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15 Years of my American Adventure

kissimmeeEarlier this year I flew to Florida, almost exactly 15 years after my fist visit to the US, which also began in the Sunshine State. What then started as an unexpected summer job in Walt Disney World (after friend asked me to accompany her for the interview) developed into a lifelong passion for America.

This year I chose Florida as my destination because it was the cheapest place to fly which was also close to Alabama. And Alabama was the last of the lower 48 states which I haven’t visited yet.

I mean we drove across its panhandle, all those years ago on our way from Florida to California, but it doesn’t really count as we didn’t stop there at all.

Alabama happened to be more interesting that I expected and deserve its own chapter (especially the fascinating city of Mobile) so here let me write more generally about being back in Florida all those years after my Disney job.

Often when I mention this episode of my life people react with rolling their eyes and the looks of pity. But there is no reason for that as it was one of the best summers I have ever experienced. The weather was great, we lived in a huge campus full of young people from all around the world working for Disney, we had our own swimming pool, free access to all the amusement parks and the job wasn’t really too hard. And don’t let me even get started about the parties. Yes, summer 2001 was definitely an awesome time for me. Ever since then I have a soft spot for Orlando. orlando-eye

Which is weird because I normally hate places like that. Full of kitsch, driven by tourism and naked commercialism. That’s why I don’t go to the Mediterranean resorts. And to be honest I would probably never go to Orlando if I didn’t get that summer job in Disney.

So, why do I go back?

Well, like most relationships, it is complicated. First, I have a friend who still lives in Orlando. One of our group at university, (four of us went to work there together) never went back to Poland and still lives in Orlando. It is always nice to meet and catch up with the old times. This year we decided to meet for a dinner in Disney Springs. It is a family friendly shopping, dining and entertainment area close to all the major Disney parks which is open to general public free of charge. All those years ago it was called Downtown Disney and Pleasure Island and as soon as I entered it I got a strong feeling of a deja vu. The smell, the noise, the crowds, it all immediately felt familiar. Normally it would be quintessence of all I hate when travelling but somehow I loved every moment of that evening. I really didn’t realise how much my experience in Disney made a lasting imprint in my head. It is probably due to fact that it was my first experience of America and a place where my fascination with that continent germinated.

disney-springsOn top of that, all those 15 years ago we had some proper fun out there. Back then Disney was trying to expand towards the older clientele (by older I mean not kids) so the Pleasure Island was an area full of bars and night clubs. I still remember the weekly staff nights when, as Disney employees, we had free access to all the establishments and discount on drinks in some of them. Nowadays most of the nightclubs are gone and young revellers are replaced by ever growing crowds of families. Still, I didn’t stop me from wandering aimlessly late into the night, long after my friend and her kids drove home. I only had one night in Orlando so I guess I wanted to use every moment of it to immerse myself in the past.

After a night in a cheap motel in Kissimmee (town south of Orlando full of budget hotels, dated shopping malls and ever more kitschy tourist attractions, including place where you can shoot machine guns) I drove back to Orlando and went to see the campus where we all used to live in 2001. It was weird. Chatham Square is a gated community and without employee pass one cannot enter it. So I parked just outside the gate and just stared at it. I looked at the bus stop where all those years ago every day we were boarding buses taking us to work all over the Walt Disney World. I have to say that it might be one of the most bizarre bus stops in the world as many of Disney staff are already wearing their costumes while waiting for a bus. I must be getting old because I felt strangely sentimental.machine-guns

In the afternoon I drove a bit around Orlando, did some shopping and briefly met my friend again at her house. But it was clearly time to move and go to some more interesting places which I didn’t manage to visit previously, namely the Kennedy Space Center often also called Cape Canaveral.

So how was Orlando all those year after my first visit?

Strange. On one hand Orlando metropolitan area grew significantly in recent years. In fact its population grew over 11% between 2010 and 2015 alone, making it one of the fastest growing places in the US. On the other hand it felt smaller than I remembered it. It was probably due to two factors. Back in the days I had to use public transport to get around. Disney buses to get to work and city transit to go anywhere else. It was painfully slow way of travelling. This time I could zoom around in my convertible Ford Mustang. Also, most places do feel bigger during the first visit.

Now, normally I end my chapters strongly recommending visit to a particular place. With Orlando it is a bit difficult. Unless someone is a huge fan of Disney, amusement parks and thrill rides (which there are some awesome examples in Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld) it is a hard place to recommend wholeheartedly. But on a personal level I had a great time there, recalling all the memories.

I will probably be back, just not too soon.disney

Alberta

Entering_AlbertaOur last year’s North American trip started and ended in the Canadian province of Alberta. I have already written a bit about the stunning Canadian Rockies so here let’s elaborate a bit more about the much less known rest of the province.

After landing in Edmonton we drove straight to Jasper in the Rockies without paying much attention to the surroundings, partly due to miserable weather on that day. But on the way back we had a bit more time to explore.

We entered Alberta driving from Montana via the Caraway border crossing. It is one of the quieter crossings I have ever used between Canada and the US (or anywhere else for that matter). Its few small buildings are visible from miles away when you approach it on the dead straight and empty highway. On the American side there was a sign directing us straight to the Canadian customs where two officers waved us through after one or two questions, a bit surprised seeing two British passports instead of yet another local farmer or rancher. We were the only car crossing at the time. In either direction.

It was a glorious sunny afternoon and the vast blue sky was dotted with only a few specks of white cloud. Perfect weather to admire the open landscapes of the Canadian prairies. The Rocky Mountains were just about visible on the western horizon but we drove across a gently undulating prairie landscape, with very few trees indeed. This is the bread basket of Canada and one of the world’s most important wheat growing regions. Fields stretched for miles in every direction and massive grain trucks were thundering along the empty highways. It all felt a bit like somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska, a quintessentially American landscape.Alberta_landscape

But if I had to compare Alberta to any of the US states it would undoubtedly be Texas. They actually cover a similar area (more than twice the size of British Isles each), but it wouldn’t be the most important similarity. It is more about the feel of the place. Both territories are booming and their economies, dominated by the oil and other resource industries, are driving big population increases. But the similarities go even deeper. It is about the people’s attitudes. Nowhere else in Canada have I seen more national flags proudly displayed than in Alberta. There are visible on many farms in the countryside and on many buildings in the cities. Albertans seem to be as proud waving their flags as the Texans are. And they also love their huge pick-up trucks as much as their spiritual brothers in Texas. Again, nowhere else in Canada I have seen more of them on the roads. Folks in Alberta also seem to drive the biggest and flashiest trucks in Canada, even if they only use them to commute to work in the cities. Mirror image of Texas if you ask me.

After a pleasant two hour drive from the border we arrived at Calgary where we stopped for a night.

Calgary_skylineThe following day we decided to have a stroll around the city which actually really positively surprised me. Its downtown, located on the south bank of the Bow River, is a dense mix of impressive glass skyscrapers, a testimony to Alberta’s growth in the recent years. The city’s skyline is really photogenic, especially on a crisp and sunny autumn morning when a deep blue sky reflects in the glass towers and contrasts sharply with the yellow leafs of the aspen trees growing along the river. The best views and photo opportunities are from the linear park stretching along the banks of the Bow River. The park is nicely landscaped and very pleasant so we decided to walk as far east as Fort Calgary.

Well, it actually is only a replica of the original fort which was established in 1875 by the North-West Mounted Police, a precursor of the world famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It was established to eradicate illicit whiskey traders from the area and prepare the region for orderly settlement. This is probably the biggest difference between settling of the Canadian and the American west. In the US it was a much more spontaneous and messy process, law usually followed the settlement. In Canada the law was often already there when the first settlers arrived. Calgary_tower

Nowadays the fort’s replica provides educational opportunities for people interested in the past of the city. We didn’t enter as it was early in the morning and it wasn’t open yet. Instead we turned back west towards the downtown. The downtown itself looks stunning architecturally, as I already mentioned it offers an amazing skyline, but it wasn’t too lively on Sunday morning. In fact it was actually deserted. I didn’t mind as it was easier to photograph the architecture without crowds bumping into us. By mid day we decided to leave the city and head slowly towards Edmonton. I have to say that Calgary might not be as cool and trendy as Vancouver but it is well worth a visit.

Alberta_Badlands_ 2We decided not to drive directly to Edmonton but take a detour to the east via the Alberta badlands. It was yet another long drive across the vast, gently rolling, prairies of Alberta. Then, as we were approaching the town of Drumheller, the ground suddenly opened and the landscape become very harsh indeed. It was like moving in 5 minutes from Alberta to Arizona. Strange rock and soil formations create a really striking topography in this part of the province. There are a few viewpoints along the provincial Hwy 9 before it reaches the town and they offer great panoramas of these interesting formations.

The biggest attraction in Drumheller is the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology which hosts Canada’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils. Unfortunately we arrived on a Sunday afternoon so it was already closed. But in the town itself we could still admire the World’s Largest Dinosaur, a 26.2 metres (86 ft) high fibreglass Tyrannosaurus Rex. It is actually much larger than any real T-Rex ever was. It might be kitschy as hell but it is also absolutely awesome. Oddities like that are some of the reasons why I love travelling to Canada and the US.Dinosaur

From Drumheller we drove in a north-westerly direction towards Edmonton. It involved navigating some smaller provincial highways across yet more of the endless wheat fields.

Alberta_highwayIt was a late September and we could see many massive combine harvesters sailing through the fields. Even after the sunset the activity was still going on. These massive machines, brightly lit after dusk, made a weird sight, especially on a night of a total lunar eclipse when the moon turned a Mars-like red. Finally we stopped for a night in the town of Leduc.

The next day we were flying back to Europe from Edmonton. But as we had a few hours to spare we decided to make a quick tour of the city. We started from the Alberta Legislature Building which is located on nicely landscaped grounds on the high bank of the Saskatchewan River. It looks exactly like a dozen or so state capitols in the US. The same grand design, including a massive cupola, and tons of symbolism. We joined a tour led by an enthusiastic guide who was trying really hard to make provincial political history exciting. As much as I love this type of architecture the politics behind it are often quite boring. Still, she was funny and entertainingAlberta_Legislature and got really excited after learning that we came from London. After that she was trying really hard to find similarities between politics in Alberta and British parliamentary system. One can only admire her enthusiasm. On the legislature grounds there is also a marker pointing to a spot where Fort Edmonton was once located as well as monument commemorating Lord Strathcona who drove the last spike finishing the first transcontinental railway. Which actually made Canada a country.

After that we strolled for a while around Edmonton’s downtown. Here I have to admit that I didn’t really like it. Comparing with Calgary it was low, messy, architecturally boring and to be frank, simply quite ugly. To some degree it reminded me of the city of Katowice in my native Poland (at least as it was a few years back, it got better recently). A bit shapeless and soulless, not really worth visiting.

And on this rather underwhelming note we ended our visit to Alberta. Edmonton maybe wasn’t the most impressive city I have ever visited but I really enjoyed Calgary. I could actually see myself living there. And I really love Alberta’s countryside. From the dramatic Rockies to the vast prairies, for me it is North America at its best.Dusk_harvesting

Western Montana

Glacier_NPMontana is a state of two halves. The eastern (much larger) part of the state is dominated by the vast rolling landscapes of the great plains, more similar to the Dakotas or Kansas than to any of the states to the west. The western part is dominated by massive mountain chains, including the mighty Rockies.

As much as I like the open sky of the great plains during our visit we were largely confined to the mountainous west of the state.

We entered Montana driving the I-90 from Spokane. Here this major freeway at times resembles more of a roller-coaster than the major road artery it is. There are none of the long tunnels or sweeping bridges of the Alpine roads in Europe, just lots and lots of tight curves. That makes driving it quite fun. But it is still a multi-lane motorway so we left it as soon as it was feasible and took some really minor local roads (in places controlled by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation) and headed north towards the Flathead Lake.

On our way we encountered the unique landscape of Camas Prairie. This distinct geographical region is a treeless and open area in an otherwise heavily forested and mountainous region. Its name comes from the Camassia plant which was once widely used by the Native Americans and the first white settlers as a food source. But now it is a place dominated by ranching. The landscape is somehow similar to the Great Plains with the exception of mountains visible in all directions and it all looks spectacular, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is getting lower. Late in the day is also the best time to examine the giant ripple marks visible from the Montana Hwy 382. These marks are essentially the same forms as the ripple marks you can see on a sandy bottom of a typical stream, or on a beach. The difference is the size as rather then mere inches here they measure 25 to 50 feet (7.6 to 15.2 m) high and 300 feet (91m) long. These rare geomorphological features were created during periodic cataclysmic floods in the last ice age, the same floods which carved the Grand Coulee in Washington state. Camas_Prairie

From the Camas Prairie Valley we headed towards the Rocky Mountains, passing along the picturesque Flathead Lake shore as well as through the suburban sprawling mess of Kalispell, which is the largest town in this part of the state. Then we finally stopped for the night in a small town right at the foothills of the Rockies. At the first motel we checked we were slightly put off by a skeleton, albeit plastic, hanging on the front porch. Sure, Halloween was just around the corner but the proprietor just didn’t fill us with confidence either.

The following day we started early as we really wanted to explore the Glacier National Park. Upon arrival at the gates of the park we learned that admission was free as it was National Public Lands Day. It was second time it happened to us, a couple of years ago we got in for free to the Grand Canyon National Park, both times it was an absolutely unplanned bonus saving.

Lake_McDonald_Lodge_1Our first stop inside the park was a loo stop in the beautiful Lake McDonald Lodge which, as the names suggests, is located on the banks of the namesake lake. It is a great example of the grand hotels built in a rustic resort style by the railway companies at the beginning of the 20th century to promote tourism in the American West. It might be not as grand as the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone but it is still an impressive building with its heavy timber frame (made of crudely finished logs), three-storey high lobby (where the timber frame is purposely exposed) and large stone fireplaces. It opened in 1914 and guests initially arrived there by boat. That explains why its current main entrance (from the parking lots) is somehow subdued in comparison as the road only reached it in 1921. The interior decoration, with skins and taxidermy mounts of native species might not be to everyone’s taste but overall the building is quite fun place for a short stop.Lake_McDonald_Lodge_Lobby

The best way to see the dramatic scenery of the park (without hiking for days) is to drive the spectacular, and aptly named Going-to-the-Sun Road. This is an absolute engineering marvel, a 50 miles long road, climbing all the way to the elevation of 6,646 feet (2,026 m) at Logan Pass where it crosses the Continental Divide. The road is narrow and winding, with tight hairpin turns, resembling narrow mountain roads in Italy or Spain more than anything in the US. However, built between 1921 and 1932 it is one of the first National Park Service projects specifically intended to accommodate the automobile-borne tourists which is as American an idea as it gets.Going_to_the_Sun_Road

We drove slowly uphill, stopping multiple times to admire the views and to take photos until we finally reached the top of Logan Pass.

Rocky_MountainsHere we decided to stretch our legs. First we chose to take the Highline Trail. It is about 18 miles long so we decided to follow it a bit and then backtrack. Luckily the most spectacular section stretches right from the Logan Pass. Here the trail follows a narrow ledge along the so called Garden Wall area, one of the most scenic areas in any national park in the US. In most places the ledge, hanging like a shelf, is only three to six feet wide, and has drop-offs of roughly a hundred feet or so down to the Going-to-the-Sun Road below. It is not a place for those who are scared of heights but it offers amazing vistas with no climbing involved as the trail is almost level. A perfect combination if you ask me; beautiful wild scenery and a bit of thrill but no sweat (unlike for example the also spectacular but extremely tiring Angel’s Landing trail in Zion NP). We walked for a while until we got stuck behind a group of hikers who got stuck behind a pair of mountain goats. As we passed the most spectacular part of the trail, rather than continuing slowly along we decided to head back to the main visitor centre at Logan Pass and try another trail from there.Highline_Trail_1

This time we chose the Hidden Lake Trail which, as the name suggests, leads to a lake. It slowly climbs via a series of boardwalks (to protect the fragile plants on the meadows) for 1.5 miles until it reaches an overlook offering a fine view of the lake and the surrounding amazing alpine scenery. The lake itself is a further 1.5 miles away but as the weather was threatening rain we decided to go back from the overlook.Hidden_Lake

Once we reached our car and were on our way out of the parking lot we got caught in one of the “bear jams”. As there was a bear, just a few hundred feet from the road, everyone was slowing down to see it and snap some shots. Of course we did the same. Luckily a park ranger was organizing the traffic to avoid a total standstill. It was a perfect end to our time in the highest part of the park. We saw a bear but from the safety of our car rather than on a trail (there were warnings about bear activity along the Highline Trail).

From Logan Pass the road heads east, dropping in elevation relentlessly until it reaches the end of the Rockies and the beginning of the prairies. It is amazing how sudden the change is. In well under an hour we had left the alpine scenery and threatening moody weather and entered the sunny countryside of eastern Montana, with its vast blue sky and open landscape (a landscape that stretches across several states as far as the Great Lakes, 1500 miles away). The eastern side of the Rockies is much drier and more sunny than their western slopes and it was clearly visible. Pure geography in action.

Overall the Glacier National Park is one of the most spectacular parks I have ever visited. The weather was a bit gloomy and moody, not unlike during our exploration of the Canadian Rockies a few days before, but it actually enhanced the majesty of the mountains. No, we don’t have the postcard-perfect sunny shots but on the other hand the lighting and shadows were constantly changing with every passing cloud, making things more interesting. Also, the dark skies and snow on the mountaintops were a constant reminder that we were in a wild territory. Logan_Pass

Now we only had a short drive north to enter the last region on our itinerary, the Canadian province of Alberta. We crossed the border at one of the small local crossings. No queues, no waiting, just a quick stop and we were back in Canada. More about it next time.