It was a great pleasure to be able to ‘welcome aboard’ the Queen Mary this evening my Johns Hopkins University contemporary, Christa Givich, and her husband, Mike. She and I studied together at the School of Advanced International Studies in 1979-80 and indeed served together on the student executive. It’s another of those academic diasporas I have already written about (see Denver and Martin Rhodes). Christa went into a specialised form of banking; she works for a company that bankrolls films. And, by chance, one of her latest films is The Dark Knight Rises. She told us that, notwithstanding the Aurora massacre, the film is set to top $1 billion in box-office sales alone (they calculate the losses related to the massacre at around $30 million). The last time I saw Christa was in a Bolognese trattoria. Now, here we were sitting in a restaurant aboard the Queen Mary on Long Beach, California, gazing out on pelicans and cormorants. I never tire of writing that the good thing about getting old is old friendships.
The RMS Queen Mary is such an extraordinary construction in so many ways. Our cabin/room is set off one of the very long wood-panelled corridors that led to accommodation and is full of wood veneers and art deco furniture. This afternoon we took a tour and learned more about the works of art incorporated into the construction and the way the ship’s interiors, still faithfully preserved, have served so often as film sets. I could easily become a bore on the topic so I shall restrain myself to one anecdote, as recounted by Wiki: ‘In December 1942, Queen Mary was carrying 16,082 American troops from New York to Great Britain, a standing record for the most passengers ever transported on one vessel. While 700 miles (1,100 km) from Scotland during a gale, she was suddenly hit broadside by a rogue wave that may have reached a height of 28 metres (92 ft). An account of this crossing can be found in Walter Ford Carter’s book, No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love. Carter’s father, Dr. Norval Carter, part of the 110th Station Hospital on board at the time, wrote that at one point Queen Mary “damned near capsized… One moment the top deck was at its usual height and then, swoom! Down, over, and forward she would pitch.” It was calculated later that the ship tilted 52 degrees, and would have capsized had she rolled another 3 degrees.’ It is extraordinary to learn that these ocean-going vessels had no stabilisers for most of their working careers. At a more mundane level, in her troop-carrying days, there was a bacon slicer in the ship’s kitchen that never stopped working during a period of six years. They don’t make them like they used to.
I was saddened to learn of the death of Gore Vidal yesterday, a larger-than-life literary, political and media personality whose ascerbic wit and firm views guaranteed entertainment whenever he put pen to paper or simply opened his mouth. His first novel, Williwaw, based on his wartime experiences, immediately indicated a literary potential he would richly develop. I particularly liked his historical novels (Burr educated me about the venal reality of early US politics) and I admired his sexual honesty in Judgement of Paris (a revolution in 1952)!). Later, his wit and political views could sometimes get in the way of his art. Certainly, his critics argued that he preferred the potential distractions of an aphorism to a genuine argument. Direct provocation was certainly one of his debating tactics. But to his admirers, his ability to produce a witty and entirely appropriate turn of phrase at the drop of a hat was one of his great qualities. For example: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail,” “A narcissist is someone better looking than you are,” “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little,” “A good deed never goes unpunished,” and the timely “Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so.” About twenty years ago an erudite Irish friend met him by chance in Ravallo, where he used to live, and Vidal, presumably glad of some quality company, invited him for a drink. In the bar a group of English ‘lads’ started to make a row. Quick as a flash, Vidal arched his eyebrows and said ‘Oh to be in England, now that England’s here.’ (Robert Browning’s original poem is here.)
When I was a young boy we used to holiday on the English south coast. We soon got to know the raked funnels on the horizon of the Queen Mary (three) and the Queen Elisabeth (two), the Cunard Line’s two great trans-Atlantic cruise ships, as they sailed out of Southampton Water and the Solent on their way to Cherbourg and New York. On one occasion my father learned that the Queen Mary was in Southampton Port and we went to visit her. I remember walking along a long hall in Southampton’s Ocean Terminal Building and then stepping out onto a balcony and gazing at a black, riveted wall, punctuated by portholes. And then I looked up, and up, and up and up…. To that young me, the ship was unbelievably big. I can date this experience. It was August in either 1965 or 1966. In 1967 the ship was retired and sold to Long Beach, California, where it was transformed into a floating hotel. This midday I gazed on that black, riveted wall again, for we are staying tonight on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. It was an oddly touching experience, for I hadn’t seen the ship again in almost fifty years. The black paint is peeling a bit but the Queen is still an impressively big ship and, as my next post will explain, a floating museum of considerable interest as well as a very special hotel. With a start I realised that we were looking at the waters of the Pacific Ocean. We have done it! We have travelled ‘coast-to-coast’!
Once disembarked from our very late Amtrak train (it was our worst overnight trip but, thankfully, our last) we were whisked away into the heat and smog of Los Angeles for a guided tour of the city, including, inevitably, a stop-off in Hollywood. The city is a vast, 1,214² kilometre, 30 million-peopled sprawl. We were never going to have the time to get to such cultural highlights as the Getty Museum and Foundation and had to content ourselves with the main sights. Hollywood is, perhaps not surprisingly, a tacky shopping mall with a few historic cinemas dotted about (the Kodak Theater and Grauman’s Chinese Theater in particular) and a studio or two to visit. And beautifully-palmed Beverly Hills is off-bounds to tourist buses. Already, though, from our whistestop tour through the traffic, it was evident why this area is such an economic powerhouse – and not just of the big corporations. One of the reasons for that sprawl is a vast number of low-rise warehouses and factories. And we gave up counting the television studios. If so many people live here, including so many stars, it is because this is where the jobs are to be found.
This morning we drove to Williams, and from there caught the historic Grand Canyon Railway train to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Like Monument Valley, we have all seen the images, and then so frequently, but nothing can prepare you for the reality. It is not just the width and the depth of the canyon, nor the beauty of the striations and rock formations but, rather, the enormity of the whole site and of the time scale taken to create it – mainly through erosion by the waters of the Colorado River (which is occasionally visible a mile below) over a period of some 17 million years. But even that timescale pales into insignificance in comparison with the age of the 2 billion year old Vishnu Schist rock at the bottom of the Inner Gorge. We walked the trail around the South Rim (getting caught by a very impressive sudden storm on the way) and so were able to follow a series of information panels accompanied by samples of rocks taken from every stratum in the canyon. Millions and billions of years are beyond my true understanding and I left the site, as I had left the Imax cinema at the Smithsonian in Washington, feeling humbled. On the train journey back we saw a herd of elk and another very impressive storm. I shall pass over the two hour wait for our Amtrak train to materialise. By midnight we were in our sleeper car on the way to California.
The rest of yesterday afternoon, as we made our way to our next base camp at Flagstaff, we were chased across the Arizona desert by storms. Where there are big skies there can be big weather. (At one stage, looking back, I could see three separate storms behind us on the desert, with good weather in between.) Our hotel boasts a two-mile walk through a Ponderosa pine forest, so we set off for a pre-dinner walk. Half way around, though, a storm raced up on us and we had to run back, lightning and thunder crashing about us. Today, storms have crashed about us, with plenty of spectacular air-to-ground lightning, some of it close by. The locals don’t seem to mind, though. In downtown Flagstaff this afternoon people were wandering around apparently oblivious to the lightning strikes just near them. This evening we ate at Black Barts Steak House, Saloon and Musical Revue. It was a theoretically bizarre dining experience but, in fact, worked very well. From time to time the waiters get up onto a stage and sing – sometimes alone, sometimes with others, and always accompanied by a good pianist. It was great fun. (We quizzed our – singing – waitress. Flagstaff is a university town and most of the waiters and waitresses are stduents). All too quickly our solitary rest day was over. Tomorrow we’re back on the road.
In Flagstaff the old Route 66 is much in evidence, but now as ‘Historic Route 66’ (the route having been decommissioned in 1985). Indeed, since Chicago (or, indeed, since New York) we have been travelling with a Jack Kerouac connection (and, not by coincidence, N° 1 sprog is also reading On the Road on the road, as it were). Kerouac stayed back in Denver for a while. Hugo of New York wants me to point out that Kerouac wrote the following about that experience: “Down in Denver, down in Denver, all I did was die.” I wonder if Hugo has seen the 1995 film, Things to Do in Denver when You’re Dead, in which those particular Kerouac lines, said by Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, get cited. Hugo’s underlying point is that Kerouac got bored in Denver. But did he? According to this blog, he fell in love with the place so much that he bought a house there. As to Denver in On the Road, it appears in Part One, when Sal does a lot of partying, Part Three, when he is sad and lonely, and Part Four, when he sets off towards Texas. I didn’t see the 2012 film adaptation (which got poor reviews). Hugo?
We pulled into Goulding’s trading post for lunch. A storm blew up whilst we were there and, for a short while, there was a torrential downpour (rare to see such a phenomenon in the desert). The trading post had the standard giftshop full of Indian-made trinkets and souvenirs and, off to one side, a nondescript small stone building described as a museum. Preferring a museum to a trinket shop I went to investigate and so stumbled across an enchanting museum with a strong European connection. It is, in fact, the story of three men – Harry Goulding, originally from Durango, Colorado; Josef Muench, originally from Schweinfurt, Bavaria; and John Ford, originally from Cape Elisabeth, Maine – and one woman, Leone Knee, also from Durango. In 1921 Harry married Leone, giving her the nickname ‘Mike’. They set up their trading post, adored the landscape and became close to the local Navajo Indians. Six years later, the young anti-fascist Muench threw a tomato at Adolf Hitler during a Nazi rally in Schweinfurt. Thereafter he realised he was a marked man for the local thugs so he left to seek his fortune in America, ending up in California. A keen amateur photographer, he became entranced by Monument Valley. Whilst taking phorographs there he stayed at Goulding’s many times. When the area was hit by the Great depression, Harry thought that the Valley would be an excellent place to make films, so he and Mike took their last sixty dollars and several of Jozef Muench’s photographs with them to Hollywood. There, they camped outside John Ford’s office, putting the photographs on display. When Ford saw the pictures he was immediately intrigued and decided to make his next (1939) film, Stagecoach, there. It was the film that made John Wayne’s career but it also put Monument Valley into the minds of cinemagoers as quintessential cowboy and Indian territory and thereafter appeared as the backdrop to many films (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, Fort Appache, Cheyenne Autumn, and The Eiger Sanction being among them). Goulding’s then turned into a sort of base camp for film productions, including a canteen and lodgings. All of this is lovingly documented in the museum, which has preserved the trading post and its living quarters, together with many cinematographic momentos, much as they were when Harry and Mike lived there. (The building itself served as an ‘extra’ in several films.) It is a wonderful small museum and well worth a visit.
As we headed south towards Arizona all vegetation disappeared, even the ubiquitous sage brush, and the sandstone rock turned red. Now we were in the desert and the rock formations became ever more spectacular. On the distant horizon they could pass as mythical cities, complete with spires and towers. Closer-up, the rocks reveal their sedimental striations, each surrounded by a sloping skirt of eroded spoil. They are unforgettable sights. We stopped at the ‘Forrest Gump’ point (the one where he runs along the long, straight road) and the Redlands Viewpoint. We could see faint dust towers in the distance, where the native Indians run tours by car and horse for toursists. We knew we would soon be moving on and wouldn’t, alas, have time even for that, let alone to stay for a sunset or a sunrise. But throughout this trip we have consoled ourselves with the idea that these visits are only ‘aperitifs’ – tasters, or appetisers – and that we’ll be back to explore them properly. This is certainly one of those places where it would be good to wander and admire nature’s brilliant sculptures and camp under the stars. And then, in the midst of this, I came across an extraordinary European connection that was in none of our guidebooks, but deserved to be. But that will be for my next post.