Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Parks and Recreations

(The title is apparently a US TV show about local government which I haven't managed to catch yet but is supposed to be good - and was appropriate enough for my day today). 

(Actually, scratch that, I've just watched an episode on Hulu - it's very good!)

Today I had my final meeting with the team at Bentonville City Council - with the Director of Parks and Recreation (see what I did there?).  An early start but well worth it to see parts of the City I've not seen yet on a combined drive and walk along the network of trails and seeing the city's extensive parks.  The City has had enough foresight to buy up distressed property when it comes on the market to enable it to be converted to park space and there are a range of different uses - including a dedicated dog park for "off leash" dog exercise. 

A couple of shots;

After this interesting start to the day I want to the WalMart museum at the original store - for a relatively small space there was a huge amount of information and history crammed in.  I did feel a little brainwashed at the end of it, but certainly shows a different side to the business and the man who founded it.  And it's very well curated and put together. 

Finally, the day took me to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.  For the initiated (like me), this is a world class art museum built by renowned architect Moshe Safdie and funded entirely by Alice Walton, including a $1.4bn (yes, billion) endowment to enable free entry in perpetuity.  It's an extraordinary space built with great sensitivity to its location and a great collection as I hope some of the pictures below show -  a real sign of the commitment that the Walton family show to the locality that they come from and still live in.  

The location of the museum in such a perceived "backwards" place hasn't necessarily gone down well with the art elite on the East and West coast, as seen in this video from the LA Times.  

Kind of reminds me of the controversy in 2005 when the Royal Ascot horseracing meeting moved from their usual location to be at York racecourse for a year whilst its home course in Berkshire was being redeveloped.  This was great for me as it meant that I got to go to a race meet I wouldn't ever usually see but there were all sorts of comments like, "isn't it a long way away".  I distinctly remember John Humphreys on Radio 4 responding in unusually nuanced and subtle way, "well, it's not a long way away if you live in Leeds".  (I realise that that will be totally lost on my American readers - sorry).  Putting this new art gallery in Arkansas doesn't mean that it's "out of the way" if you live in, say, Fayetteville or Memphis or Oklahoma City... 

Anyway, enough provincial chip-on-shoulder ranting, it's been another great day, need to plan tomorrow's fun now!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

North-West Arkansas Preconceptions

Something of a packed day today including some serious pre-conceptions squashed, a mini-road-trip and me being presented the Freedom of the City of Bentonville...

As per yesterday's brief update I've had most of my original ideas about this part of the country challenged if not totally blown away today.  One of my work colleagues told me before I left the UK that for a while he was planning to move here for work and was really looking forward to it.  I looked at him a bit strangely and was somewhat sceptical.  Well, I'd probably join him on the plane if given the chance now - seriously.  Well, maybe I'd hold out a little longer for the Chicago option but this is a strong second!

I met with three people from Bentonville City Council - Troy Galloway, the Director of Community Development, Mike Churchwell who heads up Transport and finally Mayor Bob McCaslin.

A few thoughts and things learnt;

- Bentonville downtown is brilliant - could almost be a facsimile of a 1930s small-town America used for a film set but it's a living and breathing city centre mixed-use location - shops (including what looks like a great bike shop. I've not allowed myself to go in - there's only so far I can stretch my baggage allowance on flights...), restaurants, bars and offices.  I note the irony that this is exactly what opponents of WalMart say their presence destroys but here it is, in their own home-town.  A few pics inc one of the original WalMart (a five-and-dime store that's now a museum);

- I knew that WalMart either explicitly or otherwise encourage their suppliers (CocaCola, P&G, Unilever, Kraft, Nestle etc etc) to have an office here but I didn't know how big they were (up to 400 people) nor now many companies have in fact co-located in the Bentonville/Rogers/Fayetteville/Springdale are: around 1400 in total!  There are some interesting parallels here with Boeing's supplier base in Seattle and how venture capital and legal firms have strong presences in Silicon Valley
-The City's daytime population pretty much doubles with the commuter influx into the City from surrounding locations but the focus at the moment has been to manage that traffic through more road building rather than any attempt to move people out of their cars.  The team know that this is next but haven't yet been able to find a way to ease people out of their cars and into public transit in quite the way we've been able to do it in Nottingham and Europe more generally.  
- The City's relationship with WalMart is generally very strong but hasn't always been so - back in 2005 the company was working with central government to secure improvements to a particular road and had secured 80% of the funding - the remaining 20% to come from the City.  Unfortunately no-one had thought to engage with the team at the Council which led to some red faces and hasty rejigging of budgets...
- The Mayor spoke very passionately and from a position of knowledge (he headed up a Bentonville team for Kraft for many years) of the good things that WalMart do and how they operate in an ethical way.  I directly asked if WalMart put people out of business and he said that wasn't the case.  Like many people I've read books like 'The WalMart Effect' and been sceptical about the value that big-box retailers bring to the consumer landscape so it was great to be challenged in a knowledgeable way on those views.  
- The Mayor presented me with the Key to Bentonville - as per the photo at the top of this post to celebrate my visit.  This was obviously a huge surprise and a great honour.  

There's loads more info and detail that I captured but that'll do for now - safe to say that I'm hugely looking forward to my next few days here in NWA!  

PS - managed to find some beer at the brilliantly named County Line Liquor today so I'm back in the game on that front.  I'm in Benton County as indicated on this map so there are a number of options around but none that are hugely close!  I learnt today that there's a ballot inititive (referendum) to make the county 'wet' at next week's vote.  

PPS - longtime readers will be excited to hear that I got a haircut today - a snip (haha!) at $13. 

Quick Hit on Bentonville

Tired after a long day of travel (in no way do I regret saving £30 by booking a flight rather with two changes rather than a direct one to get me from Houston to Bentonville - oh no) but thought I'd just jot down a few thoughts on Bentonville / Arkansas so far.  Walmart brings me here - and along with Detroit is probably one of the highlights of the trip for me in terms of my research project for the Roosevelt Scholarship

In no particular order;

- when flying into Northwest Arkansas airport I was struck by how green the countryside was.  I'd developed this mental image of Bentonville as a sprawling industrial city but it's a pretty small place (about 35,000 people) and set in some great countryside - not for nothing is Arkansas called 'The Natural State'.  I think I'll fit in a visit to the Ozark National Forest whilst I'm here. 

- in the airport the majority of adverts on the walls are for companies focusing on retail and Walmart - offering to help with your supply chain, merchandising, sales etc etc - first sign of a true company town.  

- the map you get with your hire-car shows all the Walmart head office locations alongside hotels and restaurants - nothing else is worth a mention...

- Benton County is dry - something I discuss here but had totally forgotten about.  Had I remembered I might have saved myself 20 minutes wandering around a Walmart wondering where they'd put the beer...

Meetings with Bentonville City Council tomorrow - more to follow. 

Houston Food

Just a brief post to talk about some of the amazing food that I consumed this weekend just gone.  I'm fairly sure that I've put on a lot of weight so far this trip and this weekend won't have helped.  Back into cycling and running when I get home I think!

In no particular order, we went to the following places with my capsule review alongside.  

Empire Cafe.  An excellent lunch and chance to catch up with Brad and Louise, nice shady patio too and what looked like a great strawberry flavoured soda for the kids.  

Hugo's.  Wow.  Just wow - what a great place.  A cool vibe, with a mix of couples, families and business meetings.  I had the Barbacoa which featured some of the tastiest lamb I've had in a long time and also enabled me to learn a new word - cilantro.  Oh, and the Oaxacan Rita margarita was excellent - a real smoky taste.    

House of Pies.  This was a welcome addition to the afternoon when flagging from a full day (with a two-year-old) at the Museum of Natural Science.  I can personally vouch for the Apple and the Texas Pecan Fudge looked suitably artery filling...

Rudy's BBQ.  This place was an excellent Saturday night choice - real rib-sticking stuff but unpretentious and laid-back.  You order at the counter and get a kind of plastic crate to load your meat up into - we had a mix of moist brisket (to die for!), ribs and sausage.  Plus the sides were excellent too.  You lay your own table with butcher's paper and get stuck in - highly recommended!

Finally, we went for a brilliant brunch at a Mexican place and I had the best virgin Bloody Mary I've ever had - if only I could remember the name of the place!  My Huevos Rancheros was phenomenal - perhaps second only to 'Kiosk' at the end of my road in Nottingham, as discussed here - but then I would say that wouldn't I!)

I knew that Houston had a rep for good food but I hadn't realised quite how great it was going to be - no wonder they eat out the most of all Americans!

The other surprising thing about Houston was how green it was.  We went for a walk in Hermann Park but even outside this the streets were very green and leafy - a function of the kind of neighbourhood I was in I suppose but even so.  

Monday, 29 October 2012


When I worked out that I'd be able to pass through Houston and catch up with an old university friend Brad and his wife Louise and son Sean I was keen to experience some real American football.  Having been to see Leicester Falcons play once and been a bit underwhelmed I really wanted to see what the fuss was all about! 

Unfortunately the Houston Texans were out of town the weekend I was there but Brad assured me that a trip to see his Alma Mater, Rice University play on the Saturday would be just as good. 

We headed over just after 11.30 to try to catch some tailgating which there was a small amount of, as below, but then headed straight into the stadium for the main event.  I'd been given a quick briefing on the rules before getting there (which did remind me of the hour I spent trying to explain cricket to my hosts in Seattle - thanks for being patient with my stupid questions Brad!) but I was still not sure if I'd follow all the action. 

In a slightly surreal moment a guy came up to us at the queue for the ticket office and handed over three tickets with the words, "You need tickets? Here take these" and wandered off with no request for payment - bargain!

The game was against Southern Mississippi University whose mascot is a Golden Eagle - a fair foe to face off against the Rice Owl (as seen at the top of this post). The first thing that strikes you when entering the stadium is the sheer scale.  Rice is a pretty small university even by UK standards - c. 4000 undergraduate students - but the stadium holds 47,000 people!  There weren't that many people there on this slightly chilly (for Texas!) Saturday in October I can assure you.  (As an aside the stadium was where JFK made his famous declaration that we go to the moon because it's hard, not because it's easy: "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too".  And apparently this is the one time that the stadium was filled to it's old capacity of 70,000 people).  

And apart from the scale of things, the spectacle is much more impressive than even a professional sport game in the UK - the players run out onto the pitch through an inflatable tunnel and dry ice and there's a proper half-time show (of dubious quality admittedly but, still).  

I won't try to do a play-by-play account - you can get that here but let's just saw that it was a great afternoon's play - probably more enthralling than the baseball (my report of that here) as although it's similarly stop-start in terms of the action, when things get going they really get going - I was cheering good plays and abusing the referee with the best of them by the end of it!

Not sure it's quite supplanted cricket in my ranking of sports to go and see (and I certainly wouldn't get up at 1.30am to get tickets for it) but I loved the authentic experience and might be tempted to follow a professional team in the future.  The NFL are committed to bringing a series of games to Wembley and according to this there might be a plan to create a UK team to play in the NFL in the future - bring it on! 

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Five Hours in LA

Or, "Travelling for 15 Hours and Still Being in California".  

I left Yosemite early-doors to make sure that the rest of my day's travel got off to a good start - and glad I did as it was a bit of a marathon!  I drove for four hours across California - which was just a beautiful as the way into Yosemite although I took a slightly different route.  The only radio station I could get a reliable signal for played solely country music which was an interesting accompaniment.  Most interesting was the constant political advertising (both pro and anti) for Adam Gray - not a politician who had previously crossed my radar and running for a relatively junior position he certainly has provoked some serious emotions - the attack ads were really vicious and the responses to them no less trenchant!

Made it to San Jose safely enough (via a small detour to try to find a petrol station before giving back the hire car) and was very early for my flight to LA.  But to be honest I was grateful of the chance to just sit down and chill-out: I'd been either walking or driving for the last three days so it was nice to just do nothing.  

Flight was fine, if anything the internal flights have very quickly lost any glamour they might have had and are just a bit tedious now and I successfully negotiated LAX's huge number of terminals (and satellite terminals) to find the departure location for the FlyAway bus to the city's Union Train Station.   This was very cheap ($7) and very efficient - negotiated through rush-hour downtown traffic in about 40 mins.

So I ended up very early in the station ahead of my second Amtrak trip - all the way to Houston.  Had resigned myself to a terrible station dinner and sitting in some uncomfortable seats but happened to stumble across Traxx Restaurant which looked nice and so decided to treat myself to some proper food.  For less than £30 I got a two course meal with wine and the opportunity to sit in a very nice location whilst I waited for my train - eat your heart out Burger King!

Eventually I thought I'd outstayed my welcome so wandered over to see if the train was ready yet and was able to get on and make myself comfortable in my sleeping compartment.  I was taking the Sunset Limited so was hoping for scenery as good as that as I saw on my first Amtrak trip.  I was a little disappointed - essentially West Texas is a lot of cactus and desert and not a lot else - there was little in the way of settlements and other action that broke up the Montana scenery.  

One photo and I'm going to try to upload and video that I took on my phone - so poor quality but will give a sense of it I hope!

Eventually arrived in Houston and was picked up by my friend Brad.  Despite living here for most of his life, Brad had to look up where the train station was - and I don't blame him to be honest, it was basically a shed and one track - compared with the incredible art-deco and impressive stations in other cities, it's nothing at all that you'd notice if you weren't looking for it!  

Brad took me over to the house and it was great to see Louise his wife again and also meet two new additions to the family - Ginger the dog and Sean their two year old son who is a real star!  More to follow including how I've lived up to Houston's reputation as the city that eats out the most in America and my trip to an American football game - I know you're both looking forward to that Gary and Alex N! 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Another cold night and I woke up to very stiff limbs after the exertions of the last two days.  Still, was determined to make the most of my last day in Yosemite so I forced myself out of the bed and out to face the world!  At least it had stopped raining - the major hazard now was being hit by snow or ice dripping off the trees. 

I decided to get out of Yosemite Valley and see some of the rest of the National Park.  I understand that most visitors don't ever leave the Valley so I decided to buck the trend and see what else was out there.  I'd also read about the giant Sequoias and thought that a visit here wouldn't be complete without seeing them.  

This entailed a drive of around an hour to just beyond Wawona and I was a little trepidatious to do this drive given the change of weather over the last couple of days.  However, all the "Snow Chains Required" signs were firmly spun away from the road and unilluminated so I pressed on.  The drive was quite pleasant actually with very few other cars on the road and the roads were by-and-large dry and clear.  It was noticeable however that the snow at the side of the road suddenly appeared once I passed 5000ft of elevation.  There were a number of look-out points along the way but I pressed on to get to the parking area at Mariposa Grove as quickly as possible.  In the end, the biggest stress was finding a parking space and enduring the queue for the toilets at Mariposa Grove - phew! 

In the summer there is a tram (sic: actually a sort of open air minibus) available to take you around the Grove but I eschewed that and pressed on on foot.  There was a really good explanatory guide available for just 50c that included a map and explanatory text.  The trees really are incredible - at least 2000 years old and so resilient.  I learnt that they actually thrive on the regular fires that occur in the forest and their roots can spread for 70metres or more underground.  

I pressed on beyond the usual tourist route and up to Wawona Point which offered some great views out over the valley.  And on the return I went down the road rather than the path which I pleased I did as I meant I got to see the little beauties you can see below.  

Some photos offers a better description than any of my text...

This is one of the first Sequoias that you see and the one that many people turn around after seeing.  He is a beauty but there are some treasures later on too.  

Like this, a replacement for the famous "drive-through" tree that eventually succumbed to the damage that that carving did to it.  You can walk through this dude and it is really amazing to get a sense of the scale and size when you're inside it.  

This is the original tunnel tree, left in its felled state as a reminder of the damage that past generations have done to the trees and the neighbourhood in general.  

These two shots are from the Wawona Point lookout.  Note the snow on the mountaintops alongside the lush green valley below.  And the two smoke streams in the second photo - I wasn't sure if they were from residential locations or were forest fires.

Tomorrow I leave Yosemite at the crack of dawn to: (deep breath) drive to San Jose, get a flight to Los Angeles, then a bus to LA Station and a train to Houston.  I then get to relax on the second of my Amtrak journeys (36 hours of food, scenery and occasional stops).  Plus I'm really looking forward to seeing my friend Brad who I met at university in my first term and haven't seen since - it's a testament to the strength of the friendship developed in those ten weeks that he offered without hesitation to host me for a weekend on my trip.  Can't wait! 

Monday, 22 October 2012

Three Miles up Four Mile Road

What a difference a day makes!  I woke up to the sounds of rain on the canvas roof of my tent cabin which I was expecting but on getting up and about I wasn't expecting to see snow on the tops of the mountains that yesterday were totally clear.  And I knew that the more elevated and exposed roads could close very quickly but on seeing the information board in the National Parks Service hut it appeared that that moment had come.  I was careful to make sure that my exit route out of the park was the road that never closes but it's still a sobering moment to see the other main road suddenly shut for the winter - and that can mean until March!  

I had a slightly later start than yesterday and wandered over in the rain to Yosemite Village itself.  There were some interesting explanatory boards along the way which talked about the history of the village itself and also the terrible way the original settlers treated the landscape - one of the meadows was effectively used as a dumping ground and was only finally cleared of rubbish in 1993!  There is also a good museum and shop plus the official National Park Service hut.  And I'd forgotten that Ansel Adams made his name of course in Yosemite so there is a really good exhibition of this work that can also be bought as prints.  If only I didn't have to think about my luggage allowance for upcoming flights! 

Enough procrastinating and with the rain looking like it was easing off I set off along my path for the day - seeing how far along to Glacier Point on the Four Mile Road I could get.  The name is misleading - the route is now 4.8miles and means almost as much climbing as yesterday so I wasn't too sure how far I'd get because of either fatigue or weather.  The path was actually very good for the majority of the way - in fact it was almost overdeveloped: I'm a bit conflicted about using tarmac to lay paths in what are essentially wildernesses - yes it enables more people to experience the beauty but runs a big risk of over development and ruining the thing that it's designed to serve.  

I made it probably until about a mile shy of Glacier Point - the weather was getting worse and worse and there was a lot of snow underfoot.  When the mist started to come down I knocked it on the head!  A shame but given the weather conditions I'm not sure how much I'd have been able to see anyway.  Just a couple of shots;

This is the view from about halfway on the walk - very attractive but in a different way to yesterday!

This is the point at which I decided to turn back - the snow was getting deeper and deeper and the rain was coming down and I was cold.  I think that's a fair choice!

I'm hoping that the bar here in Curry Village will be showing the third Presidential Debate tonight - or I'll have to try to do some live streaming on the not very fast WiFi. 

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Half Dome

16.2 miles. 
4800 feet / 1500 metres of ascent. 
Just over 9 hours total. 

Wow.  I'm only in Yosemite for three days and I have been checking the forecast since about August.  As it typically my luck it looks like Monday and Tuesday will be a bit ropey so decided to go for it and do my 'big climb' on the first day.  Half Dome totally dominates the surroundings so it was always going to be at the top of the list. 

I got up at the ungodly hour of 6.45, shoved down a dubious buffet breakfast and hit the road - a mile trek to the official start of the walk.  I'll not try to do a blow-by-blow account of the trip but suffice to say it was pretty punishing.  The 'official' time is for around 12 hours so was pleased to get it done in around three-quarters of that, but I'm certainly paying for it now - am self-medicating with beer for the sore knees and feet.  

I did the Yorkshire Three Peaks this summer just gone and that was longer in a linear sense (26 miles) and about the same in terms of ascent (1600 metres) - the difference here was the heat (it was at least 25C at some points I'm sure) and the total relentless nature of it - there was no respite from the climbs and the shorter distance made it very punishing.  

Hopefully a series of photos will give some sense of the day - with some commentary under each one.  

Starting off so early most of the valley walls are in shade - which was nice from a temperature point-of-view and also because you could watch the sun move slowly across the face of the rock and reveal the colours and shading that was hidden in the darkness.  This is a shot of the challenge from quite early on in the day - I kept pinching myself and saying, "am I really going to climb that?". 

Lots of the walk was through wooded areas which was cool - some huge trees that obviously had been around for many decades - even when they're scarred with fire otherwise struggling.  There were also lots of wildlife in evidence - particularly squirrels and a curious bird that looked like a blackbird or a jay but sparkling sections of blue. 

This is one of the views from the highest point that I got to.  A photograph really doesn't do it justice - as far as the eye could see was mountains, valleys, trees, granite and sky.  The sky!  

I didn't fancy the final 400m up the final summit, especially as the ropes were officially 'down' so it would have been a hand-over-hand job to get up there on quite slippery granite.  There was a group of proper climbers there and they said that the view wasn't any better on top compared with the 'saddle' - so that reassured me!  I was very happy to be satisfied with what I'd done!

Yosemite (or at least, Curry Village where I'm staying) is a curious place.  When I got here on Saturday afternoon my heart sank a bit - it was all very Butlins: an ice rink, cinema, terrible food etc.  But then I went into a very well stocked mountaineering shop and got authentically surly service (that's always the way in those kind of specialist shops).  But overall my impression was of a very busy and noisy place with lots of unruly kids running about everywhere.  And I was totally convinced that there was a bear snuffling around behind my canvas tent cabin at various points in the night but this morning I realised it was the enormous biker guy snoring...  

I set off so early this morning that I didn't get a sense of what everyone else was up to, but coming back in this evening passing the car-park on the way to my cabin there were about 15 cars left in a carpark at least ten times that size which was full 12 hours before...  So I think it'll be quieter at least for the next couple of days!  Having a bit of a think about what to do for the next two days - weather looks a bit iffy so might do some smaller stuff with shelter built in...

Friday, 19 October 2012

One More Sleep

I'm currently in a fairly terrible Motel 6 in Merced, California as a half-way point to Yosemite.  I've been looking forward to this part of my trip (Yosemite, not the Motel 6) since I booked my accommodation for the National Park about two months ago.  It's about another two hours drive from here to Yosemite so I decided to break the journey here overnight so I wasn't driving tired.  Pleased I made that call as it's been a series of early starts for the last few days - I'm looking forward to a bit of a lie-in tomorrow.  (My smugness is being slightly abated at the moment by the incredibly loud sound of a train passing by what feels like right outside my window - let's hope they don't run all night...). 

My last day in the 'Bay Area' of California was cool - I went up to Berkeley with two purposes in mind: to visit the The North Face outlet shop and to check out the University campus.  The day was a big success on both counts - I snagged a new fleece, a zip top, a hoodie, a base layer t-shirt and a hat for $108 - about £70 - stuff that would cost at least three times that in the UK.  Now I just need to think about how to get it all home!  This obviously sets me up well for the upcoming trip to Yosemite.  Big thanks to David at work for suggesting a visit to this store!

I then headed over to the University of California campus at Berkeley.  There was a strange wetness in the air which I am told is something called, "rain", I am unfamiliar with this at this stage.  Further research may be required...  The campus is incredible - totally blows away my alma mater of The University of York - and made me wish I was 19 again so I could study there!  I loved just wandering about the campus and dodging the various student societies urging me to register to vote, attend a football game, pledge to support Israel, pledge to support Palestine and something about good dental care that I never truly understood.  

The libraries (27 of them!) are certainly impressive and I loved seeing all the different architectural styles of the different academic, residential and social buildings.  Plus I'm obviously still retaining my boyish-good-looks as I kept getting asked for directions to various places as if I was an enrolled student...

I then popped down into Berkeley proper (the campus is like a town to itself) to grab some food at Triple Rock Brewery and Ale House.  I had a slightly disappointing pint of beer but some good food that set me up for the rest of the day. 

About 2pm I decided to head East out of the Bay Area and into California proper so as to avoid the rush-hour traffic.  In the end it was very light and I got to the motel about 5.30 - it was still very hot which hopefully bodes well for the Yosemite action!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Palo Alto: In a city of the future / It is difficult to concentrate

The subtitle of this post is from the 'Palo Alto' by Radiohead - one of my all-time favourite songs from my favourite band - you can see the lyrics here.  (There's more on my musical taste here).  There's a great line in that song about how "everyone is made for life" - I've just been at the house of the person who wrote the original code for what became Yahoo! Mail - it certainly was an impressive space.  

I always intended to spend some time in Silicon Valley and I had some good meetings set up but it was primarily intended as bit of a staging-post for my trip to Yosemite National Park.  So I only planned to be here for two nights.  I'm now regretting that a bit as I've really loved the brief time that I've been here and I could make it a longer stay.  Oh well, put it on the list for a return visit...  I particularly love the sense of confidence and progress that was what made me like Chicago but the amount of green space and community minded activities is also very attractive.  Now if they just could get some public transport going...

It's been really interesting to spend some time with my Servas hosts Joyce and Chris and their two children - my last Servas hosts of the trip actually so I'll be sad to lose that part of the experience.  Their home is lovely and I was made to feel very welcome including being invited to a local author's book reading (hence the visit to the Yahoo! Mail home).  

The meetings I had set up were not until around lunchtime so in the morning I took the opportunity to walk 'The Dish' a local park (named for the large radio telescope at the top of the hill) and joggers' paradise that's actually part of the Stanford University campus (and sits just over the Stanford Linear Accelerator - the predecessor of the Large Hadron Collider).  We set off about 9am and it was already very hot - a couple of shots below but they don't really capture the attractiveness of the location very well. 

I then had a lunch meeting with a couple of people from Cupertino City Council.  Cupertino is famously the home of Apple (hence the shot at the top of the page) and it was a very interesting chat.  Headlines;

  1. California's Proposition 13 is crushing investment into schools and other desirable activities for cities by limiting increases in property taxes (much like our own Council Taxes) unless the house changes ownership.  A crazy piece of legislation that the state is still paying the price for more than 30 years later.  This drives a lot of the decisions and context that the city has to operate in.
  2. Apple run a highly comprehensive commuter bus service for their employees as far San Francisco.  This is essentially of course a privatisation of what should be a public service.  (Healthcare, anyone?)
  3. Cupertino doesn't really have a 'downtown' so the Council and the Chamber of Commerce are jointly working on a 'Main Street' project to create a focal point and broaden the tax base of the city.   
Swiftly following this I was back to Palo Alto and a meeting with their Economic Development Manager.  Thomas was a great guy, highly engaging and knowledgeable and I was desperately scribbling down as a much as I could during our couple of hours together.  Loads to take in and digest still but a couple of key points;

  1. Palo Alto has a working 'dark fibre' network with nodes all over the city - this is exactly what Nottingham wanted to do with its (sadly unsuccessful) Super Connected Cities bid.  I got some details and the contact name which will be really useful for the team back home to enable us to press on with this project.  
  2. The City is using its high level of tech and IT people and businesses to run 'Hackathons' to bring together people to collaboratively solve local problems using the City's data and policy objectives. 
So for a couple of days that I squeezed in in between Seattle and Yosemite I think there's a lot there to digest and think about.  I am however hugely excited about the trip to Yosemite - hoping that the good weather holds and I get some good walks in - can't wait to fill my lungs with some fresh mountain air. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Seattle: Coffee and Planes?

It's curious, but despite the fact that I had probably the fullest itinerary of meetings and visits in Seattle than for any of the cities that I've visited so far, I think I ended up with the least complete picture of what it's like to live and work in this city. 

I kicked off with some time with the City Council's Economic Development team.  A really useful overview and lots of stats and info on the city's economy and also the challenges and opportunities it faces.  A few thoughts;
  1. The city is very young - an average age of just over 37 and with just a Bachelor's degree in Seattle you can earn the same as someone with a Master's elsewhere.  
  2. Washington has no state income tax so the fiscal levers that the City or the State has to stimulate job creation are limited to what's know as the local B&O (business and occupation) tax.  There are some lessons for Cities in the UK here with the coming "localisation" of business rates.  
  3. The City's own electricity company (Seattle City Light) is doing some really interesting stuff around energy efficiency and the capital cost of efficiency improvements.
  4. The City is particularly focused on Bio Sciences and promoting the area as a location for film and TV production - both areas that Nottingham is also making great progress on. 
  5. The Economic Development team are deliberately separately branded from the City Council under the Start / Grow / Green banner in order to move away from a perceptions that the city is "anti-business".  
Some useful food for thoughts and I was still processing it when I was collected by a colleague from UFCW Local 21 here in Seattle and taken to meet with representatives from the Boeing Machinists Union - the IAM.  The Machinists are a great bunch - pugnacious, passionate and perceptive.  I didn't have that long but got a good sense of what it was like and is like now to work for Boeing.  There are essentially two key moments - the merger with McDonnell Douglas and the move of the corporate HQ to Chicago.  Again, just a few thoughts;
  1. The Boeing Company made public statements to the effect that they moved some production away from Seattle because of the labour disputes in Seattle - South Carolina was the beneficiary of this move away from the historic home and is a 'right to work' state - ie one with very poor union rights.  
  2. There is a deeply entrenched feeling of ownership and pride in Boeing that is slowly being eroded as the company evolves.  There are many multi-generational families working at the plants.  One member is quoted as saying that he voted 'No' on a strike ballot because "they took away my Christmas in 1995" because the plant was on strike.  
  3. The IAM are highly politically organised, offering a very strong steer to their members on how to vote in the coming elections and running a massive phone-bank out of their union hall.  
Tuesday morning saw me up bright and early to get to the Starbucks HQ in the 'SODO' district of town.  The office (that's it at the top of this post) is two blocks from the Light Rail system so I was excited to use that.  I braved the 5 minute walk and shunned the kind offer of a lift from my contact at Starbucks - they commented that they didn't know anyone who'd ever used the tram system in the 10 years they'd worked there...

I met with the President of New Channel Development and never quite got a full sense of what his job exactly was but had an interesting chat about the company in general.  It was the morning after the revelations in the UK about the tax position of the company - despite much encouragement from people on Twitter I resisted the temptation to ask about this and focused on the company's position in the Seattle business-scape. 

The Starbucks mission statement is, "To inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time".  We talked quite a bit about the ways that they are delivering on this, including expanding out of straight coffee shops into juice bars and also selling more food and alcohol in the evening.  Interesting stuff.  The company does offer a good benefits package including a good pension to their teams but I kept thinking about the chapters in 'No Logo' that really lay into the working practices - obviously I got a very glossy sheen but I wonder how much the company has really changed from those days.  Hard to tell in such a short space of time and I was certainly impressed with their commitment to local community activities and the fact they deliberately had their national conference in New Orleans shortly after Katrina in order to contribute to the regeneration of the City.  

Finally I spent some time in the afternoon with SPEEA who are the technical, engineering Union at Boeing.  They're currently in the middle of a quite messy contract renegotiation so it was good to get the download on that.   They're similarly proud as the IAM team to work for Boeing and take real pride in being the intellectual heart of the company - the 'No Nerds, No Birds' poster is a great example of this.  Again some thoughts;
  1. The SPEEA team make a very clear set of distinctions between pre-merger and pre-move to Chicago Boeing.  The physical location of the management team now means that they are also culturally distant from the teams on the ground which might mean that they are over-reaching in this current negotiation.  An interesting example of when a company moves away from its 'Company Town' roots.  
  2. The union do a fair amount of lobbying locally and nationally, including some joint work with the company but have made a conscious decision not to engage with the political process - they do not endorse candidates or campaign in elections.  I'm not sure if this doesn't weaken their hand.
  3. There is a cultural difference in the political process between what is known as the 'Seattle Way' - very consensual (and often slow!) decision making and the Chicago rough-and-tumble - this has affected relations between management and the workers,  
Phew.  Lots to take in and I haven't yet formed it into a coherent whole - will need to come back to this at a later date.  


So I've not blogged for several days - don't worry, I'm still alive, just been busy having a great time!  I arrived relatively early in the morning on the Friday and so had some spare time in the city before I met my Servas hosts, Sarah and Cale.  I popped up the Columbia Centre tower which gave great views out across the City and the various bodies of water that surround it.  I also took the chance to visit the legendary Pike Place Market - I saw some fish being thrown and also took advantage of the great local artists to pick up some Christmas presents. 

I met Sarah at her office downtown and we walked up to Capitol Hill - the neighbourhood where they live.  I'd read a lot about the Seattle micro-/craft-brewing scene so I was pleased when we went to a local bar to sample some of them.  The evening then took its usual turn when you go for a "quick one" after work... We went for some excellent Mexican food in a local 'hispter' cafe and then sampled most of the local beers - especially from Elysian Brewing - their pumpkin ale is excellent!  I displayed my usual self-control and light-touch when it comes to drinking and seem to remember displaying my British beer-mat flipping skills to any and all that wanted to witness them.  

So it was obviously with a spring in my step and a totally clear head that I went off to the Seattle Art Museum the next morning.   It's a really great space and had some cool exhibits - I'm just not sure that I made the most of it...  

The Museum also has a satellite campus of outdoor sculpture so I dodged the rain and took in that.  In the evening we went over to a local neighbourhood that was doing a kind of 'open house' at the artists' studios - you can see some info here.  

I moved on to another Servas host on the Sunday morning - Rebecca and Sara live in Mount Baker a few miles away from the city centre so it was interesting to see a different side of Seattle life.  We did a whole variety of things over the three days I was with them, the highlight probably being a tour of several wineries and also going to a local bar to watch the second Presidential debate.  I really enjoyed the conversations with Rebecca and Sara about the local and national political scene and what it's like to live in Seattle.  

Seattle is a great city - still doesn't knock Chicago off top spot, but I like the culture and stunning scenery - even the British-style rain wasn't too bad!

(I'm going to do another post in a bit outlining the companies that I visited whilst here in Seattle). 

Friday, 12 October 2012

Amtrak Journey One

As I talked about here, one of the things I was looking forward to doing in America was taking some trips on the Amtrak rail system.  I've spent the last couple of days on the train from Minneapolis to Seattle as the first of two journeys I'm planning to make.  (The other is from Los Angeles to Houston so I expect it will be different in many ways).  If you like you can see more details of the Empire Builder route that I took on this trip. 

Arriving at the station in Minneapolis was a bit of an adventure in itself - the Americans haven't quite cottoned on to the fact that the advantage of train travel is that you can arrive and depart right from the city centre - the station is out in the middle of nowhere - not the most fun when you need to be there at 11pm!  Luckily my Servas host was kind enough (on her birthday no less!) to give me a lift out there.  There was the usual chaos that you come to expect at a station (itinerants wandering about, people missing trains etc, etc) with the added excitement of some unsupervised toddlers wandering about that I had to stop from exiting the station out onto the busy main road outside.  Never did find their mother. 

I had made sure to book a sleeper car and was very glad that I did when I walked through the 'coach' standard accommodation - it really didn't look like a comfortable place to spent nearly 36 hours.  That said, the 'Roomette' accommodation that I had been allocated wasn't exactly palatial, especially for someone who's 6'4"!  But the service that came with it was (as you would expect for America) excellent.  Dorothy was the allocated steward for our car and the adjacent one and she was fantastic - not least at being able to remember something like 20 peoples' names, destinations and dinner reservation times.  

I was pretty tired and the light wasn't very good, but this an attempt to show the size of the sleeping accommodation - bear in mind that I was standing half-in-half-out of the door in the corridor...

Having managed to get a reasonable night of sleep and shower in the swaying train bathrooms it was time to experience the food available.  It's all included in the price of your trip so I was going to maximise my opportunity...  It was an ok breakfast, a triumph of quantity over quality really but the highlight was sitting with three other random travellers and hearing their stories.  Over the four meals I sat with people from all over the US and also one intrepid traveller from New Zealand.  It was really interesting in particular to talk to some people from Charlotte, North Carolina which I hadn't realised was the second largest financial centre in the US after New York - and so has been hit very hard by the economic downturn.  

But the real highlight of the trip was just watching the scenery.  I didn't even leave my cabin to go to the dedicated viewing car as I could see everything I wanted from my seat.  I was sad that the length of day meant that it was dark when we went through Glacier National Park but the rest of the day was hour after hour of the relentless plains of north Dakota and  Montana - it's not called 'Big Sky Country' for nothing.  I found it hypnotically interesting just to watch it all roll by, the photo below doesn't really do it justice at all.  

And then every-so-often this would be broken up by the appearance on the horizon of a small hamlet or settlement (either based around farming or more recently in ND, oil/gas drilling) on the horizon and then the slow recession of that hamlet behind you.  Like I say, hypnotic...

There was also the opportunity to take part in a wine and cheese tasting which I couldn't pass up - you can see the selections here.  The day after that just drifted along and before I knew it it was time for bed and an arrival in the morning in Seattle.  Incredibly for a 36 hours journey we arrived in Seattle 25 minutes early and even better I was able to leave my bag at the station and wander into the city to check it out. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Campaiging for President Obama

I think that yesterday (Tuesday) might go alongside this day as a highlight so far of my trip to America. 

I had arranged a brief chat with Congressman Keith Ellison who represents Minneapolis and bit of the surrounding suburbs.  We met over at the Congressman's District Office which I got to by using the excellent Twin Cities 'Nice Ride' bike hire system (a bit like the Boris Bikes in London).  The system is cheap and efficient but I kept trying to ride the bike like my road bike at home and was confused when I didn't get quite the same level of responsiveness...

Anyway, I arrived safely enough - albeit somewhat cold from the biting wind there was yesterday.  (Yes, Mum I'm wearing my hat and gloves...).  An interesting chat with the Congressman about local and national political issues including the campaign against an amendment to outlaw gay marriage - more info here.  My time was about up when Keith asked me if I wanted to come with him to the campaign office (there is a very strict division between the 'official' office which is taxpayer funded and the campaign office which is a political operation). 

As you can imagine I jumped at this chance and was excited to experience a Congressional campaign in the full swing of trying to reach 750,000 constituents and persuade them to vote for the Congressman.  Better than that however, I was able to actually join some of the team on the phones canvassing constituents to try to persuade them to vote for both the Congressman and also President Obama. That's a pretty special moment! 

Again I thought I'd about exhausted my welcome when Keith and his Communications Director grabbed me and said, "we're going to record a campaign advert, do you want to come along?"...  We battled through city-centre rush-hour traffic and made it to the radio studio just in time to lay down two different versions of a campaign advert about the second of two proposed constitutional amendments - about voter registration and participation - more info here

And finally we went over to the local Fox affiliate TV station for the Congressman to do a live TV interview.  You can see the video of the TV interview here.  I was in the green room willing him on! 

A very unexpectedly fascinating day and I also gathered a load of info from Keith on Detroit (where he grew up) which I've put together with the stuff I saw when I was there the other week. 

I move on to Seattle tonight on the Amtrak.  It takes about 36 hours but it supposed to go through some of the most beautiful scenery - including Glacier National Park

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Land of 10,000 Lakes and Sub-Zero Temperatures

A quick update on my first day-and-a-half in Minneapolis.  (As an aside, of there's one things I'm going to learn from this trip it's how to spell the names of various places I've always struggled with - witness my Connecticut, Cincinnati and Massachusetts skills...!)

I'm going to stop going on about the weather soon, but let's just say I went from t-shirt weather in Chicago (25C) to wearing four layers and a hat and gloves (6C) in the space of three days.   Brr.  

My Servas host picked me up from the station late Saturday afternoon and give me a little tour of St Paul and the surrounding area - and filled me in on the differences and the rivalry between the 'Twin Cities' of St Paul and Minneapolis.  

On Sunday we did a tour of a cave system in St Paul that used to be where the Chicago gangsters would hide out - apparently the local police had a deal that they could take refuge in the city as long as they didn't commit any crimes within the city limits!  The inside of the cave system reminded me of The Trip in Nottingham which was slightly odd but it was a very interesting tour.  We then went to see one of the thousands of lakes in Minnesota - Lake of the Isles - which was great to walk around on a crisp Autumn day, lots of people out on their bikes and walking dogs. 

Frustratingly a lot of the museums etc that I want to see in the Twin Cities are closed on a Monday so I planned out my own schedule based around staying indoors as much as possible - Lilian you'll be pleased to hear that I'm planning to maximise the tram system and also the Skyway! 

Monday, 8 October 2012

Walgreens and Wright

Slightly behind in blogging as no WiFi at the place I'm staying at. 

I'm now in Minneapolis and whilst there isn't any Purple Rain it's certainly very cold so I've taken refuge in a coffee shop to catch up on emails etc.  

The final couple of days in Chicago were as good as the first two - I spent a great day with the team at the Walgreens Deerfield 'Community Support Centre' (Head Office) and also saw some excellent architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright

I won't go on too much about the Walgreens visit as it'll be pretty irrelevant to most people outside of D90 but it was a really useful and insightful day.  I met with John Gremmer who heads up their CSR programme and he was able to introduce me to lots of people around the office including a brief chat with a couple of the Board members which was unexpected and very interesting.  

A few random notes, mainly on cultural differences / similarities between Walgreens and Boots (for those who don't know the two companies are merging at the moment - see some info here).  

- The company used to be head-quartered in Chicago city-centre but moved to their current suburban location in the 1970s.  This move caused some bad blood with the Daley family (who have run the city on-and-off for the last 30 or so years) which still lingers even now.  An interesting angle for my Company Towns research.  
- The company has an internal motto of "doing well by doing good" which fits really well with the Boots company ethos.  
- This includes a 'Four Way Test' which I saw displayed is everyone's office and in most of the corridors too.  
- The company is doing some really interesting things to combat Food Deserts (which I walk about here in Detroit) - certainly the range and selection of fresh food in some of the stores we visited was very comprehensive.  
- Oh, there's an own-brand range of beer: Big Flats - something the team at Boots should definitely consider...

A fascinating day that I've only just skimmed some of the nuggets from.  

Only last (half) day in Chicago (sob) I went over to Oak Park west of the city.  It was here that Frank Lloyd Wright lived for a time and designed a number of very impressive family homes.  You can tour his home and studio (which I didn't do for lack of time) or do a walking tour around the houses (which are all still in private ownership).  Despite it being a proper MidWest autumn day (ie freezing cold) I opted for the latter.   

I really impressive collection of homes, some photos below, and what looks like a great community of people.  

I then had to get back downtown, pick up my bag and navigate O'Hare Airport to get to my flight on time.  I like to blame the cold weather for slowing me down as I nearly missed my flight...  Got to Minneapolis to find that it was even colder - starting to be glad for the huge amount of clothes I've dragged with me here!