Tag Archives: USA

An Adult’s Christmas in Oregon

dylanMy Christmas rituals are few. I tend to spend December 25 in different places – in recent times Wexford or Los Angeles; this year, Portland.

One of my seasonal constants is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, the Dylan Thomas short story. Every Christmas morning I take 20 minutes to “plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find,” as the narrator puts it.

This year, for a change, I’ll listen to Thomas reading the story. The poet, ailing and alcoholic, made a recording of the piece in 1952. It’s a remarkable piece of audio, as Thomas, leaning on all the intonation and nuance of his Welsh accent, tells his tale of a young boy’s Christmas in a snowy, seaside village.

But while searching for the recording this week, I across the poet’s other great evocation of childhood, whose lines are probably more pertinent for a man in his late 30s, far from his childhood home (“the farm forever fled”), remembering Christmases past.

“Fern Hill” is not a seasonal poem. It’s set in a time of plenty, a period of huntsmen and herdsmen, when the grass is green and “the hay fields as high as the house”.

These years have passed, and Thomas remembers them with a mix of nostalgia and affection and fatalism. “I was young and easy under the apple boughs,” the poem famously begins, while, a few verses later, we read that “time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace”.

All of which seems oddly suitable for an adult’s Christmas in Oregon. Having long since strolled out of the fields of grace, I rarely run my heedless ways these days. Which is why the bittersweet reality of “Fern Hill”, and not the comforting nostalgia of “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”, is a more fitting read this year.

“Once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

Once is enough to be thankful for. Happy Christmas.

Portland, OR, December 2016

Portland, OR, December 2016

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A Route 66 of my own

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

It’s 31 years since Route 66 – the blacktop mythologized by John Steinbeck as ‘the mother road’ – was decommissioned.

The highway disappeared from maps but not, of course, from popular culture. The likes of John Steinbeck – who put his fictional Joad family on the road in The Grapes of Wrath – and Nat King Cole – whose (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 became a rhythm and blues standard – took care of that, long before the last road sign was taken down in 1985.

The highway, established in 1926, ran almost 4,000km west from Chicago to Los Angeles. What started as a route for trucks became a path to a 20th century manifest destiny – the road to a place in the sun, in the golden groves of California.

It entered the American consciousness during the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s, when thousands of families from Oklahoma and Texas drove or hiked west seeking work. Route 66’s mythology was sealed in those years – a byword for migration, freedom, escape and the loneliness of a vast country.

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

During the Second World War it became a key route for transporting munitions to the ports of the west coast. The road fell to leisure use in the 1950s – a convenient route to California that ran close to the Grand Canyon and across the vast southwestern desert.

By the time I came upon Route 66 – almost 20 years ago – it had ceased to exist.

I encountered it by accident. Driving across the US in 1999 my travelling companions and I stopped in Williams, Arizona, a small town on I-40, the interstate which replaced Route 66. We only discovered when we parked up that we were doing so on side of the famed highway itself.

Steinbeck’s “long concrete path across the country…the road of flight” was quiet that day, hosting the sporadic lunchtime traffic of a small southwestern town. The ghost of Tom Joad had long since moved on.

As all of us do. Next month I will set out on a Route 66 of my own, departing Ireland for the Pacific North West. While packing possessions this week I came across a photo I took in Williams on that day in August 1999. A fitting sign, as I step back onto the Mother Road.

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

 

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New York City – five ways

Warning #1: all lists are subjective.

Warning #2: lists about New York City are more subjective than most.

So, unless you’re a 37-year-old Irishman with a MetroCard, good walking shoes, an empty stomach and a day to fill, what follows seem a little subjective.

But whatever. Here’s five ways into New York, five standout experiences among the dozens I encountered on a short visit to the city last week. And, helpfully, five photographs.

And no, there’s no particular order (though I’d leave the pizza until after the run).

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New York1

A dawn run in Central Park

Get out of bed and get to one of the West 59th Street entrances just before the sun rises over the Upper East Side. Join the other early birds and start heading north. After seven or eight minutes you’ll come upon the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. It might be oddly-named but its 2.2km add up to one of the world’s finest urban runs – pure shuffling, sweating tranquility in the midst of Manhattan. You may never live in a West Side mansion but you will see the dawn break over one.

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NewYork2

Grab some crab 

Done with the run? This is your breakfast. Get it from Artichoke Basille’s on East 14th Street, a tiny pizzeria which offers just four types of pie. Ignore (if you can) the sicilian or the artichoke and go for the crab. I’m not sure how they make it and, once I bite in, I don’t care. It’s the best slice I’ve had in the city, and best eaten standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other punters on the street outside. Can’t handle pizza at 10am? You’re in the wrong town.

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NewYork3

Browse a (very, very large) bookstore

Yes, booksellers still exist – even in Manhattan. Strand Book Store, two blocks south of Union Square, is a bibliophile’s heaven; or hell, as you’ll amass a dozen books in an hour’s browsing, only to leave half of them because your suitcase isn’t big enough. That said, they had me at ’18 miles of books’.

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NewYork4

‘A mug or two of your finest’

Famous for its policy of ‘Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies’ (until the 1970s at least) McSorley’s is what you expect of an old-school New York boozer – sawdust on the floor, exposed pipes, beer-rings on wooden tables and Irish barmen. Packed at nights (must be the onion-loving ladies) it’s best hit in the early afternoon, when the bar’s half-empty and the sun is shining through the tobacco-stained glass doors. Why does the ale come in two mugs? Who knows? Who cares?

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NewYork5

The meating place of the world

New York’s famous for its steakhouses, and Keens is famous among them. This is the land of dark wood, low lights, chest-bursting T-bones, mutton chops and creamed spinach. Time slows, the city (and the world) outside the pipe-strewn roof and picture-clad walls ceases to exist. Your New York day ends with you, 16ozs of striploin and a huge cab sav. If you can finish it there, you’ll finish it anywhere.

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