Spring is late this year and the wind is still chilly around the parks of Washington D.C. I pull my hood on tighter and warm my hands in the pockets of my hoodie. The city’s homeless warm up by the air-vents of the metro system, wrapped in blankets. Apparently the American welfare does not apply to all. Nonetheless, we’re well into April now, and the light pink cherry blossoms around the Washington Monument bring hope of a gradually warming weather.
The grey and cloudy weather makes today the perfect day for a tour around the city’s museums. The exhibitions on show in the capital’s museums are fantastic, and to top it all off, they’re free! The Natural History Museum is huge! We take photos of menacing totems, hanging whales, and mummies enclosed in glass cabinets. The Holocaust Memorial Museum is a moving place. Hundreds of candles burn there, in memory of those who lost their lives in the concentration camps of WW2. There are tons of film and documentary material of the concentration camps, but surprisingly, also of the holocaust happening in Syria today.
Another fascinating place to visit is the U.S Bureau of Engraving and Printing, an active factory producing paper currency. The security checks upon entrance are understandably rigorous and no photography or filming is allowed inside. The ink used inside the factory is unique, patented and secret for fraud prevention purposes and is not available anywhere else. On our 40minute tour we get to observe different size bills get through various stages of the printing process, before being cut and wrapped at the end, ready for distribution.
The White House and the surrounding area are buzzing with tourists. Students from a language school are taking group selfies, all wearing matching red caps. I’m dumbfounded to spot the slogan “Make America Great Again” printed on the caps of these teens, I would have thought that politics didn’t feature on the curriculums of international language courses! Right next to us there’s a stall selling presidential T-shirts, with the choice of either Obama or Trump printed on them. There’s a group of South Korean immigrants carrying a huge banner declaring war and immediate bomb strike on North Korea. Seeing that sends shivers down my spine.
After our tour of the capital we get to enjoy the best of what the metropolitan Virginia has to offer; the company and hospitality of Pekka’s sister and her family. Us travelers get truly spoiled with delicious Mexican food as well as Finnish chocolate and rye bread. We cherish the opportunity to get some of our routine stuff sorted, such as getting the piles of accumulated washing done, getting our car serviced and restocking our reading library with Finnish titles off of our hosts shelves. Some of the biggest treats of our stay are the opportunity to use a sauna again, a private cello concert and just seeing the kids goofing around happily. Feeling incredibly grateful of the welcome and hospitality we’ve enjoyed, we set off again and continue traveling on towards home and summer.
“I have a dream…” Martin Luther King dreamt of a world in which his four children would be judged based on their characters and personalities, instead of the colour of their skin. That dream was a far cry from reality in 1950’s USA, especially in the southern states. Victims of that reality include people like Mrs. Rosa Parks, who made the mistake of sitting down on a “whites only” seat on a busy bus and ended up getting arrested and fined for civil disobedience. Racial segregation was everywhere in those days, from buses to cafes, restaurants and shops. Natural opportunities for interracial friendships were systematically stifled; even places of study were separated into “black”and “white” schools. Rosa Parks’ bold move did, however, spark the birth of the civil rights movement, along with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for 381 days. Martin Luther King Jr. became the leader and spokesperson of the civil rights movement, which used tactics such as nonviolent civil disobedience. He lived by his much quoted principle; ”Faith is taking the first step, even when you can’t see the whole staircase” and is now remembered as an internationally recognised human rights activist and Nobel peace prize winner.
These kinds of things circle around my mind as I walk around the Memphis Civil Rights Museum, which extensively portrays the story of the fight for humanity. The exhibition includes lots of enlarged black and white photos of different protests and marches, and the banners used in them, demanding equal rights for all. Thousands of people joined the movement upon King’s appeal: “if you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, If you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward!”
The saddest part of the museum is by far the section portraying Martin Luther King’s final hours. Room 306 in Motel Lorraine remains unchanged since the 4th of April 1968, when King spent his final moments there. A wreath in memory of him has been hung on the balcony, on the spot where the peace loving man’s life was ended by an assassins bullet.
As I step outside of the museum back into modern day, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed at how little we seem to have learned from history or grown as people since the fifties. There’s still way too much public hate speech going on, fuelled by selfishness, presumptive judgment and ignorance. Thankfully there are still those too, who are brave enough to stand up for equality, human rights and that which is right, even against a mass majority when necessary. I leave the museum deeply affected by Martin Luther King’s wise advice: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I’m sitting on a rock by a path and having a bite of my sandwich. I’m giving my calves some much needed rest after a steep climb and allowing my heart rate to settle down too. Today it’s been through the roof, partly due to the strenuous hike and partly due to a mixture of sheer excitement and fear caused by the icy path, which in some places has been very narrow. I’m taking in the view before me and wipe my eyes with my sleeve. The wind up here, together with the unique beauty of this awesome landscape, are enough to bring a tear to my eye. I’m staring at the breathtakingly beautiful Grand Canyon, the most famous natural wonder in the world, and feeling incredibly small.
The golden yellow, carved, sandstone walls of the canyon, rise from the ground almost at a 90 degree angle in some places. On the opposite side, the different layers of sediment give the canyon a stripy effect. Sandy brown wasn’t the only colour in the palette of this wondrous landscape’s creator, but different shades of red, brown and green are also clearly visible. The sky is clear today, and if I squint a bit, I can just about make out the wriggly line at the bottom, 1,5km below. That, is the Colorado river, running at the bottom of the canyon. Although I’ve seen the canyon in numerous pictures and tv-shows, I never realised just how long, vast and deep the canyon really is. It’s 443km long, 1,6km deep and at its widest point, 28,8km wide.
Passing riders extend their greetings as they pass us by on their mules. It’s crazy to think that this historic way of seeing the canyons has been in use for over a hundred years! Those first riders at the turn of the 20th century must have been incredibly brave! I bet this path was not this clear and well maintained back then. Then my thoughts travel back to an even earlier time, when native American tribes inhabited the canyon. It’s amazing how the Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai and Havasupai people managed to survive in such harsh conditions, especially since the temperature varies from below freezing in the winter months, to a sweltering 38 C heat in the summer.
By the time we sit on the coach after our day excursion, my legs have turned into jelly. We’re both exhausted from the hike and settle in as the coach takes its international passengers back to their different destinations, the visitor centre, hotels and parking lots. Once we get off we have a little look at the gift shop and reward ourselves with a pizza dinner after a long day of walking. We go to bed feeling happy and content, after an amazing day of adventure.
We can hear a storm gathering in the night. The wind picks up and Epeli rocks from side to side like a ship at sea. In the morning, while we’re preparing to get on the road, it starts to snow and soon enough the weather has built up to a blizzard; it’s so windy that it’s snowing almost horizontally and before we know it the icy road is completely covered in snow, its edges quickly vanishing from sight. We make one last stop at the canyon’s watchtower, but the visibility is too poor for us to see much of anything from up there. We only step outside for a moment and get greeted with a faceful of hailstones while the wind ruffles our coats violently.We’re a bit concerned about the tourists we saw yesterday, who were on their way to do several days worth of hiking and camping in tents. We wish for protection over them. That’s something that wee too will need now, that we carry on traveling downhill on the icy mountain road.
I thought I just saw a pyramid and a sphinx and yet now we’re driving past the Statue of Liberty, while the Eiffel Tower is clearly just down the road. Is this road, weaving it’s way through palm trees and skyscrapers, a part of a dream or some kind of a fantasyland? Nope, it’s definitely reality; Luxor, New York and Paris all in the same city! We’ve arrived in the wonderland that is Las Vegas, the copy-cat capital of the world.
We park up at a campsite run by “Circus Circus” casino, right at the heart of the city and set off on foot to explore the city’s most famous street, the Strip, famous for its many casinos. As well as the sea of neon lights there are huge screens, advertising the different shows and evening entertainment available alongside with gambling opportunities. There’s everything from magic shows to Acrobatics to dance groups and concerts, all performed by world class stars.
Luxury hotels boast impressive water fountains by their entrances. The water gushes up to considerable heights, accompanied by music and colourful lights. We nip into the “Venetian” mall, and as soon as we step in through the revolving doors my jaw hits the floor. It’s like we’re in Venice! There are little canals inside the shopping centre, complete with gondolas, manned by men in stripy t-shirts, and straw hats, ready to take shoppers for a ride and entertain them with Italian songs. The shopfronts have been made to look like venetian blocks of houses , complete with glowing lanterns outside . On the indoor plaza there are lots of Italian restaurants, with red and white tablecloths on their tables. There’s also a gelato bar, selling authentic Italian ice cream. A white marble statue stands tall on a stand, smiling wryly at passers by. All of the sudden, it winks, scaring a group of Chinese tourists that break in to bursts of laughter. The “statue” turns out to be a painted man, with an incredible ability to stay absolutely still. Above all this there’s the ceiling, which has been made into a blue “sky” with white clouds moving along it.
Our chosen destination for the day is Madame Tussauds waxwork museum. The added specialty in the Las Vegas edition is interactivity. Here the waxworks have been placed so that the visitors can participate in interacting with their chosen “celebrity”. I have a jamming session with Jimi Hendrix and share a piano stool with Stevie Wonder. Pekka plays a game of basketball against Shaq O’Neal and has a boxing match with Mike Tyson. We meet many other celebrities too, including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Halle Berry and Robert de Niro. Our visit’s finale, is an action adventure with superheroes, thanks to a 4D movie experience. The 3D glasses make the film come alive, and the extra sensory effects add to the experience, allowing us a taster of life as a superhero, as we run to escape the gigantic hulk, and save the world together with spiderman and colonel Nick Fury.
In the evening, we stand on the bridge across Las Vegas Boulevard and watch the city’s night life come to life. The traffic is steadily getting busier as flashy sports cars and stylish limos take over the mainroad. People have flocked here to have fun and queues of punters are quickly forming outside the best restaurants, cocktail bars and show venues. Las Vegas really is the perfect place for anyone wishing to escape reality for a little while and immerse themselves in a world of fantasy. On the otherhand, the whole city feels like a bubble of sorts. It’s nice to visit, but real, authentic life is probably found elsewhere.
We’re walking on a crowded street, framed by countless neon lights. I read some of the signs; Hard Rock Café, Madame Toussauds, Chinese Theatre…. Every shop is playing electronic music and we find ourselves in the midst of some super stylish city folk, as well as some interesting characters, such as Superman, King Kong and Minnie Mouse. We’ve arrived at the mecca of movies; Los Angeles. We walk along Hollywood boulevard and spot some of the industry’s biggest names imbedded in the marble sidewalk’s pink stars in golden letters.. Marilyn Monroe, Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, Jack Nicholson, Celine Dion and Robin Williams are all among the names that we see, but the list is endless! We too, get to feel like we’ve “made it” for a moment, when our names are placed on a blank star, just long enough for a photo .
The whole city is largely dominated by the film industry. Road closures of motorways, or even bridges and runways are commonplace
due to filming. Supercars are a regular sight; Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Mustangs and Lexus’ blend in the everyday traffic. Supertars reside in their scandalous Beverly Hills mansions worth millions of dollars, in all the comfort money could ever
buy, including jacuzzis, home cinemas, housekeeping staff and even helicopters.
At night, the city is never short of red carpets, shining dimonds and a bit of bling.
We take a break from the sea of people and step inside the Guinness World Records museum. Wax sculptures of the largest man and smallest woman ever recorded, are on show. Next to them, both of us feel pretty average, despite the 32cm height difference between us. I can’t help but laugh at the lenghts that people have gone to in order to get themselves in the book of records, doing things like eating as many cockroaches as quickly as possible, swallowing a staggering amount of swords, driving a motorpowered unicycle at extreme speeds and walking on fire for extended lengths of time.
We come across a parked ferrari and Pekka can’t help but grin boyishly when we notice a sign advertising the car for hire for 30 minutes at a time at quite a reasonable price. The engine roars as we whizz off together, with Pekka behind the wheel and me sat at the back with my hair flowing in the wind. We speed towards a vantage point for a chance to get some great pictures of the Hollywood sign and Leonardo DiCaprio’s house.
Our tour of L.A. continues on to the elitist Santa Monica beach. The sandy beach is quiet this time of the year, but the fair next to the iconic, century old pier, attracts tourists from all over the world to spend an evening of entertainment in this familiar scenery, made famous by many films.
Our main reason for visiting Santa Monica, is the western end of Route 66, America’s oldest highway running all the way from Chicago to here, the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Our 3755km road trip in the states is going to cross paths with this highway quite a few times in the next coup