When we are in Turkey we often visit archaeological sites of the Old World and one of their features are temples built for worship of the gods and goddesses. But now, from the UK, it is time for a visit to a very personal modern temple, the Temple of the Grandchildren, Henry and Beatrix. And this one is sited in the city of Little Rock in the state of Arkansas in the Deep South of the New World.
Little Rock is a familiar name having been the scene of protests and riots in the days of racial segregation and more recently the power base of Bill Clinton, former US President. But, in our many travels around the United States, we have never visited Arkansas let alone Little Rock. The nearest we have come to it was in Kansas where our son Oliver and his family used to live and where the big river in their part of the state was the Arkansas River, a river which eventually flows through the state of the same name on its way to join the Mississippi. We also came close, one state to the East, on a visit to Alabama to stay with an American academic friend Betsy, who uses the wonderful pen name of Hortense Seedlock. So Arkansas and Little Rock will be a new adventure in “the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Free”.
Today we are flying to Dallas, the nearest airline hub to Little Rock. We could change planes and fly directly onwards but we’ve decided to hire a car in Dallas and explore a bit more of the South. Apart from time spent at the temple of the grandchildren, we will all be going to stay in a cabin in the Ozark Mountains, an area that combines my two favourite pursuits of mountain walking and country music. We’ll also be spending a few days in New Orleans, more music and some history, and a final couple of days in Dallas – there must be more to it than Southfork and the Grassy Knoll. The whole trip will take four weeks less one day. And it’s going to be hot and fairly humid. Let the wagons roll!!
Actually these wagons had better have wings as step one is to get across The Pond, otherwise known as the North Atlantic Ocean. I’m writing the first part of today’s blog at 34,000 feet in a “wagon” of the British Airways fleet. We had pre-booked a window and a middle seat in a row of three. It was in the lap of the gods as to who would be joining us in the aisle seat. The biggest fear, quite literally, is an over-sized person who should really have been required to book two seats. We sat watching in trepidation as each new passenger came into the cabin. Would this be our travelling companion? And then, miracle of miracles, the safety briefing started and we realised that there would be no one else sitting in our row and we could spread out. How lucky can you get, especially as there were only a handful of empty seats on the whole plane.
It is a 747-400, one of the Jumbo Jet family. I haven’t been on one of these for many, many years. Indeed the last time was flying back from a business trip to Tokyo in the nineties. I’d been lucky with seating on that flight as well. Just before the doors were closed a very drunk youngish Englishman staggered on board and took the seat next to me. Not ideal to say the least. A few minutes later a steward came down the plane and asked me if I would like to move. He took me to a single seat near one of the service areas that was kept for crew use. Excellent. In fact it turned out to be a double win, as the bar storage was right next to me and the steward said just help yourself. This was before 9/11, so when I asked if I could see around the cockpit that was arranged. My big memory is getting a wide panoramic view over Siberia and seeing how vast a region it is. Miles and miles and miles of forests, criss-crossed by major rivers and a sprinkling of small communities that all seemed to be gathered round belching chimney stacks.
So back to today. The plane was pushed back from the stand at 11.55, right on time. The journey details as shown on the seat-back screen in front of me, gave the total distance for the flight as 4743 miles and that we would be arriving in Dallas at 15.11 local time, 40 minutes ahead of schedule. By the time we got to the end of the runway some 20 minutes later, ready for take-off, the total distance had increased to 4744 miles and the arrival time to 15.29. The joys of flying, or should I say of taxi-ing.
As always, up here in the stratosphere – well nearly the stratosphere – the sky is blue but, down below, as we pass over England, it is hidden under the familiar, at least for this year, thick blanket of cloud. Northern Ireland is a different kettle of fish, brilliant sunshine. Carlingford Loch is a little shrunken – the tide must be out – and Belfast looks peaceful. Loch Neagh, the largest stretch of inland water in the British Isles, is a beautiful shade of blue. Could this be the Northern Ireland Spring?
According to the on-screen map we are now passing south of Iceland – not visible even from my north-facing window – and shortly we should just scrape past the southern tip of Greenland. There’s now almost complete cloud-cover over the ocean so the chances of glimpsing any land is close to zero.
Just a small mention of the on-board catering. Shortly after take-off the drinks trolley appeared and it was time for a small aperitif (as Ken Dodd would say!). Then it was not long before the food trolley arrived. We were told that there was only buttered chicken left – the trolley had started at the back of the plane – but, given we didn’t know what the choice would have been, that was fine. The food was served on a generously sized tray unlike on some airlines where there seems to have been a competition to design the smallest possible tray. The only strange thing provided was the dessert. It came in the form of a small cardboard tub containing what was described as “Wild Gourmet Mousse”. The mind boggled. Did they mean “Wild Gourmet Moose? Or was the “Gourmet” wild and untrained? I’ve never come across a Mousse in the wild. It was made in Ireland so perhaps the leprechauns had had a hand in it. Whatever, it was actually very tasty.
As I look back to the screen there are two, vaguely disappointing, changes. Firstly, the projected route has moved further south so we won’t have any chance of seeing Greenland. And secondly, the optimistic projected arrival time has now moved back to 15.44, just six minutes early. I should mention that the part of the US that we will be visiting is on Central Time which means it is six hours behind the UK. So 15.44 translates to 21.44 on our body clocks. By the time we get out of the airport and into the rental car it will feel like 11pm. We will not be driving far tonight.
As a recompense for the lack of view over Greenland, we have a real bonus. Floating on the ocean are a few dazzling white objects. It’s very difficult to say how big they are but they are clearly icebergs. As we approach the Canadian coast, just north of the St Lawrence, the number and the size of the icebergs increases dramatically. One must be measured in miles and plenty are hundreds of feet long and hundreds of feet high. Is this global warming in action or normal for this time of year? (Message to the Titanic, “Keep a good lookout”.)
This part of Canada, the extreme east of the province of Quebec, looks very cold and uninviting. Is June only two days away? It looks more like winter on the ground. There’s a small coastal hamlet totally isolated from anywhere else. A highway can be seen linking it to civilisation. My guess is that we can see more than 50 miles of road and not another sign of habitation. Let’s hope that the neighbours get on with each other.
Anyway we’ve reached North America and it’s more or less the half way point of the journey. For the rest of the flight we’ll be traversing the continent from North East to South West. From the on-screen map it looks as though we will travel along the course of the St Lawrence River to the start of the Great Lakes then head over the vast prairies of the Mid West and finally down towards Texas. I hope we’ll see some of the country but for now the cloud cover is unbroken.
There were a few breaks in the clouds. The first was over Lake Champlain to the south of Montreal and on the borders between Vermont and New York State. This is where the Appalachian Mountains start and run right down the East side of the US of A. The next break was over the City of Rochester, NY where it looked like they were having a beautiful day along the southern shore of Lake Ontario. The map showed us passing along the shoreline of Lake Erie and over Cleveland, Ohio, recently in the news following the escape of three women and a child from many years of captivity, but there was nothing to see today but clouds.
And so it went on. Clouds, thicker clouds and patches of unidentifiable ground. Until suddenly we got a break and we were over a wide river – the Ohio River I think – and then back into the clouds. The plane then changed course, quite abruptly, and we were heading south towards the Gulf of Mexico. The reason soon came into view. Over to our west were massive cumulonimbus thunder clouds towering higher than the plane – clearly an area of major turbulence. The change of routing cost us a lot of time and the screen told us that the plane would now be 20 minutes late landing.
During the course of the diversion we were served a late snack. It was a less than exciting interpretation of an English afternoon tea. The sandwich element was Chicken Caesar, made by a Dutch company at an unspecified UK location, the poor example of a scone came from that home of fine baking, the Heathrow Bakery, the clotted cream was Cornish (fine), the strawberry jam was French and finally the water came from North Wales. What a hotch potch of a meal. BA really must try harder.
By the time it was announced that the plane would be landing, the change of route to avoid the storm had taken us a long way south so we were now travelling northwest to reach Dallas. The landing was text-book but we had landed as far from the international gates as was possible. The taxi to the stand took all of 20 minutes and we were moving all the time.
US Immigration is always an ordeal but there have been some improvements. Nowadays there is the ESTA scheme which allows UK citizens to do advance registration over the internet from home. A plus point as we no longer have to fill in the Visa Waiver forms during the journey. Once in the Immigration Hall we no longer have to join the “Aliens” queue, it now, more politely, called the “Foreign Visitors” queue. But the queue itself as in the past moves extremely slowly. For most of the time there were only three desks open, so it took the best part of an hour to get through. However, it was ten out of ten to the immigration officer. He had clearly been to the Government charm school and could not have been nicer.
At the baggage hall all was well. The luggage had obviously been delivered on the carousel whilst we were in the immigration queue and the cases were waiting neatly stacked for collection. However that bit of efficiency was completely nullified by the final stage of the arrival process. Every person arriving in the US from abroad has to fill in a Customs Form which has to be checked and collected before you can leave the airport. In my 20 odd years experience of arriving in the US I have never come across such a long queue for customs as in Dallas. Another 15 minutes were spent snaking through miles and miles of roped passages.
But then we were out of the terminal and into the sweltering heat of the real world for the first time since landing. A bit of a shock. An efficient shuttle bus took us to the car rental facility off airport and by 6pm, we were on the road in a General Motors Malibu – very comfortable. Now we were on the last leg of our journey to the Temple of the Grandchildren.