As soon as you get outside the airport and buildings, you appreciate you're on another continent by the sounds and sights of nature. Even in the big cities there are always a few sturdy birds hopping around. The hefty American Robin wasn't as tame as the English one but still common enough to become a familiar sight. The exotic-looking but equally widespread Red Winged Blackbird turned out to be the bird of the trip. first spotted in Mt Auburn Cemetery in Boston, we managed to match the bird with its calls in Ottawa, and finally identified it at the Wetlands Centre in Morris. There were other birds that were more easily identified: the Great Egret is just a big version of the Little Egret which is now a common sight in England; the Pelican which looks like nothing else; and cormorants, sparrows and swallows which may be different varieties but which look enough like their English equivalents to be immediately recognised. Other birds made an impression, but never got their proper title - the striking orangey-red and black bird in the cemetery that was perhaps an oriole, the probable waxwing near Grand Marais, and - during the 4th of July cookout - a miniature woodpecker that flitted about, unfazed by the noise and people.
Animals were a lot more difficult to spot except for squirrels and chipmunks which appeared at the slightest hint of food. Minnesota actually proved the most abundant with a deer, and a very placid groundhog which was apparently using the section of road between the white edging line and the ditch as a sidewalk. It also produced a small grey ground thing which moved too quickly to get a name. New York State did provide a raccoon, probably because that was the only time I was out walking of an evening. Boston's highlight was the bull frogs which I'd never heard before in real life, and even though they are quite big when you spot them, it's still a surprising amount of sound for something tea plate sized.
The moose, alas, remained unseen, but peering into every clearing and marsh I passed in Canada did prove a good method of keeping alert. Insects played their part, sometimes delightful like the Monarch Butterfly, and the chequered dragonfly of Morris, and sometimes NOT like the Minnesota mosquito and ticks.
The main feature of the eastern landscape was trees - a lot of trees. My nephew agreed that for Old England people it was the distinct feature of New England. Although there were many dwellings and small farms scattered around, the main impression is forest. Canada produced yet more forests but with more water. Not just the edges of the Great Lakes that I drove around but many smaller lakes and little patches of standing water and marsh. Many places I drove through had mountains as a backdrop, some gained a name like the coastal Cadillac Mountain, or Mt Washington, others remained aloof, just acquaintances that kept me company for part of the journey. Minnesota allowed me to see the beginning of the prairies. It produced recognisable, if large, fields of crops, interspersed with single or small copses of trees which had usually been planted by the early settlers.
It was obvious why there had been a Land Rush. If you were a farmer in Maine cultivating your crop of stones then land where you could actually plough a strip more than 200 yards long must have seemed too good a chance to pass by. Corn was the most obvious crop (used for animal feed and the production of ethanol) but a bit of a problem since it is very greedy in taking nutrients from the ground. So even when rotated with nitrogen-rich crops it always needs a lot of fertiliser.
Since I usually go to the Americas for "the fall" I'd never had the chance to appreciate the wild flowers before. Lupins have spread along the roadside of Maine, producing beautiful shades from white to dark purple which can make you forget they're behaving as a pernicious weed. By other roads were white, yellow and orange flowers. Stopping somewhere might produce a close up of a blue flower which doesn't seem to show up when you're driving past. Walking reveals purple vetch and something like a birds foot trefoil, and glimpses of individual white flowers in the shade of a wood.
Urban and town flowers were out in force, and talking proved interesting. A surprising number of flowers will survive a harsh winter blanketed by the snow, sturdy old favourites like verbascum thrive from one year to the next. Some people use pots of bright summer flowers like geraniums and begonias to bring instant colour to a short season. Others use native plants in the garden with the knowledge that they'll not need much looking after! Both Ottawa and Morris have experimental farms and gardens which trialled different varieties, and which managed to produce a lovely show in the meantime.
Towns and cities have their own attractions. The Roman Catholic cathedral in Ottawa is beautifully decorated inside, giving a glimpse of what English cathedrals looked like before the Reformation. Minneapolis and St Paul had some unique and attractive skyscrapers, which drag the eye upward as you drive around. (Or, in this case, as I was driven around, which was just as well!) In Boston the new bridge over the river (called the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, and I'm never going to remember that) which was one of the main features of the Big Dig is actually lovely to look at, especially when illuminated at night. I was lucky that each of the cities I visited was built when humans and not cars were the main inhabitants. Boston is, of course, a great walking city - particularly when the alternative is driving! Ottawa is a truly scenic city with its main buildings placed to advantage by the water, and attractive little courtyards set back from the main streets. Also, a lot or parkland and greenery, to say nothing of the Experimental Farm which seems very popular with the city dwellers. Although lapillus did do a lot of driving so I could see as much as possible, there were places where we stopped and it was easy to walk around. In winter they have the skyways, above street level covered walkways connecting buildings, so you don't have to go out more than necessary!
Out in the countryside, other manmade features add interest to the landscape. The train crossings and tracks gave a reminder of another world where trains provided the means of crossing the country. I did see several of the giant freight trains stretching apparently for miles across the land. Morris was one of the towns built specifically to provide a stopping place for trains, and freight trains still run frequently. weathergirllj and I spent a pleasant 10 minutes sitting in the shade watching a train go past, and the distinctively American sound of the warning whistle could be heard in her house. And I mustn't leave trains without a mention of the very efficient and swift Downeaster which took me from Boston and deposited me at the sweet-smelling rose-surrounded station at Portland.
In Minnesota water towers mark the location of each town, usually adorned with the town's name. I'd never quite understood their function since they don't seem able to hold much water, but their function is to raise the water to a high enough level to provide water pressure for the town's plumbing. Obvious when it's explained to you ... Morris not only has a water tower but a wind turbine giving it a unique skyscape amongst local towns.
Wherever I went people were happy to show me their houses. It was not so much that they were houseproud as house-fond, perhaps because they don't tend to move so much as in the UK, and so get attached to where they live. They would describe the history of the house, point out particularly neat features, describe improvements they'd made or were going to make. (Although I still think no one should get that excited over loft insulation, Nick :-) ) Amongst the places I stayed wooden houses predominated since that is an easily available resource (see section above on trees!), but Nick and Erin had plumped for the English style brick. It also appeared to me that brick or stone were more popular in Canada, and you were as likely to see a stone farmhouse as a wooden one.
Every house seems to have a basement which serves the same purpose as a loft in England - storage with plumbing/wiring, but with the advantage that you can stick utilities like washing machines in there. One of weathergirllj's friends in Morris had a particularly attractively-decorated basement that she used as a workspace/studio. Conversely most bedrooms go right up to the roof with little space above.
Although wooden houses next to each other can be a little different in floorplan, they do seem quite similar from the outside, whichever century they were built in. 20th century houses tend to have more storage space and older houses can have neat features like tin ceilings - a cheap and robust way of reproducing plaster moulding. The last house I was shown around in Boston was interesting since the owner thinks it was designed or built by someone from the South. It had features like high ceilings and a lot of external surface area such as bay windows which you wouldn't normally find in a cold climate.
Some practicalities I liked such as the loos where the water disappears when you flush, providing a more consistent disposal. Some I didn't like the unearthed electric plugs which always looked slightly dangerous to a British eye. Taps (faucets) sometimes provided a challenge. Press? Pull? Lift? Press and lift? Twiddle hopefully?
Coming from a background where "Do you want salt and vinegar on that?" used to be the main question asked about eating out, I was sometimes driven to distraction by the amount of choices offered with American food. But a big success on the trip was the Subway chain where you can get a sandwich made up just with the fillings you want - a great option for lunch when you don't want to be driving after a heavy meal.
I was in America for 3 months in 1998 and I've had a couple of holidays there since, but it did seem to me that portions have gotten smaller which is always a big plus for me. I always feel defeated before I start when faced with a huge plate of food, but I can graze industriously when offered something like cheese and fruit, or a buffet, where you take a small bit then come back for more. It's still easy to get big portions as my 'ribs' meal proved, but "lite" options are more easily available.
I didn't have a bad meal anywhere, but particular highlights were Pat's chowder, and chicken with duck sauce and fiddlehead fern heads; the fresh mussels picked by the "Golden Girls" of Maine; a really tasty goats cheese salad in Ottawa; the turkey, brie and apple panini at Susie Q's Sunshine Cafe in the Adirondacks; (Aside: This was a log cabin style bar and restaurant off the I87 highway in NY state where I opened the door and all the men sitting at the bar turned round as one to look at the newcomer, which gave me a "Deliverance" moment, but as you can tell from the panini it wasn't exactly a rough roadhouse!) the scrummy dessert carefully chose by Claire for the Minnesota Pot Luck, and watermelon in Minneapolis and Boston. Carrots remained the only disappointment seeming to have lost their sweetness somewhere when crossing the Atlantic.
Some of the extra touches at the meals were also noteworthy, the wandering guitarist at the Loch Brae Inn; the view from the restaurant at Carolyn Beach, and the pizza delivery man dressed in a Superman costume :-)
I've talked a lot about things in this update but, of course, the main purpose of this trip was visiting people. I won't be too specific about names and locations since it's always best to be a little vague on the Internet.
Most of the people I stayed with were former X-Files fans. One of the big advantages of the Internet is the ability to exchange views on subjects which interest you. You can chat with many people on a subject, but when you start finding other things in common is the moment when acquaintances start becoming friends.
When I first went online my main hobby was cross stitch, and although I knew a couple of people in Real Life who did it there were a lot more in the Compuserve Fibercrafts forum. I think that it was probably 14 or 15 years ago that I was there, but I've had the pleasure of meeting Linn and Libby, and know where other old members now hang out.
Although my interest in X-Files has waned since the series ended, it's still fun to meet up with people who had that interest. Quite often they also like other scifi/fantasy series and books so that provides a link to our initial connection. Conversation alternates between "Do you remember?" and "Have you seen?" with the odd diversion into "and what do you do for a living?" My nephew Nick gets a honorary pass to this group since he's a scifi fan, while Erin looks on with the bemused resignation of most of my friends and family :-)
Some of the people I stayed with I'd met before, but in England, so it was fun not only to meet them but to see them in their "natural habitat". It was also a pleasure meeting friends of friends who turned up at various meals, and learning a little about their varied lives. The 4th of July party proved particularly interesting since people turned up who even the hostess didn't know, and overhearing all the conversations was like channel-hopping on a TV.
Staying with people instead of in hotels also gives you a chance to learn more about a location than just the surface appearance. I always find everyday things like the food shops where people shop fascinating.
This last section is more for my own reference, but it might prove useful to others. The hire car I had was a Chevrolet Malibu which seemed huge to me, although all the locals assured me it wasn't any size at all. I found it rather clunky and heavy, particularly when braking since I don't think the one I drove had ABS, and it wavered over the road a bit the first couple of times I braked. To its credit it was very comfortable, and since it was an automatic with cruise control, driving on long distances was mostly like sitting in a train seat except you had to remember to steer. I could do about 400 miles on 3/4 tank of fuel so it covered me for the longest stretches I drove in a day. Road surfaces were not too bad to drive on, and Highway 17 in Canada seemed particularly well kept up, considering the number of heavy lorries using it.
There were a lot of roadworks going on since this can only be done in the summer, and the coned lanes seemed narrower than in the UK (wider car?) so they could be quite difficult to drive through. Toll booths were the low point of the driving. I didn't object to paying, but the scrum of cars beforehand was very confusing when you didn't know which lane to go into, and at one booth you had to throw coins into a plastic funnel until it would let you through!
Turnings were not very obvious; there wasn't usually much in the way of road markings at junctions so I quite often drove past a turning which I should have taken. However, the BIG hit of the trip was the Tomtom 910 that a friend lent to me. It gave clear and useful navigation information through America and Canada, both by voice and map, and patiently found new routes when you'd gone astray. In cities it told you where in the road to position yourself for a ramp which was a godsend where you're trying to keep one eye on your speed, one on the traffic, and one on the road signs. There was the occasional aberration, like an unnecessary detour on Highway 2 in Vermont, and moments on Highway 17 where it tended to show you going straight on when you'd just gone round a bend - not a major problem since there was only one road you could be on! I even used it in Boston as a walking navigation aid when I didn't have a map to get somewhere.
Overall the driving was straightforward and not too tiring. I found the yoga exercises I've picked up helped to relax the back and neck muscles when they started getting tense. This meant I was able to drive about 1100 miles from Ottawa to just past Duluth, MN over 3 days without getting too stiff. If I was doing that trip again I might take longer to enjoy more stops, but I always found staying alert in Canada easy, and didn't even play any music during the journey. I'm not sure I'd ever do such a holiday again, but it all went amazingly well and will be a pleasure to look back on for years to come.
Pictures of America
Pictures of Canada
Pictures of Morris