Here is my latest monthly travel column as it ran recently at 3 Quarks Daily:
“Please take that back, sir.”
The receptionist at Residence Inn by Marriott, Lexington, Kentucky, recoiled when I slipped my reservation confirmation onto the tabletop. They don’t touch things at Residence Inn by Marriott. Surely we understand.
After sheltering in place beyond our limits, we thought we’d drive off in search of … we didn’t know, really, towns down the road and then the towns after that. A pre-election driving tour of pandemic America, Georgia to Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee and back. Ten days, five states, fifteen hundred miles.
Who could ask for more? All the allure of a Sunday afternoon waiting for Monday. Like that last day before the end of Daylight Savings Time. Like folding clothes. Like pressing a bruise.
Less than half of hotel workers have a job. Those who still do stay distant at work, skeptical by their new training, disengaged from the guests whose expense accounts would lead them out of all this. Rapport is a struggle from behind a mask.
It is as if everything were surreptitious. With the card key come muffled breakfast details: Here is the menu web site (are we familiar with QR codes?), select one of four choices by touch tone. Delivery to the hallway. No one will change your sheets. We hope you enjoy your stay. On the other hand, crinkly eyes suggest a smile under that mask. The hotel has an eighth floor outdoor cafe, she says.
From up there, Lexington looks as vibrant as a town a quarter its size. People are still showing up for work, making the effort, it’s just that it’s already been six months. Started out, we’ll nip this thing. A couple of months of fretting and wringing hands. Now nobody believes it’s temporary at all. Everything now is halting, unsure.
Horse country dearly needs its University of Kentucky student vibe. Thirty thousand students should be around here somewhere. Over at the Rupp Arena they’re billboarding an Arlo Guthrie and Judy Collins concert six weeks from now. Plans don’t mean a whole lot these days, do they?
William Jennings Bryan was a contender in four straight presidential elections and the Democratic nominee in three. Into the final turn, Joe Biden is on his heels. This is his third campaign and his first nomination.
Margaret MacMillan quotes the Duke of Wellington that Napoleon on the battlefield “was worth 40,000 men.” To borrow from Lloyd Bentsen, Joe Biden is no Napoleon. He doesn’t galvanize a crowd. He doesn’t command a room like you imagine Lukashenka does.
He is one year older than the median US male’s life expectancy. More than a third of Americans were born since Joe Biden has been in Congress. Joe Biden is fit, trim, as well-tailored as everyone with 36 years in Congress; he is not a large man. He has notable teeth. But can he do it?
The day before the Iowa primary back in February Biden made his closing argument in a Des Moines gym. He was expected to place fourth or fifth in the next day’s primary, and so he did. He booked a smallish venue, Hiatt Middle School, across the street from the Walgreens, Dairy Queen and Family Dollar on East 14th.
Biden rode with a tired entourage back in February. Just the old guys. We’d all stood around on the gym floor for ages by the time he showed up with former senators Dodd and Kerry, who sat on cordoned-off bleachers while Iowa’s Democratic congresswomen spoke, the former governor spoke, all the Biden relatives spoke, each one with passion and certitude and at length, as if we’d come to see them. Ever the effective firefighter, Harold Schaitberger, 73, president of the International Association of Firefighters, further cooled everyone’s enthusiasm.
The light of day fades across the Ohio River. Embassy Suites by Hilton Waterfront Cincinnati in Covington, Kentucky is creepy, dark and getting old. Everyone who travels on business would recognize it, one of those places with an atrium, “sports bar” in the middle, a modest fountain, glass elevators.
Every amenity is closed. If anyone must enter our room we must vacate for three hours first. We may redeem up to two Admit One tickets per person, dispensed at check-in, for Coors Light beer. This is 2020’s “Manager’s Happy Hour Reception.” They will put breakfast in a bag on a table. We will let that go.
You have the watches, we have the time, the Taliban once jeered. Before the virus, Americans used to be in a hurry. Almost everybody’s lives have slowed down now, but the I-75 bridge across the Ohio River still teems with tractor trailers, every minute, all the time. Minnesota to Miami, relentless road commerce never, ever stops.
The water below the bridge used to carry that load. Now occasional coal barges pass below the highway bound for Louisville, a tight stricture at Evansville, the gracious curve at Paducah, down to where the Ohio River enlivens the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. Cincinnati’s restaurant riverboats, meanwhile, are parked and padlocked.
Poor Cincinnati. Pedestrian-friendly as a mine field, soulful as a rice market. I walk into Ohio across the John A. Roebling suspension bridge, the fancy new Bengals stadium on the left, the Reds ballpark on the right, connected by the 45 acre Smale Riverfront park, tiny between the stadiums, new enough that the trees offer no shade. The park is meant to connect the river to the city but a highway separates and isolates it on the riverbank.
The Macy’s building, the Kroger building, up and down and back toward the Great American Insurance Company tower and the Cincinnati Reds’ Great American baseball field alongside the forlorn and isolated Moerlein Sports Bar. Dozens and dozens of shuttered businesses. It’s heartbreaking. Lives and livelihoods chained and locked, “We are Closed” signs turned to the street.
Lots of towns (Paris, Milan, Tel Aviv, Minneapolis and Calgary) have used the crisis to become more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Not Cincinnati. In a town built for insurance companies and automobiles you get endless one-way asphalt and just not any people.
I don’t think I have ever driven across Ohio until now, and it is revelatory. Like Lindsey Graham’s promises about Supreme Court nominees, call me on this if I’m wrong: Ohio is voting Trump.
Across the highway from Monroe, Ohio, where the Cincinnati Outlet Malls are, is Lux Mundi, a 52-foot statue of Jesus decorated by a water feature, its arms outstretched in welcoming embrace. It replaces an even taller statue, whose uplifted arms earned it the nickname Touchdown Jesus before it suffered an unfortunate allegorical fate. It was struck down by lightning and burned to the ground. “I never thought this would be vulnerable,” the fire chief said at the time.
Somewhere shy of West Virginia a leaf of copy paper taped to the door of a convenience store declared that “for documented medical reasons an employee of Quiznos is not wearing a mask. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to come into this store.” So we didn’t. At the truck stop across the street a public address system announced “customer 11, your shower is now ready. Please proceed to shower number two.”
The Quiznos warning had a tinge of defiance but at least it was a warning. Ordinary folks were defiant, too. There were few masks.
It strikes me more and more these days that a benign, bedrock Appalachian principle, protectiveness of the clan, lines up naturally with the anti-immigrant, build that wall crowd, and more generally, with that no-mask disregard for your neighbors. It pairs well with the Trump Save America billboards towering over the Ohio corn fields.
So, Pittsburgh. Good looking town, feels semi-confident, determined. The Fairmont Hotel, an expensive two-room suite, in case it feels best to stay inside. Minibar locked, virus precaution. So, ice? You can get a bucket of ice on 15. No sir. We can’t bring it to you. You must understand, no one is at work today.
The Fairmont has furloughed most staff but positions a man with a temperature-taking machine at the door. Not reassuring. It reminded me of metal detectors you walk through and those wands they wave over you at hotels in places like Belgrade and Istanbul.
The Fairmont boasts they keep each room 48 hours between occupants, the hotel equivalent of not booking the middle airline seat. That will hold up precisely until demand warrants further bookings. For now the safety of our guests is paramount. And we very much regret locking up your minibar. Ice is available on the 15th floor.
I find the environmentally grave Keurig machine but no coffee, no mugs, which have been removed for our safety. If you call and wait they eventually bring capsules and styrofoam cups. This hotel is shocked, wobbly, tentative.
Maybe corporations are people too. Might they try showing a little vulnerability? “Listen, we know as well as you do this is a precarious time. We’d really like you to have a good experience because right now especially, we appreciate your business, we need your business to survive.”
Could the virus will shake out a little gratuitous corporatespeak? Room service, a reduced menu available from five until nine only, “will be presented in disposable food containers, and be delivered to your room by a server wearing personal protective equipment. It is mandatory that you are wearing your mask when you receive the order. When finished please place everything in bag provided and place outside your room. Call Royal Service for retrieval.”
Royal indeed. Brings to mind the burn bag for the royal papers. I’m sure it’s all well meaning, the way they drop the styrofoam, knock on the door and sprint away down the hall.
Sunday September 13th. Roanoke, Virginia, capital of the Blue Ridge. Railroad town. Clings to the railroad tight as Obama’s “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
They built Roanoke before they built the country, in the 1740s, when settlers from Pennsylvania took up land near salt licks where buffalo, elk and deer gathered and native Americans lurked to hunt them. Roanoke began as Big Lick.
The next time you’re over this way, try the Hotel Roanoke and Convention Center, a gracious, old-style city center hotel. They’re not much for masks here, but like much of the south it’s gracious, full of heritage and lovely.
The railroad built Roanoke and the rails run active all day. A tight, compact center, very small with unexpected amenities, an art museum, a black history museum, Thai and Indian restaurants, a few other restaurants, a few bars, a few boutique shops, and the great Appalachian affliction: suspicion of and an evil eye toward the stranger. What might an old guy like me do? Shout at someone?
There are very few for Biden around here. What you have is Trump backers, comforted by the divider in chief and his schemes to keep out the unknown.
It’s “like a memory question. It’s like, you’ll go: Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV,” the president said. “So they say, ‘Could you repeat that?’ So I said, ‘Yeah. It’s: Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.’”
“Then, ten minutes, 15, 20 minutes later they say, ‘Remember that first question… Give us that again.”
“And you go: ‘Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.’”
“And they say ‘that’s amazing. How did you do that?’”
It’s hard to know how to address opportunities like this. Maybe the Biden campaign is on to something with its double reverse, bank shot, incumbent Rose Garden “I’m the president you wish you had” strategy. Way back in Des Moines in February, we all knew he was doomed. But maybe he was right.
We have to hope so, because watching our unsteady, recovering leader this week, it is pretty clear our institutions won’t survive his reelection intact. If we endorse the Trump presidency with another term we will deserve the withering international opprobrium that will surely come.
Perhaps Joe Biden pulls this off and moves a grateful nation toward the broad, sunlit uplands, but depending on him so much makes me uncomfortable. The virus has given him astonishing political advantages through no effort of his own. As in his two previous campaigns, that afternoon back there in Iowa he was this close to being sent home again.
Maybe we can take heart that the administration’s closing campaign strategy is as ad hoc as always: can we fake this and get by one more time? On the virus: “I think we’re nearing the peak right now,” said Robert Redfield to the Today Show – six months ago, on April 13th. Watch.
It strikes me that they’re all just out there talking, saying words, and you know it and they know you know it.
Knoxville. Almost home. The confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers creates the Tennessee River, alongside which the football stadium holds pride of place. Down here we take our college football seriously. Neyland Stadium, home of University of Tennessee football, is the seventh largest stadium in the world. It can hold over a hundred thousand people, more than half of Knoxville, and its emptiness now is just murder for this town.
It tears at Knoxville’s gut. Without students, without autumn’s pageant of leaf watchers bound for Gatlinburg, and Dollywood and football, perhaps a third of what should be a thriving downtown Market Square hangs on ragged, listless, not defiant, just perfunctory.
There is a stretch of interstate highway not far back up the road that shares north and southbound state highways at the same time. You can be going in opposite directions at once, a metaphor for our times.
Even as the Obama years salved black America, the loss of factory jobs brewed up a cauldron of trouble in this quarter of the country, as hard-working conservative white people came under stress. Nevertheless, Zanesville, back up in Ohio, the kind of town portrayed as one of those “decaying communities in revolt against the modern world,” looked lovely.
We are meant to understand it has been hard hit by opioid addiction, but the local paper can’t hide its pride:
“You can live in a historical district, a downtown artist colony, or so far out in the country hills that you’ve got no mobile phone coverage. There’s farm-to-table food, fast-food joints, and Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl, voted USA Today’s “Best Ice Cream Shop in America” as every proud Zanesvillian is pleased to tell you. It’s Midwestern small-town America.”
Thing is, a pandemic doesn’t emerge from high-minded debates about globalization and the working man. It just emerges and gets to work. Lawrence Wright wrote that civilizations flourish in the arrogance of progress. Here, perhaps, is comeuppance.
In the House of Commons, February 1871, William Gladstone dialed straight into our American future: “I think it would be rash on our part to indulge in too sanguine anticipations.”
Three weeks until election day the president is flailing. Best to remain cautious and hope cooler heads prevail. Except, find me a cooler head. If hope is patience with the lamp lit, lanterns across the land burn low, late in this election year like no other, the year that just won’t let up.
Note: I wrote in that article about William Jennings Bryant’s four runs at the White House, and Joe Biden’s three. Since then, just a few days ago, opposition candidate Wavel Ramkalawan won the Seychelles presidency – on his sixth try.
This is fun.
My monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily is live now. Read On the Road in Pandemic America at 3QD now, and I’ll post it here on CS&W in a couple of days.
First, I dress carefully, in case I end up spending a night or two in the detention centre. Second, I intensively water dozens of my plants. Third, we leave our cat enough food for a few days. (One of my friends says that her cat has become fat with all these Sunday rallies.) Fourth, we take passports and a bottle of water. It’s important, too, to clear the history of your mobile phone, as these are often checked in the detention centres.
– Quoted in FT.com
The U.S. airlines furloughed 32,000 people yesterday, as a government support program ran out. The travel industry is collapsing, but it’s not just the airlines:
Hospitality: “more than two-thirds of hotels said they would not be able to last six more months at the current projected revenue and occupancy levels, and half of the hospitality owners polled said they are in danger of foreclosure.”
And this: “Business is booming at a sea dock in western Turkey, where five hulking cruise ships are being dismantled for scrap metal sales after the COVID-19 pandemic all but destroyed the industry, the head of a ship recyclers’ group said on Friday.”
It strikes me that posting this tweet might be viewed by some folks as supporting the Biden campaign’s money raising efforts, and by others as if it shows an unhealthy emphasis on money in American politics. Anybody?
In last month’s column we sailed from Walvis Bay, Namibia, to St. Helena Island, 1800 miles from Angola, 1200 from Brazil, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. This month we continue north to Ascension Island.
When the Brits exiled Napoleon to St. Helena in 1815 they denied the emperor newspapers, subjected him to curfew, and guarded him with 125 men during the day and 72 at night. So intent were they to avoid a second imperial escape that sailing down, they garrisoned Ascension Island on the way, better to defend St. Helena.
Napoleon died six years later. With the Suez Canal fifty years in the future, the Admiralty hung on to Ascension as a sea base and it serves now as an airbase shared with the Americans, who built the island’s Wideawake airfield to move troops in WWII.
Ascension provided the middle link in an airbridge for the United Kingdom’s 1982 Falkland Islands campaign. During that conflict Ascension came alive like never before or since, as the UK Ministry of Defense ran a frenetic schedule of flights between the Brize-Norton air base near Oxford, England, and the RAF’s Mount Pleasant airport near Stanley, in the Falklands.
Other than aboard your own ocean going yacht, at the time of our visit ten years ago, there were only two ways onto and off of Ascension Island: the airbridge, which ran twice weekly charters, and the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, which supplied St. Helena Island with periodic trips from Cape Town, and usually continued the additional 800 miles northwest to Ascension Island.
Where much of St. Helena is graceful and green, Ascension is stark and volcanic. St. Helena’s population has ancestral roots, while Ascension’s 34 square miles are home to no permanent residents, no farmers, fishermen or private property. St. Helena exports labor via contract workers. Ascension imports most of it.
Ascension is home to various NASA satellite tracking stations and military installations. The BBC transmits its World Service broadcasts to Africa and South America from an other-worldly array of broadcast antennae on the island’s northern tip. The military airstrip was lengthened so it could serve as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle. It remains the longest in the Atlantic, supporting the 800 working residents, comprised of a changing coterie of research scientists and a small community of contract workers, like my new friend Nick.
I met Nick on the two day run up from St. Helena. But for a trickle of tourists this was a ferry full of “Saints” like Nick, residents of St. Helena on their way back from Christmas holiday to contract work on Ascension. Nick ran a shop in the neighborhood of Two Boats.
Ascension Island from the RMS St. Helena
Nick and I sat drinking beer in the open air aboard the RMS St. Helena, out on deck behind the indoor sun lounge. We were escaping the games inside, bingo and the like, meant to entertain passengers grown weary of the monotony of no sight of land.
Nick spoke in bursts, quick half-sentences. He’d make a point and give a knowing nod and a smile, like he’d just heard himself and agreed with what he said. He had things to say about life in the middle of the South Atlantic.
“St. Helena got its problems, y’know? Some people makin’ a fortune. Guy goes off to the Falklands to work, lives almost like a slave. Livin’ in dormitories, cleanin’ up after the Brits. He gets free travel, now, but he makes what, five grand a year, comes home and a house gonna cost him twenty. No way to live.
“And a man ought not have to go away to earn a living anyway. Here I go to Ascension, been there eleven years. Now the good thing: the way you can raise kids. It really is good. I’m bringin’ my son because I have a little shop and my wife, she teaches. No lockin’ doors, keys in the car. 900 people, maybe a thousand, right? Somebody ever takes something, eventually you find it.
“Now they have these clubs, a man doesn’t need money, just sign and have a beer, pay for it on payday. He don’t pay, he can’t leave the island, they take his last paycheck or somethin’.
“Sometimes I say no at my shop. A boy come in, wants a case of beer, if he can’t pay I say no. Otherwise I end up with no beer and no money to buy more. But my father taught me never say no if a man is a couple a pounds short for his kid’s shoes.
“Grinds people down. Some people make too much money, some people really poor, best thing they want is maybe a broken down second hand car. They just never gone anywhere, never seen anything in the world.
“Now I been eleven years on Ascension. I been lucky. Time for me to go back. My father died young. Not young, 62. My mother died in her 50’s. Lucky, my Auntie keeps my business back home. Won’t say I’ll never go back to work on Ascension. You get really big fish there, you know?”
Ascension Island. Hell with the fire put out. Volcanic, 100 kilometers west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the above-water tip of a 3,200 meter high, 60 kilometer wide volcano. Most recent lava flows thought to have been in the last 1,000 years but none since at least 1501. Some eight degrees south of the equator.
Astonishingly young. Its most ancient rocks are no more than a million years old. The slopes descend to the ocean floor, a visitor wrote, like a lorry full of gravel just unloaded, with “the same steepness and regularity, something totally unlikely in a natural mountain.” In the black lava from the most recent eruption NASA tested its LEM, or Lunar Excursion Module.
In ordinary places travelers perform a trivial ritual meant to assure their return, like tossing coins in the Trevi Fountain. On the tip of Chilean South America, you will return to Punta Arenas if you kiss the toe of the Ferdinand Magellan statue.
It’s different on Ascension. The Obsidian Hotel’s island-touting brochure describes a golf course on the road east from Georgetown as the worst on the planet, where “the ‘Greens’ are called ‘browns’ and are made of crushed compacted lava smoothed flat with diesel oil.” Across the road are two canoes stood on end, one third buried, planted in lava.
Logically enough, these boats mark the road to the gaggle of housing called Two Boats, where Nick has his shop. The Ascension travelers’ legend centers on an elaborately painted stone beside the boats. When you are due to leave Ascension you cast paint upon this stone, to assure you need never return.
The waters off Ascension are home to spotted and bottlenose dolphins, humpback and Gervais’ beaked whales and the big attraction, the green turtle. The green turtles were laying when we arrived, in December. They would then swim across the Atlantic to Brazil, and return in three or four years to these very same beaches to once again mate and lay their eggs, a behavior scientists call ‘natal homing.’
We joined three conservation officers and four or five others one night for a walk down Long Beach in search of nesting turtles. Ten minutes from the middle of town, an all-enveloping darkness. A very hushed affair broken only by the chest-thumping impact of Atlantic rollers, waves that gather unimpeded for hundreds and hundreds of miles.
The lead conservation person slipped away then back, summoning us to shuffle through the sand toward a massive green turtle nesting on the beach. It’s a rare and fascinating sight, common to no one, even a researcher.
Turtles favor Ascension for the absence of predators. No dogs, no monkeys. The Ascension green turtles are the largest in the world, a meter and a half long, weighing as much as 300 kilos. Green Turtles are between 20 and 40 years old when they make the journey for the first time, males and females swimming together to mate.
A turtle will nest as many as ten times at intervals of 10-17 days. Once she has dug a large pit with all of her flippers the turtle digs a chamber with her hind flippers into which she lays around 120 ping-pong sized eggs.
Nesting Turtle and eggs
Both laying and hatching happen at night. One hatchling after another pops out on to the sand and races for the sea. They are born all at once. Only by working in numbers can they generate sufficient strength to burrow up through the sand. Once out in the air, their numbers increase the chances some will survive the headlong dash into the surf.
Everything about these turtles is remarkable, but the poet Amit Majmudar reminds us that all animals are “routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it.”
Perhaps because we live our lives in conscious thought, we discount the astonishing ways our fellow beings, seemingly unconsciously, navigate the world. Green turtles appear to use their own internal maps of the Atlantic Ocean. Some migratory birds seem to navigate by the pole point, the due north spot in the sky around which the sky rotates.
Ants’ ocelli, light-sensitve organs on their heads, can read the sky even when the sun is obscured by cloud, using patterns of polarized light to orient themselves. The cataglyphis ant uses an internal odometer to keep track of outbound steps to then find its way home.
Other ants seemingly do trigonometry, taking circuitous routes outbound then the most direct route back to their nests, figuring out spatial relationships between the various places they’ve been each day.
Honeybees use polarized light to find the most direct way back to the hive – a beeline. This with brains of fewer than one million neurons and with 20/2000 vision. Also shown to use polarized light: Monarch butterflies, lizards, shrimp, lobsters, cuttlefish, crickets, and rainbow trout as well as numerous migratory birds. And maybe, so did the Norse.
Human navigation away from Ascension Island in 2010 meant either sailing back to St. Helena Island aboard the RMS St. Helena, which has since been retired, or flying via the airbridge to the United Kingdom or the Falkland Islands. Since 2017 maintenance at the Wideawake airbase has precluded landing of larger aircraft, and the Falklands airbridge is for now rerouted via Cape Verde. Current options for getting to and from Ascension are even fewer than those ten years ago.
We took the airbridge. A testudinologist (studies turtles and tortoises) named Sergio Ghione wrote that at the time of his work on Ascension, the Airbridge was a grim military affair, with the first row or two of seats removed in order to accommodate stretchers. By the time of our visit, at a non-military time, flights staged to and from RAF Brize Norton using charter contractors, like the Scottish company Flyglobespan, which had the contract until it filed for bankruptcy a month before our scheduled flight.
Unsure who might fly in to pick us up, we assembled to leave Ascension in a little chain link holding pen just off the Wideawake Field tarmac, and a brightly-colored Air Tahiti Nui widebody arrived to pick us up, which later set up a jarring visual as the airliner, in its merry Polynesian livery, glided in to touch down at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, in the snow.
On Ascension Island: Turtle Island by Sergio Ghione, and Island Base: Ascension Island in the Falklands War by Captain Bob McQueen.
On animal navigation, By the Light of the Moon, the Poles of the Earth, The remarkable ways animals get around by Sally Davies. For a tour of the odd capabilities of some really strange living things try Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes.
On human navigation try Wayfinding by M. R. O’Connor, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis and The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.