As you probably know, but may have forgotten, Kay and I are no strangers to long road trips. Our last in the U.S. was in 2012 in a motorhome that we nicknamed The Beast. That experience taught us a lesson; we won’t do it that way again. This time we are traveling in a brand new Grand Caravan by Dodge, so loaded with features that we don’t even have to open the two side doors or the hatchback manually. Just give them a nudge and they open automatically. For us old-timers, technology has changed our world in unrecognizable ways, hasn’t it?
Our itinerary, from east to west coasts and back again, is shaped in large part by the need we feel to see family and friends, especially those who are deeply aged or who are seriously ill or recovering from illness. As we ourselves age, life becomes more precious. We are so briefly here.
In this account I will not be writing about the people we are visiting, even though they are contributing so much to the enjoyment of our travels. Instead, I’ll mention some thoughts and observations we are having about our country as we sightsee our way across the land. Our apologies to those of you whom we would dearly like to see and talk to but are having to forsake for lack of time. As it is, we will be traveling for nearly three months before returning to Istanbul.
Living abroad for long stretches of time are apt to give us a jaundiced view of America. After all, we follow the news closely in the media, and in the three years since we were last here, much has happened politically and socially to darken our view of the U.S.
One of the most salutary aspects of this trip is realizing that despite our misgivings, America is much more alive and well in its local politics than it is nationally. Many states, counties, cities, and towns are more often than not improving life for their citizens. The strength of America is local, where people are protesting injustice, holding their politicians accountable, and giving of themselves to make things better. We are meeting people, some of them our friends, who feel the need to volunteer and give something back in return for the blessings they have enjoyed. This is as heartwarming as it is reassuring.
Another pleasure of this trip is the chance to appreciate once again America’s diverse natural beauty. From the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Chesapeake Bay, to the low country of South Carolina; from the hills of North Carolina to the Kansas Plaines; then on through the awesome peaks and chasms of the Rocky Mountains to the deserts of Nevada, and California’s Central Valley we’ve racked up more than 4,000 miles and loved them all.
“Pastures of Plenty” and “This Land Is Your Land”: no American should ever take this beautiful, abundant country for granted. It’s superbly convenient, too. It’s streets and roads are safe and wide, and there’s nearly always a place to park.
By world standards, America is still a young country; nevertheless, it has a dramatic history, and reliving it is one more reason to have undertaken this journey.
On Maryland’s Eastern shore there is a spot marked Unionville. The town, founded after the Civil War by former slaves, is not much these days, but historical plaques tell its story and the names in the cemetery are those of its founders.
South of Broad Street in Charleston, South Carolina, the peninsula is a veritable museum of unique 18th– and 19th-century residential architecture. The houses, many known as Charleston “singles,” have a feature we’ve never encountered elsewhere: long balconies or porches, often two-storey, that run along the sides of the houses and that are inexplicably called piazzas.
One street there is named Catfish Row and contains the former home of DuBose Heyward, who wrote the libretto for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the opera that is set in Charleston.
The city is at the heart of what’s known as the Low Country, and sadly, these venerable buildings are threatened more and more by flooding.
America’s smaller cities have wonderful art museums that deserve to be better known. We have fun visiting these each time we travel n the U.S.
For instance, Charleston is home to the Gibbes, a museum whose permanent collection features significant paintings by artists associated with Charleston’s history.
Some of these are Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862-1938), Robert Henri (1865-1929), and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876-1958). We couldn’t help noticing the Japanese influence in their work.
Some of the Gibbes’ collection bridges the categories of art and craft. The Gullah tradition of basket weaving is one of the oldest surviving African art forms in the United States. The baskets that Mary Jackson weaves from sweetgrass are extraordinary.
We had satisfaction of the same kind at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art. Skylights softly illuminate this beautiful museum building’s galleries, giving the work a natural appearance.
Kay, who is especially fond of art glass, fell in love with a sculpture named “Arcus III,”a creation of the husband-and and-wife Czech artists Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Bryohtova.
Louisville, Kentucky is a medium size city on the Ohio River. It has a working-class vibe and a predilection for Bourbon Whisky. We had never been there before so it was fun to explore.
The first thing that caught our eye on Main Street not far where we parked was the Louisville Slugger factory, museum, and museum shop. For our European and Turkish friends who might not be acquainted with American baseball traditions, the Louisville Slugger is an iconic baseball bat, one swung by Babe Ruth and many other stars of the game. We couldn’t miss the complex since it has a sculpture of the bat 120 feet high leaning against the façade.
A highlight of our two days in Louisville was our visit to the Muhammad Ali Center, a large, post-modern building that is a memorial to the Louisville kid named Cassius Clay, who became the world-renowned prizefighter Muhammad Ali.
It’s a museum that tells Ali’s life story using a variety of media. An introductory film, narrated by, I believe, James Earl Jones, is organized around lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If.
There was a large section devoted to the fighter’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. army, a decision that caused him to lose his crown and boxing license. It took three-and-half years for the Supreme Court to finally rule in his favor. In all, he won the world-championship heavyweight crown three times.
As an adult, Muhammad Ali was outspoken about the racism faced by black Americans. His abandonment of Christianity for Islam was, among other things, a protest against what blacks have endured.
Ali’s worldwide fame gave him great prestige that he used to speak up for the respect due to all people. He was an inspiration for millions, us among them. There was a diverse group of blacks and whites touring the museum. It was good to see.
Weather-wise, journeying across the U.S. in April is a mixed business. We had temperatures close to freezing in some parts, a snowstorm as we crossed the Rockies, and extreme heat elsewhere. At Furnace Creek on the floor of Death Valley the temperature hit 107 degrees Fahrenheit (41.6 degrees Celsius).
After reading a brilliant piece by Alex Ross in the New Yorker entitled “Cather People,“ we were inspired to add the tiny town of Red Cloud, Nebraska to our itinerary. Willa Cather (1873-1947) is an American author who set several of her novels and stories on the Prairie where she grew u
We arrived in town towards the end of the afternoon and found the Green Acres Motel on the north side. The motel’s friendly proprietor told us about a large, round barn in the vicinity that piqued our interest.
We found the barn on the outskirts of town and asked permission of a farmer’s wife to look at it. The barn is indeed impressive, and with a diameter of 130 feet it is the largest true round barn in the world. At its center is a large brick silo whose top extends above the barn’s circular roof. Kay’s Internet search informed us that a family from Wisconsin built the barn in 1902 and that it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The town of Red
Cloud itself was a bit of a disappointment. Most of the businesses along its single main street were defunct, the only exceptions being a convenience store selling general merchandise and a Dollar General store. Were it not for the Willa Cather Foundation’s displays and comprehensive bookstore, and its activities that draw scholars and tourists interested in Cather, the town would barely exist.
It wasn’t always this way. Around the turn of the 20th century, trains brought dozens of immigrants daily, lured by the railroad’s promise of free land. Many didn’t stay; the prospect of life on the Prairie where the winter temperatures are freezing and the wind can blow with almost gale force, as it did during our visit, must have been highly discouraging. Our tour of seven Cather-related locations took us to the railroad depot restored to look as it did in its heyday. We’re glad we stopped in Red Cloud, though. It’s one of those places like Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri and Phillip Roth’s Newark, New Jersey that are still alive in their authors’ stories.
We made an overnight stop in downtown Denver just to stay at the Brown Palace, a downtown hotel in continuous operation since it was built in 1892. More than another slice of history, it is an accommodation of beauty and luxury that ranks with America’s best.
As we sat taking high tea in the hotel’s atrium, we looked upwards past the ornamental iron galleries of the floors to the stained glass ceiling above and at the exquisite details all around us.
The Brown Palace’s service and amenities are impeccable.
Beyond what we learn from our friends, our impressions of America today are formed by casual encounters with strangers like the retired firefighter and his wife we met in the Brown Palace’s Churchill Bar. Mike is a former Navy man who served on a nuclear submarine. Discharged, he and a friend headed for California in an old car that broke down near Denver where he has stayed for more than thirty years. With his big, generous personality, Mike seemed to epitomize American optimism.
Driving through the Rocky Mountains toward Grand Junction in Western Colorado, the scenery was majestic¾awesome even. Gone were the Plaines we had spent so many hours driving across earlier. The composition of the rock and soil changed as we drove. During the highest elevations at 10,000 feet, it was hard granite. Later, we drove past red rock that looked like what the Brown Palace is made of. Finally, closer to Grand Junction, the formations were tan-colored and looked softly organic.
From Grand Junction, we drove 520 miles in a single day to reach Las Vegas where we spent two nights and a day. You may wonder why? Well, Kay had never been there, and my last visit was a work assignment forty-five years ago.
The part of the city known as The Strip resembled nothing that I remembered. The great hotel-casinos are gigantic.
Paris, where we stayed on the 22nd floor has its casino surmounted by a half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower, two of whose feet are anchored in the casino itself. With nearly 3,000 rooms, the hotel is so large that the reception area resembles an airport. We waited half an hour in a line just to check in. As large as it is, from the parking valet to the bellmen, to the ticket sellers and restaurant staff, we received excellent service. Everyone seemed well trained and enthusiastic.
We came to Las Vegas just to see it and take in its lavish and excessive atmosphere. I doubt there is another phenomenon to match it anywhere in the world. To truly see America, we had to experience Las Vegas.
The distance from Las Vegas to Nevada’s Amargosa Valley near the entrance to Death Valley National Park is 107miles, and there isn’t much there.
Nevertheless, we found accommodation at the Longstreet Inn Casino that takes its name from legendary Jack Longstreet, a gunman and generally tough hombre who was a miner and desert explorer in the early 19th century when the valley was a lawless frontier. Beside our sleeping room, Longstreet has a restaurant and a 24-hour casino where I found a table to type at when I awoke in the middle of the night. It was a good place to stay while we explored Death Valley, a part of American desert I had long wished to see.
Zabriskie Point is there, and if you can remember the 1950’s television series Death Valley Days, you will recall that it was sponsored by a cleaning product called 20 Mule Team Borax. Borax was indeed produced in Death Valley for a short time, and teams of 20 mules really did pull the wagons that carried Borax to market.
Other minerals have been mined in the valley, too, and the mines have left their marks on the land. The National Park that encloses the valley is the largest in the contiguous U.S. Driving through it is an hours-long affair. The rewards for doing so are miles of primordial scenery, stunning in shape and color.
Death Valley was the last great scenic adventure of our first month of travel From there, we drove to Friant, California near Fresno to spend time with my best friend from high school and his wife and then to drive a short distance to stay with dear friends near Los Gatos. In my next account of this journey I’ll pick up with further tales of our time in California and beyond.