25 May 2007

American Diary Part 8 - Chicago day 2

May 25th & 26th Slept really well in a soft bed at the Hostel, no-one snored! Enjoyed a really good breakfast of muffins, coffee, banana and honey nut loops. Then fulled fuelled I set off on foot again to try and view the city from up in the sky. The hostel have special discounts on tickets so for $19 I had both the Sears Tower and John Hancock Towers to enjoy. Walking first to the post office within the financial district (very stunning with impressive architecture, USA flags, marble and limestone) I posted some items back home to lighten my luggage, then walked on to the SEARS TOWER. Luckily today has been calm so the Skydeck was open. At the top, I had an amazing view of the whole city - and it was just like the scene in Ferris Bueller! I even stood on the blue rail and leaned my head against the glass! (no-one was looking). The Tower used to be the tallest in the world before the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, and now a tower in Tai Pei which has the highest inhabited floor, however, the Sears tower has the highest antennas! Sears Tower is 1730 feet to the tip of the antennas. However, it was a bit crowded so after some photos and a quick souvenir shop, I headed down to street level. By now it was 11am and time for my Starbucks fix! Today I mostly had a Skinny Tall Latte and a pannini. Then off to walk the 'Magnificent Mile', so named because it is Magnificent and a mile long! It takes you up the city through the main sky scrapers and over the River - I was aiming for the Hancock Tower. This is the 4th tallest in the USA, after the SEARS Tower, Empire State and the AON building also in Chicago. It was a much better view! I got to see all the buildings and North out over almost 50 miles and 4 states of the USA. Both the SEARS and HANCOCK towers are the same age as me - born in 1970! After that I strolled back down the Magnificent Mile to the Hostel enjoying the sun and the changing architectural styles of the buildings, the water works used to be housed in 'castle like' building and a very lovely church nestles amongst the tallest buildings in the city covered in vines. I sat with a cold drink at the shiny BEAN and watched people taking pics of themselves in the reflections, then passed the waterfalls nearby and got wet as the wind blew the spray over me.. oh well! I'm meeting the group at the baseball game tonight, so will update the blog later. Bye for now! I love Chicago! *********************** May 26th morning - after the ballgame - I am sat in the Public Library in Chicago just 2 mins from the Hostel and the most beautiful building. It is in red stone with very ornate and imposing steel dragons and other gargoyles on each corner of the building, it's very gothic. There are over 130 computers here, set out in rows and I feel like I'm in a scene from Big Brother (the book not the reality show)in complete silence, processing data like lab rats! Anyway, I get one hour free in here to use email and internet so here is an update on the ball game before we leave Chicago in a couple of hours. The Chicago White Sox are not a bad team, they won the World Series (only America competes so I don't see how it can be a *world* series!)in 2005 and last night played a team from Tampa in Florida who were not supposedly that good. Of course we all supported the home team, and arrived at the 'US Cellular Field' via the subway at around 5.30pm. This area of Chicago is several miles away from the skyline but you get an amazing view. We were all given free baseball hats with the team logo, and 'Miller Lite' on the back (official beer to the stadium) Once inside, we climbed the stairs to our level (almost at the very top to our - cheap but good - seats) and wandered around the interior looking for something to eat, maybe some souvenirs and just soaking up the pre-game excitement. I bought some Nachos which nearly blew my head off and a ht chocolate to keep warm. By 7pm the game was underway after the usual frenzy whipping that to introduce the teams. We had agreat view of the pitch right above the 'plate' (technical term) The game was a little tricky to follow but it was fun - many strange and mysterious goings on between the umpires, pitcher (bowler) and catcher (wicket keeper) and lots and lots of cheering and shouting from the crowds as they consumed more and more beer. It reminded me of a 20:20 cricket game with music, video, games and prizes to keep the crowds entertained, also it was a 70's themed night which added to the fun as they played classic tracks from the disco/rock/funk era. I was freezing! the wind blew across the pitch and I didn't have a coat or jacket. Despite this, it was fun, and I would go again. Our tour leader Dan tried to explain what was going on, but the funniest thing was a guy behind us who was bellowing down to the players every word of encouragement, criticism, abuse, sarcasm and frustration he could muster under the influence of many (and I mean many, cos we saw how many he drank) bottles of beer! He was harmless and very entertaining. The game was even, with some very fast pitching (up to 94 mph) and some great hits into the crowds along with a few catches. It ended up 4-4 with just a few pitches left and the Sox looked as if they were heading for a rather lacklustre draw after some mediochre late pitching . However, a Japanese Sox player stepped up and hit a beauty allowing another sox player on 3rd to make it to 4th base and claim a victory 5-4. The stadium erupted with fireworks and cheering - it was great! As we left, the city at night was clearly visible all lit up with the Sears and Hancock towers sporting pink antennae and lots of other sparkly lights across the skyline - surely one of the best city views in the world? It rained heavily as we left, so we waited inside for the crowds to go and luckily the trains ran on time so before long I was back at the hostel and into bed to get warm! So that was my Chicago experience! The next 2 days will take us across Illinois, camping along the Mississipi river tonight near to Milwakee, then onto South Dakota and the Badlands - the American Prairie with the Black Mountains & Mt Rushmore, then into Wyoming and down to Yellowstone, Utah and across to San Francisco arriving there around the 9th June. We will therefore be leaving the big cities behind us for a while and I may not have the opportunity for blogging before we get to San Francisco. The USA has an image of having the best of everything, but Internet Cafes are not part of that image! There is plenty of WIFI but no good unless you have your own pc. I continue to be amazed and pleasantly surprised by the way of life here in the USA. People are friendly & happy, service is good everywhere, there is little evidence of trouble on the streets (granted I have not visited the rough areas), and the cities are extremely clean and well looked after. Best of all, the loos are of a high standard everywhere!!! Kx

American Diary Part 7 - CHICAGO Illinois

MAY 24th Happy Birthday MUM! Leaving the Toledo area we drove across I90 on the northern tip of Indiana state and into Illinois to arrive at Chicago around 12noon. We had to put our watches back on hour and gained some time, so before entering the city we stopped at the Baseball stadium for the Chicago white sox to buy tickets for the game tomorrow - should be fun!. Dan dropped us off in the hostel (not bad for $40 per night) and after dumping my bags I headed off alone to explore the city. One of my fave films (remember the bus ride to Boston) is Ferris Bueller's day Off. Set in this city, he plays truant from school and has fun in the city - including a baseball game and the Sears tower - I hope to do both although the city is different now than it was some 25 years ago, they have a new stadium for a start. I walked the street towards the start of Millenium Park and stopped for a Starbucks then wandered through the park which gies wonderful views of the skyline and has a few interesting sculptures to look at - the best is the BEAN or cloud city which is a mettalic bean shape as big as a house which reflects the city and you and twisted and wonderful ways. With the sun shining and the wind blowing warm across the city it was the perfect day for a walk. I continued through a lovely garden of lavender and down to the large waterfall then over the busy main shoreline road to see the marina of yachts and powerboats on Lake Michigan, then left along the shore path for 2 miles to the Navy Pier. This is an area of tacky attractions and fast food so not for me, instead I took a boat trip into the city along the Chicago river with a commentary on the buildings and architecture of this wonderful vertical city. The SEARS Tower is the tallest in the USA and after pizza with Nicole we walked in the fading daylight to the tower hoping for a night view of th city from the top floor only to find it closed due to hight wind. I will try again tomorrow. My other plan is to walk several miles to the John Hancock tower which also has fine views albeit from the 3rd highest tower in the city. Chicago is not what I expected from seeing Ferris Bueller and episodes of ER! The 'L' train runs around the loop of downtown and is a unique feature of the city, the streets are clean and friendly and the whole place has a nice atmosphere. I am saddened to think that our cities and towns in the UK are generally dirty, crowded and poorly maintained with miserable people and surly employees. I am loving the cities of America, and indeed the back roads!

American Diary Part 6 -Cleveland OHIO

MAY 23rd Left Niagara early morning with a brief coffee stop at the local gas station. On the subject of gas - I am staggered by the volume of cars, giant trucks (road trains) giant motorhomes (land yachts) and other gas guzzling vehicles on the highway. With all that petrol being consumed, it's clear that the USA has a major decision to make if it is serious about reducing emissions..... smaller cars maybe? Heading north on I90 (the main interstate for the first half of our trek) we crossed into Pensylvania, then OHIO to reach CLEVELAND on the shores of Lake Eerie. Famous for not much really, this ciry has the ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME which deserved at least 4 hours of our time and I thought it was great! highlights for me included seeing the costume worn by David Bowie in his Ashes to Ashes tour and the stage set for the Pink Floyd concert THE WALL including the giant puppets of the headmaster and the wall itself. There were lots of other things, not least the architecture and the setting along the shore of the lake, the hot weather (30 degrees) and the display of giant guitars at the entrance which made this stop worthwhile. The shoreline was deserted and calm with the lake waters stretching far away like the ocean. Back together in the bus and continuing on across OHIO state (largely agricultural with farms, crops and livestock) I watched the scenery unfold as we passed loads of typical American barn style farms in sienna coloured timber and white picket fences. Late in the evening we arrived at our campsite near to TOLEDO in OHIO, another nice site in the trees and good facilities. Supper was chilli tacos from Nicole and Min - we now have 2 nights in a hostel in Chicago so my next cooking duty is not until Saturday.

American Diary part 5 - Finger Lakes & Niagara

MAY 21st We left camp early and on the road by 8am North across parts of Pensylvania and back into New York state through small towns suck as Binghampton and Lisle to reach the Finger Lakes near to Ithica - home to Cornell University one of the IVY League. The scenery here is much like parts of central Europe with rolling hills covered in forest broken by rivers and towns dotted amongst the valleys along the interstate. Homes are very pretty made of timber and not unlike those in Maine. Ithaca looks to be a lovely place but we didn't visit, instead we headed to the shoreline of Lake Cayuga (one of 11 lakes formed by glaciers) to set up camp and hike up to the Taughannok Falls, a cascading waterfall as high as Niagara but much less water. It is all very pretty and quiet (summer kicks of on May 26th) so we had a barbecue on the shoreline (bit chilly) with Paul and Marijke cooking for the 2nd night. The facilities on the KOA (kamp america) sites are good generally. May 22nd Travelling across the region known at the MID ATLANTIC states we stayed in NY state to reach the famous tourist spot of NIAGARA FALLS.. At this point you are no doubt hoping for a photo.. I have plenty but cannot load them onto this PC so you'll have to wait! Niagara is a confused town with an identity crisis - half Vegas, half Lanzarote it has a natural feature which draws a crowd but little else for me. If you like the Canaries then you wil *love* this place (for the trashy amusements, nightlife and souvenirs)s. As a group we crossed into Canada for the afternoon to get the best views of the 3 falls aboard the Maid of the Mist (wearing a stupid plastic souvenir rain poncho). American Falls in the highest, then Bridal Veil falls and finally the Horseshow Falls - the most spectacular. I was glad we had crossed the border - it was well worth it, but the falls did not take my breath away as I had hoped. They are amazing but the tourist trap around it takes the majesty away and it just looks bigger than it actually is on the postcards! I then paid an extra $12 for the "Journey Behind the Falls" and another plastic poncho only to find that the 'journey' was a 'wasted' one...... If you go there, don't bother with this. Leaving Canada walking across Rainbow Bridge I then wandered around Goat Island on the USA side of the Falls and was rewarded with some incredible close up views of the water rushing over the gorge and the best viewpoint at Terrapin Point - worth the 30 minute walk. I also recommend the Observation Deck which for $1 allows you to stand out over the gorge and look down at the boats below. By 5pm we were back in the bus and off to find a grocery store before making camp at the local Niagara KOA - a nice spot with grass, a fishing pond and great showers! Supper was pasta with sausage from our German friends Chris and Nick. This camping lark is easy!

American Diary Part 4 - Leaving New York

Since my last entry I have travelled across 3 more states and arrived in Chicago. Before I tell you about my first day in the Windy City, here's an update on the past few days. Sunday 20th May I spent a sunny Sunday in New York wandering through Central Park along with joggers and charity walkers and browsed some shops before joining the Suntrek tour group in the Jazz on the Park Hostel around the corner from my swanky hotel. I have been really impressed with New York which is a pleasant and easy city to walk around - I'll definitely be back. Highlights of Central Park included - The reservoir named after Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy with a surrounding jogging track and excellent views of the city skyline. The Cleopatra's needle nestling amongst trees on the East side. Belvedere castle - a tiny but perfectlt positioned fantasy castle on a high piece of ground in the park with turrets, balconies and stairways that disney would be proud of, with a pond below filled with turtles swimming around! Shakespeare's Garden - a gorgeous floral display alive with spring colour and footpaths winding up a small hill. The sheep meadow, a spacious green area where animals grazed centuries ago, now used for picnics, concerts, ball games and general relaxing. The stony outcrops which appear through the park offering vantage points for photos or simply lying in the sun. The various stone bridges, the Lake, the trees and wildlife. I must have walked over 6 miles that day and with most of the roads blocked for the AIDS charity walk, I had to find my way back to the hostel on foot, so was tired, hot and thirsty when I got there! I saw no trouble in New york, felt perfectly at ease the whole time and will go back when I get the chance. By 2pm I had met some members of the tour and by 3pm we were all together, 7 travellers and 2 tour guide: Me 36 from England, Dan the tour leader about 25-28, Nicole 20 from Adelaide, Min 22 from Korea, Chris 19 from Stuttgart and his friend Nick also 19 from Stuttgart and Mariajka and Paul a couple in their 50's from Winchester in England. Our transport is a 13 seater mini van with all our gear loaded on the roof, so once our bags were stowed we left the city bound for our first night of camping. Crossing the George Washington bridge we entered New Jersey briefly then back into New York state for the 3 hour drive north on I87 and I84 arriving at a small place called PLATTEKIL for the night. As a group we share duties on trek and I have been assigned to shopping duties with Nicole. So armed with the group's money I went into the supermarket and bought loads of cheap food for breakfast, lunches and dinner. Each of us will share cooking duties, but for the first night I made Spag bog with Nicole and it was fine! We each have a tent which is easy to put up,after 4 days I can manage it in under 12 minutes! So far the weather has been fine so no wet and windy episodes with a fly sheet and tent pegs! This is ourdaily routine... driving... shopping... tent building and eating.. sleeping... tent destroying and driving! Amid all the driving we stop for coffee and some sight-seeing. So our first night was simply a lesson in tenting then some food and sleep. The Trek adventure had begun!