Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Catchup - part, four Washington DC

When we arrived at our hotel in Crystal City, we found the whole place filled with motor bikes and big hairy bikers were everywhere. We had arrived on the Sunday before Memorial Day, which was on Monday 27 May and the bikers were there to do the annual Rolling Thunder parade at Arlington Cemetery to honour the fallen. Many of the bikers seemed to be Vietnam vets and so besides patriotism, had a strong personal reason to join in the parade and honour the fallen.
This picture is from the newspaper  Boise Weekly archives and shows a part of the huge parade.

 Memorial day is an important holiday in the USA and along the route we had seen flags in unexpected places in honour of the event.

This patriotic vehicle was parked on a road bridge, whilst work was stopped for the Memorial Day weekend and is typical of the importance this day holds for Americans
We ate that evening in a really packed Chili’s, recommended by the hotel staff, where they do an amazing Chimichunga, so large a doggy box is mandatory for a person with a normal appetite.

Day One
The next day we took the subway to start our tour around the many Smithsonian institutes that abound in Washington, starting with the zoo.
Suprisingly, to me, in the land that gave the world commercialism, there are no adverts in this subway.  The London Underground and the Paris metro are covered in ads on every flat surface wherever they will stay put.
 At the entrance to the zoo is the widest zebra crossing I have ever seen. It did not seem to work too well since cars were queuing over it due to heavy traffic and you had walk around the vehicles.

The Mother of all Zebra crossings. 
This is only half of it, it stretches the same distance the other way.  The Grandson (TG) is very keen on big cats and he like nothing better than a visit to anywhere that is involved in their protection and survival. Washington's Zoo is not just there to display exotic animals, the Smithsonian contributes to restoring and protecting endangered species and so they have a breeding programme for many species. It is also one of the places you can see a giant Panda.  We strolled around taking trying to see as much as possible.
I have seen job interviewers use that look, when you are asked to take a seat.

..and I-a-ia-I will always love yoooo...

Darn teeth ain't what the used to be, caint seem to get through this bark

And for my next tune...

Come any closer with that camera bud, and you'll have two black eyes.
After the zoo, we took the subway to the centre of Washington. We first went to the Spy Museum, where TS and TG went on a spying tour, taking on a secret identity and uncovering information in a short interactive adventure.

The rest of us walked around the museum which has a lot of espionage related exhibits and a series of interactive displays. Whilst there was a lot of serious stuff about real spies, there was also a lot of James Bond memorabilia on show, including one of the old Bond cars with all the gadgets.  Not being much into cars, to me it looked nothing like the kind of car I would buy, but people were drooling over it as if it were special.   It was so low down, you would not be able to see far ahead for safe overtaking and the suspension was slung so low, it would not be able to get to our house owing to it grounding on the speed bumps we have to slow down traffic. The seats looked really uncomfortable, forcing your legs to stick straight out in front of you and it did not even have a rear seat!  The museum made me think of the old Mad Magazine strip, Spy vs Spy and sure enough there were some books on sale in the gift shop.

When we had finished there, we walked around the Mall area to look at the various famous buildings, including one which is painted with whitewash and which looked a lot smaller and more crowded than it does on TV.

A white house, imaginatively named The White House
Naturally we stopped for the obligatory photo shoot.
By the end of the day, we were foot sore and exhausted and we had not seen as much as we had planned. We went back to the hotel and bathed our feet.

Day Two
The next morning it rained, but was clear by the time we arrived in the museum area, it was dry. We visited the Smithsonian Space museum and we separated to look at the different things that interested us individually arranging to meet later.    I wandered around entranced by all the billion dollar boy’s toys on display. I touched the moon and looked at the various exhibits, finding the exhibit for the Voyager missions particularly interesting since I had only recently done a talk for the science group that I belong to on the Voyager Missions and it was still fresh in my mind.
A replica of one of the Voyager satellites
One of the things I spotted after that was a replica of the Sputnik satellite, the first ever man made object to go into orbit.  
A replica of Sputnik 1
Unless you lived through that time, you could not understand the shock and amazement that Sputnik produced, particularly to the American public at large. Launched by the Soviet Union, it essentially came out of nowhere news-wise and Russia, a largely peasant society, makers of low tech machinery built like tanks suddenly leapt into first place in the space race, beating the US and British into space. Everyone in the West believed that the Russians were not as technically capable as America or Britain, yet suddenly there was this beeping noise coming from space! Suddenly the idea we had been fed that the soviets were not very capable, turned out to untrue and the cold war became more threatening.  If they could send a satellite into space we must now all be in reach of their missiles.

Incidentally, yes, I did say the British and space together in the earlier sentence. Around that time and for a few years after, we were ahead of the US in rocket science. The Blue Streak and Black Knight programme was progressing well and we had solved a major problem that still plagued NASA. News reports had been like a comedy, every time a well publicised launch was filmed at Cape Canaveral, the rockets either blew up on the launch pad or blew up a few hundred metres in the air. Not a lot of publicity went into the British launches so we only saw the successful ones, but our researchers knew why the USA were having problems, but it seems we did not pass that on immediately, if at all. What was happening was the sheer volume of sound produced by the rockets was rattling any riveted components apart. Traditionally aircraft fuselages were riveted together and so were the earlier rockets, but increasing the rocket power created a new problem with that kind of construction. We had stopped using rivets anywhere in our designs and were getting regular successful launches and eventually the USA also solved the problem. Almost immediately and in step with the traditional British government's policies of short termism, our government cut the budget to our space programme and so dropped Britain out of the space race, just as we were getting somewhere. Now we have to pay other countries to launch our space hardware at whatever price they wish to charge us, instead of the other way around. It has been shown that if government made decisions on the toss of a coin, they would be right more often than using their own conclusions.
A Replica of the Messenger satellite, currently in orbit around Mercury
A small Model of the Hubble telescope

I had not realised quite how big the Hubble telescope really is.  This is a full size test mockup and the young lady walking by managed to provide a sense of scale to my photo. The bottom of the telescope is the huge cylinder in the background.

Not everything there was high tech
Some of the exhibits were of very old technology and both the Wright Brothers bi-plane and the Bleriot monoplane were present in the flight section. Both being firsts, the Wright Brothers being the first powered craft to fly, taking off and landing at the same height or higher, being the definition of a proper flight at the time. Bleriot was the first to fly across the English Cannel and arrive in a different country at the other side. 
Just an aside, when I was very young, I worked with a man who had sailed on the Queen Mary when he was younger and he had Orville Wright's autograph.   I was astounded when he showed me.  History suddenly got shorter, because up until then, to me the Wright Brothers were something from the dim and distant past, and here standing in front of me was a man who had actually talked to one of them.

Day three
The next day we intended to visit the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial but we did not make it. The Monument had been damaged in the Virginia earthquake of August 2011 and was still being repaired, so was off limits and covered in scaffolding.

The Washington Monument being inspected and repaired

This gives you some idea of the scale of this monument, when you realise there were five stages like this at different heights.
After walking past this, we arrived at the WWII monument which is at the opposite end of the reflecting lake that stretches up to the Lincoln memorial.

Whilst this memorial is open, the Lincoln memorial site was being refurbished too, so you could not walk along the end of the reflecting lake. After all of yesterday’s walking and the long trek we had taken to get this far, we were beginning to feel the strain, so we decided to call it a day for the Monument and just took pictures via telephoto lenses and let the camera do the walking.

The Lincoln memorial
Unfortunately it was too dull to see the huge statue of Lincoln inside.

We returned to the museum area and visited the American History museum where we saw the orginal Star Spangled Banner, which is huge.  There was a lot to see, but we took no photos.  After that we headed for the national Archives.  On the way we passed the Roosevelt Monument.  Roosevelt, knowing what huge monuments the USA were likely to build, expressed a wish that any memorial erected for him after his death would be just a simple stone block with his name carved on it.  His wish was carried out in 1965 on the twentieth annivesary of his death, when this modest monument was created.

Around the corner at the National Archives building, we found about half of the population of America's school's queuing, so gave up and went to the Natural history museum instead.  There, amongst other interesting exhibits, such as the inevitable T Rex, we saw the Hope Diomond and both female members of the family immediately wanted one just like it.
What else would you expect to find in a natural History Museum?
The Hope Diamond
 By around mid afternoon, we were too tired to go anywhere else and so went back to the hotel and rested until it was time to eat.

Day Four
The following day we went back to the National Archives early, but still had to queue behind another horde of school kids in orange shirts, but only one school in front of us this time, not most of America.
You are not allowed to take photos inside, so I only have this shot of the front of the building.

 Inside we were able to see the Declaration of Independence and all the other famous documents, including an original copy of the Magna Carta. When I say original copy, I mean a copy made at the time of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. This ancient document is the basis of English law and we were a bit surprised to find an original in the USA, but it seems that the founding fathers derived many of the fundamentals of the American Constitution from this much earlier document. After seeing these documents, we returned to the Natural History museum and had a further look at the exhibits we had not seen and TS bought TBH, his mother, a set of paste earrings modeled on the Hope diamond.
It was very hot that day and we came back to the hotel early, less tired on our feet but too hot to walk further. We went back to Chili’s for our evening meal and found it much less crowded and did not have to wait long for a table.   This was our last day in Washington and the next day we would set out for home.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Catchup - Part three

After leaving Cahokia, we followed the i70 through Illinois and Indiana, heading for our next stop in Columbus Ohio. The difference in each state became apparent as we travelled through Indiana, where the road surface was noticeably worse than our previous route through Illinois and later when we passed through Ohio the roads improved again. Another difference was the kind and number of advertisement hoardings alongside the highway.  They changed from hardly any, to being bombarded with adverts for eating places and fireworks.
We lived on six inch Subway subs whilst on the road, because there were everywhere.  They offer the least oversizing fast food and you can decide on the exact filling. TS and family on a visit to us some years ago went into a local Subway and discovered that the then British version was disappointingly different, but over the last few years, apart from the slightly smaller portions of filling put into the sub in the UK, they seem to have got very close to their US counterparts.

However even the USA Subway sub is nothing like the real thing you will get if you go to a genuine sub emporium, where the bread is compressed to a thin shell with a filling so big there is no room for the bread.  Yum! - but they are oversizing food.
 Our lunch stop that day was in Effingham Illinois. Effingham was founded in 1814 and given the name Broughton but was renamed in 1859. Apart from being the Effingham county capital, it has two claims to fame. First it is sited at the meeting of two major interstate highways, the i70 and the i57 and second it claims to have the tallest free standing cross in the USA. So, not a big tourist attraction, but a lot of people must pass through on their way elsewhere and there are lots of hotels and food outlets.

The cross at Effingham - it is big.

After lunch, we drove on into Indiana and crossed over the Wabash River just inside the border.

We skirted Terre Haute, heading along the i70 for 76 miles to bypass Indianapolis and on to Richmond and after roughly another 70 miles, over the state border and then into Ohio.  Terre Haute is a reminder of the French influence accross that area, which was part of New France, which once stretched all the way from Northern Canada down to New orleans.  The name is derived from the French for 'high ground'.
Indianapolis is the state captital and became so in 1820.  It was purpose built and was placed as centrally as posible in Indiana by the planners.  The original state capital was Croydon, on the southern border of Indiana.  Indanapolis is famous for the Indy 500 race, one of the worlds most prestigious motor races, that traditionally takes place on Memorial Day.  The five hundred refers to the length of the race, which is five hundred miles and requires a gruelling two hundred laps around the Indiapolis Motor Speedway.
In Ohio, we continued along the i70 past Dayton and Springfield.

Springfield is one of the 38 different cities, towns and townships with that name found in the USA. The cartoon characters the Simpsons live in a town called Springfield, a name chosen for its anonymity, so that they cannot be accused of their satire pointing a finger at any particular place. So, no three eyed radioactive fish in any rivers near Springfield Ohio.
As we went further East, the land started to change and it became more hilly and the roads started to meander a bit, unlike Western states, where the roads tend to be perfectly straight.

Apart from passing by London, Springfield was the last major town we passed before entering Columbus. Well actually London was not so big, just a dot on the map.  There are a lot of Londons in the USA too.
Our journey to Washington took us all over the globe if you went just by the place names, we went past. We passed Bethlehem, Bristol, Cambridge, London, Rome, Carthage, Alexandria and a whole lot of other familiar sounding places, but never left the i70, eventually arriving at Columbus.

 Like Effingham, Columbus is on a crossroads but unlike Effingham, it is a lot larger. Population wise, it is about sixty four times larger. Named for the explorer Christopher Columbus, the city was founded in 1812, a fateful year.  Britain was already at war with the French when the American settlers, decided to get out from under and picking an ideal time to rebel and eventually won their war.  Also in 1812 Napoleon lost a major battle at Moscow.
We found nothing very notable about the part of Columbus where our hotel was, it seemed very run down. We arrived around 7:30 local time, having gained an hour when crossing the state line and went to look for somewhere to eat, but everywhere was closed for the night! We tried several places and eventually got a take out from a Papa Johns.

Apart from searching the local rather sleazy area near our hotel, we did not see a lot of the place, so my assessment of the city is not typical and I am sure there are many nice areas with splendid civic amenities in other parts of Columbus. We took our meal back to our hotel and ate in our room, then left first thing the next day.
Columbus is almost dead center of the state of Ohio,along the i70, and so the last leg of our outward journey took us across the eastern half of Ohio, past Cambridge, over the Ohio River and on into the little northern spur of West Virginia.

West Virginia is very beautiful and scattered with farms and woodland
I can only assume that many American tourists that arrive in Britain do not visit much else of their own country, because it is very commom to hear them saying how green and wonderful england is.  Most of the places around that part of West Virginia and nearby states are just that.
This part of West Virginia is very narrow and so we were only in West Virginia for a few miles and as we went past the town of Wheeling we were in Pennsylvania.

The geography of these eastern state borders becomes quite complicated as small strips and spurs of one state project into or between others and by driving only a few miles, you can often travel in three states within thirty minutes.

Although we did not stop there, Pittsburgh is an interesting city, it is on the junction of the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River which join together to form the Ohio River.  Pittsburgh is famous for Mount Washington which overlooks the city where it sits on the Golden Triangle between the junctions of the three rivers. This is declared one of the best views in the USA.  Mount Washington is reached by a very early cog railway that is designed to climb such a steep incline, that the engines are built on an angle to keep the boiler level.
This photograph was taken by my brother in law when he was there some years ago.

At Washington PA not DC, a little south of Pittsburgh, we left the i70 and took the i79 south down towards West Virginia and then in that state we turned off onto the i68.

This area is close to the Appalachian Mountains and the country became very hilly and very green with forested hills interspersed with fewer and fewer farms and houses. Shortly after Morgantown, we crossed the state line into Maryland.

In Britain, the name Mary is pronounced Mare-ee, maybe otheres pronounce it differently, so most Brits would call Maryland Mare -ee land, including news readers on TV, who should know better, but like Marylebone in London, England is not pronounced Mary le bone, although it once was.   Maryland is not pronounced that way either and any tourists foolish enough, (heaven forbid) who should attempt to pronounce it as it is spelled, will be ridiculed by the locals. Much the same way that we in England may find amusement in people pronouncing the perfectly ordinary English names of Gloucester, Warwick, Berkeley or Cholmondeley other than as Gloster, War-ick, Bark-lee or Chum-lee.
The road has to cross some highish hills and we got some great views of the beginning of the Appalachians.  This is the area is not too far from  the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the Laurel and Hardy song kept running through my head as we drove along.   If you don't know it, check it out on You Tube. Follow the link
On the edge of the Appalachian mountains
Not as high as the Rockies, this was the highest we got
At Hagerstown, we picked up the i70 again and then at Frederick the i270 which heads directly to Washington DC. We were staying at Crystal City so we crossed the Potomac River into Virginia.

Driving along the Virginian side of the Potomac River with the Washington Monument in sight.  Unfortunately it has scaffolding all around it.

One of the five sides of the pentagon
We continued to head down past the Arlington Cemetery, the Pentagon and on to our hotel.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Catchup Part two - The USA

Once The Better Half (TBH) and I arrived in Lawrence, for the next few days we stayed at The Son's (TS's) family house, where we did a bit of shopping and grandson* sitting whilst the family, who had not yet started their summer break, were still at work. (*he is not a baby, far from it, now topping his grandmother by a few inches)

One night, not long after we had arrived, I had an intensely vivid nightmare, something I rarely suffer from, where I dreamed that one of my family, who has been unwell for a long time, had died and their ghost was standing staring at me in an accusing manner.  In my dream, she was standing in the garden of the house I had lived in with my first wife when she was alive.  I felt I should be pleased to see her but instead I became unreasonably terrified and woke up thrashing about and yelling that my relative was dead and in the process woke up TBH too.  It was so vivid and unusual I worried the next day or so if it was true and that my ill relation was really dead, but after an exchange of e-mails I discovered they were still alive, if not well and dismissed the whole thing as weird but unimportant.

Over the next few days there were a series of thunderstorms and heavy rain.  This is not unusual for that time of year and we often experience storms when we are there.  The weather around that part of the world can be several times more destructive than anything we experience back home, and whilst the British are notorius for discussing the weather, it can be a matter of life or death knowing what is heading for you in the Mid West.  So being in Tornado Alley, we wartched the weather reports regularly following the path of each storm. and then witnessed live, the terrible real life drama as the Oklahoma City tornado developed minute by minute growing in intensity.  The extent of the damage began to come in as it made hundreds homeless and we watched the death toll rise, all the time wondering if it would come north and set about Kansas.
This is not one of my pictures, but it shows some of the brave people who go out and monitor these storms.  Three experienced Stormchasers died this year whilst gathering data for the news services.

Things calmed down weather wise and we all got ready for our trip to Washington DC. We hired a Chrysler Town and Country, which easily seats the whole family and luggage, but when it arrived we found it had not been cleaned out by the hire company or whoever had used it before us.  They, it seemed, were not too fussy about the state they left it in becaue there were bits of half eaten food, spilled coffee in one of the cup holders, melted icecream, candy wrappers, sticky broken toys and even a camera lens cap from a modern DTL camera in the luggage compartment. Since TS had arranged to pick it up on the morning we were planning to head off, this was a minor setback, because we then had to set too with dustpan and brushes, vacuum cleaner and wet wipes to make it habitable to a standard we felt comfortable with. We were going to be living in it for several days, so we cleaned and scrubbed until it was in a state where we did not feel uncomfortable touching door handles and such and did not feel we would regret sitting on the seats. Eventually, after working away for an hour in the baking summer sun, we were underway in an acceptably clean vehicle.

A Town and Country

The first leg of the trip, took us along the interstate highway, i70 through Kansas City into Missouri
and then on to St Louis.  Americans pronounce the S on the end and do not say St Looey as many Europeans would (and incidentally the old song lyrics, “meet me in St Looey, Looey”).  I used to have an Uncle Louis and his name was always pronounced without the S on the end.

Crossing the Mississippi at St louis

Once we had crossed the Mississippi we were in Illinois.
One of St Louis' claim to fame is the Gateway Arch, the tallest monument in the USA.  It is much taller than the Statue of Liberty.  It is so big, it does not look like much when you are close to it, but from a distance you can see how large it really is.

The Gateway to the West, but we were travelling East

The Gateway Arch seen from several miles away shows its true size

That evening we stopped at our hotel for the night, just outside St Louis and the following morning after an early breakfast, we went on a few miles to the Cahokia Mounds.

This is the site of a once thriving Mississippian Native American society. At its height, there was a busy town with a population measured in the thousands, not the small huddle of tepees which is the common image of the Native American. The residents traded manufactured and did all those things any present day society does on a day to day basis. Around 1250AD, the population declined and signs of malnutrition in the remains found, suggest that they had exceeded the location’s ability to feed such a large population. This coupled with climate change, which shortened the growing season and reduced rainfall, further reduced the food supplies. So it seems they were unable to feed themselves adequately causing a reduction in overall health and the population dwindled and eventually the place was abandoned. The original inhabitants had created some huge rectangular flat topped mounds on which all their important buildings were erected. The exact purpose of these is not fully understood, but it is presumed from the digs made that the most important citizens had houses on smaller mounds and important civic buildings were at various times on the larger mounds. The largest of these is now known as Monk’s Mound after some Trappist monks lived there in the early 1800s. Long before that at its height around, 1150 AD, Cahokia was larger in population than the contemporary City of London, at the time the largest European city of the same period and no city in the USA exceeded that population until 1800.

The Monk's Mound

Half way up
We went up to the top of the Monk's Mound and after recovering my breath, I was able to look around at the site.  We then had to come down again...
It is a long way down too.