America the beautiful, from sea to shining sea. Katherine Lee Bates pretty much knocked the nail on the head when she wrote those words, though whether she experienced a coast-to-coast trip for herself I don’t know. The past three weeks of my life have been spent travelling across the USA by rail and coach. Starting off in New York and finishing up in San Francisco, it was certainly a trip not to be missed. Rather than being the normal run-of-the-mill holiday diary, this blog post intends to simply draw upon various observations I made over the course of my twenty-one day trip about the American way of life and their glorious country.
Firstly, let’s start with the way in which we managed to traverse the vast space of land they call North America. Having booked the trip through Great Rail Journeys, this naturally turned out to be using the complex American train system. It seems that the journeys to and from Denver run, on average, five hours late at least once a week, and that to get from Los Angeles to San Fransisco you will usually be delayed by at least one hour. This is because Amtrak trains are at the mercy of the various private companies that own the sprawling interstate railroads and they value cargo over people. Amtrak owns only three per cent of its lines in the North East of the country, meaning that the rest of the time it has no say in scheduling whatsoever. It is not unusual for some trains to be almost a whole day late. And to think we complain about our system! What bugs me, however, is that the American people are, on the whole, completely apathetic about the whole situation. They don’t campaign for government-controlled rail highways or even ask for more accurate timetables to be posted. Perhaps this shows the English temperament to be impatient, but my guess is that many Americans are scared of anything that is state-funded.
Ironically, the smaller, older services such as the Grand Canyon Railway and the Silverton-Durango railroad (which is powered by steam), run to within minutes of the advertised times. If these trains were delayed by the same amount of time, it wouldn’t matter, because they wind through extraordinary landscapes of sweeping plains and rolling hills respectively.
The Durango-Silverton Railroad
Having already touched upon state-ownership, we can now move onto politics. Not on the boring system, mind you, but the general feeling amongst the American population of the current Government. Seconds after stepping on our tour bus in Chicago (proper tourists), our guide exclaimed “Let me get something straight. We don’t like Obama. We view Obama like you view Tony Blair. He’s wasting our money and making our country bankrupt.” What striked me most about this comment was the sheer generalisation. In our eyes, Obama is like a God. Can’t the American people see what a good job he’s doing? The American system won’t even allow for his changes to ever really bear fruit as the mid-term elections soon to be held will mean it will be even harder for the executive to make changes. The fact is, however, that this comment was false. Not all Americans hate Obama, just like not all Brits hate Tony Blair. Granted, he has his faults, but to others he is offering them the lifeline they need. Moving further West, however, liberal ideas start to come into play. Our conductor on the Durango Railroad introduced himself by explaining “I like Obama. I’m not too sure about David Cameron,” to which, naturally, we all cheered.
What is most peculiar, however, is not this split, but the fact that Americans truly believe they are a democratic nation. Washington, we are told, is “the home of democracy”. The political system in the UK is a long way from perfect, but being able to choose only from two parties can surely never be fair. The fact that the system is split into Executive, Legislative and Judiciary branches means that none can have a real impact on what happens in government. Still we are told, however, that Americans have complete liberty when voting in the elections (even though only 50% of them bother).
Washington, the home of "democracy"
This allows for an easy segue to a short discussion of the media in the States. The state of broadcasting over the pond is yet another reason we must give to the coalition against cutting the license fee. All day we are only able to watch ten minutes of a programme before being subjected to dull and lengthy advert breaks, the only refuge from which is the slightly less tedious and cheesy sitcom or predictable drama. What is worse, however, is the dozens of news channels spewing their right-wing views all over the schedules. It’s no wonder that Americans are notoriously conservative when this is what the rest of the world sees. The channels and presenters are only there to protect their own interests. Glenn Beck is a figurehead of this monstrosity, but he’s not the only one. There is absolutely no debate, and the news stories are carefully picked so that they put Democrats and Liberals in the worst possible light. Even Sky News isn’t as bad as the most liberal of these channels. During my stay, the top news stories have been a proposed mosque near ground serious (outrageous apparently) and the ruckus concerning Proposition 8 in California (according to the coverage marriage is only viable if one man and one woman are involved). Add to those stories an unhealthy dose of climate-change-denying and you pretty much get the picture. It’s such a shame because the papers and TV does not reflect the general feeling. Among the turgidness there are a few gems, such as The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, but still, God love the BBC.
San Francisco, where the debate about Prop 8 rages
Although the state of the arts is not quite as bad as the media, going to America allows for sobering thoughts about the fate of the creative sector in our country. I must commend first the fact that two of the three art museums I visited were free (the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago), but this does not excuse the blatant corporate advertising in brochures and on walls. Painted on every wall in San Francisco’s De Young Museum is a name, which serves as a big pat on the back for those philanthropists who are fortunate enough to be in the position of having enough money to give to the arts. It is also lamentable that much of the art on display was not of the challenging ilk which we have become accustomed to in Europe. It all seems somewhat traditionalist and we can almost imagine the named altruists standing back and admiring their selection of paintings. Granted, there are some beautiful works on display, but it is surely telling that the best art on show is on loan from European exhibits; America doesn’t invest a great deal of money in their own artists.
Reassuringly the population in San Francisco is treated to the free Stern Grove festival every year and in New York is the Shakespeare in the Park festival. Whilst both are naturally vehicles for corporations to get their brand seen, they do allow for the general public to see high-end art for free. The only criticism would be that these performances are again quite traditionalist; the line-up at the Stern Grove includes opera, country music and, whilst I was there, ballet. In Washington D.C. there is a free concert every day for free at the Kennedy Center. These are broadcast online also, allowing anyone who wishes to view the talent on display. More avant-garde would be welcomed, but at the moment the population of these cities have something to look forward to every summer. Lucky sods.
Ballet at Stern Grove
Now to move onto my area of expertise; the wonderful world of theatre. While US theatre may not be as vibrant as ours, it is a long way from being a shambles. Broadway is more profitable than the West End and new plays open every year to sell-out houses. The Denver Performing Arts Complex has 10’000 seats shared amongst its 10 theatres and even smaller towns such as Durango have lively performance spaces. The Woolly Mammoth Theatre in D.C. offers whole seasons of challenging new plays every year in it’s chic playhouse. Free programmes are handed out and front-of-house staff are surprisingly accommodating. The shows which I saw were enjoyable experiences, even if they weren’t groundbreaking. If you know where to look, there is a large experimental theatre scene and exciting ideas being performed to audiences every day. The problem is, however, that many people don’t know where to look. Either that or they don’t want to. Some are more than happy to sit through the mundanity that is Wicked or the pointlessness of American Idiot for the sixteenth time, but don’t realise that there is a world of theatre out there which will open their minds to ideas they would never have previously thought of. Government subsidy allows this talent to be showcased to a wider audience and encourages audiences to try new things. It also allows for cheaper ticket prices and more focus on the creative teams rather than producers.
The lights of Times Square
Reading through this post thus far, it may seem that I have a very negative view of America. That is not the case. Whilst many aspects American culture sat oddly against my own views, this doesn’t matter when faced with the sheer beauty found from East to West and the welcoming nature of most of the population. In New York we are surrounded by skyscrapers and lights. We are constantly told there is no city quite like the Big Apple, but it is only when we get there than we understand why. There are few sights more beautiful than Manhattan at night-time from the tranquility of Central Park.
Night falls on Manhattan
Chicago also has a stunning skyline, and we are fortunate enough in the home city of Al Capone to have a full view of the city; something impossible in New York unless water is crossed.
The view of the Downtown Chicago from the opposite side of the harbour
Even Denver is a very special city. All along the main street are free buses and free wi-fi, and pianos are dotted everywhere for our enjoyment. With restaurants and bars overflowing into the streets, it has an almost European feel. The multitude of bookshops and theatres means that anyone even remotely arty will feel truly at home here. San Francisco, built on hills which rise and fall like Nick Clegg’s approval rating, shows both the sheer will and stupidity of man. Walking along a quiet neighbourhood and turning round to see a street which stretches right from the top of the hill to the sea is an extremely satisfying experience. Even RMS Queen Mary shows how far we’ve come in our short time on earth.
The thing about America, however, is that even though the very best in engineering is visible everywhere, it is the work of nature that is most impressive, reminding us that we will never beat the simple power of the Earth’s movements. The Rocky Mountains and Monument Valley stretch on as far as the eye can see, and as soon as we think we’ve seen all there is to see another mountain or butte pops out of nowhere, providing us with yet another obstacle. It is the Grand Canyon, however, that everyone remembers best. One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it is perhaps Mother Nature’s greatest achievement. I’m no poet, and so have decided to use a quote to demonstrate the magnificence of this quiet spot in Arizona.
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”
Although John Wesley Powell’s quote is slightly paradoxical, it does convey just how much the Canyon inspires awe. A camera does not do the wonder justice, but here’s my attempt anyway, taken from above the Grand Canyon from a plane:
Like a beautiful scar on the desert
Just as no photo can do justice to the Grand Canyon, no blog post can do justice to the USA. Here is just a taster of the America I experienced, and it will be like no one elses. The USA has something to offer for everyone, and shows the best and worst of mankind. As with all the best things in life, you have to try it for yourself to understand.