How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been watching with increasing dismay the events on the Korean peninsula. I’d imagine that many of you have been doing the same. Every day seems to bring another development and another ratchetting-up of the rhetoric by one side or the other. You can’t turn on the news now without being confronted by a panel of experts describing in which varied ways the world is now going to end. If you don’t pay much attention you could be forgiven for thinking we’re back in the Cold War again and we all need to start constructing fallout shelters and practising ‘duck and cover’.

Except we’re not. And we need to stop thinking we are. 

I’m lucky enough to only really have any memory of the last few years of the stand-off between East and West that dominated much of the second half of the twentieth century. I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, the re-unification of Germany and someone in what-was-rapidly-becoming Russia standing on a tank and shouting. That’s about it. I struggle sometimes to understand how people kept their minds about them when faced with some of the brinkmanship that occurred in the 1950s and 60s between the two developing superpowers. There were times at the height of the Cuban missile crisis when even those at the top of government were convinced that they may be witnessing the last few days of a pre-apocalypse world. 

But the crisis we face now isn’t that. There isn’t a threat of instant global annihilation and we aren’t all seconds away from being cave-dwellers again. Don’t get me wrong – this is a serious situation with potentially very serious consequences – but it’s not the 1960s all over again. 

I’m firmly of the belief that the only way that the stand-off with the DPRK will be resolved is through the use of diplomacy. It may seem that this option becomes less-likely every day but there is one area of common-ground that every side in this confrontation shares: Nobody wants an open conflict. This area of agreement is small, and perhaps difficult to see at times, but it is a starting point and one that we maybe should be exploiting more than we are.

So why do I think this is the case? Let’s consider each protagonist in turn:

North Korea: There is no-doubt that the DPRK is engaged in a significant amount of sabre-rattling at the moment and seems hell-bent on continuing with its nuclear programme. But why are they doing this? Not as the prelude to an invasion of the south, surely, or an attack on the United States, but more as a way of gaining attention and influence in the world. I firmly believe that the thing that Kim Jong Un is more determined to do than anything else is preserve his family name and associated dynasty. He knows that by providing his country with a credible nuclear deterrent he can ensure that, like the other nuclear-armed states around the world, the territorial integrity of the DPRK can be guaranteed for generations to come. With a nuclear deterrent, his family dynasty will far outlive him. It is a dangerous game he’s playing but both he and his administration must know at an open conflict with the United States would be, in a word, catastrophic. There is no doubt, no doubt, that the United States would win such a confrontation and it would do so by the complete destruction of the North Korean military, infrastructure and government. It would be the end of Kim Jong Un and the end of the ‘paradise’ his family have created. He wants recognition and a guarantee of independence, yes, but I don’t think anything beyond that. 

South Korea: The general belief seems to be that South Korea, supported by the West, would emerge victorious from any direct conflict but only after paying a significant cost in civilian and military lives. Even if the DPKR did not use any nuclear arms in the conflict it has enough conventional weapons to flatten much of Seoul within a few hours of a battle starting. The opinion of those in the know seems to be that hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would die in the first few weeks of any conflagration and that the infrastructure and industrial damage would take decades to recover from. For these reasons alone the South Korean government, much like the North, want to avoid a conflict at any cost. 

The USA: The United States cannot afford to be embroiled in another foreign adventure now, from either a political or economic point of view. As stated above, the USA would ultimately win any confrontation but the cost in men and materials would be extreme. It would require a deployment of forces unlike anything we’ve seen this century and, with the current extreme political divisions at home, the impact of a long, costly and drawn-out conflict could be difficult to predict. In short: The USA has more than enough on its plate domestically at the moment without having to worry about another foreign adventure. 

China: China seems to be a country that is now more focussed on its economic and industrial development than anything else. Any outcome of a conflict between the United States and DPRK would be bad for China and their reluctance to do anything that might result in a further ratchetting of tensions has been clear for all to see over the past couple of years. China have generally opposed significantly tougher sanctions on the North Korean regime due to the concern that they could force the country into a position where it sees itself with no choice but to pursue a military option or undergo a complete economic collapse. 

Japan: In a similar boat to South Korea, Japan would be on the winning side of any conflict but would likely suffer considerably in the weeks, months and years that the conflict dragged on for. They are very much between a rock and a hard place: but even the supposedly untenable long-term position of a nuclear-armed North Korea has to be of preference to a conflict now that could result in Japan itself coming under attack.

The UK: Come on, really? The UK is not a major player in this crisis. We’re under no direct threat and are far, far too wrapped up in our self-created internal problems to be remotely interested in getting involved in what’s going on in East Asia. 


With all the major players wishing to do everything they can to avoid a confrontation we must now all be able to sleep easy in our beds at night. Right? 

Maybe – but there’re three wildcards that I haven’t covered: 

The Delusion of Greatness: There is a risk that the North Korean leadership starts to believe its own propaganda, or this may already be the case. It is possible that the people at the top truly believe that they are the most powerful and prosperous country in the world and can take on all comers. It wouldn’t be the first time that an administration has existed completely detached from reality (think the Nazi inner circle in the final months of the Second World War) and, if that is the case, everything I’ve said above about North Korea above is effectively nullified. 

Trump: This man is not fit to lead a country. The more I see of him the more it becomes apparent that he is a man who is entirely obsessed by himself and his ‘brand’ and someone who is completely out-of-his depth in his new role. There are numerous commentators in the US now who are openly talking about the 25th Amendment and if the evoking of it is something lawmakers should be considering (declaring the president not of sound mind). While it is nigh-on-impossible to see a situation where the US Government as a whole would start a conflict with North Korea, with Trump you just don’t know. What if at 3am in the morning, after one of his five-hour stints of watching cable news, he rings up his generals and tells them to do what the man on the television just said and launch a first strike? They’d have no choice but to comply – otherwise they’d technically be carrying out a military coup…

Russia: I think Russia is the only county that can gain from a conflict on the Korean peninsula and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were already up-to-their necks trying to manipulate and provoke the situation. Any conflict which destabilises and fractures the West plays into helping their policies in Eastern Europe. 

 So what do I think will happen next? 

There’ll be more missile launches, more nuclear tests and more condemnation from the international community. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a situation soon where the US adopts a policy of ‘military containment’ and attempts to down any missile launched in the direction of Japan or Guam. But I think ultimately everyone will have to get round the same table and start conversations with that common point: “none of us want a war”, and see what develops.  

If history has shown us nothing else it’s that reconciliation between once blood-sworn enemies is possible, if we only give it the time, commitment and patience.


The Big Apple Market Eclipse

(Or: What happens when an international army of eclipse watchers descends on small-town USA). 

The first few evenings of my trip to the states were spent trying to figure out where it would be best to watch the eclipse from. There were a number of factors that fed into this, some of which I’ve previously discussed. It had to be somewhere that was as close to the centre of the totality shadow as possible while not being next to a major population centre. Spring City, Tennessee, had always been near the top of the list but, as the day approached, it became clear that quite a large number of people were having similar thoughts. I spent more time than I’d be happy to admit scouring satellite photos of the town and surrounding area to find somewhere ‘out of the way’ that still had some kind of amenities present. 

There are many stereotypes about Americans that aren’t true, but the one that is is that the average US citizen will always try to park as close as humanly possible to their intended destination. This simply seems to be a cultural thing that isn’t helped by the fact there are very few sidewalks (read: none) and, in many areas, simply no way of crossing the multi-lane highways that doesn’t involve closing your eyes and hoping for the best. For this reason I was working on the theory that the town centre of Spring City would be packed with people and their cars / trucks / RVs. Now I use the term ‘town centre’ very loosely. Get any images of open squares and town halls out of your minds: Spring City is a small, very small, settlement in rural Tennessee. It has a population of less than two-thousand and the ‘town centre’ is essentially a large intersection with a number of gas stations and restaurants surrounding it. The estimates for the day were that anywhere between fifteen and sixty thousand people would be descending on this town – and all of them would likely drive straight to that central intersection and set up shop. 

The eclipse, however, hadn’t taken Spring City by surprise. From looking online beforehand it was clear that a lot of local thought had gone into what was going to happen on the day and how the community could best benefit from the celestial event. The town’s ‘veteran’s park’ and a number of surrounding fields had been set aside as a viewing area and the school bus fleet was being commandeered for the day to bring people in to the viewing area from a number of designated ‘parking areas’ on the outskirts of the town. One of these parking areas was a large gravel area and field surrounding the ‘Big Apple Mart’ grocery store and gas station to the north of the town. I decided that this was where I would go: It was out of the way, had a source of coffee and was also dead centre on the line of totality. I could either stop and view the eclipse from there or get one of the busses into the official viewing area. 

I’d noticed over the previous days, while driving around the Smokey Mountains, that the closer you got to the path of totality of the eclipse the more enterprising the locals became in taking advantage of the business opportunity. Everywhere you looked there’d be signs advertising eclipse glasses for sale, RV parking and hook ups or, at the most basic, a drive to park your car on. As the day of the eclipse got closer the costs associated with each of these options seemed to rise. As an example: Eclipse glasses were available for $2 online a few weeks before the event. By the day before the eclipse the cheapest you could get them locally was $10 and, on the day itself, there were people selling them for upwards of $25. 

As I approached Spring City on that cold, clear morning it was clear that the locals had kicked the entrepreneurial spirit up to another level. I had to drive through the centre of the town (albeit at 6am) to get to where I was going to park up for the day and almost every house had a sign outside of it proclaiming some eclipse service for a fee. I think the best one I saw (and honestly, I kid you not) was a house that had set up a double water-bed on the front lawn. For $50-a-head you could lie on the water-bed for the duration of the day and watch the eclipse while being waited on hand-and-foot by the house’s inhabitants. I loved the fact that they were advertising it on a ‘per head’ basis. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to go back at the end of the day and see just how many people they’d managed to cram onto that water-bed!

The ‘Big Apple Market’, where I parked up at just after 6am, had also been thinking about the eclipse for a while. They had set up a dedicated parking are in their gravel lot, with small marques where you went to pay the parking charge of $5 and could also buy bottles of water, eclipse glasses and custom-printed ‘Big Apple Market Eclipse’ t-shirts. While the owners had obviously been planning for the event I think they were still taken back by the scale of it. From 7am onwards there was a constant stream of cars, trucks and satellite tv wagon racing down the single-track road that led into the centre of town. The parking lot at the ‘Big Apple Market’ soon filled up and they had to expand operations into the nearby field. 

The small grocery store, that usually only catered for a couple of weary truck-drivers each day, had a queue out the door from 7am until the time of the eclipse itself. The first time I went inside to buy a coffee and some food the cashier at the till was telling everyone how she’d just had a man in who’d driven ‘all the way from New Hampshire’. Her reaction when I told her that I was from ‘England’ was a mixture of shock and disbelief. When the family two-behind me in the queue announced they’d come from South Africa I think it was all a bit too much. 

As the day went on and people kept flowing into the town other business and homeowners started wanting to get in on the money-making act. Opposite where I had parked there were a couple of timber houses and a small church and parking lot. The owners of these properties had been sitting outside on their verandas watching from their rocking chairs as car after car paid $5 to park behind the ‘Big Apple Market’. By about 10am they’d had enough: They gathered themselves together, had quite a lengthy discussion, and then went indoors. 

Ten minutes later they returned with several large pieces of cardboard advertising parking for sale and a megaphone. For the next hour we were all treated to a comprehensive but repetitive sales pitch about why anyone driving past should pay to park in the church parking lot. Some of the better lines were: 

“Sunrise to sunset, we’ve got parking here!”

“We’ve got all y’all parking needs here. Anything you want. You park, we provide.”

“Oh come on sir, it’s for a good god!”

“Why do y’all keep forsaking god’s parking?”

Over the course of the hour they manged to attract a grand total of zero takers for their paid-parking scheme. Now I’m not an economist, or marketer, but there were a number of small factors that may have contributed to this: 

  1. The man holding the cardboard sign advertising parking in his right hand was holding a large shotgun in his left. 
  2. Their starting (and only) price for parking was $10. They went with this despite the fact that there was a large field’s worth of parking on the other side of the road being advertised for $5 a car. Every time the men started complaining over the megaphone about the lack of customers there’d be a chorus of ‘lower the price!’ from my side of the street. 
  3. The two men doing the sales pitch were wearing nothing other than shorts and baseball caps. Compare this to the marquee set-up that was in operation at the ‘Big Apple Market’ complete with school-bus transit and marshals (who were mostly school-children) wearing branded t-shirts. 
  4. The parking lot being offered by the church-housing collective was, well, not really a parking lot. It was more a holding yard for transient scrap vehicles. In fact I think if anybody had parked there they would have come back from the eclipse to have been greeted by their car on bricks and stripped of all working parts. Either that or simply the question: ‘What car?’. 

Eventually it dawned on these men that their business model was, maybe, not a goer so they retreated back to their verandas muttering about people ‘not knowing a good offer when they saw one’. They watched as more and more trucks turned into the parking lot and field opposite and the area became a patchwork of trucks with tailgates open, small marquees, telescopes and BBQs. As the sky started to darken they advanced out from under their verandas to get a glimpse at what was going on. At this point the ‘Big Apple Market’ had the last laugh, despatching two of their branded school-children to sell some marked-up eclipse glasses to their former rivals on the other side of the street.




Please Don’t Feed the Wildlife

A couple of road trips ago I visited the state of Wyoming with the primary aim of seeing Devil’s Tower and then heading into Yellowstone National Park. When I arrived at Devil’s Tower I parked up the car and decided to go on one of the walking trails around the base of the tower. Having been brainwashed by the film ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ I half expected to encounter some aliens on my trek round, or at least a secret governemnt base. As it was, the paths were near-deserted and, apart from a few individuals who were climbing the side of the tower itself, I seemed to be the only one there. The walk took just over an hour and, once I’d finished it, I dropped in on the visitor centre on the way back to the car. 

As soon as I got into the foyer of the visitor centre I realised why the paths had been so quiet. Apparently the site had recently been overrun by rattlesnakes and visitors were being advised not to go on any of the walking trails until the snakes moved on. I scanned back through my memory and didn’t think I’d heard much rattling on my walk round but it was a stark lesson that I had to remember that I was in a country where a lot of the wildlife was actually quite dangerous. I had to ensure that I checked visitor centres or information boards before going on walks in the future. 


Flash forward to yesterday as I was travelling through Georgia on my way back North. I had decided to stop off at a couple of the state parks en-route and the first one I came to had a large lake, several small rivers and swamps and an old canal system. I parked the car and picked up a walks leaflet from a handy wooden box on the side of a tree. There was a walk that went down the side of the lake, along one of the old canals and then back via a river path. The weather was sunny but not too hot so I set off on the walk. 


Here are some pictures showing the kind of territory I covered:






On the way round I heard calls from many birds that I didn’t recognise and there were several types of fancy heron wandering around on the edges of the lake. In the swamps and rivers there seemed to be lots of movement but I couldn’t make out from what. Numerous exotic insects and dragon flies came to investigate me but they all seemed to be of the flying-but-not-biting kind. Overall it was a very present walk.


I came back to where the car was parked from a slightly different direction. This seemed to be the way that you were supposed to set off on the walk as there were a number of large notice boards and some rest rooms. I had a glance at the notice board and my attention was immediately drawn to the sign below:



Ah yes. Alligators. This is America. And in America the wildlife may fancy you for its dinner. It was Wyoming all over again. I cast my mind back to all the movement I had seen in the swamps…could it have been that I came close to crashing and alligator mud party?


Perhaps even more interesting than the sign above was the one next to it on the board which proclaimed “Please do not feed the wildlife” in large blue letters. It occurred to me that, with alligators among that local wildlife, visitors may not have much choice in whether they end up feeding them or not!


Forgotten City

It looks like I’ve gotten out of the gulf coast region just in time. At the time of writing the media here is awash with reports of the unexpected strengthening of Tropical Storm Harvey into a hurricane and the fact that it will now make landfall in Texas and Louisiana tomorrow, bringing with it winds of over 120mph and 25 inches of rain. The surprise arrival of the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the US since 2005 is perhaps pertinent to the subject of this post. 



Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans back in 2005 with catastrophic results. I’m sure you all remember the pictures of almost the entire city underwater after the levees failed and the stories of the negligent handling of the aftermath by both local and federal authorities. The lack of coordinated response, and general blasé attitude of Washington, is generally credited has being the thing that had the single greatest impact on the presidency of George W Bush. You may remember the pictures of him ‘viewing’ the disaster from 30,000ft on Air Force One while, on the ground below, hundreds of thousands of US citizens were homeless and without food or clean drinking water. 


On Wednesday morning I travelled through New Orleans on my way to Alabama and Florida. I made a decision not to drive through the city centre but instead to go on a route through the suburbs. New Orleans is a popular tourist destination and the city centre will no-doubt reflect this. What I wanted to see was how the rest of the area was faring some twelve years on from the events of Hurricane Katrina. 


The first thing of note as you head into the city proper is that it’s clear that there has been significant recent work carried out on the areas flood defences. The roads in and out cut through large concrete walls which have equally large closable flood gates in them should the need arise. These certainly look impressive but it was obvious that there was still some work to be done as orange construction signs and equipment littered some of the flood gates and concrete structures. 


Driving through the suburbs themselves I was genuinely shocked by what I saw. I think it’s difficult for us in the UK to appreciate the immensity of scale of natural disasters that can befall other parts of the world. The thing that was immediately clear in the New Orleans suburbs is that the impact of Katrina was such that many residents decided to leave the area and never come back. On the roads I drove down around fifty-percent of the houses and business were long-abandoned. Many of them showed the obvious effects of the hurricane with roofs and walls collapsed or heavily damaged. Trees had grown up around and in these ruins and, in some cases, it was as if the area hadn’t been touched since the moment the hurricane struck. Destroyed cars were parked on drives and roofs and walls had been left where they fell. On some buildings, especially the ones made of brick or stone, it was clear that they had been stripped of useful materials after the hurricane had struck. Brick walls had been carefully dismantled and stone blocks removed – presumably to shore up other structures. In areas where an entire street had been abandoned the sidewalk slabs had been lifted and trees were freely growing in the middle of the street. 


When I wrote about Mississippi the other day I remarked on the number of abandoned buildings – but these tended to be old structures that had simply failed the test of time. In the suburbs of New Orleans entire city blocks have been abandoned to nature, frozen in time having been destroyed by the hurricane with no effort made to rebuild or replace them. Occasionally there were blocks and areas where new structures were in evidence, and it was clear that some regeneration work had gone on, but these were in the minority.


I think the thing that got me was that, as I drove through the suburbs, this picture was repeated. Street after street exhibited the same pattern of destruction and abandonment. Something in your mind expects this kind of thing to be localised, like if there’s a gas explosion or ‘mini tornado’ at home which impacts maybe one end of a street of houses. In New Orleans the whole city took the blow – nothing escaped the impact of the hurricane and subsequent floods. For the second time in this trip I was faced with something that I was struggling to comprehend. 


As I continued to drive through the city and then along the connecting towns on the gulf coast the emotion that came over was one of frustration, and them anger. 


Stop and think about it for a second: Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. That is twelve years ago. Twelve. A long time. But yet large portions of New Orleans look as if it hit last week. While you might be able to understand why this would be the case when a developing country is hit by a natural disaster we are talking about the United States of America here – the richest and most powerful country on the planet. There is no doubt in my mind, absolutely no doubt, that if Katrina had struck a city such as Chicago, Los Angeles or New York then there would be little or no evidence of that disaster left twelve years on. It’s almost as if New Orleans has been forgotten by the rest of the country, or simply isn’t worth the time of day. Yes, the flood defences have been rebuilt and improved, but what exactly are they now defending? 


Imagine how you would feel if you lived in New Orleans. You stayed in the city after the disaster because it was, and always had been, your home. Every day since then however you’ve driven to work past the same ruined buildings and infrastructure watching them decay into nothing. Your neighbours have all moved out, businesses have moved away and you’re now essentially living in a ghost town. No effort is made to rebuild the area in which you live and even some basic services have yet to be restored. In short: Nobody seems to care. 


I think New Orleans is an example of a wider divide that exists, and is growing, in the United States at the moment. If your only experience of the country was a week in New York, or one of the other big northern cities, you would leave with the view cemented that the US is a rich, modern, technologically-advanced and growing beast of a country. If, however, you only visited the gulf coast, or other areas of the ‘Deep South’, you would leave with the view that the US is a country in decline, a country stricken by significant poverty and inequality, where whole towns and cities are now just echoes of what they used to be. You would not for a moment think that the US was anything other than a developing country with not much in the way of resources to spread around. 


About three hours after leaving the area around New Orleans I drove through some of the costal resorts of Alabama and Florida. Here the seafront was covered in expensive  new hotels, apartments and attractions. Piers jutted out into the sea which offered fishing expeditions and jet ski rental. The beach was covered in people enjoying the sun and the parking lots were filled with RVs and trucks with boats attached. It all seemed a bit surreal watching all these people burning money on the finer things in life when, only a few hours earlier, I’d observed a woman walking down her ruined street carrying two large bottles filled with drinking water from a local stand-pipe because, presumably, the water supply to her house had yet to be restored – twelve years after the hurricane. 


If nothing else, the US is a country of contradictions. 




Tennessee Take Note

To prove the point that Tennessee is the exception rather an the rule when it comes to interstate ‘Rest Areas’ (see ‘Chaos Mapped’) here are some examples from other states I’ve passed through. 


A typical Rest Area in Mississippi:



This one had a short walking trail around some archeological remains as well as the usual amenities. There was also a room which contained a pictorial summary of he history of the state. 


Here’s the first Rest Area you come to in Louisiana:



All the door handles in this Rest Area were small brass alligators. There was a tourist information office and every traveler was offered free cup of Louisiana coffee to take with them. 


Finally, here is an example from Florida:



There was a brief walking trail and a large state map display with areas of interest highlighted. 


Maybe I should release a calendar….






Every so often the Sat Nav I use to chart my way round the US decides to throw me a curve ball. It doesn’t happen very often – once every thousand miles or so – and as I’ve now done over 2300 miles on this trip I was well overdue for some Sat Nav shenanigans. It’d made a half-hearted effort the other night when I was in the midst of the heavy post-eclipse traffic on the I-40. It told me that I had to stay in the right hand lane at a flyover intersection when, in reality, my exit lane was the one on the far left hand side. This made for quite an interesting few seconds of driving as I tried to navigate the five lanes of freeway traffic between the right and left lanes, at night, with half-a-mile of notice. 



Don’t get me wrong – it has served me well over the years. I purchased it in a ‘Best Buy’ just outside of San Francisco at the start of the first road trip I did around this country. I figured it was cheaper to spend $80 buying one outright, with a US map installed, then it was to pay the hire car company $9-a-day to rent one. Ever since then it has guided me relatively successfully around forty-seven of the fifty states (only Georgia left of the continental forty-eight now!). 


Today though, it decided to have a bit of fun. Having programmed in the address for the hotel in Live Oak, Florida, everything seemed to be going ok. It took me off at the interstate exit just before the town and then seemed to point me in (what I remembered from the map) was the right direction. I drove down a small highway for a couple of miles and then slowed to make a right turn as directed. Something seemed wrong though as I couldn’t make out where exactly I was supposed to turn into. Slowing even more I saw where it was directing me – down a narrow, one-way, unpaved lane that was only a bit wider than the car. 


I gave the Sat Nav the benefit of the doubt as it has, in the past, sent me down routes that seem very wrong but then turn out to be an unexpected short-cut. I started down the lane and, almost as soon as I did, two things happened:


  1. The heavens opened in spectacular fashion. A thunderstorm had been rumbling away to itself for the past half-hour or so and it picked this moment to kick it up to monsoon mode. It absolutely threw it down. 
  2. A large truck (I think it was a log lorry) turned into the road behind me. There was no way I or he could turn around so I had no option but to carry on. 

After four miles of driving down a lane that was rapidly becoming a river the Sat Nav announced triumphantly that I had reached my destination. I doubted this somewhat as I was now in the middle of a forest. I kept driving for another couple of miles until I reached the end of the lane. I had the option of turning right or left and took a gamble and went right. The truck followed me


Another few miles down this new lane there was a small crossroads where I was able to pull over and let the truck pass. It was clear the Sat Nav was not going to be of much help as its map was obviously incorrect for the region around me. I checked google maps on my phone but there was no signal to speak of. I could vaguely recall where the hotel was in relation to the town so decided to do things the old-fashioned way. In my bag in the boot of the car there was a collection of fold-out road maps for the south western US and a Florida state map. 


It was still absolutely throwing it down with rain, and there was some pretty spectacular lightening, so I grabbed my coat and proceeded to get comprehensively soaked while rummaging rough my bag in the boot. I grabbed the maps and dived back into the car. The torrential rain, thunder and tropical climate made me worry that there might be a Dilophosaurus sat in the passenger seat when I returned but I got lucky this time. 


I was able to find out where I was on the Florida state map by tracing the route I had taken from the interstate and comparing this to where I thought the hotel was. The Sat Nav had sent me in completely the wrong direction. By following some more small lanes for just over ten miles I worked my way back to the highway I’d originally turned off and turned back onto the main road. The instant I did the rain stopped and the sun came out. As I drove down the highway towards where the hotel actually was I swear I could hear the Sat Nav quietly chuckling to itself. 


Due South: Mississippi and Louisiana

If you draw a vertical line directly due South from Forrest City in Arkansas you will pretty-much trace the route I’ve done today. I’m currently sat in a hotel on the edge of New Orleans having driven down through Mississippi and western Louisiana. I am now very much in ‘the south’. 

This morning I made a point of avoiding the interstate, primarily because of the experience I had last night but also because you experience a lot more of America if you stick to the old highway and byway network. It may take a bit longer to get to places but it certainly gives you a feel for the state you’re travelling through. Some of the most enlightening moments I’ve had in the US have occurred through stop-offs at places I didn’t know existed but happened to drive by on some out-of-the-way road. The entirety of my drive through Mississippi today was on these types of road but by the time you get down into Louisiana you don’t have any choice but to go onto the interstate to get across to New Orleans. 

I didn’t know what to expect from Mississippi. Like a number of the southern states it’s somewhere that I don’t really know that much about either from a historical or geographic point of view. Everyone knows the river of the same name, of course, but in terms of the state itself I was coming in with a blank piece of paper. 

As a starting point it reminds me more of one of the states ‘out west’ than any of the others I’ve travelled through on this trip because there seems to be that bit more room and an element of ‘big sky’ going on. (Much of what I’ve driven through in the past few days has been quite heavily forested in one way or another). I think this is because much of the state was cleared to allow the construction of huge plantations, which are everywhere you look and immense in their size, even by US standards. Apart from the obvious (lots of fields) the plantations are characterised by their grand boundary walls, gates and entranceways and, of course, large mansions. It is clear that there used to be a degree of competition between the different plantation owners as to who could have the grandest house but, to be honest, it all looked a bit tasteless to me. The mansions are all generally made of white stone and are surrounded by reams of white columns supporting porches, verandas and walkways. In contrast the surrounding plantations and supporting buildings are very basic, and in some cases falling into a state of considerable disrepair. 

‘Disrepair’ is a word that could be used to describe fair chunks of the state, if you were being uncharitable. As I headed south today there was a notable drop-off in the quality of the roads and abandoned buildings (and indeed whole towns) on the roadside became more common. Because the US is geographically huge, you often see examples of buildings or infrastructure simply being replaced rather than repaired, with the old example being left to the weeds. In pretty much every town I went through there were at least three abandoned gas stations quietly decaying. These hadn’t been abandoned because there wasn’t a need for them anymore but simply because they got too old. In some towns you’d see four generations of gas station all sitting next to each other. The first would be from the sixties, and basically a ruin. Next to it would be a slightly-less-decayed version from the seventies, then one from the nineties and finally the modern, functioning incarnation. It’s interesting from a historical point of view but I’m not sure how I’d feel about it if I lived in the town. This phenomenon isn’t only limited to gas stations either. There were examples of grocery stores, garages, post offices and houses where this also seemed to have happened. Over time you can kind of imagine the whole town moving slowly down the road. 

The same thing happens with the infrastructure. There was was a particular instance today where a ten-mile stretch of the highway had been upgraded. Rather than modify and repair the existing road however the new road was built next to it, bridges and all, and the traffic transferred over. The old road was then abandoned and left to nature, complete with its supporting buildings, traffic lights and signage. You end up driving along the new road spending most of your time glancing over to your right at this post-apocalyptic scene of miles of abandoned infrastructure. I suppose if you’ve got the space then you might as well use it. 


As soon as I entered Louisiana there seemed to be water everywhere. To be fair I’ve only seen the western tip of the state so far but lakes, rivers and flooded forests definitely seem to be the theme. The water was a muddy brown colour, rather than the regular blue, and the Mississippi River also put in an appearance. The interstate into New Orleans is suspended on concrete stilts over this wetland for well-over ten miles and the parallel railway line was sat for a similar distance on a very old and rickety-looking wooden trellis structure. Coming into New Orleans by this route you start to get an appreciation of how isolated by the water the city is, and how exposed it must be when a severe storm does occur. 

Tonight I had Gumbo for dinner, the first time I’ve tired this chicken and sausage spicy broth that is synonymous with New Orleans (it’s very nice!), but I decided not to indulge in the fried alligator meat which was also on the menu. Firstly it was very expensive but secondly I was somewhat concerned that if I happen to run into an alligator in the next few days, having eaten one of its relatives might not the best starting point for a constructive relationship. Alligators are not known for their forgiving nature. And they have quite a few teeth. And armour. 


Tomorrow I’m heading through the city of New Orleans and then along the coast towards Florida. I’m hoping that the tropical storm that is forming in the gulf holds off.







Chaos Mapped


I quite like this summary map of traffic comditions in the US yesterday evening. It highlights where the key traffic problems were at around 6pm EST and, apart from the usual foul-ups in city centres, you can clearly trace the sweeping path of the eclipse across the country by the areas with the most conjestion and highest number of incidents. 

This is particulalry close to my heart as it took me quite a long time to get west across the state of Tennessee yesterday after I escaped from Spring City. There were areas where the traffic didn’t move at all but he main problem was that the traffic on the interstate was constantly very heavy. For an hour or two that’s ok but, after six or seven hours, maintaining the concentration can become quite taxing. This wasn’t helped by the fact that many of the ‘Rest Area’ on the interstate had been closed to prevent them being taken over by eclipse watchers and the one that was open was a) packed and b) a bit of a dump. It’s almost as if the state of Tennessee read the kind words I wrote about rest areas earlier in is trip and said ‘right, we’ll show him’. The one open ‘Rest Area’ was old, falling apart and only had a single functioning vending machine – which stole my money. This didn’t go down particulalry well, particulalry as there was a relatively intense thunderstorm going on at the time. 

I suppose there are fifty states in the union and one of them has to come last in the Rest Area league table. Congratulations Tennessee – you’ve picked up that award. 



There’s a lot from today I could write about and I’ll endeavour to do so at some point before this trip is up. There’s the story of what happened when a tiny American town found itself the subject of an invasion by tens of thousands of eclipse watchers. The tale of how a rural shopping mart, who previously got excited when they got visitors from a city fifty miles way, coped with people from as far afield as Britain, France and South Africa. Or there’s the battle between the enterprising locals to make as much money as possible from the event. It has, however, been a long day. I was up at 4am local time and it’s just gone midnight on the same time zone, although my 367-mile drive to Arkansas down the most truck-infested interstate I’ve ever seen has gained me an hour back. Of sorts. I’m now im the central time zone. 



I can’t go to bed though without at least trying to describe the eclipse itself. So I will try.


I’ll start by saying I was not prepared for this. I do not mean in a sense of getting to Place A by Time B, but in terms of the impact that the eclipse itself had on me. I, along with most of those around me, were physical wrecks after the two-and-a-half minutes of totality were up. It took me a good fifteen minutes to finally stop shaking and a further three hours of driving to actually get my head straight. I knew exactly what was going to happen, how it was happening and when. But the event itself was like being hit by a train. I honestly had no idea. 


I’ll start by saying this: If you ever, in your lifetime, get the chance to witness a total solar eclipse then do it. Just do it. It doesn’t matter if you have to take an international flight, or book a week off work, or sell some of your possessions. Whatever you have to do to get there and see it – make it happen. You will not regret it.




The thing you have to remember about the eclipse itself is that, with the exception of the brief period of totality, the sun in the sky looks like it always does. I’ll say that again: It looks like it always does. I think this is something that is commonly misconstrued, maybe because of those wonderful NASA images that show the moon moving so clearly across the face of the sun. If I were to take you now and plonk you down in the field I was in earlier today on the edge of Spring City, Tennessee, at the point when the sun was 90% obscured, you’d have no idea that was the case. The sun would look like, well, the sun. It’d only be if I let you glipse through the magical eclipse glasses that you’d see (on a tiny-sized version of that NASA image) that there was only a small crescent of the sun left. 


The eclipse lasted three hours in total. Two-and-a-half minutes of totality in the middle and then an hour-and-a-half of transition either side of that. For the first hour of the eclipse nothing much happened. It was a very hot day (over 100F) and a cloudless sky so the only effect you could notice in that first hour was that maybe you weren’t burning as quickly as you were previously. Obviously, if you looked up through the eclipse glasses you could see that the sun was slowly being eaten up by an ever-advancing moon. Such is the power contained in the sun that it can get to having almost two-thirds of it obscured with very little effect. 


Around about an hour in things started going a bit strange. While the sun did not change visually in the sky it’s intensity started dropping off. The best thing I can liken it to is if you compare what the sun feels like on your skin on a hot July day to how it feels on a clear December morning. Over the space of about ten minutes the sun walked backwards through the seasons from July to December and the temperature fell off a cliff. From the hour to the hour-and-a-half point the temperature dropped from 100F to 67F. It was quite something.


So at the hour-and-fifteen mark we were in a situation where the day has been transformed from a high-summer afternoon scorcher to a crisp winter morning. At this point the wildlife had starting waking up as well. The first thing to start going wete the cockerels followed by the songbirds and crickets. Between the hour-fifteen and hour-thirty mark we went through a rapid twilight until it’s basically a bright dusk. At this point there was only the tiniest of slithers of sun left (through the eclipse glasses) but the sun still looked as normal in the sky. So far:as expected. 


And then it happened. 


As that last slither of sun disappeared it was like someone had turned off a light switch. In a split second the sky went from bright twilight to night. Just like that. The star field appeared and the street lights came on. 

And the sun was gone. 

In its place was a black disc, conjured out of nowhere, surrounded by…well, it’s difficult to describe, it really is. I always thought the sun’s corona would be a yellowy-orange colour but I was wrong. It was bright sliver in colour while managing to be actually shiny and glinting, as if encrusted with diamonds. I’ve never seen anything like it in nature before. The colour and effect was staggering. It was incredibly beautiful, but also incredibly ominous. You’ve gone from what looks like a normal sky and sun one second to darkness with what-looks-like a hole where the sun should be the next. The rapidity and magnitude of the change melts your mind. It doesn’t make any sense – it’s not possible for the sky to change that quickly and to that extent. 

In the millions of videos that’ll no-doubt be posted online of the moment of totality I can guarantee you that in every single one there’ll be gasps, shouting, clapping and screams at that moment. This is not because the eclipse happened in America but simply because the experience is so intense. 

If the above isn’t enough, you then have to cope with the fact that you have a three-hundred-and-sixty degree sunrise going on. Because the shadow of the moon is only seventy miles across you can see the light over the horizon outside of the shadow on all around you. So every horizon is a orangey-purple colour, but a colour that is constantly changing in its nature as the shadow moves. 

As the period of totality came to an end a tiny pin-prick of light on one side of the corona started shining brightly sliver – think like the stone on an engagement ring – and then suddenly we were back in the room. Night was gone, the black disc had vanished and the sun looked like it always did in the sky. It was as if nothing had happened. 


At this point everyone started looking around at everyone else. Was it all a dream? 

A fair few people who had been standing up were now sitting down and the majority of the people there were in tears. This may seem a bit weird to you reading this on the train (or wherever it is you read this) but the moment of totality is a ‘does not compute’ moment for your brain. It can’t cope. Every day of your life you’ve grown to understand that things to do with the sun, moon and sky happen slowly. On a clear night you can watch the moon gradually make its way across the sky or you can spend a summer evening watching the sun slowly sink down below the horizon in a blaze of red. To go from ‘normal day’ to, well, a black disc, sliver ring, star field and purple horizon in a click of the fingers knocks you for six. And then some. 

I can see why entire religions, indeed civilisations, were founded and maintained on the back of solar eclipses. The power and majesty of it is completely overwhelming – and that’s for someone who understands what’s going on. 



I know what I’ll be dreaming about tonight…


Planning for the Eclipse

Much of tonight has been spent sat in the hotel bar devising what is going to be something of a military operation tomorrow. With the help of an iPad, an iPhone, and several paper maps of the state of Tennessee I’ve figured out where I want to go and when I need to leave here. It’s early in the morning. Very early.


 There are a number of factors that I’ve had to consider. The weather is the obvious one but that seems to be set for the whole of the state now with blue skies forecast for pretty much all of the day with the chance of an odd cloud later in the afternoon. The eclipse itself reaches totality at just after 2:30pm local time so it looks like all will be ok on that front. Location is also key. The band of totality is no more than seventy miles wide and the closer you are to the centre of that band the better – at the centre you’ll get 2 minutes 30 seconds of totality but, at the edge, you will only get a few brief seconds. What I’ve tried to do is find a small town that is on the centre of that line but away from (large) population centres. By leaving very early I’m hoping I’ll be able to dump the car somewhere near and then walk in to the centre of the town for the eclipse itself. The town in question has a population in the hundreds but is expecting anywhere between ten and sixty thousand people to descend on it and the surrounding area tomorrow. 


That said, accurately judging how busy it’s going to be really is difficult. As there’s never been an eclipse of this scale across the United States in modern times there is no basis for the estimates of numbers. The fact that the band of totality is going across the entire country is perhaps beneficial (spreads the load), but there are still hundreds of millions of people within a few hours drive of the magic band. The major media outlets are predicting ‘carmageddon’ and that all major routes are going to grind to a halt. I’m thinking these predictions may dissuade a number of people from attempting to make the journey.


Whatever happens it’s going to be an interesting day. A solar eclipse is such a rare thing it really is a once in a lifetime event. The temperature will drop by up to twenty degrees during the progression of the eclipse and you basically see a simultaneous sunset on every horizon, coupled with ‘hole in the sky’ and star field above you. It’s supposed to be life-changing so, if this is the last you hear from me before my resurgence as a country music star, it’s been a good run. 


Oh and where a I going to see it? That information is strictly need to know… else the whole internet will descend on the location too!