Monday, December 29, 2014

Behind the Barr in Boston and Staying with Suzette

A quote attributed to Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840 - 1924)

At the conclusion of this year’s National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) annual conference in Washington DC, my friend and former NSNC President, Suzette Standring, invited me to spend four days with her and her lovely family near Boston, Massachusetts.
Boston's Old State House (1713)

Suzette and I checked out of the Washington Plaza Hotel just before 6.30am Sunday morning and caught a taxi to the airport. At 8.25am we boarded Jet Blue’s Embraer 190 jet for a short one and a half hour flight up to Boston. Arriving in time to attend Suzette’s regular Sunday morning church service at the Boston Church of Christ.

It was a beautiful experience to sit with the eight hundred strong congregation as we sang hymns and listened to the eloquent minister, Chip Mitchell, as he delivered his weekly sermon.

That night Suzette and her family, husband David, daughter Star, son-in-law Joe and granddaughters Bella and Lulu took me to dinner at a local Vietnamese restaurant. Star’s husband, Joe introduced me to a favourite Vietnamese dessert, the avocado smoothie; a delicious blend of ripe avocado, ice, milk and sweetened condensed milk. Known as “butter fruit” in Vietnam, avocados are used as a dessert ingredient throughout Southeast Asia.

Consignment Shoppers 'R' Us
Monday was the day Suzette had assigned to consignment shopping, (the American version of op shop shopping) after discovering we had a mutual love of finding pre-loved treasures. What fun we had! By late afternoon we were modelling our new outfits on Suzette and David’s back deck. I was particularly pleased with my skirt, t-shirt, denim jacket and shoes that came to the princely sum of $21.50 and Suzette found a beautiful designer evening coat for $45.

That evening, I volunteered to cook dinner for the three of us and we sat out on the deck with a glass of red wine each and enjoyed a meal of New Zealand lamb chops with fresh mint sauce, oven roasted potatoes and green salad.
David, myself and Suzette enjoying our dinner on the deck

Suzette’s adorable seventeen-year-old dog, Mojo, a beagle/cocker spaniel cross, wandered happily between us and successfully employed her beautiful soulful eyes to entice titbits from me.

Mojo the Adorable
A Puritan Gravestone in the Granary Burying Ground
The next day Suzette and I caught the train into Boston and Suzette gave me a personal walking tour of the city that was founded in 1630. We visited an ancient cemetery, the Granary Burying Ground (1660), with its Puritan gravestones; walked through the Omni Parker Hotel where JFK announced in January 1960, he would run for President and stopped to admire Faneuil Hall (1742), where Samuel Adams and James Otis made speeches in the 1700s encouraging independence from England.
Inside Faneuil Hall (1742)

Coffee Merchants 'R' Us - Annie and Suzette inside Polcari's Coffee
We walked down narrow cobblestone streets in Boston’s Little Italy to enjoy a delicious lunch at Antico Forno before calling in at Polcari’s Coffee and meeting the owners, Bobby and Nicki.
Polcari’s Coffee is an old world grocery store, brimming with rare coffees and spices from around the world and still looking much the way I imagined it looked when it opened in 1932.

Polcari's Coffee (1932)
On the way home we popped into one of Boston’s most famous bakeries, Mike’s Pastry, to pick up a treat for David. The decadent La Sfogliatella or Lobster Tail consists of layers of crusty baked pastry filled with a rich custard cream.

Wednesday was my final day touring Boston with Suzette. We navigated our way around the city via the hop on hop off, Old Town Trolley Tours; their entertaining drivers were a wealth of knowledge. Suzette also took me to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for a fascinating few hours.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840 – 1924) was a woman ahead of her times; an avid collector and philanthropist, Isabella had a passion for travel, entertaining and adventure. She spent more than thirty years traveling the world collecting art and antiques.

The collection itself is housed in Fenway Court, a building commissioned by Isabella and first opened to the public in 1903. Styled after a 15th-century Venetian palace, the museum is three storeys high with the galleries surrounding a central, sun and flower-filled garden courtyard. Sadly, photography is strictly forbidden within the museum and gardens, so I am unable to visually share any of the wondrous treasures we saw there.

Outside Cheers Beacon Hill
Back on our trolley tour, we made the Cheers bar (“Where Everybody Knows Your Name”) our final stop. Originally the Bull & Finch Pub, the exterior was used for the television sitcom, Cheers. It was renamed Cheers Beacon Hill in 2002 after the popular show, which ran from 1982 until 1993.

Initially we just planned on taking a few photos of the exterior before catching the train home to Suzette’s… What can I say? It was a hot day, we were feeling a little weary from all our sightseeing and before we knew it, as if by magic, we were sitting downstairs at the bar drinking 20oz jugs of Samuel Adams beer and chatting with the locals.
Enjoying a couple of beers at Cheers after a hot day touring Boston

Later, after a most entertaining two hours, we said our goodbyes and made it safely back to Milton and Suzette’s delicious, homemade lobster rolls for dinner. I planned on introducing Suzette and David to our famous Antipodean dessert, pavlova, as a final “Thank-you-for-having-me” treat before flying home to Australia the next day…

Note to self: too many beers at Cheers leads to less than impressive pavlova making.

I inadvertently (or some might say, unsurprisingly) misread the recipe and added too much vinegar to the mixture. The end result that evening was a chewy, sweet, flat meringue pancake… looks like I may have to come back one day, if only to resurrect the reputation of our national dessert…

Annie Barr

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Wonders of Washington DC and the NSNC Conference

US Capitol Building, Washington DC

“When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life.” ~Eckhart Tolle

In June last year I made a giant leap out of my comfort zone and embarked on my first solo overseas trip. I left my home in the little rural town of Barham (population 1200) in Australia and travelled 17,135km to the city of Hartford on the eastern side of the United States, to attend the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) annual conference. To say I was feeling nervous as I walked up to the conference’s registration desk that year would be an understatement.

What a difference a year makes.

On the back of what turned out to be one of my most memorable life experiences, coupled with wise words of encouragement from my middle son, Sam, I decided to do it all again and return for this year’s NSNC conference being held in the US capital, Washington DC.

With thanks to social media and email, I'd been able to stay connected with many of the NSNC members in varying degrees, read their latest columns and caught glimpses into their lives via their photographs and status posts on Facebook.

On Thursday 26th June around lunchtime, I checked into the Washington Plaza in downtown DC; my accommodation for the next three nights and venue for the 38th annual NSNC Conference. Far from last year’s feelings of anxiety and nervousness, this year I was positively tingling with anticipation at meeting my fellow NSNC conference attendees.

Named after the first US President, George Washington and founded in 1791, the US capital is a beautiful city and home to a multitude of monuments and museums.

Although I would have loved to visit all the Smithsonian Museums, time was not on my side. I walked down to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and spent a fascinating few hours of the afternoon wandering around the largest historical air and spacecraft collection in the world.
The birth of aviation: original 1903 Wright Flyer

Dinner that night was a happy reunion with NSNC members at Logan Tavern a few short blocks from the Washington Plaza.

The next two days were packed with entertaining, inspiring and knowledge expanding presentations from the numerous conference speakers. An impressive line-up that included Pulitzer Prize winners, nationally syndicated columnists, authors, political reporters, veteran journalists and feature writers.

A couple of hours of free time on the Friday afternoon saw me whisked away with Lisa Smith Molinari from Newport, Rhode Island and Ginger Truitt from Lebanon, Indiana, for a walking tour of some of the Washington monuments and memorials.

We started near the World War II memorials and made our way past the Vietnam Memorial, up to the Lincoln Memorial, looked back towards the Washington Monument, walked past the Korean War memorials before hopping into a taxi back to the Plaza.
The Washington Monument

Dinner that night was a private NSNC function at the US Capitol building for the presentation of the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award. The US Capitol is one of the world’s most recognised buildings and home to the United States Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives). The building is impressive, to put it mildly. Construction of the huge neoclassical styled brick building began in 1793 and is clad in both sandstone and marble. The massive, iconic cast iron dome was added during substantial extensions in the 1860s.

Such a special occasion and highlight of this year’s NSNC Conference, you’d have thought I would have paid attention to the schedule… but no, I managed to get my times mixed up and missed the bus…

Situations like these are always made so much more bearable when you have company and as luck would have it, I met up with NSNC scholarship recipient, Maya and her lovely mum and they too had missed the bus. A few moments later a very nicely dressed couple approached us outside the Plaza and asked if they could give us a lift to the Capitol. (Thank you God.) Our rescuers turned out to be Claremore industrialist and Chairman of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission, Phil Albert and his beautiful wife, Jo.
Outside the US Capitol Building
Capitol Rotunda

Once we’d cleared security into the Capitol, we were given a quick tour to see the bronze statue of Will Rogers (part of the National Statutory Hall Collection). We passed through both the National Statutory Hall and the majestic Capitol Rotunda (located below the Capitol dome) on our way to dinner.

NSNC Members beside the bronze statue of Will Rogers inside the US Capitol Building
During dinner we listened to Will Rogers’ great-granddaughter, Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry, announce Michael P. Williams from the Richmond Times-Dispatch the recipient of this year’s Will Rogers Humanitarian Award.

Sitting there I felt overwhelmed and humbled; I live in a tiny rural town in Australia, and yet there I was, on the other side of the world, having dinner inside the US Capitol building with the members of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The unexpected paths you end up on in life never cease to amaze me.

The following afternoon we had a short break between the end of the conference presentations and our dinner and tour of Howard University. With the help from my friends, Ginger and Lisa and Amanda Beam from Jacksonville, Indiana, we managed a quick walk around the block of the White House, so I could take a couple of photos. 
The White House from the north

The White House from the south
With just enough time to enjoy a quintessential American cocktail, we made our way to the Hotel Washington’s rooftop bar overlooking the White House. On Lisa’s recommendation, we ordered Long Island Iced Teas… at least Lisa, Ginger and I did… Amanda “the-cold-war-is-over” Beam ordered a Moscow Mule…
Lisa, Annie, Ginger and Amanda

Long Island Iced Teas are a lethal concoction of vodka, tequila, rum, gin, triple sec, coke and God knows what else… I was quietly relieved I only had time for one.

Dinner that night was at Howard University and included the presentation of the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award to Pulitzer Prize winner, Gene Weingarten as well as the presentation of the NSNC Column Contest Awards.
Gene Weingarten holding up one of his Pulitzer Prizes

With the conference formalities concluded for another year, it was back to the Washington Plaza for ongoing celebrations and discussions in the NSNC’s famed Hospitality Suite.

Later that night, I couldn’t help but reflect on Sam’s wise words of advice when I’d been agonising over whether to return or not for the 2014 NSNC conference:

“Mum, you went by yourself last year and met great people and had a great time but if you never go back, that trip and the people you met at the conference will just be a memory but if you go back one more time, those people will become true friends. I think you should go.”

Thanks Sam.

Annie Barr

Monday, July 28, 2014

Arriving in Arlington

A magnolia flower at the Arlington National Cemetery

Serendipitous moments, those unexpected happy coincidences, are some of the best things in life. I look out for them and am always delighted when they arrive. The morning I was leaving Barham on the 7.05am VLine bus to Melbourne, en route to the United States, I checked my Facebook page just one more time…

My friend from school, Burge, after years of Facebook silence, had posted a beautiful profile picture of herself and her two sons. “She’s posted it at 4am… What’s with that?” I had wondered.
I clicked on her page and lo and behold, she was now living in Arlington, Virginia in the United States. US geography is not one of my strong points and I had no clear idea where Arlington actually was, just a vague sense it may have been somewhere near Washington DC.

I sent off a quick message:

Hi Burge the Elusive,

I haven't seen you in years and suddenly, your beautiful face pops up on my newsfeed!! AND you live in Arlington?! (which, I actually don't know where exactly that is... but...) I'm about to hit the airways (as in sky, not radio) for LA (tomorrow) and making my way across the US to Washington DC for a writer's conference 26th - 29th June.

Have cut my "getting to Washington" a little fine but should be there by Wednesday, 25th June for some very speedy sight-seeing before the conference - only two things on my list to see: the Smithsonian's and Arlington cemetery.

Don’t know if you are close or far away from Washington or if in the world of amazing, serendipitous moments, you are able to catch up that Wednesday night - 25th June?

Annie xo

… and Burge responded back within minutes:

Annie, Annie, Annie!!

We're so close!! Let's lock in something for the 25th.  Do you want to come and stay??  My number is ***

Love Burge

As it turns out, Arlington is just across the Potomac River, literally a stone’s throw from Washington DC. I guess I should have realised that Arlington National Cemetery would be located at a place called Arlington…

Two weeks later, I was stepping off the Metro train at her local station, where Burge and her sons, James and George, were waving to me from the steps leading up to their street.

Although it seemed no time had passed, we hadn’t seen each other since our twenty-year school reunion in 2008; it was so good to talk and catch up on each other’s lives.

With James and George leading the way, Burge and I walked to their local cafĂ© for lunch and afterwards we visited Burge’s favourite bookshop, across the road.
Books, beer, wine and chocolate - what's not to love?!
 One More Page, is my kind of bookshop; books, beer, wine and chocolate – pure genius! The owner and operator, Eileen McGervey, opened this small, independent, neighbourhood bookshop in 2011.

I loved the little recommendations dotted onto the various books
One More Page has a great feel to it and had it not been for my time limitations, I would have happily lost myself there for hours amongst the titles and pages. Eileen’s staff are warm and welcoming and have dotted little quirky reviews and recommendations onto books throughout the store. Even the US President, Barack Obama and his family have shopped here on at least one occasion.

Later that afternoon on the prior recommendation from my Barham friends, Geoff and Sal May, I caught a train out to Arlington National Cemetery.
Standing near Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial with Washington DC in the background
 A United States Military Cemetery, the first military burials took place there during the American Civil War in 1864.

Burial in Arlington National Cemetery is generally limited to active, retired and former members of the armed forces, Medal of Honor recipients, high-ranking federal government officials and their dependents.
The Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery - built in 1920

The 624-acre cemetery is the final resting place for over 400,000 people including President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Open to the public 365 days and on average, 5,000 people are buried at Arlington National Cemetery each year.
A sentinel guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I don’t know what it is about military cemeteries but the few I have visited seem to be permeated with the same profound sense of tranquillity. I first experienced it in 1994 when I visited the war graves at Gallipoli in Turkey. Standing on that Turkish peninsular, looking out over the Aegean Sea, I felt surrounded in a beautiful calm stillness, in direct contrast to Gallipoli’s violent and bloody history.

In 2009 the boys and I were on a four-wheel driving, camping adventure through Australia’s Northern Territory with our friends, the Wares from Hay and the Osters from Barham. Late one afternoon we called in to the Adelaide River War Cemetery south of Darwin. Once again I felt the same sense of peace I’d experienced half a world away and fifteen years earlier.
Arlington National Cemetery

The hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery is just the same and I found it well worth the time to visit and one of the many highlights of my trip.

Burge's seriously delicious peach dessert
That evening Burge’s husband Paul (a scientist with the Australian Defence Department), cooked a delicious barbeque dinner that we enjoyed al fresco with salad and refreshments in their backyard. As we tucked into Burge’s magnificent peach dessert on dusk, I glimpsed my first ever firefly. James helped to satisfy my curiosity by capturing one so as to give me a close-up view.
James' hands and the firefly

These tiny, nocturnal, luminescent beetles have dedicated light organs that are located under their abdomens. The fireflies take in oxygen and combine it with a substance called luciferin inside special cells to produce a light with almost no heat.

My time with Burge and her family was all too short due to my other travel commitments but nonetheless, a wonderful 24 hours.
L-R: James, Burge, George and Paul

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Behind the Barr in Baltimore

Have you ever wondered if you can just turn up at an airport and purchase a ticket without a prior reservation? Me too.

For the past week I’d been asking everyone I met, whether or not this was a viable option. Opinions differed with every person I met. No one I met had actually done it; some thought it might be possible while others were adamant and said, “Oh no, Honey, you got to make a reservation and buy yourself a ticket way in advance.”

The reason I hadn’t booked a ticket in advance was because the arrival time of long-haul train journeys was so erratic – it was nothing to have a six plus hour delay on the California Zephyr.

True to form, we rolled into Chicago two and a half hours late. Fortunately the public transport is easy to negotiate in Chicago and I quickly made my way out to Midway Airport. The plane I wanted was the 7.25pm Southwest Airlines flight down to Baltimore Washington International (BWI) Airport… it was already after 6pm.

As luck would have it, they still had seats available and I could purchase one there and then at the counter; I quickly handed over my credit card and was then directed to the Express Bag-Drop line (I think they could safely drop the “express” in their title). From there, I sprinted through security… at least, I would have sprinted through security if only I’d remembered to pack my jar of Vegemite into my checked luggage, instead of my carry-on… fortunately it wasn’t deemed too dangerous (they didn’t taste it) and I was allowed to keep it. I ran on down the long, long corridors that airports are infamous for and arrived, out of breath and in a ball of sweat at the boarding gate, just in the nick of time.

My hosts for the next couple of nights, were NSNC member, writer, humorist, speaker and stand-up comic, Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski and her husband, Brad Borowy. Although we had only met briefly at last year’s NSNC Conference in Hartford, Connecticut, through modern technology and social media in the form of Facebook, we had been able to get to know each other better over the following months. Wojo had emailed and invited me to come and stay if I could work it into my excellent adventure itinerary.

It was great to be met with friendly faces as I arrived at yet another foreign airport. It was even better to arrive at their beautiful home in the Maryland countryside on the outskirts of Baltimore, that they shared with their two pampered pooches, Riley and Maggie.

Riley, practising his "Puss in Boots" eyes
The next morning Brad had to go off to work, leaving Wojo and her assistant, Ernie, the task of giving me a snapshot of life in Maryland. Together, we prioritised the day into: Laundry, Lunch, Nap, Baseball.

Laundry, while not exciting, is one of life’s necessities and when you’re travelling, the offer of a washing machine and dryer should never be passed up. I introduced Wojo and Ernie to the delights of our national spread, Vegemite, while we waited for my washing to finish.

Ernie diplomatically said it was, “okay” but I fear Wojo’s North American palate may be too delicate to fully appreciate the not-so-subtle and somewhat salty flavours of yeast extract… at least, that’s the impression I got from watching her facial expressions following her partial ingestion of a miniscule slice of buttered bread with Vegemite…

For lunch Wojo and Ernie took me to the Fallston Seafood Restaurant and introduced me to one of their state’s traditional meals, steamed crabs. Generously coated in McCormick & Co’s Old Bay Seasoning, steamed Maryland blue crabs are delicious to eat.
Steamed crabs with Old Bay seasoning

With the table covered in brown paper and topped with steamed crabs, we made good use of our “crustacean crushers”; the wooden mallets supplied by Michelle, our wonderfully attentive waitress, and used to extract the succulent crabmeat from the shells. I washed down my magnificent meal with a bottle of Bud Light beer.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to taking a nap.

Enjoying steamed crabs at the Fallston Seafood Restaurant
Brad returned home from work in the evening and the four of us headed into Baltimore to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. A Major League Baseball ballpark and home to the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. We were there to see the home team play the Chicago White Sox and for me to experience my first ever baseball game.
In the stands at Camden Yards

Oriole star player, Chris Davis, batting
Armed with hotdogs and sauce and sitting high up in the stands, Brad, Wojo and Ernie explained the finer points of the game that has been played in the US since the late 1700s. Sadly the Orioles didn’t claim victory that night but the atmosphere and cheering of the crowd when a home run was hit, made for a memorable evening.
Ernie's selfie at the game: Brad, me, Wojo and Ernie

I concluded my day with Wojo and Brad with a late-night introduction to Arnott’s Tim Tam biscuits. Consisting of a couple of chocolate malted biscuits sandwiched together with chocolate cream filling and encased in a thin layer of yet more chocolate, this iconic Australian bikkie, first introduced in 1964, was in fact named after the famous American racehorse and 1958 Kentucky Derby winner, Tim Tam.
Trivia aside, I think my humble packet of Tim Tams restored Wojo’s faith in Australian cuisine…

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The California Zephyr

The California Zephyr arrives at Emeryville

In my quest to see as much of the country as possible, within a relatively short timeframe, I caught the Amtrak train known as the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago.
Crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains

My roomette for the next 50 odd hours
The two and a half day trip covered 2,438 miles (3,924km) across some of the most impressive landscapes in North America. The train trundled along at a relaxed pace giving me plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, eat my supply of Ghirardelli chocolate, talk with my fellow travellers, read, write and sleep.

Converted into a bed for the evenings
We left San Francisco by bus to Emeryville Saturday morning and got onto the Zephyr at 9am. I had booked a roomette; a compact room with two seats that folded down into a bed for the evenings.
Menu in the Dining Car

Lunch: crab cake sandwich and an iced tea
That first day, we travelled through the states of California and Nevada, stopping at towns and cities along the way for passengers to get on and off the train. We stopped at Sacramento, the capital city of California and then on through the Sierra Nevada fir-covered mountain range to Reno – “the Biggest Little City in the World”.

Founded in 1868, Reno really took off in the 1930s with legalised gambling and the country’s most liberal divorce laws. The Bank Club in Reno became the world’s largest casino during the 30s and 40s and saying, “I’m going to Reno.” was another way of saying, “I’m getting a divorce.”

Well-known American columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning World War II war correspondent, Ernie Pyle once wrote in one of his columns, "All the people you saw on the streets in Reno were obviously there to get divorces." (I sure that’s not the case today.)

Waking up in Utah
The second day, I woke up around 6am and looked out my window, onto the imposing desert landscape of Utah – true cowboy and Indian country. I felt as though I was on the set of the old Western movies, rerun during my 1970s childhood and that any minute Gary Cooper would ride past in pursuit of the Miller’s Gang or John Wayne would be in a gunfight with the Comancheros whilst simultaneously warding off an attack by Comanche Indians.

By 9.30am we had crossed into Colorado. The day was filled with spectacular scenery as we followed the Colorado River up through the Rocky Mountain range through numerous canyons and gorges. I kept my eyes peeled, hoping to spot a bear or two but no such luck, although I did manage to see a few moose and deer along the way.

The Colorado River is a favourite for white water rafting and kayaking with the rafters and kayakers traditionally “mooning” the California Zephyr as it makes its way past.
"Mooning" rafters

Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Short stop at Glenwood Springs, Colorado
I took the opportunity to stretch my legs on the platform at picturesque, Glenwood Springs, high up in the Rockies. The final resting place for Wild West legend, Doc Holliday of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral fame, Glenwood Springs is famous for its hot springs and mineral caves.

Colorado River
In between Glenwood Springs and Denver, we passed through the 6.2 mile (10km) long Moffat Tunnel and reached the highest elevation for the trip at 9,200 feet (2,800m) above sea level.

Colorado River
Leaving the Rockies behind
That night in the dining car, I was seated with a retired couple from Omaha and Elsa, an events manager from Chicago.

We made good time all the way to Denver, Colorado, where the train picked up more passengers and refuelled for our journey on to Chicago.
Once we hit the open plains country outside of Denver, heading towards Nebraska, the weather changed. We headed into the night with a severe weather warning slowing our progress and a spectacular light show from heavy thunderstorms lighting up my window.

East of Denver

Only a few days earlier, twin tornadoes had wrecked havoc near the small town of Pilger, Nebraska, wiping out the town's business district, obliterating its fire station and grinding 40 or 50 homes into rubble. I went to sleep hoping we wouldn’t encounter any twisters along our route that night.
Ate the last block when I still had 19 hours to go...

The next morning I woke up safe and sound although somewhat dismayed to discover I had polished off my entire supply of Ghirardelli chocolate I had bought in San Francisco.

We passed through Omaha, Nebraska, home to Warren Buffett. The Oracle of Omaha and the world’s most famous and successful stock market investor, Mr Buffett is worth a cool US$65billion or thereabouts. Call it wishful thinking but I was hoping to channel some sort of divine investment wisdom as we passed through town… I’ll let you know how that goes at a future date.

About to cross the Mississippi River on the Burlington Rail Bridge
For my last day on the California Zephyr, we crossed the states of Nebraska, Iowa and then at Burlington, we crossed the mighty Mississippi River into the state of Illinois.
The Mighty Mississippi 

Down in the dining car for breakfast, I ordered a spinach and mushroom frittata with that quintessential side dish from the American Deep South: grits. (I just wanted to say in my best American impersonation, “I’ll have some grits with that please.”) Porridge made out of ground corn, water and seasoned with butter, grits are pretty bland and mainly eaten as a breakfast dish.
Grits, bacon, frittata and a croissant for brekkie 

There had been a lot of recent heavy rain around Omaha and further east; the farming country steadily improved and we passed acres and acres of lush, green corn crops as we travelled on towards Chicago.

Talking with other passengers, I was amazed to learn the length of the summer school holidays in the US. The summer vacation, as they call it, starts at the end of May and goes through until September. (Apparently a left over tradition from the farming days of old, when the children were expected to help out on the farms over the summer.)

We finally chugged into Chicago, two and a half hours later than expected. When it comes to seeing a country in a relatively short space of time, you can’t beat a long distance train trip. So long as you’re not overly concerned about your arrival time and are prepared to be flexible, the California Zephyr offers a great way to see large tracts of North America as well as meet fellow travellers.