I love I90

I’m in South Dakota – only just over the border from Minnesota, but in Sioux Falls.  I started in Wisconsin, drove right across Minnesota and arrived here in South Dakota.  This is the West – although Sioux Falls doesn’t seem very wild at the moment.

And that mammal from yesterday – thank you to those suggesting it is probably the Groundhog – it probably is.  One of the Marmot family.

It has rained most of today but it cleared 100 miles shy of my destination.  I had expected this drive West to be marked by the sun pushing me from behind in the mornings and sucking me towards the sunset as evening came – but mostly it has rained for the last few days.

But many places I have been, and some places I am going, have tornado warnings at present and clearly further South in the Great Plains things have been rough.  Fingers crossed for those affected and a little for me too.

Today I crossed the Mississippi River and tomorrow I will pass the Missouri River.  Most of the rain falling on the Northern USA flows through these great veins.

I covered more than 500 miles today on Interstate 90 – which is quite a road – and we have become mates.  I90 doesn’t mind my singing along with Green Day and I don’t mind I90 having a noisy carriageway in places.

I didn’t stop much today, except for lunch in Wisconsin – the USA capital of cheese.  For West Wing fans, Donna Moss comes from Wisconsin.  I had to have cheese curds as part of my lunch – fried cheese (can aid slimming if taken as part of a calorie-controlled diet).

And I didn’t add many birds today – the rain was torrential.  I passed plenty of interesting looking places but nowhere is that good for birding in a deluge.

However, I did add one species to my trip list, in Minnesota, even though it is, bizarrely, the State Bird of South Dakota.  Why did they choose this species?  Click here to find out what it was.

I90 heads straight West.  I like that in a road. West, West, West, West, West.  I seem to have come a long way West but apparently I am now poised equidistant between the Atlantic and Pacific.  There is a lot more West to come and I’m really looking forward to it – it would help if the rain kept off though.


Happy Birthday Bob!

Robert Allen Zimmerman is 70 today.  Happy Birthday Bob Dylan!

And today I did something that I have never done before, but I am going to do it again fairly soon.  That probably makes it sound much, much more interesting than it was.  But I enjoyed it – one often does the first time.

And that mammal from yesterday – thank you to those suggesting it is probably the Groundhog – it probably is.  One of the Marmot family.

I did see a new bird today – Sandhill Crane – a couple of times.

And because it is Bob’s birthday then it had to be my favourite Dylan album as soundtrack today – Blood on the Tracks (harking back to yesterday’s roadkill blog, perhaps?).

And in Shelter from the Storm we hear ‘I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove’ and in You’re a Big Girl Now we hear ‘Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence, And I’m just like that bird’, and in Tangled Up in Blue there is ‘Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew.’ and in Meet Me in the Morning we get ‘The birds are flyin’ low babe, honey I feel so exposed’ which must make BotT the most birdy of all Bob’s albums – surely?

Today I started in Indiana and am now in Wisconsin – didn’t make as much progress as I would have liked today.  But Bob kept me happy – and the cranes helped too.

And that thing I did for the first time?  You might be disappointed.  I drove into a new time zone.  I’ve only ever changed time zones by crossing the English Channel or getting off a plane in a new country.  Today, for a brief instant, the back end of my tank-like car was in Indiana and the front end was already in Illinois but one hour earlier – work that out?

And I am further West in the world than I have ever been before too.

Maybe it’s been quite an exciting day really.  Happy Birthday Bob!


Five states of mind, two films

Today was a driving day.  I started off somewhere south of Pittsburgh and ended up somewhere east of Chicago.  So that’s Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, a short detour into Michigan just to say I’ve ‘been’ there and now in Indiana.

My journey today started where the opening and closing scenes of the film The Deerhunter were supposed to be based – industrial Pennsylvania.  I didn’t see Robert de Niro but I saw an awful lot of deer – road kills.

As one drives along at a brisk pace (though always inside the speed limit) the number of birds one sees is small but there are splattered mammals every now and then.

White-tailed Deer corpses are common along the roadside (and fairly easily identified) but also there are Racoons and the odd Porcupine.  I have yet to figure out what is the occasional large rodent in the grass by the roadside.

But I am mostly driving at the moment and here are my tips for safe driving over long distances:

  1. Keep the car a bit too cool for comfort
  2. Drive in bare feet – it means you can wiggle your toes more which is very refreshing
  3. Play music sometimes on the CD or radio and sing out loud with your favourite tunes
  4. Adjust your seat position several times a day – even small changes in height, uprightness and distance from the pedals make you sit in a different position which helps freshen you up
  5. Wear sunglasses quite a lot – it’s surprising how much you squint even if the sun is not bright and sunglasses

Well, they seem to work for me.

And today I crossed over my route of 10 days ago in Ohio, and drove past the turn-off to Crane Creek.

I am now in Amish country in Indiana and have seen quite a lot of the bearded men in straw hats and the long-dressed ladies with their hair covered – some riding in horse-drawn buggies.  This is like another film, Witness, but I haven’t seen Harrison Ford yet, nor Kelly McGillis.

But I probably will see lots of Turkey Vultures – all that road-kill is good for them, I guess.

It’s windy, but tomorrow I hope to drive right past the Windy City and head for Iowa through Illinois.


Audubon, PA

I might have been keen to shake the dust of New York City from my shoes if there were any dust, but the sidewalks are hosed down each morning and it was a bit of a drizzly morning.  But this was the start of my drive West and I was keen to see the miles ticking by, but there was just one more thing to do before I really put the right pedal to good use.  I wanted to get to see something of Audubon.

Heading through the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey there was only one choice of music – Springsteen, a New Jersey boy, himself.

My journey would take a couple of hours according to the journey planner and it probably would have done if it weren’t for the difficulty of reading a map as a sole driver and spotting the signs and having a feel for the route.  But it took more like 5 hours to get to where I intended.

Admittedly I stopped for gas and tried to stop at Vera’s Family Restaurant for breakfast – but Vera’s was clearly a great place for breakfast and there was a long queue.  So I carried on down the road to the Chalfont Family Restaurant which also was busy – but had space for me.  I wonder what I missed at Vera’s?  After my country omelette I was pointed in the direction of Ralph and asked him to point me in the direction of Audubon, PA where John James Audubon had once lived.  Ralph pointed me helpfully in the right direction.

John James Audubon was sent to live in Pennsylvania by his father – probably to avoid having to fight for Napoleon against our own Duke of Wellington.  He arrived in PA at the age of 18 and stayed for a few years – farming, sketching and studying the local wildlife.

If he hadn’t been a draft-dodger maybe he would have died at Waterloo, bayonetted by a Coldstream Guard, and the world’s most expensive book would never have been produced.

Audubon’s Birds of America is a priceless work of life-sized prints – although you have a chance of purchasing a copy if you have a spare $11.5m on you – the price one sold at last December.

The admission to the Audubon Centre in Audubon PA is, by contrast, a very reasonable $4 (and I could have got in for $3 if I had been prepared to lie about my age – upwards!).  There is an exhibition of the great man’s work in various forms including a quarter-sized, four volume copy of the work.  I looked at all the warblers.

The plates are very beautiful even if not a patch on Sibley or Peterson for accuracy.  This work was at the time a stupendous achievement and Audubon sent far and wide for skins of birds which he then painted.

I looked at the Bachman’s Warbler carefully as I am never going to see one in the flesh – it’s a gorgeous rendition of what I assume was a gorgeous bird.  The Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet (which we will get to, eventually) and other extinct American species are illustrated.  At the time of his work Audubon could not possibly have predicted which of these species would by now have exited the planet.  I imagine Passenger Pigeon, present in its billions and well-known to Audubon himself, would have been way down his list of threatened species if he had had such a list.

The Museum is small but intimate.  You can sit and draw from stuffed birds as Audubon himself did if you care to, and looking out of the upstairs window I wondered how often this great artist had looked out of the same pane.

At 39 ” by 26″ the Birds of America is no pocket guide – but the plates are stunning in their beauty and breathtaking in their vividness considering that the artist was dealing with skins and bodies for the most part.

If you are in the area, do go visit.  But do your research as to how to get there – it’s very near the historic site of Valley Forge but not well-signposted at all.

I took away a little book of postcards of the warblers – for far less than $11.5m.  But I also took away a great deal of pleasure in finding out a little more about one of the world’s finest artists and most admirable draft-dodgers.


Liberty and the pursuit of happiness

I was in Central Park by 630am – and it may have been too early.  There weren’t that many birds around.  I added Magnolia Warbler to my list for Central Park but saw few other warblers.

I added cream cheese bagel and coffee to my waistline and got a cab south down Broadway.

Walking the last few blocks I came to Ground Zero.  I was struck by the buildings around it, still standing close to where those horrific events that killed 3000 people took place.  What must it feel like to go to work next to this site every day?

There’s not much to look at – but plenty to think about.  If you didn’t know about what had happened here it would look like just another building site.

Turning my back on Ground Zero, physically but not emotionally, and taking a few steps West, I could see the Statue of Liberty, designed by Frenchman, Frederic Bartholdi and built by Frenchman, Gustave Eiffel, this symbol of Freedom  has welcomed immigrants and visitors to the USA, and specifically to Ellis Island for 125 years.  Inside there is the inscription which includes the words ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ by Emma Lazarus.

I walked through Battery Park enjoying the sunshine and popped into the National Museum of the American Indian. Here I learned that a good horse had been worth 8 buffalo hides or 15 eagle feathers or 10 weasel skins or 3lb tobacco or a rifle and 100 loads of ammunition in the early 1800s and that many Indian tribes called horses, brought to the New World by the Spanish, after dogs; Big Dogs, Elk Dogs, Red Dogs, Mystery Dogs or Holy Dogs.

Before I took the return trip on the Staten Island Ferry – best value attraction in New York – it’s free, I remembered the billboards and news coverage I had seen telling me the world was going to end today.  Maybe it will – there’s still time – but I’m reasonably confident there will be a blog tomorrow.

Within these few blocks of downtown Manhattan I had been made to think about people’s lives ending out of the blue at Ground Zero, their ways of life drastically changing as the native American culture was largely overwhelmed and America giving many a new start in life on Ellis Island.  Anything is possible here.