Americans love water so much that their country must be Cancerian. Their Independence Day is July 4, after all. This spring I made my way westward across the U.S.A., perhaps not as lyrically as Jack Kerouac or Lana Del Rey have, but still easy riding across the physical immensity of these continental States. At one end of my trip was rural lakeside New Hampshire; at the other was the aquamarine Pacific Ocean. It is both a cliché and a truism that America is coast to coast.
My last lakeside visit was more than a decade ago when I visited a Cornell University physicist who was once my college roommate. We drove to Ithaca, located on Cayuga Lake, one of those that comprise the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York. The elongated lakes point away from Lake Ontario and Niagara Falls. Not surprisingly, American lakes are blue and translucent: no bathing buffaloes, no cement factories. Lakes here remind you to go swimming or boating or fishing; or just laze and take in the beauty of the New World. On the way we even stopped at the Corning Museum of Glass, in Corning, New York, famous for Corningware. The Museum is, perhaps intentionally, a surrealist palace of optical illusion; and a must visit. Glass, glassy lakes: something sparkles about America.
San Diego is home to 19 beaches and almost all of them teem with surfers. Photo by: Joe Polillio/the image bank/Getty Images
This April I drove up to my friend Em’s cabin in New Hampshire, on French Pond in Henniker, a lake that was only about a square kilometre big. It wasn’t the first time I stayed at a lake in New Hampshire; during the summer before I went off to college, I spent a week at my friend Craig’s family cabin at Lake Winnipesaukee, at the Lake Shore Camp in Gilford (the commercial centre is Laconia). Lake Winnipesaukee is New England’s third largest lake: about 180 square kilometres. Besides the innumerable barbequed frankfurters and hamburgers, I spent the time either swimming (you had to shower at the public shed before going in) or surreptitiously out on the family’s motorboat that Craig knew to drive. One evening we went as far as Rattlesnake Island, which I had till then mistaken for the opposite shore. Lake Winnipesaukee, after all, has 258 islands. The lake was transparent at our patch, so we had no idea how deep it was when we walked in. At sunset it looked like a TV screen in outer space, filled with orange and blue electronic noise. American liberals really do know how to preserve natural beauty.
This time however I went to Em’s cabin because it was close to the place I needed to visit: Keene, New Hampshire, near the Vermont border. Keene is a small college town, with a population under 25,000—and one of those residents was my high school buddy Richard, who was dying, and whom I went to see. What a beautiful place he spent his last years in. Besides being the town where Jumanji, starring Robin Williams, was filmed, it is laid out with colonial houses (it was settled in 1736) and a town square that reminds you of a Norman Rockwell painting of unspoilt New England heritage: pristine Americana.
A stay at the cabins lining Lake Winnipesaukee is incomplete without hamburgers and barbequed frankfurters. Photo by: Paulbiryukow/iStock
Keene is surrounded by hills and nearby is Vermont, which looks pretty wild from the highways—the natives keep their lands as untouched by blade as possible. It was convenient to stay with Em just under an hour away, at French Pond, where I could spend dawn contemplating the gentle waves lapping the wild shore, in the way that a life travels to its arc’s completion. Families of ducks swam as if swimming were an end in itself, and the occasional blue-headed heron passed low over the centre of the lake before returning to its nest, perched high on a pine. It is a wonder how much nature Americans get to chew on. America is a place where you could simply get off the tourist track and wander anywhere and still find somewhere to explore and contemplate.
After Richard passed away, I visited my daughters in San Diego. I went from lakes to an ocean. The best anyone can do in writing about the Pacific Ocean is to surf on the foam of one’s own speechlessness. Mrinalini, my elder daughter, took me for a hike on the oceanside Torrey Pines State Reserve, north of La Jolla, and one thing about the Southwest U.S. is that whenever you trek, you encounter the omnipresent cactus. Cactii come in all sizes and weird shapes—as if they were people from different cultures arriving at New York’s airports. Or like the people on their mid-morning jog through Torrey Pines. The reserve has a variety of trails leading up to the bluffs overlooking the magnificent Pacific.
From rallies in Chicago to California, Donald Trump effigies always look like an improvement on his actual self. Photo by: Stevechristensen/iStock unreleased/Getty Images
Earth’s largest ocean seems to calmly lap up gigantic wave after gigantic wave onto the pebbly beach below. I like to play a game that I’m sure many others do: I look as far as my eyes will travel and catch the white crest of a wave as it forms in the distance and grows while moving shoreward. At this point in life I experience a tinge of sadness where I wonder why I never built on my mathematics degree to study oceanography, instead of becoming a hack. In any case, watching the green waves is mesmerising and it becomes apparent why Californians are so laid-back.
Seeing how much I love the ocean, Mrinalini takes me to some beaches in San Diego. The city is home to 19 beaches and its coastline stretches up to 111 kilometres. We go to the more popular ones—Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla; and everywhere, youngsters are surfing. Watching someone surf is less exciting than actually surfing. “I’m going to learn to surf,” Mrinalini announces. She then shrieks because a tern waddles towards us in inquiry. I think about the cities I have lived in with beaches—Chennai and Mumbai—and though the hidden ones on East Coast Road (south of Chennai) are a treasure, the public ones would be so much better if they were litter-free like California beaches. And here, everyone walks around unabashedly in chappals.
The Corning Museum of Glass is a must-visit for the sheer variety of objects it displays, like these 19th-century whisky bottles. Photo by: James L. Amos/Science source/Dinodia photo library
One morning the daughters—Mrinalini and Anya the activist—and I go out to watch whales. We go about 17.6 kilometres into the ocean, and the waves are so huge that our vessel, The Privateer, a double-deck whale-watching boat bounces high into the air, causing the girls, and most of the other guests, to vomit their breakfast. Much of the three-hour journey was spent on top of an underwater canyon, waiting for the whales that hang out there, but they refused to show up. (I suspected they were right under the boat, following us around surreptitiously.) We did see some sea lions and we did get a coupon for a free trip again, but I don’t think the vomiteers are going back.
There’s one day I avoid the beach: April 22, Earth Day, when Mrinalini has to lead a women’s hackathon north of the city. Since San Diego abuts the border with Mexico, Anya the activist and I plan to visit Tijuana. But I can’t take my rental car across the border, and in any case, as Mrinalini says, “Tijuana is like Delhi, all built up.” The real Mexico is further in, requiring a separate holiday, and I no longer get excited by the prospect of entry stamps on my passport. So instead, Anya the activist and I decide to explore the embarcadero (the marina located downtown) and perhaps go out to the Coronado Island where the naval base is. We take selfies and scratch our heads at a Falun Gong stall.
A hike to Torrey Pines State Park is dotted with cactii that come in all sizes and weird shapes. Photo by: Mrinalini Sinha
Suddenly we see people walking with banners. They are arriving from all directions: women, men, children and even dogs. They are converging at the San Diego City and County Administration Building (alias the civic centre), yet another structure that reminds me of the TV series Breaking Bad. Anya the activist and I decide to join the crowd and suddenly we’re surrounded by around 15,000 Californians who are annoyed with President Donald Trump and his rejection of climate change, his rejection of General Science, and his rejection of intelligence generally. I see a dog in a white lab coat; I see effigies of Trump, which incidentally are always an improvement on his actual self; I see all sorts of genius signs: “The oceans are rising and so are we,” “I’m with her” (pointing to an icon of Mother Earth), “Keep your tiny hands off our data” (my favourite), “Atoms make up everything, just like Trump” and many more. Americans are truly inventive. The rally, held in cities across America, was the ultimate in people-watching; and that’s exactly the point of tourism—to see people, as well as nature and monuments.
It is a morning well spent and afterwards we treat ourselves to a tasty soup and sandwich up in the hipster section of San Diego, North Park (where there’s even a deli and health foods shop for dogs and cats). And the next day, it was back to the beach.
Everywhere you go in California there is a place to just bask in the sun and watch people. In a way it is a counterpoint to the East Coast, where everything looks to the past, because on the West Coast, everyone is trying to invent the future. And that’s the thing about America—every single patch of it is a fascinating study of people and nature. It truly is the land of milk and honey, from sea to shining sea.
is the author of The CEO Who Lost His Head (2017), Death of Dreams: A Terrorist’s Tale (2000); Farooq Abdullah: Kashmir’s Prodigal Son (1995). He is a regular columnist for Mid-Day, Khaleej Times, and Provoke magazine. He is currently working on a memoir set in lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School in the late 1970s.
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