America Trip 1 – Philadelphia to Williams

For most of the last month, I have been away in the US, on a holiday with my father. Although I have visited the US on a couple of occasions before, this was my first opportunity to explore it to any real extent. I thought that, in lieu of more substantial posting – there is unlikely to be much serious posting over the next few weeks – I would share holiday pictures.

I know. I’m sorry.

My father turns sixty this year and to celebrate the milestone he wanted to spend some time touring the US. My mother, for whom the prospect of long car journeys held little appeal, wasn’t especially keen on the plan. I was invited along instead and enjoyed myself thoroughly, not least the opportunity to spend such a prolonged period of time with my father.

For most of the first week of the holiday we were based in Philadelphia, visiting people and meeting some long time online friends for the first time, enjoying some wonderful hospitality, and getting into holiday mode. We arrived into Philadelphia on Monday 27th August. Tuesday morning we took a tour of Independence Hall. Having recently started watching the John Adams TV miniseries (a few days later I found a secondhand copy of David McCullough’s Adams biography in very good condition for under a dollar), it was particularly fascinating to see some of the sites where certain of its most memorable scenes had occurred.

Moving on to the Liberty Bell exhibition, we quite serendipitously bumped into Andrew FulfordJoel Garver and his daughter Claire, and Paul Duggan, persons that will be known to many readers of this blog. I had known that Andrew’s time would overlap with mine, but given the way that our plans had taken shape, I had thought that we would not be able to meet up, a considerable disappointment as we have been online friends for so long. However, as we walked through the exhibition I was pretty sure that I recognized Joel and Claire from photos I had seen of them online (I hadn’t met Joel or Paul in person at this point either). Looking for Andrew, who I was sure would be with them, I found him and introduced myself. Having known Paul, Joel, and Andrew for about ten years each, yet never having met them in person, it was wonderful finally to have the opportunity to do so.

From the Liberty Bell exhibition, the whole group of us moved on to Jim’s Steaks, where Andrew, my father, and I were given our first taste of a genuine Philadelphia cheesesteak, hardly the most refined of cuisine, but very appetizing. At Claire’s suggestion we visited the National Liberty Museum, which was a fascinating experience – a museum with a fairly clear and focused message throughout. We then visited the historic Christ Church building, the place of worship of many American Revolutionary War leaders. Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest street in Philadelphia and America’s oldest continually inhabited residential street, was the final place on our itinerary for the day.

On Wednesday, we travelled down south, splitting the journey to Charlottesville, Virginia, in Washington DC, where we met up with Matthew Mason near the Capitol Building, another online friend I was meeting for the first time, who gave us a tour of the city. We walked past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, stopping at the World War II Memorial on the way there, and the Vietnam Memorial on the way back.

The following day, we went to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s incredible self-designed house, a testimony to the profound fecundity of his creative gifts and the force of his will. Even though one may not be persuaded of the justice of the seditious revolutionary cause with which he was associated, one must admire the unique cast and eminent genius of Jefferson’s mind. The three tours (of the garden, the slave areas, and the house) were superb and deeply informative, a common theme throughout our time in the US. In the afternoon we visited UVA, where we saw the Rotunda – another product of Jefferson’s architectural gift – the dome room of which has been described as the most beautiful room in America.

On Friday I returned to Philadelphia by Greyhound bus, while my father remained down south, to rejoin me on the Monday. On the Saturday I visited the Arden fair with Joel and his family, meeting up with Daniel Stoddart, another online friend I had interacted with for almost a decade, but never met in person. The beer and the books were particularly appreciated. In the evening a group of us watched the first episode of the latest season of Doctor Who. It was heartening to see such a great British TV show receiving such appreciation on the other side of the pond. Perhaps there is hope for the Americans yet…😉 Sunday I worshipped at Tenth Presbyterian (it has come as a surprise to me how many people I know who have had some sort of connection to that church at some point), after which I spent the afternoon with the Duggans. Monday afternoon was spent with the Garvers.

On Tuesday morning we flew out to Las Vegas. After we had found our hotel and deposited our suitcases we went out to explore the city in the later afternoon, watching as the city came to life as the sun set. Las Vegas is a breathless clamour of tasteless opulence, like fine caviar spread on crème brûlée. One is appalled and intrigued by its style, the chutzpah of its sickly excesses in the middle of a burning wilderness. Its situation lends it the sense of being cut off or detached from the rest of the planet, a world of its own, which runs according to an alien set of cultural norms. Its scandalous and bold buildings are a hotpotch of architectural references to cultural reference points of decadence, luxury, fantasy, and excess – Rome, Egypt, Venice, etc. In Vegas one begins to appreciate the power of money as a transcendent power within many people’s lives. As the night waxes, the seething cacophony of the city begins to wear on you. All of the senses are saturated – the blinking and insistently flashing lights, the rapidly moving images, the bodies that writhe and gyrate on big TV billboards, the clinking of coins, the maniacal tinkling and chirping of one armed bandits, the excited speech of the throngs of people milling on the streets, the din of traffic and beeping of horns, and the floodlit casinos gazing down on it all.

The next morning we drove out to the Hoover Dam. The scale of the engineering feat involved in its construction was something of which I had previously been unaware. There is enough concrete in the Hoover Dam to build a four foot wide pavement around the equator. We toured the powerplant beneath the dam. The temperature at the Dam was around a blistering 100°F, not easy for those of us accustomed to the wet and cool climate of the north of England to adapt to. From the Dam we drove on through the wilderness to Williams, where we hit Route 66, explored the station and the town, and had a delicious meal at a store that sold kitschy Christian T-shirts.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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4 Responses to America Trip 1 – Philadelphia to Williams

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