Throughout this trip I have made a point of buying and reading at least one local newspaper per day. This means that I have read, and enjoyed, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle – all what Europeans would call the ‘quality press’ – but I have also read the Daily Times (Four Corners), theDaily Sentinel (Grand Junction), the Grand Junction Commentary, the Ouray County Plaindealer and the Arizona Daily Sun – what we would call the ‘local press’ – and the Navajo Times and the Ute Bulletin – reservation newspapers which simply have no equivalent – as well as the free press wherever it was available (including the likes of USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, which were frequently given for free in our hotels). My first observation, as illustrated by the analyses of the Aurora massacre, the economy and the Presidential campaign, is that comment and analysis, frequently erudite and always incisive, is alive and well – and not just in the big cities. (No coincidence, therefore, that Washington’s latest museum is the Newseum.) My second observation is that, though the press has clearly shrunk (in terms of numbers of titles) and retrenched (in terms of circulation figures), it is still very much there. Put another way, there are still significant numbers of Americans who are prepared to pay for a paper version of what they could probably read for nothing on the internet. My third observation is that there is no pan-American newspaper that everybody reads – and there clearly doesn’t have to be. Maybe that was the underlying conclusion to be drawn from the sorry experience of The European.
I cannot sign off from America without a post about its extraordinary bird life. At first, everything sounds so familiar. There are robins, blackbirds, warblers, finches, woodpeckers, nuthatches, tree creepers, dippers, shrikes, nutcrackers, jays, doves, pigeons,orioles, crossbills, larks, eagles, starlings, and so on. But of course they are mostly similarly only in name. Even the so-called European starling is very different to the chap we Europeans know. The American robin is not our robin, the blackbird is red-winged, and so on. We saw so many beautiful birds: the calliope and rufous hummingbirds; Steller’s jays and blue jays; golden eagles and bald eagles and ospreys; wild turkeys and turkey buzzards (did you know that the wild turkey almost became the national symbol but lost to the bald eagle by just one vote?); the American avocet and other waders; snowy egrets and pacific pelicans… I never saw the northern flicker flicker, nor heard the mourning dove mourn, nor the mocking bird mock, and the Common Poorwill sounds like the eternal condition of man. But the greatest thrill came up in the Rocky Mountains National Park when I caught a glimpse of the fellow in the picture; the mountain bluebird. And we thought Walt Disney was making all those colours up!
Our tour guide, Roger Marsden (in the picture), has been a superhero. Already, before our departure, everything (hotel bookings, travel reservations, etc) had been perfectly arranged. But through his constant, though discreet attentiveness and good humour Roger made this into a truly great journey. He was also a mine of information about everything we visited. He and his wife spent time a year teaching English in Mexico and Roger told me a wonderful story about Cornish silver miners who introduced Cornish architecture, Cornish pasties (still eaten in the region), Methodism and football to the region of Real del Monte in Hidalgo, central-eastern Mexico. It’s all true (you can read about it here). Like the Welsh colony in Argentina (you can read about that here) it is one of those wonderful curiosities that you can never forget – Cornish pasties in Mexico! As to Roger, we had to fill in a customer satisfaction survey at the end and our four youngsters collectively wrote ‘Roger for President!’
At 05.12 a.m. on 18 April 1906 an earthquake rocked San Francisco. The ground shook for forty seconds, stopped for 10 seconds, and then continued again for another 25 seconds. It must have been terrifying. The earthquake is calculated to have had 12,000 times the impact of the Hiroshima bomb. What little of the city had not been destroyed was burnt down in the ensuing fire, which lasted for three days. Over three thousand people died. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless. At 05.07 a.m. on 17 October 1989 another earthquake rocked San Francisco. This one lasted only fifteen seconds but it killed 63 people, left thousands homeless and caused a massive amount of damage (some of it still being repaired). Everybody on the Californian west coast knows that another one is due. Those two earthquakes were on the San Andreas fault. Oakland is built on top of another active fault, the Hayward, but it is Los Angeles, massive, sprawling Los Angeles, further south which is thought to be more at risk. Earthquake forecasters estimate that about twenty of California’s faults have a 5% or greater chance of a 6.7 or greater Richter scale earthquake within 30 years. It is, then, only a matter of time. My cousin’s wife, Wendy, lived through the 1989 earthquake. She was in a downtown office building at the time and there was a lot of internal damage. She says it’s best not to think about ‘the big one’ but, when you do, it really gets to you. As if to remind Californians that they live on borrowed time, there are frequent tremors. ‘Each time you wonder if it is going to be the big one,’ she says.
There must be a genetic explanation for the Harrison (that’s my mother’s side of the family) diaspora. After all, a great grandfather was a ship’s captain and accidental explorer. That diaspora now includes cousins in Australia, Africa and America. This afternoon, we set off to Oakland to meet up with my cousin, Richard, and wife, Wendy, and their two boys, Aidan and Brendan, who live in Oakland. Even better, one of his London-based sisters, Liz, was staying with him, so it was something of a family reunion. Richard, a good amateur cook, treated us to a wonderful traditional American barbecue, with burgers and corn on the cob and home made bread and a delicious home made tart. It was a wonderful and delicious way to bring our Grand Tour to a close. Part of our conversation was about Oaklanders’ constant fear of an earthquake, but that subject will wait for my next post. Afterwards, the BART whisked us back across the Bay and our cable cars from Powell Street and up California Street were on time. Absurdly, given the few days we have spent here, we already have the feeling that we have become familiar and at home with beautiful San Francisco.
This afternoon we visited yet another richly endowed museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It is stuffed with examples from the impressionists, the cubists, the fauvists and the surrealists but also, as interestingly, with American modernists. Indeed, here, more than in any other art museum we have visited, I got a sense of how America developed its own, distinctive modern art. Thus, whilst San Francisco collectors continued to splurge on French art they also started to buy up on more homegrown artists (Frieda Kahlo and Diego Riviera, who stayed in the Bay area for 18 months, played cameo roles in the process.) . The blurb in one of the exhibition spaces states that ‘The US is a country defined in many ways by the unique geographic spaces it encompasses. But the nation’s topography has equally been formed by the urban environments that generations of Americans have created.’ That is surely spot on. The Ralston Crawford in the picture, for example, is so obviously immediately American, yet how do we know? The museum cleverly illustrates the procession of modern American art to its own inheritance.
San Francisco’s cable cars are to the city what London’s trams and Routemaster buses used to be to it. You can jump on and off and stand outside and generally risk your life in a most enjoyable fashion, which is what lots of tourists do every day. Unlike London’s trams and buses they were saved from extinction by a determined campaign and, given that tourism is one of this picturesque city’s biggest industries, that decision was surely right. But the cable cars are also fascinating mechanisms and this morning we went to the Cable Car Museum which is the working base from which all of the cables in the three loops serving the city originate. The brakemen who drive the cars become very skillful. They have two levers; a brake and another lever that operates the degree of grip on the cable. They drive the cars in heavy traffic up and down steep hills with great aplomb. The museum explains the system and how it works very clearly. Thank goodness it survived! (My illustration coincidentally shows how close Alcatraz is to the city.)
We have travelled from Ellis Island to Alcatraz; from an island of hope to an island of no hope. I didn’t know what to expect of Alcatraz. I had seen the films (Birdman and Escape from Alcatraz) a long time ago and remembered that impression of hopelessness being so close to the city. (If the wind was blowing in the right direction prisoners could hear the party goers at the city’s yacht club.) In fact, a visit to the island is a truly unforgettable experience. As part of the ticket entry price visitors can follow an audio tour, narrated by some of the prison’s former guards and prisoners. It is brilliantly done, complete with sound effects, and perhaps especially the parts on the two most important escape attempts. I turned off my guide and went for a wander down through the gardens towards the waters of the Bay. The island’s flanks have become a bird reserve and the egrets and Californian gulls nest fearlessly close to the path. (I felt a bit like Tippi Hedren and then I remembered another film, about Salt Lake City and the early Mormon settlers and how the California gulls had flown to the rescue by eating a plague of grasshoppers. There are statues to the gulls in Salt Lake City now.) Back in the bookshop the son of one of the guards was signing copies of his memoirs about life as a child on the island (they were ferried to and from school on the mainland every day). I wonder how it felt to be a warder’s wife here. It must have been almost as depressing as being on the inside of the prison…
This morning we took a guided tour to the beautiful and beguiling city of San Francisco. Our guide had a mischievous wit and a laid back style to his job that immediately endeared him to everybody. He was the perfect match for the city. I was particularly interested in the sites related to Hitchock’s great film, Vertigo. The guide was happy to oblige, pointing out how Hitchcock had deliberately used some of the steeper streets as backdrops to emphasise the sense of heights (and Stewart’s character’s fear of them). As it happened, the Golden Gate Bridge was closed off after a man had been seen climbing its structure so instead we even got to Fort Point which is where, in the film, Kim Novak’s character jumps into the Bay, only to be saved by the betwitched James Stewart. (It is also where I took this picture of the bridge from, as they say, an ‘unusual angle’.) The guide also pointed out the big hotels where the politicians stay (Fairmont for the Democrats, Mark Hopkins for the Republicans) and told us that, whereas they had had ‘trouble in getting rid of’ Clinton, George W. Bush had never once set foot in the city during his eight years as President. I wonder why. After lunch on Fishermans Wharf and an obligatory visit to the city’s sea lions, it was time for a cruise to Alcatraz (see next post). Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) once famously observed that ‘The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.’ Our day started off very cold and foggy but, as the guide had predicted, the fog was burned away as the sun grew stronger and the rest of the day was sunny and quite warm.
It was time for our last rail voyage today: the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Oakland, just outside San Francisco. For inexplicable reasons, the train became increasingly delayed, so that we arrived in San Francisco only at midnight. But the trip, hugging the Californian coastline, was well worthwhile. The line passes through the huge Vandenberg Air Base (there is no road) which, like many military spaces, is also a wildlife reserve. At Santa Barbara two volunteers from the National Park Service’s ‘Trails and Rails’ initiative boarded the observation car and thereafter we had a free expert guide to what we were looking out on. Alas, there was little wildlife and we sadly did not get to see any dolphins or whales (they frequently are sighted from the train). On the other hand, we saw a rocket waiting on its launch pad (its night time launch had been delayed by bad weather), plenty of other launch pads (nicknamed ‘Slicks’, an abbreviation of ‘Space Launch Complex’), old Minutemen Silos from the Cold War and, in a stupendous display of American military spending might, the fifteen thousand foot-long runway that had been built for the Space Shuttle but never used (all West Coast launches were cancelled after the Challenger disaster). The line was effectively following a trail blazed by a Spanish soldier, Juan Bautista de Anza, in 1775 whose mission was to deter Russian colonisation encroaching on what was to become Alta California from the north. Bautista de Anza got as far as San Francisco, thus altering the course of Californian history. Yet another fascinating story of exploration!