Toronto, Canada

Toronto, Canada

A funny thing happened. I travelled today, switched countries, and didn’t have even a moment’s sense of ‘can’t be *****’ before travelling. Maybe because the journey was in the evening, allowing for a relaxed start, wander round the city in the sun and a gentle meander to the airport, but it’s unusual for me. Toronto was immediately relaxing when I reached it on Saturday.

A line of low buildings on a street, with market stalls
Kensington market.

I had little planned beyond a bit of shopping, but took myself down to the waterfront, which was glorious in the sun. Did I mention I was relaxed? That and a bit giddy at how sweet everything is. Every day should have a little problem, so today’s is: mild sunburn having been caught on a cold but sunny day yesterday at the falls. And I forgot to put any cream on today! But it is very mild.

CN tower from the waterfront
CN tower from the waterfront.

Getting to walk along the waterfront was a bit fiddly, in that there is plenty of work going on down there, sometimes blocking the way, so I had some to-ing and fro-ing. Again, if that’s the worst of my problems, I’m doing okay. Toronto’s taller buildings, and the CN tower especially, looked out on the waterfront, the sun glinted off them and the water and all was well with the world. Thai for lunch, shopped and made it to Black Toe Running in time to catch Rejean at work. He was there at the beginning of my year, in Ethiopia, and at the near end, here. He suffered from the curse of Ethiopia, too, and hasn’t got back to speed since, but still hopes to join the ranks of proper elite Canadian marathoners this week. The shop’s a goodun, too, if you’re passing – 95 Bathurst, run by some very good runners who also give some coaching and run 4 weekly sessions for runners of different standards. From them I learned that it has been a harsh winter, as evidenced by the piles of snow and iced over water despite the sun and positive temperatures I’ve seen.

Old city hall
Old city hall.

All that left was heading to the airport, which is simple enough via metro and change to the ‘Airport rocket’ bus which heads up Jetliner road, though without seeming rocket propelled. Pay your metro fare and then pick up a transfer ticket when through the barriers, total cost $3. I was in the queue nearly 3 hours before takeoff but the fact that there was a-fairly long-queue shows how seriously Canadians take the instruction to be there that far in advance of an international flight. Security was simple, which may account for the fact that once in Iceland the first order to duty is to queue and go through proper, European security. ‘Why must I go through security again?’ is the question answered on signs in the queue. To paraphrase “because North America doesn’t adhere to the same standards as the EC”, which is a fancy way to phrase your two fingers (just one, really, if you’re coming to their level). It seems odd after all the debate and furore around the (USA’s) TSA and their standards and way of enforcing security that it isn’t deemed up to our standards. And odder still that they can’t agree a common area and save us the queue.

Huge University of Toronto sign

Still, that was it for queueing – the passport man waved me through, and my bag was on the carousel. I’d booked a 5-in-1, including tours and transfers, and was on the bus and hyper by 7. Which saved me the £70 I later learnt a taxi ride would cost; poor roommate Scott. Taxis are rarely the right option from an airport, even if sometimes the bus option feels like an airline’s credit card policy – we have to offer one that’s cheap for you to use, but it won’t be the most convenient.

Another view of the CN tower, from a different street
It is visible from all over the place.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls, Canada

Niagara Falls, Canada

Niagara Falls, population 83,000; a funny town. There is a bewildering array of ways to get there, to which I’ll return, but the Go Transit bus will drop you at the junction of highway 420 and Stanley street, which has two closed information centres – presumably privately owned, giving mostly information on how they can earn commission selling you falls ‘experiences’ – a shabby motel and row of shops under the banner ‘town centre’, and from there is the easiest walk. Or it will drop you in the downtown area, home to an eclectic mix of antique and gift shops, a lively looking theatre, the bridge to the USA and the Via railway station. The latter is where the Amtrak train goes, and that’s another option for travel to the falls from Toronto, though if you want to go without changing trains in winter, you have to go early in the morning and return in the evening. On a train that comes from the States and is often late, it says here. In the summer, a different company, Go, run direct train services. At weekends.

Niagara Falls. Huge volume of water falling over iced and snow-covered areas
First falls, looking over to the US.

Downtown is a longer walk, but there are buses. The 420/Stanley junction is closer to the falls despite feeing like the middle of nowhere – 2.2km, my map said, and it seemed shorter, probably because you reach the other part of Niagara, the amusement ‘park’ part, fairly soon, then walk through to the falls, distracted all the while. So, train to Burlington, change to a bus, hop off the bus at the station and get a bus from a different company (or walk along the riverbank, looking down over the river from the raised road – it is quite a walk). Or, the same, but hop off earlier, with few other people, avoiding the bus taking you further away from the falls, and walk. Not, in my case, down the obvious road, Falls road, because the snow was thick enough on the pavements that people were walking on the roads, and Falls road is a dual carriageway. A parallel road did the job.

After a moment of ‘was I right to get off here and where is everyone?’ I worked it out, and made it to town. First sight, the casino tower. Then, the Ferris wheel, Louis Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, complete with underworked teenager sat looking slightly bored; while the essence of her soul was gently drained from her, I liked to imagine. The street turned noisy, “come and see Frankenstein!” boomed the PA, “I wanna see Frankenstein!” joined in the youngster. It is an odd side effect of having so many amusements nearby that youngsters forced to accompany parents on a walk past the spectacular falls have a generally grumpy face, waiting to see what’s in it for them.

Niagara Falls, with a plume of spray rising way above the water
Niagara Falls.

But from the main street, which slopes downwards, you are reminded why you are there; in my case, when I was roughly level with Burger King and being tempted, only to have my eyes diverted by the Guinness World of Records sign and from there reestablishing my focus. Down the hill, across the road, there are the first fall; half covered with snow piles, with the US town sitting behind it. Apparently Jay Leno will be there on April 8th. The casino advertising that is a fair way away but don’t worry, the sign is large enough to read from the Canadian side.

The falls themselves, though, are magnificent, and there’s no sponsorship, branding or advertising across them to spoil the view. As a plaque says, the original intent was to preserve a free to enter national park and keep it self funding, and in that they’ve succeeded. The spray at the bottom of the falls themselves varies, but sometimes obscures much of the water fall, an achievement in itself. Some of the vantage points were out of action, walkways not maintained in winter, but the main footpath round the top gives a great view. If you want to go further, the maid of the mist sails in closer to get you wet, behind the falls lets you walk in behind, the fury of the falls takes you elsewhere and the Skylon, with its bulbous yellow external lifts, will let you tower over it all. None is overly expensive, but the best experience is just looking at the thing and getting close enough to hear the cascade. The majesty comes not from the height, which is bested by 100s of other falls, but the sheer amount of water falling.

Rainbow Bridge - to the US
Rainbow Bridge – to the US.

Travel options, Toronto to Niagara.

Cheapest: if you book in advance, Megabus or Greyhound are likely to be cheapest, but you will have to guess at how long you need there. To walk both ways, up and down the immediate falls area and no ‘experiences’, 3 hours is plenty. They’ll drop you downtown, from where you can hop on a bus for a couple of dollars either way.

Train – with changes, you can go with Via rail throughout the day. But there’s little point booking through them as they’ll cost more than Go transit, and unless you take the early morning train and late evening return, you’ll be on a Go train in any case.

Tour: starting from $55, maybe including a ‘free’ city tour. Probably quicker than Go by being direct.

Most flexible: Go transit. In summer, a direct train. For me, a double decker train from Union station, change at Burlington to the number 12 bus. And make sure to follow icons for the bus, in the North parking area. Return for $35.3 (£19.2), hourly services, only downside a 2.5 hour journey where some direct buses take 2.

Reading: John Updike, Rich in Russia. Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo.

View, mostly of spray, from the top of the falls
View from the top.

Detroit to Toronto

Detroit to Toronto
Detroit, MI

Detroit, MI

I jogged back from the parkrun and checked out of the hotel. I had thought there might be a bus line going from Livonia to the city centre, but not that I could find, not from near where I was. I had three hours, but with a 45 minute walk to get back to the bus I’d come in on, timing started to look tight and I opted for a cab. The driver was a grizzled silver-haired bear of a local, and we talked briefly about travels before he tried me on sports. “Do you follow sports?” is both a generic and nicely open question, but it occurred to me that, despite his admiration for rugby, we are nations separated by both our common language and our totally diverged sports cultures. Athletics is about the only one that we compete in at similar levels-having so few popular sports in common is surely uncommon for us around the world. Whatever the truth of that, I wasn’t far from a resounding “how about that local sports team, eh?”

Brutal architecture in Detroit
Stalinist block.

I had two hours to kill before my bus, and wandered into downtown Detroit for lunch at a diner. It is as post-apocalyptic as the rumours suggest. Lonely Planet is absolutely right in saying that Americans will greet news that you’re heading to Detroit with a raised eyebrow and some crack about drugs and/or death, though the guidebook is at pains to point out that many exciting things are happening.

Not yet in downtown, they’re not. The atmosphere was set mainly by the huge Stalinist block that towered over the view as I looked into the city. Had I not been distracted by that, mind, I might have spotted the huge warehouse behind the bus station. From a distance, when I did spot it, I wasn’t convinced that a used and rare book store would really be operating from those premises, but up closer the new sign saying they were named “#2 bookshop in the world, 2014” is bright, a nice counterpoint to the faded lettering around the top of the building. That is four stories up, mind, so no small task to repaint.

There were very few people around, and those that were didn’t exactly have a sense of purpose. Other, perhaps, than the man in the deli, trying to get served. He resorted to approaching the cashier in the fortified central bunker; “just ring the bell.” He had. “He’ll be right out. ROGER!” It’s a place where everyone looks like they might be homeless, which is what I’d thought of that man at first, but I think that’s the air of decay speaking.

Spotting that huge block made me wonder just how similar American and Russian cities were in the middle of the twentieth century – did they try to outcompete each other in austere architecture, even while American consumers were enjoying the products of greater wealth? Detroit, at least, could easily be a Russian city.

Times Square, Detroit; quiet and concrete
Times Square here is a little different.

I spotted a diner that looked uncrowded and walked round it, so as to comply with the instruction to ‘enter through the Leland’. The latter is a formerly grand old hotel that looks to be begging to be explored. It is very faded, not very welcoming as you enter at street level, with reception up the grimy stairs, and looks as though it is being used as much for housing as hotelling. The welcome at the diner was warm, though. After my burger and a quick listen to the conversation between owner and customer: “it weren’t more’n thirteen dollars” “mmm-hmmm,” I scuttled back to the greyhound station, which was warmer than being outside, Detroit’s long streets and empty plots provide little shelter from a cutting wind. The station was pretty full, but most people were waiting for other, delayed buses-just 7 of us got on for the Toronto trip, though more were to join in Windsor. For the first time I was asked more than a few questions at the border; where are you going, why, what do you do, when were you last in Canada, do you know anyone there, have you ever been arrested? But they let me in.

We picked up people in Windsor, sat around there for a while then headed on, for Chatham-Kent, London and then Toronto.

I checked in to my hostel and the poor tired French-Canadian girl who checked me in just about managed to tell me about the place and find the right room-at the second time of asking. By the luggage store she said that “when you checkout you should bring your **** down”, which I thought was overly colloquial until she added “the **** and pillow cover and duvet cover”. Oh, that ****.

Livonia parkrun

Livonia parkrun
Detroit, MI

Detroit, MI

Livonia parkrun route
Livonia parkrun route – a temporary, winter one, through snow.

It will be shortlived, but I have had a winter this year and boy, do I remember what being cold is like. Not quite freezing, but it is a cold, cold day, with an icy breeze. I had my parkrun 100 t shirt on, but no one saw it underneath the warm long sleeved top that I kept on.

There are plenty of hotels in Livonia, but none within a couple of miles of the start. I’d compromised on price and location, going fairly cheap but five miles away. It was an easy jog there, though – out of Days Inn, right, left onto Levan road then turn right four miles later and into Bicentennial park. The temperature has warmed up enough here to melt snow from paths and fields, but it is still there where it has been piled up or sat in shaded areas, and any grassy areas are soggy, tending to wet, as I found out, somehow managing not to sink ankle deep.

Group photo of participants at Livonia parkrun - 18 people, well wrapped up against the cold
Group photo.

As a result, the course is staying on the paths, making for a slightly odd route. From the car park start, onto the road in, skirt the park then left, following a twisting path, round back on yourself, down a dead end and back again, then do the same twice, so as to complete three spars of a plus sign, then back round the way you came. It gives plenty of opportunities to see everyone else, and the atmosphere is particularly collegiate, with several people pointing out that without parkrun they certainly wouldn’t be running 5k on a Saturday morning, and might not be running at all. Unless chased. Rick and his wife have converted several non runners and bolstered their parkrun congregation that way. I ran with their son, Alex – picking him because he ended up way in front, I caught him and then needed a guide. It was possibly a bit rude to run off when I was sure of the route and leave him to gallop in second but he is young and has plenty of time.

I stood around and talked at the end, hearing stories and realising that my travel into Detroit to run a parkrun and then scoot off elsewhere in the afternoon was far from an unusual choice. It seems almost the norm that the hardcore enthusiasts are joined by a tourist who might then, as it was put to me “gonna fly to Chicago, spend the afternoon there, then head to New York…” There was a good proportion of young runners, too, making for a good family atmosphere at the start and end. My parkrun odyssey pauses here, thanks Livonia.

Results from Livonia parkrun event 92, 29/3/14.

Livonia, Detroit

Finally, a quiet day. Up early to get to La Guardia, once I’d flown in there wasn’t going to be much in Livonia, a western suburb of Detroit-that is, it is situated in the west, not full of saloons and people with itchy trigger fingers. Though some probably are carrying guns. That makes for a great day, one where I can catch up with photos, blog, laundry, tv, laziness.

La Guardia is only 9 miles or so from Manhattan, but has no subway station. The cheapest way to travel is by subway to Harlem then get a bus. I considered a taxi, seeing as my flight was at 9.40am and needed an early start even without a broken journey, but then found a happy medium.

A stark road scene, with little entertainment or art visible
Barren, featureless desert.

She looked into her crystal ball and told me the NYC airporter bus ran from Grand Central station, six blocks away, every half an hour. Perfect.

I was early, getting the 7.30 bus, but so were most of the others on the plane and we all sat I the waiting area at the airport together. The chief flight attendant was Scottish, it took me a mo to identify the accent. Once we landed I was lucky in getting my bag but not in getting past people on the escalator so missed the first bus. I killed an hour and caught the next-which was delayed the four minutes I had needed the other to wait. After a change of bus I was through some of the suburbs and left with a 2.5 mile walk to the motel, passing wide empty parking lots but mostly operating businesses. Not quite the Detroit badlands, but not a thriving metropolis either.

I was there bang on the 3.00 check in time and lounged, before wandering back whence I came for some shopping and dinner. Glorious empty day.

Large Ford building, with sign outside
Motor city, baby.

Central Park

Central Park
New York City, NY

New York City, NY

To New York, and my first travel-cestuous experience, in that I was to stay with someone I only met on this trip. Karen and I travelled from Cambodia to Thailand together, before she headed off for a connecting flight and I to Bangkok. We didn’t actually spend time together in Siem Reap, only meeting because my roommate knew Karen was heading to the airport at the same time, but she was still happy to put me up.

Rock, then water. New York is behind, screened by trees
Central Park.

Karen had returned to work a couple of months before, so I was curious to know how the transition went. She was kind enough to meet me at Penn Station to then walk to hers – just 10 blocks or so. I didn’t know much about the city, and was reminded of the Alan Partridge “I’d like to go to New York” ‘you want Manhattan’ “well, I’d like to see the city. The Big Apple” ‘yeah, that’s Manhattan’ “er, right – so, I’m in Manhattan, which way do I turn?’. But I knew enough to realise that 10 blocks from Penn station had to be good. At least, I did once I realised the station is in Manhattan, and as we walked through “oh look, New York streets!” and turned onto Park Avenue, I spotted how lucky I’d been. Park and 36th, close to everything.

Yellow taxi in front of skyscrapers

I checked the map and got straight out – Karen had work to do, and I had some precious sunny (cold) hours of daylight to use. North today, South tomorrow, heart of city covered. I walked north up Fifth avenue (yeah) just soaking it up. Honk! Yellow taxi! Yeah well, buddy (in NY accent) and more, then found Central Park – after I’d ducked into the Apple store just opposite to get out of a particularly fierce wind.

Colourful signs in Times Square
Times Square.

The park is just stunning. I’d been told it was big, and it is-for circumference, Richmond park beats it, 8 miles to 6 , but Richmond isn’t in the centre of the city, nor does it have the variety of bridges, fences, rocky outcrops and wild trees. Just a fabulous spot, and I was only slightly sorry not to be running it. It was very cold, and my machismo would probably have put me in shorts. I would have been the only one. I did step onto the ‘jogging route’ around the reservoir, the most popular route, so at least I’ve been on it.

In the evening I was treated to a great dinner – quite the swankiest of the last eight months – and then a tour, culminating in photos of Times Square. Piccadilly and Leicester squares have nothing on this one.

Times Square and my host
Times Square and my host.

Snowy DC

Snowy DC
Washington, District of Columbia

Washington, District of Columbia

We opened the curtains and could see very little. Snow. Light snow, but plenty of it, if that makes sense – it was never going to form huge drifts, but fell consistently till mid afternoon, chopping any vantage point’s view to four blocks, as I discovered when I went up the old post office tower. I felt lucky that I’d wandered the mall the previous day – it was cold both days, but the day before had bright sunshine.

Capitol in the snow
Capitol in the snow.

I still covered some of the same ground; the mall is stunning in more or less any weather conditions. I was making my way to the museums when I spotted the Old Post Office, a rare bit of architectural variety in D.C. It was due to be knocked down, since it wasn’t in common with the new wave of buildings going up in the neoclassical style, but popular pressure saved it, and now tours are offered a few times a day-you can go up the tower yourself any time. I found an entrance and followed confusing directions from security-quick scan of the bag by three underworked guards-to get through the complex. It is a huge place, with only the tower, at one corner, open. Signs announce that the shops and restaurants are closed, which is a little disingenuous, these places haven’t seen action in a while. At some point they’ve tried to turn the ground floor into a destination, with the tower a bonus, but it hasn’t worked. The layout probably doesn’t help, with only the ground floor covering the whole surface area, all the other floors look out over that area from balconies, a huge void in the middle. Whatever has passed, this place may need saving again, particularly as guards for the various entrances outnumbered those actually going up the tower. The exhibits on the history are a little tired, but then there’s no money coming in from free tours. The view would be grand on a good day; I could see four blocks or so, ducking the icy snow blasts on two sides where the tower is open before deciding enough was enough.

Old post office building
Old post office building.

I headed to the museums, covering ground in the American (full) and Natural history (likewise) museums before trying the American Indian. I liked the transportation exhibits in the first, the rocks and gems in the second and the building of the third. The latter has a lot of empty space – the exhibition rooms are varying sizes, and I’m not sure there are any permanent exhibits, just a moveable feast, perhaps because other cities have American Indian museums with the artefact angle covered, but it does make for a huge foyer area that is just a meeting place.

Old statues
Old statues.

After the museums I got out of the cold, though not before spotting a police/FBI car. Is that not just a car with an identity crisis? It was movie night at the hostel, and though that seemed to involve just watching the comedy channel it passed the time. As people disappeared from the too-small living room, I gradually upgraded from hard chair through edge of sofa to proper seat. Good for my sense of progress.

Come to the Capitol

Come to the Capitol
Washington DC, District of Columbia

Washington DC, District of Columbia

I hopped on the train from Williamsburg and four hours later was in Washington, D.C. The weather was probably similar in both places, but the passage of time had taken an icy morning and turned it into a sunny afternoon. My hostel was an easy stroll from the station. I must have booked it because of that, but the booking was long enough ago that it came as a lovely surprise when I saw how easy my transfer was.

Capitol building under cold clear blue skies
The Capitol.

Union station is a huge and grand building, all too easy to look up, gawp at something and find yourself in everyone’ way, though I managed to avoid that, just, thanks to there being so much room inside. Friendly Jon checked me in early; he is one of two hostel staff with extraordinary Irish accents, though whether that’s just my hearing being slightly off or because they’ve Americanised them, I wasn’t sure. I was off into the sun to have a walk around, and take in the Air and Space museum, which was on both Jon and Lonely Planet’s favourite parts of the Smithsonian.

A circular pool in the middle, with blocks standing, regularly spaced, round the edge
WWII memorial.

That museum is a huge enterprise, with its own castle housing information and offices, and separate buildings for the art, space, indian and other museums. I walked back to the station and then down to the Capitol, which grows impressively in your vision as you walk towards it. The idea was to build everything in the neo-classical style, which is grand and looks fabulous, though I suspect there was a time when it just looked like a new country attempting to borrow the grandeur of older empires by copying an architectural style. Turning right from the capitol I was on the mall, though not before I had noted the protestors on the lawn outside. That seems a step up from our government blocking protest outside parliament, though on reflection you can’t get very close to the White House either, nor does it have large spaces to gather on very near, so maybe they’re just as restrictive. A little less keen to squash rights people have had for years, though.

Two ducks with their heads in the water
Duck’s arses.

The mall is grand, and looked stunning in the sun. It’s a great place to run, though I’m off that at the mo, watching those galloping or struggling down the long gravelled pathways with envy. I ducked into the museum, a place to immediately look up and see the planes and rockets hanging from the ceiling. I thought I’d be most taken by the space section, and enjoyed the room on exploration, but we have Apollo exhibits in Britain so it wasn’t quite the ‘wow!’ moment it might have been. The space shuttle exhibits are elsewhere, too. But the sections on flight, WW1 and 2, were fascinating. There are a few too many stories from back when America was an underdog – my impression is that they still tell stories that way, having become addicted to the image – even now they have the largest military by some distance. But there was a great variety of exhibits, and balanced coverage of the Knights of the Air from WW1, a good film showing Hollywood’s aviation depictions after WW2 and plenty to chew on. On that note, less recommended is the space ice cream available in the shop, and being offered around by a couple of Brits. “It’s horrible” didn’t get many takers.

View of the monument and pools, looking away from Lincoln's statue
View from Lincoln.

I continued down the mall and it’s all killer sights, with the WW2 memorial huge and grand, the

Lots of old info pamphlets and posters, including one, "What about girls?"
What about them?

George Washington monument tall and imposing despite fences keeping us all away while work is done and the Lincoln Memorial the place to see. There’s a sign near the statue suggesting people keep quiet from respect, but it was a very noisy place; reminding me of the similar futility in the Sistene chapel, though at least there people whisper rather than talking talking talking. I had been listening to podcasts on the American revolution as I came upon the Gettysburg Address and had coincidentally just heard the Declaration of Independence read out before I saw the similar sentiments in the Address.

I wandered back via the White House before ducking in to the E street cinema for Ralph Fiennes’ joy-filled comedic turn in the Grand Budapest Hotel. Wonderful.

This week’s cinema: Inside Llewyn Davis – bleak. See it.
Grand Budapest Hotel – joyful. See it.

Reading: Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men.

The Colonial city lives

The Colonial city lives
Williamsburg, VA

Williamsburg, VA

Williamsburg is a curiosity. Some time ago the decision was made to preserve and rebuild (mostly the latter) the original colonial buildings as a living, breathing museum of the colonial town. Actors play the part of tour guides and gatekeepers, but are also there to add colour, sure to nod a hello as you cross the street and with regular reenactments of things that may or may not have happened. I had been warned off the latter.

Union Jack outside wooden building
Check out the flag.

The most interesting thing about having a town preserved in that state is that it predates America, a reminder that this part of European America dates from the 17th century. The Union Jack flies throughout, and William and Mary college was founded in 1693, second only to Harvard. That isn’t that old by European standards, of course, but it felt really old to me in context, which must be because all and any talk of American history starts in the late 18th century.

Long grassy area bordered by trees, on the approach to the Governor's Palace
Governor’s palace.

I’ll admit that I managed to circumnavigate the historic buildings at first. I’d walked what looked like the most direct route to my motel, down a road which ran out of pavement, taking me through a college and across the grounds of a new housing development. The motel was billed as Super 8, historic area, but I walked some way before I found the visitors’ centre. In part that was because I was trying to avoid the visitors’ centre; you only need a ticket to go inside buildings, and having been warned off the performances by Martin I figured the only other thing a ticket might give me was the chance to watch old furniture (copyright, my brother, 1980), and that was something I could happily miss out on.

High street, Capitol at the end
High street, Capitol at the end.

So I walked an extra mile or two, realised I was walking at the edge of town and turned in. No sooner had I found the visitors’ centre than I turned my back on it, spotting a sign to the historic buildings. The place is beautiful – quaint probably sums it up perfectly, with old wooden and brick houses, shops with their old signs and gravelled pavements. Which they probably called pavements, back then. I wandered the streets happily, diverted briefly by the bull lowing in a field – and wondering how strong the fence design from 16xx was – before checking out the sheep in people’s gardens and enjoying the atmosphere in the central thoroughfare. About half the people there seemed to have tickets. You can tell, because they are worn like name badges, on the outside, so paying visitors look like they are part of a conference, freed from a keynote speech and exploring. Frankly, it’s enchanting, and that despite it being quite cold. I had luckily flicked through TV channels in the motel, and caught the prediction of rain for later. Sure enough, around 3 the rain started, and my tour of the university was cut a bit short. The Kimball theatre is on the area set aside for ‘modern shops’ – all built in old style brick so as to be in keeping with the rest of the surroundings – and I dived in there for a 4.00 film before sheltering in the warmth of my room for the evening.

Screenshot of weather, showing 8 degrees on Monday, 7 on Wednesday, 22 on Friday
Temperature fluctuations. Just how it is this Spring-each week it warms hugely for the weekend

Bright Days in Durham

Bright Days in Durham
Keysville, VA

Keysville, VA

Durham has had a month of crazy weather, and it isn’t changing. I was there for two 20 degree days of delicious sunshine, perfect and unexpected after the heat of Phoenix, when I thought I’d be heading to British conditions. But it’s due to plunge to near freezing by tuesday. Tom at parkrun said they’d had 15 degree shifts within a day, which reminded me of Perth, though admittedly the temperature plunge there just took it from unbelievably hot to ‘hot if I were at home’.

I got into town on Friday afternoon, bleary eyed from travelling through the night but happy to see sunshine. US towns, with out of town malls housing the shopping areas, often don’t have a recognisable centre, and from the station I couldn’t spot an obvious direction for the action. I followed signs to Bright Leaf square, a quaint street of shops and restaurants, all red brick and pedestrian only. After lunch I explored, and the ex industrial nature of town was obvious. I was very pleased to spot a CSi truck as I wandered round town, before I found a grassy spot for a snooze.

After an hour in the library, my host, Julie, sent me a message that she was done with work and would pick me up, so I had a tour of the city as we rode out to pick up numbers for the 25k the next day. Her and Martin’s house is within walking distance of the city, though I only realised that on Saturday when we actually did the walk. Durham is nicely revitalised, with old warehouses and factories that were never knocked down turned into bars and restaurants. A couple of people expressed the sentiment that they liked the ‘edgy’ nature of Durham’s reputation; it’s not really true any more, but it keeps the socially aspirant locals in Raleigh. My hosts treated me to dinner in a local, fabulously busy, bar, with American craft beers by the handful to try. Throwing a jumper on was enough for us to sit outside as the sun set, and I got a quick preview of the hill that awaited them both in the final few hundred metres of their Saturday race. Cruel and unusual, it seemed to me.

Post parkrun, on Saturday, Tom the photographer gave me a lift into town and set himself up to take photos of the action. Julie and Martin were surprised I hadn’t been treated to talk of Tom’s old running club in Alabama, though we had got onto his work overseas for an oil company, and visits to US cities, so just ran out of time for more. The atmosphere after the 25k-and its cruel hill-was fabulous, helped by the fact that the finish area was surrounded by bars. Id was needed to get a certified ‘old enough to drink’ wristband, but Martin was right in suggesting ‘you might get away with it with the accent’, so I had a lovely feeling of being with ‘my people’ while polishing off a stout in the sun.

We even managed to fit a walk home, shower and trip back into town for lunch before my coach out of town to Richmond; a tight fit, but it worked, and I left with a wave and full stomach.

That coach trip was my longest Greyhound trip, but an uneventful 5 hours, arriving in the city around 7, and then I had the joy of resting for the night round the corner from the terminal, in a motel which had itself entered a terminal state. Dingy and dank, the bathroom door had at some point been kicked in and the bathroom was stained. The remnants of the swimming pool were decaying out back, while the reception area slept, dreaming of better days, days before her windows were cracked. Downtown was altogether more lively, though I only saw it from a brief walk for dinner, before I headed back to sleep. Just a stop over, I was on the bus again at 9.30 the following morning.

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