East Coast Exploration

United States of America

Christmas came and went, and on either side of it there featured a survey of coastal New Zealand. For me to say its beaches are the finest in the world is biased, but to say anything else would be dishonest. They are a delight, and they’d be great for a visit, too, if not for the relentless sun beating down upon them. A sun whose rays scorch the country from head to toe, unhampered by ozone. It was on Waiheke, then, that Vic & I found ourselves soaking in perilous amounts of it. It was a calm scene: the ocean lapping gently at our feet, a bounty of snacks at our sides, yet I was uneasy. We were about to begin a journey through the North American east on our way to Berlin. At this time of year, the east coast resembled more of an arctic wasteland than a tourist destination. Winter, like an ozone layer, is not one of New Zealand’s features, fluctuating instead between mild and milder. I had no training for the bitter curtain of winter we were about to enter, much less a wardrobe for it (would I need my jandals?).

We arrived in New York and travelled west towards Ohio to attend a family birthday. On a tight deadline, our traversal inland allowed just a few nights stay in Philadelphia. Founded in 1682, Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities in the union, a title we saw was well deserved as we wandered through the historic quarters. Despite such an illustrious past, however, there was no mistaking it as a city that had fallen on spectacularly hard times — an aberration it had yet to recover from. Near the river sits Elfreth’s Alley: the nations oldest residential street. This street in particular seemed to me a suitable metaphor for the state of the union at large: several houses for sale, two boarded up, a third cordoned off from the public — a victim of foreclosure — and at the far end, a parking lot. As we caught a bus out of town, I reflected on the utopian summer we had left behind, concluding this grim outlook of mine had more to do with Waiheke than Philly.

The Benjamin Franklin Bridge looms over the Delaware river in Philadelphia
Graffiti near the Delaware river A busking saxophonist performs ballads in Philadelphia's city centre

"Love is who you are, ego is who you think you are" - words from a busking saxophonist on the streets of Philadelphia (above right).

Hard times in Philadelphia: A pier sits, derelict, on the Delaware river near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge
Signs point toward the Delaware river Famous for good reason: The Philly Cheese-steak in all its caloric glory
Coats hang among the autographs in Jim's Steaks — location of Philadelphia's best cheese-steak Dinner is served at the Shaffer household in Cincinnati

From the mysterious Amish couple that climbed aboard to the round of applause as we pulled into Popeye’s fried chicken & biscuits, the bus ride to Ohio was an exposé on American subculture. What was an otherwise palatable Greyhound experience began to splinter as we endured countless demands to disembark at each station, sometimes left for hours as an imaginary cleaning was performed on the bus. All hope of comfort was lost when a passenger’s rectal escapades rendered the air in the cabin unbreathable.

Having earned a doctorate in long-distance bus travel during my time in India, I was surprised that the American transit experience had been roundly beaten by the bare-boned bunk-bed buses of Indian infamy. 15 hours later we were dumped in Cincinnati, shells of our former selves.

The memorial tree of Jack Shaffer, 19212-2011, in French park, Cincinatti An old chevvy sits in the parking lot admist the trees in French Park, Cincinatti

A tree planted in memory of my Grandfather, Jack Shaffer, in French park, Cincinatti. Alone for three years, it now finds company in a neighbouring sappling planted for my Uncle, Mark Shaffer, whom passed away in 2014.

For me, Cincinnati is a place of great familial importance. It is where my mother and her family lived and where many of them remain today. Occasionally you’ll hear it referred to as “The Queen City of the West” which is a nickname earned at a time when, in the 1850s, it was the largest city west of the eastern seaboard. It also belongs to an area in the United States known as the “Midwest”, a confusing concept in that it is neither west nor particularly in the middle.

After a week of celebration in honour of my grandmother’s 90th birthday, we hired a car and made our way back east. The journey took us through Asheville, North Carolina, home to the palatial Biltmore estate. The ostentatious expanse of land surrounding the manor itself is the magnificent realisation of Frederick Olmsted’s vision. Olmsted was the famed landscape architect responsible for the layout of Central Park in New York City, among other municipal parks.

The Biltmore estate in Asheville. An enormous estate of some 8,000 acres (four of which are indoors), it was completed in 1895. Wikipedia refers to it as 'one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age' and I would tend to agree

The Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina. It sits in a manicured estate of some 8,000 acres (the house alone boasting four). Wikipedia refers to it as 'one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age' and I would tend to agree. The basement presides over a gargantuan 265,000-litre indoor swimming pool; impressive in scale but horrifying in that it had to be emptied and refilled after each use.

Heiress poses for her frontispiece in next month's Country Life Shadows cast by winter sun in the garden of the Biltmore estate
Shadows cast against one of the many pavements winding through the Bilmore estate Investigation of the greenhouses of the Biltmore
Resting infront of Bass pond, Biltmore, Asheville
Pottery by Parry in the River Arts district of Asheville

Asheville houses a small community of artists and musicians. The River Arts district serves as the epicentre of this movement, housing numerous walk-in workshops for pottery, glass and metalwork.

Doorways as art in the River Arts district of Asheville Doorways as art in the River Arts district of Asheville
Strong coffee in Bridgewater, Virginia. A pit stop on the way to Washington

After a night or two spent absorbing the small-town folk music in local bars, I was sad to be moving on from Asheville. Bellies filled with fried chicken and waffles, we departed thoroughly convinced of southern hospitality.

On the way to the capital city, a winding expanse of road opened up before us: the American interstate flew by at 80 miles an hour. We counted the endless procession of cheap hotels and fast-food chains as one might count sheep to fall asleep. Later, night fell and we began to rub necks with the crusade of eighteen-wheelers freighting goods across the nation, doing their bit for the invisible network that keeps the world running.

Our fuel supply began to dwindle so I pulled into a gas station somewhere in the backwaters of Virginia. The hour late and the pumps on prepay, I negotiated a $20 sale of petrol from the clerk. “That should get us a quarter-tank to reach tonight’s destination” I thought. It filled the tank, all 40 litres of it. Welcome to America.

NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery sits in the hall of the Udvar-Hazy Center — a recent addition to the National Air and Space museum in Washington, DC
Wide-angle shot of Space Shuttle Discovery in the Udvar-Hazy Center Close-up of the scars of re-entry on the exterior of Space Shuttle Discovery in the Udvar-Hazy Center

NASA's retired Space Shuttle Discovery sits in the hall of the Udvar-Hazy Center (a recent addition to the National Air and Space museum in Washington). Discovery was in active service for 27 years, ran 39 missions and spent almost a cumulative year in space before it was laid to rest in 2011. It carried over 250 astronauts into space safely as well as the Hubble space telescope. It is displayed as if it had just landed, the scars of re-entry clear to see across its exterior.

A missile to kill missiles: Lockheed Martin's Homing Overlay Experiment in the Udvar-Hazy Center

A missile to kill missiles: Lockheed Martin's Homing Overlay Experiment. Amid concerns of nuclear war in the 1980s, the US military funded the development of anti-missile technologies like this in the hopes that they would provide protection from intercontinental ballistic missile attacks.

An early version of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II at the Udvar-Hazy Center A beautifully restored logo for Pratt & Whitney jet engines at the Udvar-Hazy Center

On the left, the latest addition to the United States Air Force: The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Next to it sits the engine that enables it to perform such strategic wizardry as VTOL (or "Vertical take-off and landing"). Owing to a steady increase in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, this fifth-generation fighter jet may be the last of a dying breed.

Nose section of the Enola Gay at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Nose section of the Enola Gay. This Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the aircraft used to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II.

The Smithsonian Institute has achieved for western history what Disney has done for entertainment. Through their efforts in Washington, DC, museums and monuments are found in such concentration that it was surprising not to find one under my pillow when we arrived. This is made all the more impressive when you learn that visitors can revel in the full extent of North American history without paying a single cent. It feels a little weird at first, to get something for free in the capital of capitalism, but sure enough you’re greeted at each museum by staff who seem both proud to share their nation’s past with you and glad you’ve taken an interest.

From slavery to civil rights, nuclear launches to moon landings, the record is laid out for all to see. It is, I think, a brave thing to own up to a past filled with suffering and struggle. For that, I came away with an appreciation for what the United States try to be.

Entrance to the Washington Metro
Quaint and colourful architecture in Georgetown, Washington Phallic & Phenominal: the Washington Monument at night
Abraham Lincoln Memorial, Washington: 'In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever'
The ceiling of the Capitol building dome in Washington, DC. Currently under renovations, only a small central area of the mural is visible through protective sheets

Looking up at the dome of the Capitol building in Washington. Curtains of protective cloth hang from the ceiling as restorative work is done on the dome itself.

A guard paces on duty before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, Washington The memorial ampitheatre attached to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, Washington

On the left, a guard is posted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, Washington. Such tombs commemorate those soldiers who perished in battle but whose remains were never found or identified.

Tombstones amid snow in the Arlington Cemetery, Washington Tombstones amid snow in the Arlington Cemetery, Washington
The Iwo Jima Memorial near Arlington Cemetery, Washington

The Iwo Jima Memorial statue features the iconic raising of an American flag on Mount Suribachi during the second world war. The original photograph, taken by Joe Rosenthal in 1945, came to be one of the most recognisable images of the war in the United States.

We shared the conclusion of our American tour with a particularly despicable bout of winter in Brooklyn, New York. After a few days of perpetually cursing the cold, I almost felt guilty when the storage complex down our street burst into flames: an inferno lasting 3 days.

Speculation spread that a property developer had lit the fire deliberately in order to redevelop the land cheaply — a common practice in the area. Such is the explosive temper of property prices in Brooklyn: a frightening climate of increases where even a dilapidated pizza-hut lot can sell for twenty million dollars. It’s no secret that Auckland faces a crisis of unaffordable housing but in New York the situation is an obscenity.

Murals on the New York City High Line Vines creep up a wall along the High Line in New York City
Colourful window panels in the dim winter sunlight as seen along the High Line in New York City

Above: A collection of scenes from the High Line walkway in New York City.

Views of Manhattan from North 5th Street Pier park Vic poses under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City
Stumbling back in time: A period piece was being shot in this neighborhood of Manhattan, the streets lined with classic cars

At work even in Retirement: A pair of classic yellow cabs form the backdrop for a period piece being filmed in Manhattan.

With our efforts focussed on exploring what was indoors rather than out, some of Vic’s friends took us to the famed Comedy Cellar for a night of stand-up. An institute of comedy in Manhattan, it is known to be frequented by comedians from Dave Chappelle to Jerry Seinfeld and has played an integral part of Louis CK’s television show “Louie”. As big fans of Louie, we half-hoped, half-joked he would turn up to perform. As we lined up to enter, we nervously eyed a stack of film equipment left on the street outside. This was New York, there was film equipment everywhere and, though we were hopeful, it offered no guarantee he’d be there. Ducking down the narrow staircase, we took our seats and crossed our fingers. It was then that a member of Louis’ film crew tapped us on the shoulder to let us know he’d be on halfway through the night.

As he took the stage, a roar of applause erupted from the audience. In response, he delivered the wickedly honest and deeply cynical stand-up that has characterised four seasons of “Louie” and 30 years of his career. Departing before anyone could have a say in the matter, he left us to appreciate the comedic genius we were fortunate to have witnessed first-hand. A grand note to conclude our journey through the states.

A cold and gloomy day spent inside the Brooklyn Roasting Company The historic Williamsburg Savings Bank building at night in Brooklyn, New York
The inevitable conclusion of minimalism at the MoMA Hand-poured wax at the MoMA
James Rosenquist, 'Spaghetti and Grass'
Water falls into the footprint of the second world trade center in the 9/11 memorial grounds

Water falls into the footprint of the second World Trade Center.