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USA Diary, Part 5

Wrapping-up the 5-week trip

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • Visiting the site of the world's first powered flight
  • The excellent Tampa Bay car museum
  • Summary thoughts - we did not like the US
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Today we’re at Kill Devil Hills, one of the most famous technological sites in the world.

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It was here that the Wright Brothers conducted their full-size glider experiments, and where they first flew their powered aircraft. In fact, less than a kilometre from where I write this, that magical technological breakthrough occurred 111 years ago.

Kill Devil Hills has since changed dramatically from that wind-swept, desolate place of sand dunes and open spaces. The town of Kill Devil Hills is now heavily populated, part of the Outer Banks spit that extends for hundreds of kilometres down the North Carolina coast. But to give full credit to the US authorities, the site where the Wright Brothers first flew is tastefully and appropriately commemorated.

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The site is a park (only US$4 admittance) and has on it five significant markers. Where the Flyer took off, and where it landed on its first, second, third – and magnificently long – fourth flight. Each marker is made from inscribed granite. Behind all of this is the Big Kill Devil Hill, then a mobile sand dune and now stabilised with planted grasses and with a large granite monument on top.

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I find the story of the Wright Brothers – perhaps the last amateurs to make a hugely significant engineering breakthrough – wonderfully exhilarating. These were two men of great patience, great attention to detail, and great perseverance. They were down to earth – but eclectically and laterally very, very smart.

Looking at where they first flew I found to be an emotional – almost spiritual – experience.

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I don’t feel embarrassed to say that I was close to tears, looking at the (accurate) re-creation of their huts and hangar (the world’s first aircraft hangar!) and imagining their sheer grit in overcoming such challenges.

In the museum (that’s also at the site), I was fascinated to see extracts from their diaries – their maths was just simple arithmetic, worked-through with absolute and clear logic. No calculus, no algebra, no calculations more difficult than addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. That’s pretty stunning when they were up against the best scientists in the land.

We went to the memorial first thing – when it was cold (about minus 7 degrees C but with a wind-chill of perhaps minus 14) - and then again last thing in the afternoon, when the sun was setting and the wind had paused.

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In the afternoon we went to the full-size sculpture, a re-creation of Flyer that you can climb all over. I got onto the lower wing – right next to the sculptured persona of Wilbur – and looked out past the front stabiliser, seeing things perhaps as he had. It sounds trivial, but I was utterly moved – the aircraft seemed to come alive when you can sense in your peripheral vision the size of the aerofoils each side of you, feel the hip cradle for wing warping, and have your hands on the rudder handles. My 10-year-old also enjoyed the experience.

If I could travel back in time, I think more than anything I have ever envisioned, I’d like to have been with them at the their Kill Devils Hills camp, talking to Orville and Wilbur, watching the disappointments and the logical and careful way in which they overcame them…. to finally succeed in the single most significant technological achievement ever.

A simply extraordinary experience.

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The next day we drove down the sandy spit. The Outer Banks is very obviously a tourist mecca - but not in winter.

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It was fascinating following the road along the spit – the land sometimes less than a few hundred metres wide and the road constantly being cleared of sand-drifts – and seeing such a linear settlement. Shops, motels, camping grounds, nature reserves – all at the mercy of the Atlantic, and the hurricanes and storms that sweep in from it. I think more than anywhere else we have visited in the US, we felt at home in this landscape of dunes and fishing trawlers and polite and quiet people.

However, we could be there only a day and then it was time to do a hop and skip and jump – Norfolk to Charlotte to Raleigh to Washington DC to Orlando, Florida.

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Today, here in Florida, we went to Legoland.

I hate theme parks but we went on a promise – to Alexander, aged 10, who loves Lego. So how was it? I thought it was OK but overpriced, my wife Georgina thought it fun but overpriced, and Alexander thought it awesome but overpriced.

The cost for this family of three? Two hundred and seventy two dollars US, plus food, plus games….

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We are staying at the Hyatt Orlando International Airport – a hotel positioned literally in the middle of the huge airport. From our tenth floor hotel room, we can see runways all round, the control tower and almost all the taxi-ways.

We’ve had a good last couple of days in the US. This was largely achieved by ignoring what the tourist guides say and digging up interesting things for ourselves. We’ve got a hire car here, so that made things much easier and quicker.

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Yesterday we went to a fascinating car museum in Tampa Bay. It was a 300km round trip, but the Florida freeways are truly excellent (the best I have ever seen) and the speed limits quite reasonable. For example, a 120 km/h limit is not uncommon, and people tend to travel about 15 km/h over the posted limit.

The Tampa Bay Automobile Museum is a rich family’s collection. Unusually, it’s also a collection with a strict theme – technologically significant cars from the 1890s to the 1970s.

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You’ll find cars like the Maserati V6 engined Citroen SM….

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…the front-wheel drive V8 Oldsmobile Toronado…

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…a prototype all-wheel drive Mustang…

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…a whole bunch of Tatras – and many others.

We were also extraordinarily lucky – while we were in the museum, the chief restorer happened to come in. He started lifting a few bonnets to show people mechanical details and then with a bit of encouragement, took us on a detailed tour of all the cars we wished to look at more closely. We even got to see inside the restoration workshop.

This is a great museum, with a wonderful atmosphere built around people who love interesting cars (all the cars are regularly road-driven) - and also, a museum with a quite modest entry charge.

I picked up a brochure at the museum on Florida’s largest bookshop, and so we visited it that afternoon – it was also in Tampa Bay. It was a good shop – interestingly enough, with a cat in residence. (Must be something about bookshops and cats in the US.) We all bought books – though at high prices.

Last night we looked long and hard at whether or not to visit the Kennedy Space Centre. The KSC is a major reason that I’d put Florida down on the itinerary, but in the end we decided not to go. Why not? Well, I have now become very suspicious of technological and scientific tourist attractions in the US – especially those that are popular. Too often they have been overly expensive, infantile in descriptions, and clearly designed for those who know nothing about the subject – and who want to learn not much more.

Browsing Trip Advisor, the most accurate reviews of US attraction have been from those who (a) are not residents of the US, (b) obviously have some knowledge about the subject of the attraction, and (c) in their reviews have cited other attractions that cover similar material but are much better.

So when I read a recent Trip Advisor review of the Kennedy Space Centre that said the exhibits were dumbed down for children, the signs were condescending, the Smithsonian in Washington has better artefacts, and that the visitors’ centre is run by a private company not NASA, I groaned with the memory of the Intrepid museum in New York, and the Technology museum in Chicago – and we decided not to go.

So we went to Daytona Beach instead.

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In the 1920s and 1930s, the beach provided the surface on which a host of world Land Speed Records were run. At least two people died trying to set those records, but some were successful - Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell among them. In fact, one of Campbell’s 1930s Bluebirds is at the Daytona Beach International Speedway – it’s a car we’d all have loved to see.

Looking at the race track’s website showed that to see the Bluebird we’d each have to pay US$50 for a 90 minute tour of the whole racetrack (not something we particularly wanted), but we still thought it worthwhile calling in to ask if we could see just Bluebird alone. Astonishingly, the staff first had to have explained to them what Bluebird was, and then when they worked that out, told us rather scornfully that Bluebird wasn’t available for viewing by the mere public.

It’s hard to communicate how this affected us: we weren’t sure whether to be more contemptuous of the insularity and historical ignorance of the staff, or simply wonder at the money-grabbing culture that here is all-pervasive.

And it’s not just that Land Speed Record cars are not the grist for the NASCAR track’s mill; even in their large gift shop, there was almost no reference to rich history of NASCAR racing itself. Apart from a few small random pictures stuck up, there was nothing about the Hudson Hornet, nothing about the Plymouth Superbird. Books? Don’t be silly – none.

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After Daytona Beach, we drove along the coast to the Ponce De Leon lighthouse museum. We’d loved the Cape Hatteras lighthouse on the Outer Banks in North Carolina and so we thought we’d look at another big and old lighthouse. These are lighthouses that look the absolute popular conception of a lighthouse – immensely tall, tapered brick structures capped with gloriously huge glasshouses.

The Ponce De Leon lighthouse can be climbed; 203 steps up a steep metal spiral staircase. The lighthouse has been wonderfully restored – all 175 vertical feet of it. Also restored are all the buildings that surround it – the lighthouse keepers’ residences, the pump house, generator building and so on.

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These buildings now house a museum – with thoughtful, wide-ranging and interesting displays. The exhibit of Fresnel lens assemblies from this and other lighthouses was amazing – probably the best display of lighthouse lens assemblies in the world. One lens assembly was over 5 metres high! It was like an enormous, exquisite and bizarre jewel.

And the entrance fees to this museum were quite modest…

From Florida we flew to Dallas, and from Dallas back to Sydney, then to Canberra – and then home.

We saw some incredible sights, but overall it wasn’t a trip that we greatly enjoyed. Why not? – if you’re interested, I’ve explored a few of those ideas below.

Location

Attraction

Comments

Rating

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

Location of first powered flight

Immensely significant historical site well preserved. Good smaller museum. Low entrance charge, 2 hours.

Overall: 10/10

Tampa Bay, Florida

Tampa Bay Automobile Museum

Brilliant collection of technologically significant cars but only of medium size, low entrance charge, 2-3 hours

8/10

Daytona beach, Florida

Ponce De Leon lighthouse

Fascinating lighthouse and excellent Fresnel lens museum, 2 hours

7/10

We didn’t like it!

People who go on long overseas holidays invariably say how wonderful it all was. But in the main, we did not enjoy the 5 weeks we spent in the United States. Compared with the previous trips we’ve made to Germany and the United Kingdom, the US trip was a major disappointment.

Before I say why we found it so, here are the highlights.

The week we spent in Hawaii was quite amazing. Staying in a modest campground hut within literally walking distance of an active volcano was exhilarating. Walking across the lava field of a volcano that was active only 60 years ago is something I’ll never forget.

Something else I’ll never forget – but in a quite different way – were the ruins of Detroit. As Australians, coming from a country that has experienced 25 years of unbroken economic growth, we found it jaw-dropping to see the literally thousands of empty, graffit’d buildings, the grassy blocks where once houses existed, the ruins of factories – all within a few kilometres of the city centre. You can buy a house in Detroit for one dollar.

I just couldn’t – and still can’t - believe how a government in a rich country could just let one of their cities fall into ruin.

Also in Detroit is The Henry Ford, an excellent technological museum that is eclectic, well presented and full of fascinating exhibits.

The Smithsonian museums of flight and space in Washington DC are absolute world-class in scholarship, range of exhibits, and signage. They have truly the most significant aircraft and spacecraft ever produced - I could have spent a week in these free museums.

Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina – the spot where the Wright Brothers first flew - I found to be incredibly moving.

I also thought the Simeon Car Museum in Philadelphia and the Tampa Bay Car Museum both excellent, with some cars in each I’ve not seen before. The Plymouth Superbird at the Simeon museum was even better than I’d hoped. The Tatras on display at Tampa Bay show how cars of the last 50 years (other than Porsches) can look when they use rear-mount engines, good aerodynamics and advanced suspension design.

But there was so much in the US that we hated.

Firstly, and I don’t mean to offend all of our American readers, but Australians – like we are – are very different culturally to Americans. To us, in their everyday behaviour, many Americans appear to be simply rude. Why?

  • Their loud voices - we could often hear ‘private’ conversations from five or six metres away; after a while, it became utterly tiresome having people push their trivia into our ears. People in many museums walked around yelling, their children running amok in screaming mindlessness.

  • Pushy behaviour - for example, in airports, the locals jump in front of others to grab their gear off security conveyors, rather than sliding it all to the end so everyone can get their stuff, as occurs automatically in Australia. At tourist attractions, we saw people literally shoved out of the way so that someone could take a better selfie.

  • Condescension to those providing service - we lost count of the number of people creating a fuss about basically nothing, belittling shop staff, denigrating airport staff, being aggressively rude to hotel cleaners and so on. The result of this, and the payment of very low wages augmented by tips, is that service is often oily and obsequious, something that made us feel quite uncomfortable. The social egalitarianism of Australia is simply not present.

I was also amazed at the poor quality of many museums, museums that charged incredibly exorbitant amounts for entry. They were poor in many ways:

  • Changing artefacts so that they looked more as the pubic expected (let’s stick tiles on a Shuttle that never had them).

  • Dumbing-down exhibits to an amazing degree (an animatronic talking donkey in the world’s first streamlined diesel train, anyone?). Guides who knew nothing more than the spiel they’d memorised about their exhibit – and even then, recited information that was simply wrong (apparently stainless steel is a lot lighter than iron).

  • Putting in utterly irrelevant and distracting attractions to try to get more people through the door (like a climbing wall for teenagers as an exhibit in a technology and industry museum, or having a live band playing in the middle of a natural history museum).

  • Explanations aimed at people who knew nothing about the subject and didn’t actually want to learn much more (part of the explanatory sign for a Harrier jump jet – “this aircraft can take off vertically and so it has starred in many blockbuster movies”).

Why were so many of the US museums like this? I don’t know - you could only figure that they are catering for a public that has a poor understanding of science and technology, don’t want to have to think or read, and view attending such a facility as a good chance to take selfies in front of objects they don’t understand. The contrast with technical and transport museums in Germany – and to a lesser extent the UK - was just extraordinary.

But to me the thing I most disliked about the United States was the sheer inequity of American society, usually along colour lines.

You go to a museum and every crap job is being done by black people. The cleaning of the floor, the security check-in, the sweeping of the pavement. On the way to the museum, the food preparation staff at the hotel breakfast are black, the room cleaning staff in the hotel are black (or Hispanic), the bus driver is black, as is the taxi driver.

Then, when you get inside the museum, almost everyone is white.

The beggars on the streets are black, the mumblers and the mad on public transport are black.

But, dining happily at the hotel breakfast, nearly everyone is white.

One could start getting the feeling pretty vividly that black and Hispanic people in the US comprise an underclass of the impoverished, the exploited and the powerless.

Some web research brings up this. In the USA:

The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households.

And if you prefer mean rather than the median:

In 2005, mean white household wealth was 2.3 times that of Hispanics and 3 times that of blacks. By 2009, it was 3.7 times that of both Hispanics and blacks.

If people can’t see these statistics being lived out on every street corner of major cities, every run-down suburban block, every homeless person living under a railway bridge in a small town – well, they’re either not looking, or they are looking and not seeing.

Obviously, we can base our judgments only on what we saw. But from Chicago to Buffalo to Philadelphia to New York to Washington, we saw much the same. (And we did many hundreds of kilometres in trains, looking out at the passing smaller towns and cities. They were no different.) There were less beggars and homeless in Florida, but driving through the back industrial streets of Orlando, things weren’t much better.

Before we went to the US, I said to my 10 year old son Alexander: “We are going to one of the richest countries in the world, and one that has been rich for a long time. I wonder what it will look like?”

Now I know - and it isn’t good.

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