The first surprise is how late this chapter is. It was supposed to be written in Toronto, then in Reykjavik, then in the airport, then on the train… and now I’m in my house and it’s still not written. I think I was avoiding any kind of introspection but instead enjoying the last few weeks of travelling. So this email may be a little perfunctory but it’s the best I can do.
I wasn’t overly enthusiastic setting off on three weeks across the US… and how the country surprised me. The scale of things: from the distances to drive to the huge rock faces looming in Yosemite. The diverse beauty: the Sierra Nevada mountains, snow covered trails, 113 degrees desert, the rockiness of the Rockies and the smokiness of the Smokies, the sandbars and mysticism of the Outer Banks. The generosity of the people who opened up their houses so my stay was both within budget and enriched by speaking with people who lived there. The surprise of camping by myself for the first time and being capable of pitching in under seven minutes by the end. The horror of far-right talk shows on the car radio and the joy of the excessive amounts of country music stations.
With my tent, maps.me on my phone and a paper road atlas to pour over, Yosemite was my first stop. I camped just outside the national park in national forest land (a trick I repeated often to avoid horrendous national park camping fees). I hiked 18 miles all over the main valley, seeing El Capitan, Half-Dome, Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls all in perfect panoramas spoiled only when a tour bus arrived at some viewpoints. Two of my favourite days of the whole trip was next: a good circuit hike in snow up Lambert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows before driving across the heat of Death Valley the next day. I visited Manzanar Camp where Japanese Americans were interred for the duration of WW II: history I was not aware of and surprised me. Over the border into Nevada, I stopped at a ghost town called Rhyolite. This town existed for only eight years at the height of the gold rush. Now, artists have been allowed to take it over and the sight of white ghost statues among the the deserted building surrounding by everlasting desert was somewhat eerie.
I rushed forward to St George to meet Andy and Olly, two Yorkshiremen I’d met back in Zambia and bumped into in Bangkok. Within minutes, they’d infected me with their accent. We headed to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and spent three nights camping at DeMotte campsite, enjoying healthy meals of canned food heated over the campfire. The days was as hot as the nights were cold. Frost formed on the car overnight. We hiked down and up the canyon in one day for spectacular views, spent one day walking along the top of the rim through dried pine forests in the company of very cute Kaibab squirrals, and then packed up to Las Vegas. We were all stunned into silence as we walked the Strip. Its excesses were a little too horrifying. The boys learned how to play roulette and made wild bets of up to $5 while people around us lost $100 a minute. I learned that drinks were free when you were playing and happily lined up the G&Ts while people-watching to my heart’s content.
Fortified by IHOP pancakes, I saw the boys safely to a hostel before heading to Salt Lake City. It’s a city in an attractive location, surrounded on all sides by mountains. Rachel lives there (Aunty Heather’s daughter) with husband Jon and very cute Olivia. It also happened that Aunty Heather was visiting at the same time to see her newest grandchild so it was a very happy, though brief, stay. I was shocked talking to Rachel about her difficulties managing employees who will not take her orders as she is a woman. I’ve read a bit more about Mormonism since visiting and my view has not got any better. However, in the 18 hours of my visit, we saw the Gay Pride parade and the main temple so there may be changes afoot… just slowly. Lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings (sampling all the best chains America could offer) kept me going for a packed tea as I drove on impressive road engineering through the Rockies to reach Boulder, Colorado late at night.
Colorado could not be more of a contrast to Utah if it tried. I was staying with Kate, who was on the Egypt/Jordan tour in December. Our planned tour of Denver turned into a whole afternoon and night spent at Great Divide, a craft brewery that is Kate’s old employer. The night ended with shots of pickle vodka (I don’t care what you say Kate, that stuff is awful!), burritos and a street fight (Kate would like to point out that this last part is not a common thing). Boulder is so hipster, it’s like a parody of itself. But we enjoyed meandering through funky shops, adding to my collection of second-hand books in the back of the car, eating Earl Grey ice-cream and visiting a cannabis dispensary. The dispensary felt simultaneously naughty and illegal yet professional and proper- a bit like Ann Summers, I guess.
Kate was right to tell me to keep driving through Kansas. It is flatness in extreme. I only stopped for dinner and knew I was hitting the South when my server called me ma’am. The only point of interest was Topeka where one of the schools involved in Brown v Board of Education has been turned into a civil rights museum. This was one of the seminal cases in US legal history, up there with Roe v Wade. Next stop was Todd and Marie-Jose in St Louis. Todd lived with Nathan in London. We ate proper barbeque while I was filled in on living in a liberal city surrounded by Republicanism. Next day was an incredible Lebanese breakfast (and I was sent off with a bag of zaatar as well, very tasty!) before exploring St Louis’ famous arch and the courthouse where Dred Scott was first heard: another well-known civil rights case. Camp that night was in the swampy Mark Twain NF, surrounded by savage flies and a chorus of frogs.
A horrifying expensive hostel was worth it to be in Nashville for the second-last night of the Country Music Awards. I did as the locals and headed up to the bridge across the river where you can see the screens in the main stadium and hear perfectly. The whole place was full of live music, cowboy boots and Stetsons and I loved it all while feeling as out of place as a Japanese tourist. I drove off to the Smokies the next day with country music still blaring. There is a horrible strip driving into the mountains full of theme parks (including Dollywood), a badly built Titanic and a plastic jungle. Thanks America for creating people who can’t simply go to the woods and have a walk. The Smokies are part of the Appalachians, the same mountains Nathan and I hiked in the Shenandoah last year, and so they felt comfortable and familiar. I stopped off at Asheville, the “Boulder of the East”, and wondered at an 80-page tea menu and a man in plaited pigtails.
The Outer Banks NC, strung out like beads on a necklace, were another surprise. I saw them first on the map and knew I had to visit somewhere that looked that interesting. Its called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the hundreds of ships wreaked off its shores. I took a ferry to the southernmost island Ocracoke and tasted my first scallops. The evening light on the beaches made beautiful pink and grays. This is where the Wright brothers first flew and where the first permanent English colony in North America was established before its 120 people vanished without trace. I made my way north via ferries and lighthouses, meeting fascinating people along the way. To finish off, I camped through a terrible lightening storm and visited the US Trademarks and Patent office where they have a Hall of Fame of Inventors which I should have given more time to.
I was glad of that lightening storm because it cleared the air and made DC a lot less humid than I remembered. It was the best thing to see Nathan and bore him with tales of the world and endless photos. We got to spend Saturday barbequing American-style with some of his friends I met last year and their 2 year old daughter Lucy who is essentially the real-life Dora The Explorer. The woods are so much more exciting with a 2 year old.
Too soon it was time to fly to Toronto. I was visiting my university friend Angelina who has blossomed into a beautiful, suave, nuanced corporate lawyer/marketer. Her boyfriend Zhenya very generously gave me the use of his monochromatic downtown condo overlooking glass skyscrapers for the week. Angelina gently re-introduced me to the world of law and modernity. I attended her Call to the Bar ceremony where, to my delight, Mary Robinson was received an honourary degree and I waited like a fan-girl to meet her backstage. Angelina reminded me of the presence of make-up, hairbrushes and clothes other than shorts. We did a lot of good eating: Vietnamese in Chinatown, Mexican popsicles in Kensington, craft beer from Mill St brewery in Distillery District, sushi from a drycleaner’s, the greasy goodness of poutine and beavertails. We had little escapes from the city to the horror that is Niagara Falls, a farmhouse Air Bnb for spa and forest walks, and to Toronto Island for a perfect perspective of the city.
I arrived later into Iceland than expected and did a classic tourist tour around the Golden Circle, seeing a volcano, geysers and a waterfall. My excitement wasn’t exactly at feverpitch and I spent a lot of time wandering in and out of Danish design stores rather aimlessly, filling up time before one last flight. I’ve been safely passed from hand-to-hand the last few stops, from Nathan to Ang to Hannah waiting at Heathrow with a poster and bubbly and Percy Pigs, and then finally to George, waiting to take me back to The Coach House.
One thing that is not a surprise is the feeling of being home. All the way around the world, people would ask me what I was missing. The answer that kept coming to my head was this: the feeling of being here, with sunshine coming through the windows, doors to the balcony open and everything being in its rightful place.