesota (MN) via Vermont (VT), New Hampshire (NH), Maine (ME), New York (NY), Pennsylvania (PA), Ohio (OH), Kentucky (KY), Indiana (IN), Michigan (MI), and Wisconsin (WI), including a ferry crossing of Lake Michigan from MI to WI. This year I’m using my new Garmin DriveSmart 51 sat-nav, for which I purchased the USA-Canada maps. It saves Steph having to navigate, state by state, map by map, as in previous years, so she can enjoy looking at the passing scenery.

We are also spending a week near Waterford in western Maine, with our daughter Hannah and family (Michael, Callum, and Zoë) at a cabin on the shore of McWain Pond, one of the many small lakes that dot the landscape.

Anyway, it all started last Wednesday morning, very early, when a taxi picked us up from home at 04:00 to take us to Birmingham Airport (BHX) for our 06:00 KLM flight to Amsterdam Schipol (AMS), connecting with Delta 259 at 11:15 to Boston Logan International Airport (BOS).

Apart from a rather rude Delta ground agent at Schipol, our connection was uneventful, as was boarding (Sky Priority), and I was soon enjoying my first G&T on the 6 hour 55 minute flight, on a comfortable Airbus A330-300. When we landed in BOS there was a delay of more than 20 minutes while the ground crew figured out how to connect the air-bridge to the aircraft. But soon enough, we were checked through immigration on one of the newfangled automated passport control (APC) machines. I still had to pass through regular immigration (and facing another rude official who even queried me about any visits I’d made to the Middle East). Before long, luggage in hand, we were at the car rental center and picking up our SUV from Budget. The Mitsubishi we had been assigned had a flat battery, so Budget upgraded us to a full-size SUV, a Dodge Journey V6—rather larger than we needed, but extremely comfortable nevertheless, if a little heavy on fuel (about 25 mpg). But at USD3 a gallon, that’s not really an issue. It would be in the UK, however, where gasoline is more than twice the price!

We successfully navigated our way out of the airport and through the tunnels under Boston city center on I-90, after finally getting the sat-nav to behave itself. Our Wednesday night stop was in Hadley, in central MA, just over 100 miles west of Boston, and southwest by a handful of miles of Amherst.

Over the next two days we took in northwest MA, the Green Mountains of VT as far north as Burlington, and then over the White Mountains of NH, to arrive at our cabin destination in Waterford, ME.

Heading northwest from Hadley on Thursday, it was slow-going for the first 20 miles or so as we encountered school traffic and people heading to work. But soon we were in open country, on scenic byway 112 and often had the road to ourselves for long stretches (as we have enjoyed in past road trips). After about an hour we joined MA2, the Mohawk Trail, and followed that until North Adams where we turned north and crossed over into VT.

There was a glorious view south from Whitcomb Summit, and some miles further on, just short of North Adams, there is a spectacular view north into southern Vermont, reminding us of the views we saw when exploring the Appalachians in 2017.

Vermont is a beautiful state, with forested hills and mountains as far as the eye can see.

North of Wilmington, VT we stopped at a general store and deli to buy sandwiches and were intrigued with the Mini Cooper parked outside with an interesting registration plate BONKS. There was also a Golden Retriever with a Union Jack collar. We discovered that the proprietor was British, from Guildford in Surrey (near London)!

We spent Thursday night on the east side of Burlington, conveniently located for the next day’s travel northeast into New Hampshire and Maine, beginning around 08:00.

Most of the small communities we passed through have a general store or two, offering a whole range of produce, and many selling fresh sandwiches from a deli counter. We enjoyed a coffee in the sun at Westfield in the far north of the state, just south of the border with Canada.

Crossing into New Hampshire, we headed towards the White Mountains and were not disappointed with the fantastic view of the Presidential Range and the Mt Washington Hotel Resort at Bretton Woods. That’s Mt Washington just left of center, at 6288 ft the highest mountain in the northeast USA.

But Bretton Woods also has special significance for me. Why? Well, I worked for 27 years at two international agricultural centers, CIP and IRRI,  sponsored by the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). The CGIAR was founded in 1971 under the auspices of the World Bank. In July 1944, an international conference was held at the hotel to plan for a post-war world, following which the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were created.

Stopping at Conway to pick up a supply of groceries, we finally reached the cabin around 17:00. A long enough day, followed by a couple of cold beers, an early night, but still far short of some of the travel we have yet to make.

Watch this space!

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See the other posts in this series:

Massachusetts to Minnesota (2): a week in Maine

Massachusetts to Minnesota (3): onwards to Niagara Falls

Massachusetts to Minnesota (4): heading west through NY, PA, OH, KY and IN, then on to MN

Civil War destruction . . . genebank redemption

A couple of months back, I enjoyed an excellent 672 page biography of Confederate Major General Thomas J ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Written by SC Gwynne in 2014,  Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson is an account of Jackson’s theatre of operations in Virginia (and in those areas that became West Virginia after it broke from Virginia in 1863), which centered on the Shenandoah Valley, a region just north of where Steph and I travelled across the Appalachians in June this year.

Jackson’s death (from pneumonia after he was wounded in the arm by friendly fire) following the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia from 30 April to 6 May 1863 is perhaps among the most significant ‘What if’s’ of the American Civil War. Stonewall was undoubtedly one of the Confederacy’s most successful generals, and history is left to ponder what the outcome of the Civil War might have been had he lived longer, and his success rate against Union forces maintained.

Steph and I saw evidence of the conflict, the to-ing and fro-ing of opposing forces, when we visited the Pinnacle at Cumberland Gap on the borders between Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Successive Union and Confederate forces fought over and continually swapped possession of this key passage through the mountains.