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Touring America With Writers & Rat Lovers

IN THE March 23 ISSUE

FROM THE 2013 Articles,
andDiana Hockley,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andRodent Ramblings,
andTravel
SECTIONS

by Diana Hockley

We planned our trip to the United States for months, starting with a huge map which Andrew pinned to the wall in the hallway which was the only place large enough for it. The next job was to stick pins in all the towns where my writer friends lived, but unfortunately I had to trim down my wish list. The insurance company was only going to give us 62 days and after that the cost would be too much for us. Reluctantly, I had to trim down my numbers of friends to visit, so Florida, Georgia and some areas south had to be scrapped. Likewise, Maine had to go as there was just not enough time to go there and fit Boston, Hudson and New York in as well.

Once we had decided where we were going, then we wrote up our sightseeing wish list. San Diego Zoo was a must. Andrew’s dad, who was a merchant captain, brought the first ship load of animals from Africa to San Diego in the early 1970s and we can both remember a photo he took of the crates on the deck with the giraffe heads sticking up. The Giant Pandas are also at the zoo, so it was a “no brainer” to include it, as was the Grand Canyon and Los Padres National Park. We couldn’t get close enough to Yosemite, and this was the next best thing.

Panda child, San Diego Zoo

Gettysburg–a most sacred site–was essential as was New York. The first stop however, was to be Grand Prairie in Canada. We would have loved to have taken the Rocky Mountaineer but unfortunately cost was an issue here. After all, the kids didn’t have quite enough in their inheritance to include this, so we “bit the bullet” and booked a 25 hours bus trip!

We arrived in Los Angeles after a 14 hour flight feeling quit chipper! American Customs were very well organized so we got through relatively fast and went looking for our next flight and some sustenance. The first thing I did was make a fool of myself in the restroom. I had never encountered a self-flushing toilet before and when this one refused to flush and then went off behind my back, it sent me into orbit. It’s very hard to pretend that nothing has happened and skulk innocently out of the Ladies Restroom when you have screeched the place down…

Having checked the flight number for Vancouver, we followed our noses to an American diner. This was where we had our first culture shock – American coffee and raisin toast! I have never in all my born days experienced anything like the huge container of thick, black coffee with which I was presented, nor the glutinous mess that purported to be raisin toast. Despite Andrew purloining every wee creamer pot he could get his hands on, things did not improve in the coffee department, but we soon learned to pretend innocence of the empty creamer bin and order Latte!

Our trip to the Canadian prairie was wonderful, our friends most welcoming and kindly taught Andrew to drive on the “right” side of the road! Our 25 hour bus trip out there and back in a snow storm will always be treasured, but this is about our American visit.

The next stage was Seattle, Washington, having crossed the Canada/USA border by train, where we stayed with friends in the wooded hills about an hour outside the city. Lots of birds, deer and of course, Douglas squirrels–chocolate with orange tummies! Two trains and a bus later and we arrived at Fresno, California where we collected the first of our hire cars, a Dodge Avenger.

Driving to Reedley where we were to stay the night and meet up with Lorie, which was great! We met her family and her gorgeous ratties, dogs and very loving cats! Unfortunately, we could not stay long as we were expected at Pine Mountain Club up in the mountains. Driving from Reedley was a weird experience! All the farmland, houses and trees were covered in what we thought was dust until we realised that there was a mountain range only a few miles in front of us! What we thought was dust was actually smog! I have never seen anything so bad and realised how fortunate we are to live in clear air.

Pine Mountain Club is a private community high up in the pine forests. All the houses along the lines of Swiss chalets, where bears, deer, squirrel and coyotes abound. Our friend, the crime writer, Mar Preston, told us that people make sure all their small animals are safe inside, especially at night. We saw the only live racoons of our trip there in a rescue home. The lady who cared for them took us out the back one evening and took the tarpaulin off a cage. We looked down and there were five little bandit faces staring back at us! Oh dear, they did stink, but so darned cute! They had been injured when their mother was killed on the road and she had looked after them for the following nine months. As they were to be released, they were not tame.

From Pine Mountain we left for San Diego where we saw the pandas! The zoo is big, expensive and needs a hop on/hop off bus to get around it all. The pandas were most unsociable when we did the first walk through past their cages, but nothing daunted, we doubled back several times until the baby panda finally did his duty and sat up facing us! We had not come all that way not to see him and get a good photo! We managed to fit in the Santa Fe Railway station and go on the tourist trolley before we left this architecturally Spanish-influenced city.

Williams, a small town on Route 66, now called Interstate 40, was the jumping off place for the Grand Canyon. The train arrived at 4 a.m. and we were turfed out into the bush with several other people to be scooped up by a small bus which had arrived to take our fellow passengers to the grandest hotel in the place. We caught the train to the Canyon for a day trip–wish we had time for more – and it was totally awesome, like a massive open-cut mine. We saw elk in the village at the top of the mountain, prong horn antelope and in the Canyon, four condors which the rangers said were extremely rare.

Grand Canyon

We caught the Southwest Chief across Arizona past the fantastic rocky outcrops and mountains to Kansas City for two nights and to Missouri, where our friends who took us to Pea Ridge National Park, the scene of many battles of the American Civil War where one could feel the sadness emanating from the land.

In Walland, Tennessee, writer friend Wayne Zurl and his wife, Barbara, took us on a National Park drive. Our greatest ambition was to see a bear! We had almost finished the tour through the park, having seen deer and wild turkeys, when we came across a crowd of people peering up into the trees. Wow, a bear!!! We rushed over to join them, but all we saw, around 40 feet up in the tree was a big, round furry bum!!! Still, we did see a bear after all.

Pigeon Forge was a revelation, a miniature Gold Coast theme park. We couldn’t believe the number of side-show attractions available. The whole town was one vast side-show ride, Dollywood, an upside down building and the Titanic complete with bow-wave! The highlight of Pigeon Forge was stealing bread from the motel restaurant to feed the greedy ducks on the river behind the motel!

One of the highlights of our trip was undoubtedly Gettysburg where we stayed for two days, during which time we toured the battlefields, visited the museum and the cemetery where Lincoln gave his historic address. The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the longest and hardest fought of the Civil War with over 50,000 killed, wounded or missing. We toured the battlefield in our hire car through this most sacred place. The tragedy of this war can be felt to this day, not even by the monuments throughout the fields, but the ghosts of the slain remain in the earth, the rocks and the woods of the fields. In the towns, buildings still have bullet holes from battles in the streets. We felt it a privilege to be there and experience the spirituality of this place.

Gettysburg memorial

We also saw a huge herd of Scottish Highland cattle outside Gettysburg which gave us a great thrill, as we used to breed these animals before we retired from the farm.

Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania was the next stop where we were made most welcome by writer Ann Simko and her family – and her lovely animals! We visited the steam railway museum at Scranton and took our hosts on the day trip through the National Park to a place called Moscow where we were able to watch the engine turn, buy goodies and souvenirs.

I think one of the most fascinating places we visited was Hudson, New York. Our friend, illustrator Dru Kehl was a fantastic guide, taking us to see Olana, a magnificent mansion built by one of the America’s most famous painters, Frederick Church. Church was a conservationist of his day, building his home high on a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside and having thousands of trees planted which remain today.

Hudson

We did the house tour and were amazed at the ostentatious, Persian-inspired decor. Church’s paintings adorned the walls, as did many of his contemporaries. What really impressed us were the beautiful grounds and fortunately we saw this place–and most of our tour of America–during autumn (Fall). The colors of the trees had me in raptures and I took so many photos, it is hard to pin-point the best!

The mansion, Olana

Boston, Massachusetts was an exceptional treat! Our friend, crime novelist Susan Fleet, a retired classical trumpeter, took us around the city and to an afternoon concert at the Boston Concert Hall, by one of the world’s greatest orchestras, the Boston Symphony! As classical music lovers, this was such a delight that we kept punching each other on the arms to make sure we were actually awake and there! Nicholas Lugansky played Rachmaninoff and received a standing ovation. What also fascinated us was that the hall was packed out on a Friday afternoon!!!

Boston Concert Hall

Queens, New York was a fascinating place! We stayed so far out of the city because we got a special on the motel and caught the bus to the station and then the train into the city. The first day we were there, we managed to make fools of ourselves by not being able to work the turnstiles and getting ourselves and our suitcases stuck. Two young men came to our rescue and threw our bags over the turnstiles before we ended up somersaulting over the barriers!

One of the highlights of New York was being taken to the Museum of Natural History by Cathy from the ratlist, who came into the city to take us around. I also met Jessica and Rebecca from the ratlist who were lovely and so interesting. Cathy very kindly gave Andrew a ticket to the Empire State Building and he had a marvellous time being away from chattering women! Before Cathy left New York, she bundled the motel cat into a carrier and took her home. I hasten to add that the staff said the cat was a stray!

Empire State Building

The only rattie I saw on the subway was a little one which sneaked out of a hole in the side of the tracks. As the train came in, I couldn’t resist and clapped my hands, loudly. She vanished in a flash and a lady nearby turned and smiled at me. “I couldn’t resist!” I explained and she nodded her understanding.

Dru came down to New York and took us to the Rockefeller Centre–I can’t get over the golden statues and the ice rink in the middle of the city! We visited the site of 9/11 and the security was indescribable. Andrew had to take his belt off and we had to put our gear into trays at least four times before we got inside the memorial. It was fascinating, but to be honest, I preferred the Tree of Life and the wee church, St Paul’s, nearby to the actual water monument.

The Tree of Life, only just returned to the site after 10 years of recovery. The only living thing left after the Twin Towers collapsed. You can see the new growth spouting.

The church became the base for the fire-fighters and rescuers at the time. The messages from children, the photos and mementoes such as ruined firemen’s uniforms, brought tears to our eyes. We learned that classical musicians came and played for the rescuers and that around the clock people brought food and supplies and leather socks for the search and rescue dogs’ paws. We walked through the little churchyard where squirrels played and searched for nuts around our feet and people sat quietly around us.

St Paul's Church where the fire fighters, police, rescue workers and their dogs rested between shifts.

Battery Park is gorgeous, not the least because the squirrels ran up my legs to get the peanuts which I had for them. So cute and greedy!

Photo of my beloved squirrels climbing my leg for peanuts!!!

Staten Island, the Statue of Liberty and best of all–Central Park Zoo–where we had a wonderful day! I loved New York – even the Metro where we spent some time making fools of ourselves trying to find our way around. The carriage horses in the Park need a special mention! So well presented and healthy–I believe the law has made sure of this in recent times–and I spent some time worrying about them, because Hurricane Sandy hit three days after we left for Toronto. We were so sad to see so many places devastated and people losing their homes down to New Jersey.

Carriage horses in Central Park, NY.

Customs we found interesting–looking to the right before crossing the road, rather than the left! I nearly got squashed in New York. The size of serves in restaurants was a surprise. We soon learned to ask for “starters.” The coffee–lattes were “the go” for us!

The lack of public restrooms–every town in Australia has a set in the local park and garages have them available for the public–but on the other hand, all the supermarkets, cafes and restaurants have them! The “bring no guns in here” sign, a revolver in a red circle with an X through it, gave us pause for thought.

It has been very hard to know what to put into this article because so much happened. People were so kind to us. Locals would go out of their way to give us directions and talk to us on buses and on the subway. We were prepared to find them stand-offish, especially on public transport, but we met with nothing but kindness and friendliness. Andrew and I would go back to American tomorrow, but unfortunately the kids have no more inheritance left for the moment!
We wish we could have seen more, but maybe next time…

Diana Hockley is an Australian mystery author who lives in a southeast Queensland country town. She is the devoted slave of five ratties & usually finds an excuse to mention them in her writing, including her recent novel, The Naked Room. Since retiring from running a traveling mouse circus for 10 years, she is now the mouse judge for the Queensland Rat & Mouse Club shows. To learn more, check out her website.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 kaye george
Twitter: @KGeorgeMystery
March 23, 2013 at 9:27am

Wow, what a trip! Next time, I can show you Knoxville if you’d like! We’ve recently moved here from Texas, but I could show you Texas, too, and make a trip there. This is a fabulous account. I’m always curious to know what we Americans look like to outsiders. I have the same problem crossing the street, looking the wrong way, and almost getting hit in England. I have never, alas, been to Australia. I’m glad your trip went to well!

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2 Pam March 23, 2013 at 1:38pm

I absolutely loved reading this & I’m glad you got to see so much of our country. One correction though. The picture of the Empire State Building, I’m pretty sure is the Chrysler Building. Just FYI.

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