Saturday, August 31, 2013

Beef or chicken?

Since the end of July I have flown across the Atlantic six times in as many weeks, a frequency the particularly cheerless border officer vetting me at Newark Airport on Monday considered "unusual". Indeed so unusual that his frantic clacking away at a computer keyboard induced a lone bead of guilt sweat to run down my spine.

There are, I'm sure, plenty of business people who fly between Europe and North America on an even more regular basis than my six-week burst of suspended animation seven miles high. Like the late Sir David Frost, who used to commute between London and New York by Concorde every week. He was even once listed in the Guinness Book of Records for having logged more miles between London and New York than planes actually flying the route, all in the duty of interviewing presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, princes and princesses.

The purpose of my frequent flying hasn't been anywhere near as grand, though just as noble (friend's wedding), necessary (holiday) and required (business trip). And each flight has provided plenty of time to reflect on the commercial aviation experience.

It is, if you think about it, a bizarre affair. Strapped into a flying toothpaste tube for several hours, force-fed sub-average food and made to watch television while squeezed into a seat next to a complete stranger. "Feel free to move about the cabin" is a complete misnomer, because you never do, bringing the flying experience closer to be locked in a prison cell for 23 hours a day, your meals pushed through a slit on a tray, and only an hour to walk around the yard for exercise.

That is, of course, if you're not one of those lucky bastards who can just strap in, fall asleep and not stir until touchdown at the other end. Flying proves the point that it is better to arrive than to travel. It's a means to an end, and enduring it depends largely on factors completely out of your control.

The routes between Europe and the US are amongst the most competitive in the world, but with airlines locked in a constant struggle to deliver profitability amid rising fuel prices, while having to deal with the passenger expectation that air travel is an affordable luxury for all, it's inevitable that conflicts arise somewhere in the midst of this equation.

Thus, on realising that I'd be making three trans-Atlantic journeys over the course of July and August, I thought it would be interesting to compare services, especially as I was flying with three of the world's largest carriers, Air France, British Airways and United. The outcome was, perhaps, surprising.

By no other virtue other than it actually offered the best value for money, I managed to fly with all three airlines in their so-called "premium economy" cabins, but this is where you notice the most obvious differences: for an extra $100 or so, United give you a seat with a bit more legroom, but that's about it. Air France and BA, however, give you a bigger seat altogether, more legroom and a more capacious cabin area, along with business class-style amenities like priority boarding and 'convenience' kits (those little zipped bags containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, eyeshade and a pen).

While it is tempting to say that based on these material perks, one airline might rate better than another, the consideration of one airline over another is complicated by the twin variables of cabin staff and the plane you've been lumbered with. And here I encountered the unexpected.

Because, let's face it, France isn't known for its customer service. And I mean that, as a current resident, with all due respect. A Parisian café isn't so much a place to relax and have a cup of coffee, as a duelling contest between you and the waiter to see who cracks first - he to serve you, or you to get up and walk out due to his indifference.

My Air France experience over the last two years of using the airline more couldn't be any more different: keen prices, a modern fleet and attentive, friendly, even conversational flight attendants. On my flights to and from Atlanta, their new Premium Economy seats were of the equivalent standard of business class seats a few years ago (i.e. before they started becoming Transformers) and, for an airborne insomniac like me, perfectly suited to several hours' non-stop flying in each direction.

British Airways, however, was a game of two halves, and here comes one of the issues of choosing airline tickets based on service expectation: from London to Chicago, for example, I flew on one of BA's Boeing 777s, but coming back from Los Angeles I was on one of their ageing Boeing 747s.

The contrast was noticeable - different seating (even though both were in their 'World Traveller Plus' premium economy cabins), with less comfort on the return journey and older in-flight entertainment systems. With every airline now recognising that in-seat power for laptops or tablets is a must-have, older fleets like BA's are struggling to keep up.

Their cabin crews are also a breed apart. Although as attentive as their French cousins, they have an annoying tendency to apply the patronising English school marm approach to getting things done.

Laptops and headphones aren't just asked to be switched off for take off and landing, they are asked, in that only-the-English manner to be "popped" away: "could you pop that bag under the seat for me", "could you pop your seat back to the upright position for me", "could you pop your tray table away for me"...

When you've heard more or less the same instruction working its way down the aisle three or four times per row, it starts to popping grate.

I have little against BA, though, and fly with them quite frequently. But I have noticed their standards of customer service become progressively worse over the last few years. This week, I discovered that a flight from London to Paris had been cancelled, but I couldn't rebook via the website, I had to call a service line. When I did I was told that they were experiencing a high volume of calls, and that I should use their website to make any changes to my booking. As I couldn't do this via their website, I stayed on the line to speak to someone...until I was disconnected, which happened repeatedly before I found a way round the problem and got to speak to someone.

This didn't improve an opinion of BA that was already dismal after my arrival in Chicago, where I was informed that my main piece of luggage had failed to turn up. OK, so it happens, and this time it was my turn. More than 20 years of mostly lost bag-free happiness more than outweighs one incident. But it was, though, the way it was handled that did the damage.

At Chicago, on arrival, there was just a single excruciatingly condescending baggage agent to deal with a line of tired and stressed travellers (who had also just endured an endless queue to clear customs and immigration). For our trouble, we were 'compensated' with an 'Emergency Kit', comprising a toothbrush, toothpaste and a one-size fits-all (i.e. won't) British Airways T-shirt. None of which really compensated for the loss of three weeks' worth of underwear and a much needed change of outerwear.

Sent on my way with a badly photocopied standard letter of instruction on how to 'track' my bag, I was told that it would be on the next flight out the next day, and I should check online to see whether it had landed or not. So, the next day was a write off: luckily I was in Chicago, which meant that I could at least easily buy replacement clothes to tide me over. However, I had no idea when I would be repatriated with my luggage, and how much new clothing would be enough.

As instructed, I looked online to see whether the 2pm flight from London had landed, but there was no record of my bag being on it. So I called the local helpline - as instructed - only to be put through to a call centre in the UK who had no idea where my bag was and couldn't help beyond advising me that when the bag did arrive, it would be "up to 24 hours" before it was delivered to me. Which meant I could go at least 48 hours without it, ruining a second day's holiday.

Eventually my bag was delivered to my hotel (several hours after the plane it was on landed at O'Hare, which was only a 35-minute drive from my hotel). I know these things happen from time-to-time, and many other people have similar experiences, so I shouldn't be stamping my feet like a prima donna with a First World problem. But if this is what it's like for a one-off aberration, I shudder to think what some of British Airways' more tsunami-like baggage and snow disasters must have been for their passengers.

BA and Air France are, to be fair, regarded by regular flyers as amongst the world's better airlines, although the Asian and emerging Middle Eastern services have long since taken over the older flag carriers for opulence and luxury but also good quality in their overall offerings. And at least they are all still hands above most of the larger American airlines. Like United.

For the country that has perfected customer service at any cost, with the "have a nice day!" ethos in restaurants, bars and valet parking services rewarded by well deserved tips, American airlines as a whole have a terrible reputation when it comes to the in-flight experience. Most complaints revolve around the flight attendants of US carriers who, by comparison with those of other nationalities, have a tendency to crankiness and even downright hostility towards their fare-paying charges.

Flying out to Newark from Paris on Monday with United, my section of the cabin was entrusted to the charm-free qualities of an attendant who, if this had been a situation comedy, would have been one of those Central Casting-supplied New Yorkers whose throaty tenor sounds like they chain-smoke and start from a position of contempt towards passengers before warming up slightly.

Thus, our lady with the embarrassingly over-Botoxed face and 40-a-day habit went through the motions of asking "beef or chicken?" to the lunch lasagne question, just about managing to canvass two out of every three passengers in the process. This has nothing to do with arguments about sexism and the outdated notion of "trolly dollys". Young, old, male, female - I don't care who or what a flight attendant is, just as long as they remember that we're the ticket-buying customer and haven't turned up on board just to inconvenience their otherwise hectic day in the air.

Such was Botox Babs' lack of attentiveness that no matter what service was being carried out - water, landing cards, snack collection - she managed to miss out at least one person in a row every time. At least BA's school marms are thorough.

United's unsmiling Babs (possibly because the Botox had rendered it impossible to smile) may, though, have been doing us a favour in missing people out on the food delivery. The outbound lasagne was no more than minced beef sandwiched in between layers of pasta with some sort of cheese sauce over the top (though, to give credit, the return journey beef medallion/rice combo wasn't bad), but the whole thing was let down by the 'breakfast' prior to arrival in London, consisting of a stodgy microwave-heated croissant so bad I actually thought it was a plastic fake.

The United Airlines Economy Plus seat offers little more comfort than a standard economy seat, with the exception of paying a premium for more legroom, which makes some difference.

But, again, the aircraft makes the biggest difference of all: to Newark, United's Boeing 767 was comfortably configured with a 2-3-2 seat arrangement, my window seat being only one away from the aisle. All round, a very relaxed journey.

Not so the return leg: crammed into a Boeing 777, with a 3-3-3 configuration, everyone crammed together for six hours with a level of intimacy you would probably only accept after marriage vows have been exchanged. Same airline, same ticket, same price - different experience.

On the upside, United have a good inflight entertainment service, with a vast selection of old and new films and TV shows. Here is where the airlines are starting to achieve a parity of quality.

For many years, the only airline flying across the Atlantic to offer individual TV screens and games was Virgin Atlantic, and it took a criminally long time for the others to catch up. Even relatively recently, some American carriers were still running long-haul flights using planes with single film screens just serving each cabin.

Today, with the relative simplicity of digital technology, plus competition from passengers bringing their own films and music on board via their laptops and iPods, the services offered are generally good, though I have to tip my hat to United for their selection of classic movies, like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, which I hadn't seen in decades, and had forgotten how utterly cool it was.

Since July 17 I have ingested a total of six small packets of savoury snacks (mini pretzels, cheese-flavoured fish, etc, etc, etc), ordered at least a dozen plastic glasses of ice graced by a showering of Diet Coke, and have been asked "beef or chicken?" more times than anyone is entitled to in the course of a month and a half.

I have also watched a remarkable number of 30 Rock and House episodes, seen Robert Downey Jr. mug his way through all three Iron Man films and, thanks to the iPad and inflight USB power, consumed two-and-a-half seasons of Breaking Bad without leaving my seat.

I have queued, in total, for almost four hours to be admitted to the United States on three occasions, and have lost only the one piece of luggage in the process, which I imagine is a good rate of return. And the airline that made the difference? Surprisingly, Air France.

Yes, I know I have, on occasion, called it 'Air Chance' (alarmingly because of the odds of actually arriving at the destination alive), but for an airline seemingly in constant financial crisis, they maintain a very good standard of service in all the classes I've experienced, with good facilities, good aircraft and, most of all, pleasant and efficient staff.

Airline pilots, in that "I've just goosed a stewardess" casual confidence of theirs, do have a habit of making smooth comments towards the end of a flight such as "I know you had a choice of airlines today, so we thank you for choosing us." Actually, what they should be saying is: "if you're going to be imprisoned for seven hours in a flying metal can, you may as well do so with this airline." And in the case of the French, I would actually agree.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On this day: free at last?

A couple of years ago, around this time, I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis - built on to the Lorraine Motel, on whose steps Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

The museum is a moving, fascinating and, at times, shocking experience, telling a never comfortable story. For me, however, what stood out on the museum tour was the opportunity to listen, in full, to the speech given, 50 years ago today, by King at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

With the Treyvon Martin case still fresh and controversially so in the American consciousness, King's "I have a dream" speech is as pertinent today as it was on August 28, 1963. And it's every bit as compelling to read, in full. From beginning to end.

"I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the colored America is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the colored American is still sadly crippled by the manacle of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

One hundred years later, the colored American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the colored American is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our Nation's Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.

We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.

Now it the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Now it the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of its colored citizens. This sweltering summer of the colored people's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the colored Americans needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the colored citizen is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the colored person's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "for white only."

We cannot be satisfied as long as a colored person in Mississippi cannot vote and a colored person in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of your trials and tribulations. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality.

You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our modern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you, my friends, we have the difficulties of today and tomorrow.

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interpostion and nullification; that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be engulfed, every hill shall be exalted and every mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to climb up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father's died, land of the Pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!"

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi and every mountainside.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual,

'Free at last, free at last. 

Thank God Almighty. 

We are free at last.' "

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Notes from the road

I'd love to know who came up with the ludicrous statement that "all good things must come to an end". Why should they? Shouldn't the glass remain half full?

Almost three weeks since I arrived in Chicago, with half my luggage, to experience one particular city for the very first time before hitting the road to experience many more, I'll soon be boarding that big ol' jet liner again in Los Angeles.

Before I do, however, there are some things I must get off my chest, having covered almost three and a half thousand miles of road, driven through eight of the United States of America, and stayed in ten different hotel rooms. Some of these things I'm familiar with, after many visits (including two years living here) over the last 21 years. Others have only just come into perspective as I've made my way across the country on Route 66, things such as:

Lighting up

Why is it not possible for American hotel room lamps to have simple on/off switches? Why hasn't the concept of the rocker switch not made it across the Atlantic?

Why do you have to insert your hand into the unknown of the lampshade while you frantically search for a little black knob you then must 'tune' like you're trying to find Radio Free Europe?

Freedom of speech

In the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, does it mention anywhere under Freedom of Speech that it is a constitutional requirement that every hotel bar must have to have a pre-stewed patron who not only has an opinion on everything but can only express his (and it is always a he) views at a volume level comparable with the town cryer of old?

Casual Dining

Does this mean sitting in a restaurant in only your underwear?

Curl Up & Die

Is it a prerequisite of owning a hair salon in the Midwest that it should have an awful pun for a name? Here's a sample of those I passed on Route 66 in Illinois, Oklahoma and Missouri:
  • Headlines
  • A Shear Encounter
  • The Mane Event 
  • SnipIts
  • Scissor Shack
  • Hair Cuttery
  • Kay's Kut and Kurl (I'm sure 'KKK' was just an unfortunate coincidence…)

Road Kill

A McDonalds breakfast is the last vestige of the desperate.

Robbery, assault and battery

Hotels are about making as much money as possible out of the weary traveller. Thus, you spend a small fortune on 24 hours of WiFi that you're never going to use (and should be included for free like running water and sachets of shampoo, and probably costs less than the two combined to supply).

And if your room has a minibar, one can of Diet Coke will be more expensive than an entire six-pack from the petrol station next door.

Bell boy business

Hotels drum up extra tip income for concierge employees by making it physically impossible to take your own luggage to your room. Hotel corridor carpeting appears designed to slow down any self-pulled wheeled luggage, like speed humps on the road. So, you resolve to have the bell boy pick up your luggage for the checkout, which requires the convention of tipping him $2 per bag. Tidy work.

It's a stretch

Hotel rooms are a master study of ergonomics. In New York, the rooms are so small everything - including the bed, the toilet roll and the TV are all within touching distance of each other. Out West, however, hotel rooms are like small apartments. Which begs the question of why place the towel rail a short, wet, dripping walk from the shower? Or better still, outside the bathroom altogether?

Room at the inn

There is no hospitality concept simpler, more consistently replicated across the US of A than the motel. No matter which one you stay for the night, regardless of who runs it or which franchise it belongs to, everything will be in the same place, the bedding will be the same, the picture above the bed will be the same, and there will be at least one stain, somewhere on the carpet, that you really don't want to know the history of.

Pillow fight

Lastly, while we're on the topic of hotel rooms, why, before you can go to bed, do you have to spend ten minutes removing superfluous bed accessories?

What IS that long stuffed sausage thing, and why do pillows have to be arranged in such a way that they enhance the design prowess of whoever put them like that, but serve little benefit to actually lying down on them to get to sleep?


Driving Route 66 has presented this traveller with America's constantly changing landscape: Chicago's architectural splendour, the rolling green farmland of the Midwest, the sprawling prairies of Texas, the golden expanse of New Mexico, Arizona's desert, California's chaparral, LA's labyrinthine freeways, and its sun-kissed beaches. But this trip has also presented America's love of familiarity: the layout of more or less any shopping mall and any supermarket. And wherever you go, wherever you stop, wherever you flip on the TV to see what's going on, you'll be presented with the same local TV news presenters - slick male-female duo, Loveable Uncle/Glossy Glamour Girl (who clearly hates the female news anchor) doing the weather, and a grinning, toothsome OTT sports presenter presenting team news like a 10-year-old who has just downed a tonne of M&Ms. Stay classy, America.

Roadside distractions #1

In a country which boasts some of the most stringent highway policing on the planet, and which wisely operates low- if not zero-tolerance on drink-driving in most states, is it such a wise idea to put drinking establishments advertising COLD BEER next to highways that pass through hot desert regions?

Roadside distractions #2

Which came first: the US Interstate Highway System or the adult video "superstores" that appear all along the freeways in the Midwest? And, really…


Nothing much to say on this, except to make the following comment about Abercrombie & Fitch.

Is it absolutely necessary for their stores to emit such a vile perfumed odour that you know you're near one ten city blocks away?

Apparently it's called 'Fierce', which is highly accurate, and is described by A&F as "Packed with confidence and a bold, masculine attitude, Fierce is not just a cologne, it's a lifestyle." Right.

Road music

America was built for road trips. It has every need covered: it invented the sipping lid for hot takeout coffee cups; it ensured that soda fountain drinks fit perfectly in the cup holders of any American-built motor vehicle; and it came up with the categorisation system of radio stations. Therefore wherever you travel, you're never more than a few flicks of the dial away from rabid talk shows, country music, sports jocks or, my personal favourite, classic rock stations playing, exclusively, Led Zeppelin, The Who, the Rolling Stones, Heart and, bizarrely, anything involving or that has involved David Lee Roth.

Natural noise

Chirping crickets may be as much a part of the Great American Outdoors as rattlesnakes and Lyme Disease, but would it kill them to turn the noise down?


For every speed camera on British roads there is an actual police officer in the US sat in his cruiser, waiting to take off after you like a Nile crocodile launching off the riverbank. This is both reassuring and sinister in equal measure. They are, of course, there for your safety, but when you see them, sat semi-hidden under trees, bridges and in gulleys in the centre divide, you can't help but feeling entrapment is at work. Still, at least you can have a conversation with the officer as he writes your ticket. And, yes, most of them - like you - watched CHiPS as kids.

Two countries separated by a common language

Way back at the beginning of my trip I commented on how America and Britain were, to quote George Bernard Shaw, "two countries separated by a common language" (Two nations separated by dentistry). 

To illustrate this, I borrowed a clip from Eddie Izzard's Dressed To Kill show in which he explains: "You say 'alloominum' and we say 'alu-min-ium'; you say 'bay-sil' and we say 'bah-sil'; you say ’erbs' and we say 'herbs', because there’s a f**king 'H' in it. But you spell 'through' 'THRU', and I’m with you on that, ‘cause we spell it 'THRUFF,” and that’s trying to cheat at Scrabble." 

All of which leads me to wonder why everyone pronounces Route 66 "root" 66 and not "rowt" 66? Some consistency, please, American-type people.

But mostly...

At the start of this trip I also wrote of how I needed to breathe American air again, which may seem an odd statement to make, especially if you live in New York City, but also given the view some people, even some nations, have of the country. And, yes, I could have easily spent my downtime anywhere else on the planet. But I needed a fix of America. Another one.

I needed to reconfirm my love of its geographic beauty, its cultural complexity, its heritage and its lifestyle. I needed to amuse myself again with some of its absurdities and idiosyncrasies, its day-to-day customs and habits. But most of all, I needed to connect with its wide open spaces, of which there are plenty - the countryside, the desert wildernesses and the parts of California that make the state more than just traffic and surfing. To breathe fresh mountain air amid cloudless skies.

Even in America, you can get some peace.

Monday, August 19, 2013

From Chicago to Santa Monica - the Best of Route 66

The journey beginsEast Adams, ChicagoInto rural IllinoisThatawayI went down to the crossroads...One of America's 29 Springfields - the Illinois version
The Hilton Springfield - known to locals as the "Penis of the Prairie"This is Abe's townAbe & FamilyThe Old Illinois State CapitolThe Old Illinois State CapitolOld Springfield
Abe againState #2 - MissouriFirst stop - St. LouisTake me out to the ball gameTake me out to the ball gameIt'll soon fill up...
Go Cards!Cheapskates!Told you it would soon fill upMatt Holliday takes a swing5am fire alarm as the sun comes up over STLBack on Route 66 in rural Missouri
The Best of Route 66, a set on Flickr.
Over eight days, What Would David Bowie Do? drove as much of the old Route 66 as possible.

You can find notes from the road in the series of posts preceding this one, but these are the pictures that record one of the most memorable journeys I've ever taken.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

From Lake Havasu City, AZ to Santa Monica, CA - Desert, some more desert, even more desert, and then the sea

I couldn't have scripted it any better. I'm rolling down Santa Monica Boulevard, the final bit of the final leg of the journey that started out eight days ago on a sweltering Friday in Chicago, and Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill comes on the radio.

As anyone who knows me will attest, it's one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite musicians. It's a song about freedom, and in many respects, more about Route 66 than even Bobby Troup's tribute.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Reaching the Pacific was the dream for many who drove Route 66 when it provided escape from poverty, from the Dust Bowl devastation, or simply from the moribundity of Midwestern life. Today, California is still the end of the line. It still welcomes the wannabes, the desperate hopefuls and the dreamers, or those who simply want to be left alone out in the searing heat of the Mojave Desert, surrounded by car junk, rattlesnakes and scorpions, and their own musings.

© Simon Poulter 2013
The irony of reaching the end of Route 66 is that this last 400 miles have been more arduous than any of the previous 2000.

To maintain some semblance of authenticity, I rejoined 66 on the Oatman Road, a stunning but nerve-wracking 42-mile "scenic" route that takes you into the Arizona desert, up over a high peak and down the other side and through Oatman, a once deserted mining town that 66 ran through.

Today it is home to a hippyish collection of tourist shops - the arts and crafts merchants I would normally go out of my way to avoid - and, for no apparent reason at all, staged cowboy gunfights and a strolling mariachi band. To add to the surrealism is a small herd (if that's the correct collective noun) of burros wandering aimlessly about the town.

The outside temperature gets up to 116 degrees. In the comfort of a modern, well air conditioned car, it is bearable. But it makes you wonder how people drove this section of 66 before cars were so luxuriated.

As a test, I switch off the AC (a sensible idea, in any case, to stop the drain on fuel) and wind down the windows to see if a little of Nature's own air conditioning will have the same effect. The Eagles may have felt a cool wind in their hair on the desert highway, but here it is like having a large hairdryer set to Kill in your face. And a very old, overheated hairdryer at that. Think Sir Alex Ferguson at full blast.

After allowing myself a small measure of much needed 21st Century modernity - and properly cool air - by rejoining I-40 near Yucca, I pick up Route 66 again just over the California stateline at Needles, and remain on it for what seems like the next several hours.

This is a part of the route I've driven before. It is, on the one hand, stupendously tedious - quite literally an epic, foot-to-the-floor bolt over almost 200 miles, with the scenery barely changing. On the other hand, it is unusually calming. The Indian tribes who populated the desert have long held beliefs about the desert being a living thing, despite its apparent lack of animal or plant life.

The Mohave Desert is the perfect antidote to Los Angeles when its sprawl and urban chaos becomes too much. There is something mystic about the place, which also explains why it has drawn weirdos, hippies, society dropouts, gun nuts and the Manson Family to it. But rarely do they congregate in the same place.

Ever since the western desert started to unfold on Route 66 in Arizona, the result of violent eruptions in the Earth's crust have been evident all around, the topography so dramatically different to the gentle, rolling hills of the Midwest earlier on the route.

Near Amboy - which, in the 2000 census, recorded a population of just four - is what looks like, from the road, a large pile of black soot. On closer inspection it is the Amboy Crater, an extinct volcano which also informs you you're in one of the most notorious areas of seismic activity on the planet. Indeed the entire desert plain along this part of Route 66 is an enormous lava field.

© Simon Poulter 2013
In the distance you catch sight of weird wind eddies in the dust, mini-tornadoes that look like tall thin wisps. Further in the distance you see the distinct dust trails of military vehicles out on exercise from the US Marine Corps training base at Twentynine Palms (another entry in the list of obscure places to be mentioned in song - in this case, one by Robert Plant).

Eventually I arrive in Ludlow. I have a particular fascination with this town (Population: 10) as I began my professional career in Ludlow, England. That Ludlow, though, is located in beautiful Shropshire countryside, with a castle, a reputation for being a foodie's paradise (it has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per head than anywhere else in the world) and it is where I lost my curry virginity on my first Saturday night in town, at the Shapla Tandoori.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Ludlow, California, is now particularly unremarkable, mainly a fuel stop along I-40 which Route 66 meets up with here. Originally a mining town that became a water stop for the railroad (which continues to come into view), today it offers the inevitable Route 66-themed cafe and a couple of convenient gas stations.

Some years ago it was also the epicentre of a large earthquake that shook the entire southland. I was 300 miles away in Mammoth Lakes when it happened, and felt it there.

In Las Vegas, 150 miles away, all hotels on The Strip were evacuated as precaution. When the all-clear was sounded, many of the hotels' guests returned, not to their rooms, but the hotel casinos at 5am.

Seeing TV news footage of people in their bathrobes desperately playing one more hand of poker, or another spin of the slotswas an amusing snapshot of what Vegas was, at least then, all about.

Amazingly, I am still only at the halfway point of this final leg. There are still more than 200 miles between me and sea air. Not that the next two waypoints warrant much lingering: Barstow is a relatively large (for the region) town and key transportation hub, having been founded by a railroad magnate. More recently it has become the meeting point of the I-40 and I-15 freeways, and another huge US Marine Corps depot. That, and a much needed fill-up of fuel, is all there is to say about this dry, ugly town.

Victorville, further down Route 66, is no better. Another large transportation hub, it is a city beset by crime, unemployment and homelessness. There isn't much of a plus-side to it, except that, with the sun starting to set in the West, and the final 100 miles still to cover through the enormous Los Angeles hinterland at rush-hour, I reluctantly join the freeway to make some progress to the end of the line.

LA, as you probably already know, is a region in its own right. Famously and perfectly described by Alexander Woollcott as "Seven suburbs in search of a city", it is an interwoven patchwork of urban sprawl. As I enter what is technically 'Greater Los Angeles' at San Bernardino, I know there is a tough grind ahead, negotiating LA's aggressively driven freeways at heading-home time on a Friday night.

Most of the traffic is heading out of the area - off to weekend destinations - but not having experienced a multi-lane city freeway system since Oklahoma City (and that was a relatively small one), it's a shock. Bacharach really hit the money when he wrote "LA is a great big freeway" on Do You Know The Way To San Jose? (and, yes, I do: take the 101 or I-5 or, for the ambitious, Highway 1, north).

© Simon Poulter 2013
Route 66 - as a historical experience - gets going again in pretty Pasadena, the town nestling in the eastern foothills above Los Angeles. Coming off the 210 freeway here is only to be recommended for Route 66 completists. And if you do, do it during daylight when you can actually see how picturesque this famous old town is.

From Pasadena on into LA, Route 66 is, like many other cities on the road, occasionally signposted. With a little homework, I know that I need to get myself onto Sunset Boulevard, then Santa Monica Boulevard.

Which means driving right the way through LA. This is not a city you can pass from one side to the other in 30 minutes. Driving through LA means start-stop-start braking as traffic lights perpetually disrupt your momentum.

Following 66 through LA does, though, bring you through some of the neighbourhoods that make La-La Land the draw it is.

Route 66 as Sunset Boulevard commences in Echo Park, the district being raved about as Los Angeles' most up-and-coming. It is a bustling area, but crawling with 'hipsters'. Hordes of them, with beards longer than Abraham Lincoln's, smugly organic, free-thinking lifestyles and skinny jeans, cramming sidewalks in search of a macrobiotic cafe in which to drone on about Mumford & Sons. Counter culture is, thankfully, still alive and kicking in California.

Route 66 leaves Sunset Boulevard for Santa Monica Boulevard, cutting through West Hollywood - which is essentially one long restaurant - before reaching Beverly Hills, at which you can't help allowing yourself an Axel Foley chuckle as you roll past the famous police headquarters.

As you might be able to tell,  there is a note of tedium creeping in here. Over the last 21 years I've been in and around LA, and have driven down these very streets, so many times I've lost count. However, they have always been part of the LA experience. I've never experienced them as the end of a journey.

And so, as I enter the seaside familiarity of Santa Monica, Solsbury Hill on the radio, I know that at the very end of Santa Monica Boulevard will be the pier and the end. I should, as I arrive, be cracking a bottle of champagne. Instead, I just want to take my pictures and get to the hotel for the night.

This may sound downbeat and anti-climactic, but it isn't. The drive down Route 66 was to see an America I've not seen before, to glimpse parts of its past I know only from American culture. In that, it has delivered in spades: Chicago's friendly ambience and blues music; the summery fields of Illinois, the Midwestern heartland charm of St. Louis; the wide open agricultural enormity of the prairies of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas; the appearance of the West in New Mexico and the desert heat of Arizona and the Mojave Desert.

© Simon Poulter 2013

Driving from Chicago to LA in the insane mid-August heat that cooks up the American heartland might have been a long, sticky ride. But it hasn't. It has been a fascinating journey through varying physical and economic topographies, from city sophistication through rural simplicity to city sophistication again.

Thus, to close, let me reveal something unimportant to you but significant for me: for the most part, dear reader, I have been wearing shorts. Chicago was blistering when I left it, and the temperature has remained between the mid-70s to oppressively north of 100 for much of the 2,524.1 miles I've driven. As I reach the sea, however, it is a distinctly frigid 67F. I am going to have to wear jeans.

Welcome to LA.

© Simon Poulter 2013