The American Midwest


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December 31st 2011
Published: January 1st 2012
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Got it goin' on!
Dear All

Greetings and a Happy New Year from the American Midwest! Wishing everyone reading this a good day, and a warm and blessed start to the year ahead – 2012!

It’s been a while since I last wrote, but I wanted to write up all my adventures in the American Midwest in one blog entry, and thus this is what I’m doing now. I’ve had the most amazing week exploring one of the many provincial beating hearts of America, and what my journey so far keeps reminding me is that there is so much in this amazing country to explore, that I’ll certainly be back and doing some more travel journeys in other parts of the States soon – the West coast, Deep South, Wild West and more besides – there’s just so much to see!

But anyway, I’ve managed to cover at least part of this great country in the last week, ticking off another 3 states – Illinois, Iowa and Missouri (along with DC, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York already encountered thus far). Writing this one as I travel by Amtrak train from St Louis, Missouri back to Chicago, Illinois – the wonders of modern technology allowing me to travel this time with my trusty little netbook, though may have to wait till Chi-Town before I can upload on to the Internet – the WiFi on this train doesn’t appear to be working.

But yes, I believe I last wrote on Christmas Day, awaiting some Christmas guests at Alex’s house back in Pennsylvania (seems like ages ago…!). It was a great evening, with a lovely dinner prepared lovingly by Alex, and two of her close friends Gayle and Walter joining us. A fascinating couple, having spent many years of their working lives teaching at university in Switzerland, with Walter also playing a part in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s down in Mississippi, of Martin Luther King Jr fame – fascinating to hear his stories.

The next day, caught a US Airways flight from Philadelphia Airport north and west, inland, to the amazing, stunning and extremely likeable city of Chicago– my impression of the city can be summed up as “New York on valium”. It really is a great city – a huge metropolis with stunning, sky-high architecture, a lovely waterside location on Lake Michigan and as usual
My Name is Al...My Name is Al...My Name is Al...

Davenport, Iowa
so far, extremely cordial and polite people. But it seems to lack the aggression and hecticness of the Big Apple, and thus feels much more manageable and friendly.

I only spent one initial night in Chicago at a downtown hotel bordering the park between the city and the Lake – the Essex Inn, before catching a Greyhound bus, an American experience in itself, 3 hours westward toward a town called Davenport, just over the Illinois-Iowa border, in an urban area known as Quad Cities – combining the four Mississippi River-side towns of Davenport, Moline, Bettendorf and Rock Island. Indeed, this was almost Mark Twain country, with the Mississippi River cutting its course through the area, and a couple of Steamer boats docked to boot. Just a little further south, into Missouri, is where Huckleberry Finn began his journey down the Mississippi, from the fictional town of St Petersburg, beyond the Missouri-Mississippi confluence and on through St Louis and towards Cairo, at the southernmost tip of Illinois to join with the Ohio River and the Free States. Iowa is also famous in my book as having its capital, Des Moines, as the hometown of one of my favourite travel writers,
Me, Gayle and WalterMe, Gayle and WalterMe, Gayle and Walter

Christmas dinner at Alex's in Pennsylvania
Bill Bryson – a true gem of a guy! Unfortunately didn’t manage to see the hometown of the man, but my bus was heading there after it dropped me off in Davenport at least…!

I was met at the Greyhound bus depot by the extremely affable and amiable Brad – thanks Brad! – to be given a great tour of the area, including my first experience of the American institution of Walmart, which graciously provided me with a pair of sunglasses for the Midwestern sun for the very affordable price of $5! Also took in a couple of Mississippi steamers and caught the sunset over the great river itself, before driving back to Brad’s house just beyond the borders of the small town of Geneseo, population 6500. This was the true American Midwest – endless fields of maize and wheat, and just big, big open spaces! Coming from one of the world’s most densely populated countries, somehow fitting 62 million people into around 94,000 square miles, at a density of 662 people per square mile, where land as a result is at a premium and people literally live on top of each other for absurd rent and/or mortgage prices,
Philadelphia SkylinePhiladelphia SkylinePhiladelphia Skyline

On the way to the airport
I am still amazed by the amount of space out here – this really is a big country, with houses, shopping centres, car parks and farmland appearing infinitely bigger than what we got back home. Certainly helps with the amount of freedom you feel while travelling around here.

Brad’s family were great, and very welcoming, and we spent the first evening playing a card game and Yahtzee, and the next day just chilling in the area – Brad’s house is on a plot of land right next to the Geneseo River, and seems just an idyllic place to grow up and play around in the fields surrounding.

On Thursday, Brad and I took the train back to Chicago, and headed back to his flat at the University of Chicago – a lovely area, surrounded on all sides though by the dodgiest of neighbourhoods, indeed ghettos, I’ve encountered on my trip so far. There are not many places in London where I’d feel unsafe, although it does have its dodgy areas, but this area was seriously uncomfortable – Brad has heard gunshots a number of times in the middle of the night around his block of flats. However, Brad’s flat itself is like a haven in the middle of it all, with a stunning 18th floor rooftop view north towards the skyscraper cityscape of Chicago – impressive indeed!

And finally, yesterday, caught a train southwards to St Louis, just over the Missouri-Illinois border this time, and a venture into true Mark Twain country - the man himself hailed from a town called Hannibal 100 miles upstream from St Louis. What a wonderful city, with just one of the most spectacular landmarks this country has – the Gateway Arch, neatly located on the Missouri side of the mighty Mississippi. I got a bargain price in a luxury central hotel, the Millennium, with a 24th- floor perfect view of the mighty arch itself, for an Internet-deal of $70 as opposed to the usual rate of $365! Definitely enjoyed my night there, as well as this morning’s intriguing ride up to the top of the Arch.

Built in 1965, the Gateway Arch was designed specifically to be a landmark for the city, as well as commemorating the city’s importance in the westward expansion of the United States following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson bought France’s American
Chicago Lake FrontChicago Lake FrontChicago Lake Front

Lake Michigan
territory from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains for a mere $15 million, which intriguingly helped to fund Napoleon’s war against the English at that time. Following the purchase, newly arrived immigrants and settlers were encouraged to head west, in search of land, gold and better lives, and the Arch does a great job in representing the importance of this period in American History in its splendid museum beneath. As well as checking this out, I just had to board one of the tiny spherical capsules seating 5 cramped people each, which heads up to the top of the arch by rotating itself as it climbs to negotiate the curvy nature of the structure. A great view from the top indeed, and a truly great testament to the city’s historical importance in the westward expansion of the American nation.

So alas, this I believe brings me up to date, after catching the Lincoln Express back to Chicago from St Louis at 3pm this afternoon. Just another example of how vast this country is – the journey takes just under 6 hours, crossing not even the full length of Illinois, just one of the 50 states of America, and
The Willis Tower, ChicagoThe Willis Tower, ChicagoThe Willis Tower, Chicago

Formerly known as the Sears Tower, the USA's tallest building at 527m, and the 7th tallest in the world
not even the largest. A 6-hour train ride in England would take you from London to the border with Scotland, or Land’s End in the far south-western tip of Cornwall. I have the impression that when I get back to the UK, the crampedness of the country is going to hit me hard…

Well, hopefully this blog entry and photos will testify to the amazing experiences I’m having while continuing my travels through this greatest of countries. Next up, spending two more nights in Chicago with Brad, before catching a northbound American Airlines flight on Monday to Toronto, Canada – my 67th country, and location of my long-lost Uncle, Auntie and cousins who moved there from the UK 20 years ago, who I mentioned I haven’t seen since – really can’t wait to meet them again!!

Until the next time, most likely from Canada, and its forecasted -10 degree temperatures, so long – and again, a Happy New Year!

Alex


Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


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MeMe
Me

The Chicago River
A Chicago DinerA Chicago Diner
A Chicago Diner

Breakfast with Curtis and Chelsea from Canada, and our lovely waitress Audrey
Me and the Mississippi RiverMe and the Mississippi River
Me and the Mississippi River

At Bettendorf, Iowa
A Mississippi SteamerA Mississippi Steamer
A Mississippi Steamer

Rock Island, Illinois
Brad, The Mattan Family HomeBrad, The Mattan Family Home
Brad, The Mattan Family Home

Just outside Geneseo, Illinois
BradBrad
Brad

The Chicago River
The Chicago SkylineThe Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline

From Brad's apartment block roof, South Chicago
The Gateway ArchThe Gateway Arch
The Gateway Arch

View from my hotel room!
View from the topView from the top
View from the top

St Louis, Missouri
View from the topView from the top
View from the top

Note the Arch's shadow
View from the bottomView from the bottom
View from the bottom

St Louis Gateway Arch
Sun ViewSun View
Sun View

Gateway Arch


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