Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Country Review: USA

Dates there: 24th to 28th February, 22nd to 27th July, 6th August to 1st September, all 2014: 37 days

USA's Wonders: Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Mount Rushmore, The Gateway Arch, Walt Disney World, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam

Also visited: The Bean/Cloud Gate, the Chrysler Building, the Bay Bridge, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood sign, Willis Tower/Sears Tower, Hancock Center, Crazy Horse Memorial, Cahokia Mounds, One World Trade Center

On the Longlist: The White House, the Pentagon, United States Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Mesa Verde

A lot of people compare America to Europe. They are roughly the same size, have very roughly the same number of people, and are both advanced and interesting places. You can find the same amount of variety, these people say, in America as you can Europe. As with Europe, the culture in America varies widely between state to state. It's a continent in itself, not just in size, but culturally too. To which I say: bollocks.

America is a great country but it is a country of highlights. And its highlights are excellent. Some of the cities, some of the landscape, some of the buildings are truly world class. America has a lot of amazing locations within it. But let's be honest, step away from the highlights and you find a vast country with wide open spaces and not a lot happening. In Europe, you could quite easily spend months crossing the continent, travelling no more than an hour per day, and always visit somewhere enchanting. Italy and France alone could delay you for years. In America, and especially if you move away from the coasts, the country descends into vast plains, highways, parking lots, and McDonald's Drive-Thrus. The US has a lot of killer moments, but an awful lot of filler too. Don't be despondent about this, Americans, because you're a new country, not quite 240 years old. You can't fill 10 million square kilometres with great stuff in that time. Europe has had several millennia and countless kingdoms and cultures and styles to make their land pretty. You've done a good job in your two-and-a-bit centuries. Although it might have helped if you hadn't almost completely wiped out the original people, culture, and history that used to be there...

Happily, for most visitors to America, it's the highlights we see. The big cities, the famous landmarks. With one exception, that was how Danielle and I approached our travels in America. I had my Wonders listed, and we visited them. America is so big that the best way was usually just to fly between the locations. In theory, I greatly prefer the idea of travelling on land, but it simply wasn't practical. Either we'd have had to hire a car for most of the travels, or take a horrendous series of Greyhound buses. America is not set up for travellers who want to rely upon public transport. Trains are in very short supply, and are expensive, and buses may link the larger locations, but usually not directly, and anywhere off the beaten track is impossible. Good luck on visiting Mount Rushmore, for example, by public transport - it's simply not possible.

Let's get to it then. America has a ton of prospective Wonders and other very notable landmarks. Much of them could be due to this:

That, as you may astutely observe, is the Hollywood sign. Though hardly a feat of greatness, it is nonetheless a hugely iconic sight, set on the hills of Los Angeles, overlooking the city. Hollywood and its great publicity machine are, in my view, one of America's greatest achievements, and responsible for America's cultural domination of the globe. The Hollywood sign in itself is unspectacular - it's very small when seen from LA - but it's very recognisable, very famous.

Los Angeles was a kind of stopover for Danielle and myself, en route from South America to Australia, and we had just four days there. We didn't like it at all. What a ghastly city. It is a city built for cars, and few cities built for cars have anything in the way of charm. Step outside of your car and the city is a grim one, full of poverty and mental illness, hence why it seems most people just lock themselves in their vehicles and drive around all day. Not having a car, we used public transport, which took hours to get anywhere, and was filled with poor, destitute souls. If you want to remind yourself of the benefits of paying taxes and having decent social services, just visit LA and take the metro everywhere. Or have a walk around.

LA does have its moments, although many of them are rather dependent on being famous in films, but a genuine highlight is the Walt Disney Concert Hall. In an otherwise depressing city centre, it's a wonderful chunk of weird metal futurism from Frank Gehry.

Enough of LA - I hope never to return. A far better city is New York. In fact, it's one of the world's great cities and needs little introduction. It began our travels of America proper. It's a city of highlights and a city of landmarks. The skyline tells much of the story - this is a confident, packed, bold city. It has classic skyscrapers, the best of them built in a day when technology was at that happy pre-glass-and-steel phase, and when skyscrapers were a thing of beauty. New York went for Art Deco gorgeousness. The Empire State Building is one of its most famous examples, grabbing the headlines for being the tallest building in the world (which it held onto for decades) but holding onto the acclaim deservedly because it also looks terrific.

The Chrysler Building similarly. It was briefly the tallest in the world before the Empire State Building took its crown. If we're talking crowns though, then just look at the Chrysler Buildings spire on top, its defining feature. Many people think it's better looking than the Empire State Building. I don't; although the spire is certainly very attractive, I don't think the overall building is as attractive. Regardless, the two of them are better looking than just about any other super-skyscraper built since.

The One World Trade Center is a case in point. It's a sleek glass tower, and massive. While not bad looking at all, let's not pretend it's a world's best. Its height is the main selling point, besides being the replacement for its famous twin predecessors. But plonk it down in Shanghai or Dubai or Hong Kong, and nobody would give it a second look.

The Statue of Liberty, on the other hand, would gain a second look anywhere in the world. It's a true one-off.

After New York, we popped over to Canada for a week, then re-emerged into the US and into Chicago. Alas, it was an all-too-brief day-and-a-half we spent in Chicago. From the moment we arrived, we fell in love with the city. It has that Art Deco, old school 1920s and 30s skyscraper look to it, and has a New York sense of "being." It doesn't have any Wonders per se, but still has some great stuff. The Bean is one.

I'm not sure whether Willis Tower (or Sears Towers as it should really be called) qualifies as being great, but it is very tall indeed. I quite like it. It's a bit of a beast but at least has personality.

And the Hancock Center, while not a world's best, has some personality too. All of Chicago has a personality. That's what distinguishes cities like it and New York from the likes of Los Angeles.

A little detour then. And a little road trip. A road trip through the Midwest! Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Hmm, turns out that driving for 13 hours along straight roads on flat plains is a bit on the dull side. It is these kind of environments that the aformentioned McDonald's Drive-Thrus become genuinely appreciated landmarks. Hell, it was a pleasure to stop at them, and admire the boxy architecture just for something to do. The problem is that there were no viable alternatives ways of visiting Mount Rushmore. Flights to Rapid City weren't affordable, and the Greyhound bus took about 17 days. But once at Mount Rushmore - it was worth the effort. 

As a bonus, nearby is another mountain sculpture, this once still in-progress. It's the Crazy Horse Memorial, and it's much larger  than Mount Rushmore.

Back to Chicago then... 13 hours later. And then the bus - just six hours! - to St Louis, one of the surprise hits of the entire travels. When we visited, the rioting was in full swing, but it was all taking place in a suburb and we saw nothing out of the ordinary at all. The locals were friendly and welcoming, and St Louis - although built for cars - was a green and pleasant city. Naturally, the focal point is the Gateway Arch, a truly striking structure by the Mississippi.

Nearby St Louis is another city, but this one is an ancient, lost one. America is indeed a modern nation, but it is built upon the remains of old ones. The native population of America is so devastated that they are all but invisible today. At least in the Latin Americans countries indigenous populations still stamp their identity; sadly not so in the US. But once, well before the Europeans came in and killed off everybody with guns and disease, America was a thriving hotbed of tribes and civilisations. Let's not pretend it was a utopia, but it was developed and organised. You have to look hard to find that these days. Cahokia, near St Louis, is one of the finest examples of an ancient Native city - but you could quite easily visit St Louis and never hear about it. The problem is, the people back then built with wood and earth rather than stone, so most of their city is gone. Today, Cahokia is a series of mounds, that at first look like small grassy hills until you look a little closer and realise the shape is somewhat more regular than nature usually goes for.

There are lots of such mounds in a concentrated area, and once a lot more before St Louis levelled them to make way for roads and McDonald's Drive Thrus.

Cahokia is far from the only one. Maybe more famous is Mesa Verde, in Colorado. We didn't visit this but it looks pretty spectacular, with the most famous part being ruins set inside a cliff. There's a lot more  too, and dotted around the United States are numerous archaeological sites. But nobody in America seems to care. We prefer to think of America as brand new; having some ancient ruins doesn't really fit with the story.

After St Louis was, depending on your point of view, a treat or a punishment: Disney World. My God, it's intense. I rather enjoyed it - but I'd happily never return. (Danielle even during the trip was planning future visits, so it would seem like I'll cross paths with Mickey and Tinkerbell at some point in my life again.)

Some bridges next, in San Francisco. Of course, the city has a lot more than this:

And this, the longer but less spectacular Bay Bridge:

But there's no doubt they are key parts of the city. San Francisco was wonderful, living up to its reputation and moreso.

Las Vegas next. It's difficult to know how to summarise Vegas in a few sentences, so I'll just say that it's awful, ghastly, impossibly weird, and intermittently hugely enjoyable. It looks spectacularly tacky in a genuinely impressive way. It's another place I'd happily not visit again. Our reason for being there was the nearby Hoover Dam, which is partly to blame for Vegas exisiting in its current form. I've often found dams a bit underwhelming in the past, but the Hoover Dam is a superior dam and justified its inclusion in my shortlist.

That was our trip then. A terrific rapid-fire highlights trip of one of the world's powerhouses. The only significant destination we missed out was the capital itself. Washington, D.C. is packed full of famous, bombastic landmarks, but none of them seemed to quite make it onto my shortlist. I kind of regret that in hindsight. Just look at the following - all them are world famous and I'd absolutely love to visit. Next time, next time...

1 comment:

  1. I went to Washington DC in 1999 and found it to be a pleasant and interesting city to visit. Regarding the 5 photos above:

    - White House: very interesting to see considering that it is the seat of power of the United States and is one of those buildings that is so well known that it is quite impressive when you actually see it with your own eyes. However architecturally it is a run-of-the-mill neo-classical mansion, and there are two very similar ones (in France and Ireland) that resemble it to such an extent that it is said that they were the inspiration for it (especially as, regarding the latter, the architect was Irish). Then again, and my bias against the neo-classical style may be showing here, it's quite hard to be original within the constraints of that style, in my opinion anyway, so maybe the architect had never heard of the two aforementioned mansions and the White House ended up looking like them anyway ("Pillars? Check. Portico? Check. Symetry? Check. Right, we've got ourselves our neo-classical building. Let's build it and then go to lunch")

    - United States Capitol: kind of the same as above, except it stands out more (perhaps by its size and fame) against its peers of the same style (domed neo-classical buildings).

    - Pentagon: I did not see it while I was there.

    - Lincoln Memorial: now I am going to contradict myself regarding the neo-classical style (there is always an exception to every rule) but I did find it truly superb. I think your photo above sums it up pretty well. It is perfectly proportioned, not huge but still imposing. The statue of Lincoln is perfect for it and it has the Gettysburg Address speech carved into the wall so it does its job perfectly as a memorial. It is not flashy, but imposing, has a certain gravitas, architecturally pleasing to the eye and honours its recipient succinctly as to his major achievements. I still remember my moment there clearly despite it being more than 15 years ago.

    - Washington Monument: I liked it. There is no obelisk of that size anywhere which in itself is a major "selling point", and of course it is part of the Washington Mall so is a focal point of an impressive whole in terms of the urban layout of the area.

    My favourite parts of Washington DC were actually the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Museum of American History. The city in itself (in the centre at least, that I visited) was pleasant to stroll around but no real moments of oohing and aahing at the buildings themselves, with the exception of the aforementioned Lincoln Memorial (and that was mostly for when I was inside it).


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