The Grand Tour Ten Years On—An Ending

Endings are tricky things. Ten years ago, I came to the end of my trip round the world with the most unstructured section of the trip to date. I’d booked my flight home at this stage, so I had an end date, but everything else was booked at the shortest notice I could manage. It’s probably not surprising that my memories of those last few days are a bit confused. And that’s absolutely what I’m blaming for being so late in getting around to writing about it.

The train dumped me in Boston late in the day, and I had the scraps of an October afternoon left to wander around in the rain and look at this city with so many ties to Ireland. In truth, I don’t remember much of it beyond the green spaces and the utter disaster that was the remnants of the Big Dig, a decade-plus effort to reroute the city centre highway into less obtrusive tunnels.

An extremely wet Boston evening.

Liz had pointed me to a decent Boston pub, where I’d be able to enjoy some craft beer and decent food, and I remember crashing for the night in a city centre hotel room, but my clothes and bags were just as frayed and overused as I was at this stage, so I definitely didn’t stay out too late or attempt any socialising. Instead, I did a brief self-guided walking tour the next morning before heading out to the city airport and my hire car.

The highways of New England were no friendlier to public transport than the streets of Los Angeles, so I’d opted for my own wheels in exploring Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Not that I ventured too far from Boston at first. Salem, New Hampshire, was my main base for the next few days, though I eventually ventured as far afield as northern Vermont, Cape Cod, and Walden Pond.

Post Mills in Vermont, the northern limit of my travels.

New England in the fall is one of those recommended experiences for travellers and locals alike, and even if I was a little late for the best of it, I managed to douse myself in russet and gold woods for the space of a few days. I took a slow tourist train north along the Vermont/New Hampshire border, where the riverside was cast in autumnal hues. I specifically drove along narrow lanes instead of straighter highways when I could, just so as to enjoy the ambiance.

Make no mistake though, this was perhaps the most stereotypically American experience of my trip. I stayed in a motel, I ate breakfast at roadside diners (even drinking coffee so I could get free refills), and I took advantage of every amenity that threw itself in my way. Spotting a Halloween-themed festival in Canobie Lake Park near Salem, I spent an evening among a host of generally much younger revellers, just as I had in Stockholm, two months and thousands of miles earlier.

Ecto-1 in Canobie Lake Park, for that Ghostbusters special experience.

Walden Pond hadn’t been on my radar before the trip, but I knew the story of Henry David Thoreau and his retreat to the wilderness in search of simplicity, so when I came across signs for it on my driving I decided to drop by. The remains of the cabin itself weren’t much to write home about (and Thoreau was far less isolated than he claimed in his writing), but Walden Pond itself was absolutely worth the visit, and I circumnavigated the water itself along paths lined with autumn leaves.

Cape Cod was the last big experience of this part of the trip. A longer drive than any I’d tried since California, it took me all the way out along the point until I found a beach where I could sit and watch the last light of day. I’d been along the East Coast for a while at that point, but it was nice to actually reach the ocean and complete my continental crossing, and I celebrated with a dish of Atlantic clams at the first diner that I found on the way back to the motel.

Looking off towards Ireland from Cape Cod.

The end was rapidly approaching though, and it was time to bring the car back. Unusually for me, I’d booked the car without the need to fill the tank on the return, so I ended up playing a game of chicken with the fuel gauge, which I’m glad to say I won, heading back into Boston and catching the train to New York before the day was out.

New York was a familiar place to me. This was my third visit but my first one solo, and once again I was hosted by some of my dad’s relatives who lived in Manhattan. The time for the flight home was approaching, so I wouldn’t have more than a day or two, and all of that time would be spent under grey skies, but as has always been the case with New York, I enjoyed every minute of it.

Tired and damp but very high up on top of the Empire State Building.

I dropped by the Apple Store cube on Fifth Avenue, which was covered in building materials but still hosted a queue waiting to buy the latest piece of shiny technology. I wandered the length of the High Line linear park, a slice of greenery cutting along an old elevated train line. I even visited the Empire State Building and took the elevator to the top floor, enjoying a view that I’d missed out on during my previous visits.

Mostly I just wandered around Manhattan and through Central Park, but I set aside a day for a treat provided by my hosts: free entry to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Probably the greatest collection of art in the New World, it’s stuffed with not just paintings but pieces of sculpture and more useful items through the whole span of human history. Like museums I’d visited earlier in the trip, like the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, there was an entire day and more of wandering to be done amid its halls.

An Elamite king in a museum that would make any jealous.

A little further south on the island, I saw the camp of the Occupy Wall Street movement, an uprising that has long since faded but didn’t need to be prescient to see the problems that had been growing for a long time and still haven’t lessened. In truth though, what I was mainly doing was just being in New York. Seeking out a state of mind, dragging out the last few hours as departure approached.

In the dying light of a New York day, I took the train to JFK. An entire life experience was coming to an end, though I knew there were all sorts of new things beginning. A new impulse to travel, a new direction for life. Ten years of life began as that trip ended, and if things are moving differently now, it’s just the next step in the process.

A last meal for the travelling man. Pizza, beer, and garlic bread.

There would be a final flight from London to Dublin when I landed, and I would see the shores of Ireland under grey clouds as October drew near a close. My parents would be waiting for me when I landed, to welcome me and hear all the stories. But the trip ended there in JFK, eating pizza and drinking beer bought with the last of my dollars, thinking back on everything I’d been through. Everything else was wrapping up.

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