Civil War destruction . . . genebank redemption

A couple of months back, I enjoyed an excellent 672 page biography of Confederate Major General Thomas J ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Written by SC Gwynne in 2014,  Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson is an account of Jackson’s theatre of operations in Virginia (and in those areas that became West Virginia after it broke from Virginia in 1863), which centered on the Shenandoah Valley, a region just north of where Steph and I travelled across the Appalachians in June this year.

Jackson’s death (from pneumonia after he was wounded in the arm by friendly fire) following the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia from 30 April to 6 May 1863 is perhaps among the most significant ‘What if’s’ of the American Civil War. Stonewall was undoubtedly one of the Confederacy’s most successful generals, and history is left to ponder what the outcome of the Civil War might have been had he lived longer, and his success rate against Union forces maintained.

Steph and I saw evidence of the conflict, the to-ing and fro-ing of opposing forces, when we visited the Pinnacle at Cumberland Gap on the borders between Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Successive Union and Confederate forces fought over and continually swapped possession of this key passage through the mountains.

And now I have just finished another book, Noah Andre Trudeau’s 2008 Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea (at 671 pages) based in large part on the personal accounts of officers and men among the 60,000 who took part in the November-December 1864 campaign in Georgia (the Empire State of the South) led by Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, from Atlanta to Savannah, 250 miles to the southeast on the Atlantic coast. They were divided into different columns, and lived off the land as they moved south, through landscapes that hindered their progress as much as did the continual harassment from Confederate forces on their periphery.

Our 2017 USA road trip began in Atlanta, and paralleled, I now discover, the route of Sherman’s March to the Sea although his route took him further east. His occupation of Savannah (where we stayed for a night), and subsequent move up through South Carolina (just as we did) marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, as Sherman and his superior, Ulysses S Grant, closed in on Confederate capital Richmond in Virginia, and the final capitulation of Confederate forces under General Robert E Lee at the Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

Arriving in Savannah, Union forces found an elegant city of wide, tree-lined boulevards (hanging with Spanish moss) and quiet squares, much as Steph and I did on our trip. Savannah was a delight.

After the end of the Civil War, Sherman’s ‘exploits’ in Georgia were immortalised in Marching Through Georgia, composed by Henry Clay Work.

To me, three aspects of the Civil War stand out. This must have been one of the first wars in which an extensive railway network transported troops and supplies over long distances. In Georgia, Sherman’s troops ripped up hundreds of miles of railway tracks on their March to the Sea. Second, the electric telegraph was an essential (but not always available) system of communication between armies and civilian administrations. Thirdly, the war must also be one of the first to be documented in detail photographically. New York-born Matthew Brady was one of the earliest photographers in the country, renowned for his Civil War output.

Having criss-crossed this region and the southern Appalachians myself, I remain in awe of the feats undertaken by both Union and Confederate armies, tens of thousands of men marching across some of the most difficult terrain, under the most adverse weather conditions, and then having to face each other in battle. The casualties on both sides were catastrophic, the wounds inflicted unimaginable, and rudimentary surgery and medical care often leading to as many deaths after the battles as during them. Conditions in camps were frequently squalid, and diseases were rife. In fact, as many soldiers may have died from disease as on the battlefield.

So what has this whole saga got to do with genetic resources? Let me explain. In an earlier post about crop diversity, I’d commented on soldiers’ accounts of the ‘corn fields’ which they passed, the long-strawed varieties grown, and through which they trampled during the Battle of Waterloo.

In their commentaries during the March to the Sea, Union soldiers were fortunate to live quite well off their foraging activities. In fact, this was part of Sherman’s overall strategy, although backed up with sufficient supplies and beef-on-the-hoof for about five to six weeks, and his calculations based on an understanding of the agricultural economy of the region through which his army would pass.

Soldiers report dining on hogs and chicken, potatoes and sweet potatoes in abundance, peanuts, rice, molasses and honey. I think that, in general, ‘potatoes’ probably refers just to sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) rather than so-called Irish potato, Solanum tuberosum. It interesting to note how important were three crops not native to this southeast region of the country, nor the USA in general: sweet potatoes (from the Asia-Pacific region), peanuts from South America, and rice from Africa and Asia.

This was, of course, a slave-based economy. Without slave labour, the growing of cotton and rice would have been almost impossible. In antebellum Georgia (as in South Carolina) rice cultivation was very important since the early 18th century. As Sherman’s armies approached Savannah, they encountered rice paddies more frequently. Some had standing crops which they harvested and processed in numerous rice mills once they got them operational again. Other rice paddies, closer to the city, had been flooded (perhaps also with brackish or salt water) and were formidable barriers to infantry. Crossing these wide open landscapes, deep in mud, attacking Union troops were clearly exposed to Confederates entrenched behind carefully-sited defensive lines.

On Monday 19 December 1864, during a manoeuvre on difficult terrain to cross over the Savannah River into South Carolina, one soldier from Massachusetts wrote: We came across rice fields all cut up with ditches from 1 to 10 ft wide, which we had to get over as best we could; part of the way was through rice as high as our heads & all wet with dew. Clearly not a modern HYV! So what could this rice be?

It was probably Carolina Gold, a variety originally thought to have been introduced into South Carolina and Georgia from Madagascar¹. The slaves, many from West Africa, knew all about growing rice, since there is an indigenous rice culture in that part of the continent.

Rice paddy (of Carolina Gold?) near Savannah, GA

Rice cultivation went into decline after the Civil War, due to many factors including the destruction of paddies, reluctance of emancipated slaves to take on this work, and other global trade pressures. Other parts of the USA became important rice-growing areas, such as California, southern Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. By the 1940s Carolina Gold was hardly in cultivation anywhere. Was it lost? Not completely.

In the 1980s, a eye doctor from Savannah by the name of Dr Richard Schulze (and a keen duck hunter) discovered that seeds of Carolina Gold were held in a USDA collection at Beaumont in Texas (the USDA’s rice collection is now held at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center-DBNRRC- in Stuttgart, Arkansas). Scientists at Beaumont multiplied seeds of this accession, sending Schultze some 14 pounds of seeds. By 1988, these had been multiplied to 10,000 pounds. Carolina Gold is now grown quite widely, among other heirloom varieties.

There is even a Carolina Gold Rice Foundation whose mission is to advance the sustainable restoration and preservation of Carolina Gold Rice and other heirloom grains and raise public awareness of the importance of historic ricelands and heirloom agriculture.

In October 2010, my former IRRI colleague, Tom Hargrove (who passed away in January 2011) writing for Rice Today about two varieties of rice, Carolina Gold and Carolina White, found along the banks of the Amazon in northeast Peru, conjectured that they were taken there by Confederados, people from the southern US who moved to Brazil around the time of the Civil War. The rice, called Carolino by local farmers, was found by CIAT rice breeder (and an old friend of mine), César Martínez.

When I checked the Genesys database, I found 19 accessions with the name Carolina Gold, in the USDA collection and in the International Rice Genebank Collection at IRRI. Most have available seeds. The accessions at IRRI are duplicates of USDA accessions. Some are breeding materials or selections. I wonder which one was provided to Richard Schulze? In any case, even though they have the same Carolina Gold name, I wonder how genetically distinct they are from one another.

Once again, my interest in the American Civil War (and history more generally) has come together with my other ‘obsession’, the conservation and use of plant genetic resources.

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¹ Just after I posted this story earlier today, one of my friends from the Crop Trust, Luigi Guarino, Director of  Science & Programs at the Crop Trust, told me that he had also posted something about Carolina Gold in the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog in November 2007. He was commenting on a paper by Anna McLung (Director of the DBNRRC) and a colleague who used molecular markers to assess the affinity of Carolina Gold with other germplasm from Africa. It seems it was more closely aligned with germplasm from Ghana than Madagascar, fitting in better with the slave trade links between West Africa and the early colonies on the east coast of the United States. Hargrove refers to a Madagascar origin for Carolina Gold, and was obviously not aware of the paper by Anna McLung.

And it seems there’s more to be found about Carolina Gold from a whole slew of stories on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 14. On opposite coasts

Steph and I first visited San Francisco in July 1979, en route from Costa Rica (where I was working for the International Potato Center, CIP) to a potato conference in Vancouver, Canada. Then, less than two years later, in March 1981, we were in New York for just a couple of nights. We had passed through JFK in 1975, but not stopped over.

On the west coast
Yes, a potato conference in Vancouver. The 63rd annual meeting of the Potato Association of America where I was to present some of my research on the control of a bacterial disease of potatoes¹. We were taking advantage of CIP’s spouse travel policy for Steph to accompany me, as did our 15 month old daughter, Hannah.

In 1979 there were no direct flights to San Francisco from Costa Rica; that still appears to be the situation today. The most direct routing was via Guatemala City to Los Angeles on Pan Am, and then a ‘local’ connection on to San Francisco. Pan Am used Guatemala City as their Central America regional hub in the 1970s.

As we lived in Turrialba, about 86 km west of San José’s Juan Santamaria Airport, we must have left for the airport in the early hours to catch the morning flight.  It was a bit of a hassle in Los Angeles, going through immigration and customs, and transferring terminals. Thankfully, Hannah was mostly a good flier and, as I recall, we had an uneventful journey.

I’d made a hotel reservation in the center of San Francisco, but had wanted to stay at another, the Hotel Beresford on Sutter Street close by Union Square. In those days there was no online booking, of course. So, it wasn’t until we arrived in San Francisco that we discovered the Beresford was just a couple of blocks away, and so transferred the next day. My parents had stayed there when they visited San Francisco on their once-in-a-lifetime post-retirement trip to the USA in 1976.

Mum at the Golden Gate in summer 1976

I think my elder brother Ed had also stayed at the Beresford when he was doing part of  his PhD research in the San Francisco area. It came highly recommended, and we certainly felt more comfortable there than our first hotel.

So. You’re in San Francisco for the first time. What do you do, remembering, of course, that anything we planned had to take into account the eating and sleeping needs of a small child? Wandering around the Union Square district we opted for a Gray Line bus tour of the city, taking in a crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County among other sights.

Otherwise, we wandered around on foot, or took a taxi to specific places we thought would be interesting. And of course there was the requisite tour of the bay around Alcatraz Island and its former penitentiary, a wander around Fisherman’s Wharf, and dinner on Pier 39.

Too soon, our short visit to SF was over and we headed north to Vancouver, the next leg of a journey that would take us also on a road trip from Vancouver to Edmonton, Alberta, a flight to Madison, Wisconsin and a side-trip to the USDA’s potato station in the northeast of Wisconsin at Sturgeon Bay, before returning to Costa Rica via Chicago O’Hare and Miami International.

The Big Apple
In March 1981 I resigned from CIP having accepted a lectureship at The University of Birmingham. Although we could have flown directly back to the UK, we planned to travel via New York. We held a bank account with Citibank in New York, and wanted to close that account, withdrawing our savings for transfer to the UK. That meant visiting the bank, completing all the necessary paperwork, then walking out of the bank with a bank draft.

It’s remarkable how smoothly everything went. I’d obviously advised the branch president (manager) of my visit. In those days it was still possible to have personal contact with someone in the bank, and she told me to ask for her when I arrived at the branch. I headed off to the bank first thing in the morning, and was waiting for. She had the forms ready for me to sign, and while she personally transacted the paperwork through the system, gave me several cups of coffee while I waited. After about 45 minutes, I guess, she came back with the cheque, and I went away several thousands of dollars to the better.

That left the rest of the morning and afternoon for sight-seeing, fulfilling two ambitions: a trip to the top of the Empire State Building and a walk round Macy’s. Sight-seeing with Hannah was easier than two years earlier. She was now almost three and seemed to take everything in her stride.

I’m not sure how we came to choose our hotel, on Park Avenue or close by. Maybe the travel office at CIP in Lima had made the booking for us. The name ‘Loew’s Drake’ comes to mind. But from what I can find through a Google search, that hotel ‘The Drake’ would have been beyond my means. Who knows?

We arrived late to New York on a Lufthansa DC-10 flight from Peru, and went straight to bed. The second night we decided to dine in-house. You can imagine my consternation when I sat down and the maitre d’ placed a jacket on the back of my chair. I hadn’t complied with an implicit (but not obvious) dress code, by not wearing a jacket of my own or a tie.

Deaorting for the UK, we took a British Airways flight from JFK to London Heathrow, occupying a row of three seats (window, middle and aisle), with Hannah in between Steph and me. We must have been about 20 minutes into the flight when I heard a British gentleman in the row in front mutter, rather loudly, to his wife that he hoped the little girl behind wouldn’t bother him throughout the flight. I hadn’t noticed until then that Hannah was sitting with her legs out straight, pushing against the back of this man’s seat. I told her to stop immediately, and she didn’t do it again for the rest of the flight. Anyway, I got out of my seat (I was on the aisle) and moved round to face this man, and explained that I hadn’t noticed what Hannah was up to, it would stop henceforth, and I apologised profusely for the inconvenience. You can imagine how gobsmacked I was when he refused my apology. So I just returned to my seat, somewhat nonplussed. One of the cabin crew had seen this unfold, and as she passed, discreetly encouraged Hannah to continue pushing the seat. We had a good laugh at that.

I’ve been back to New York on at least one more occasion since, in the early noughties. It’s a city I’d like to return to and explore more, maybe arriving there on the Queen Mary 2, sailing under the Verrazon-Narrows Bridge, past the Statue of Liberty, and taking in the iconic Manhattan skyline, just as my father did in the 1930s as a ship’s photographer for the Cunard White Star Line. My mother trained as an orthopedic nurse in New Jersey across the river from New York, and watched the Empire State Building being erected in 1930/31. Stories about New York were part of my childhood years.

New York skyline in the early 1930s

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¹ Jackson, M.T. & L.C. González, 1979. Persistence of Pseudomonas solanacearum in an inceptisol in Costa Rica. Am. Potato J. 56, 467 (abst.). Paper presented at the 63rd Annual meeting of the Potato Association of America, Vancouver, British Columbia, July 22-27, 1979.

Ten days, eleven states (6): The mighty Mississippi, or is it?

It’s not even the longest river, as such, in North America. From its source at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota (that we visited in 2016) until the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi is 2320 miles long.

The Missouri, on the other hand, which joins the Mississippi near St Louis, MO, flows eastwards for 2341 miles from its source high in the Rockies of western Montana before it reaches that confluence.

One of the other main tributaries of the Mississippi is the Ohio River, at a mere 981 miles, yet its flow is much greater than the Mississippi, and at its deepest point, near Louisville, KY, it is over 130 feet deep. That’s some river! The Mississippi and its tributaries drain almost half the land mass of the the United States.

The Ohio joins the Mississippi at the southernmost point of Illinois, Fort Defiance, just south of Cairo, an almost abandoned town that looks like it has suffered one flooding event too many over the years.

Cairo was, apparently, the prototype for Charles Dickens’ ‘City of Eden’ in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (which I read recently as part of my 2017 Charles Dickens challenge) published serially between 1842 and 1844. Dickens visited the USA in 1842. He was not impressed with Cairo; neither were we.

We left Cave City, KY just before noon on the Wednesday (Day 8 of our road trip), heading to Troy, IL, and then to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri, Iowa, and southern Minnesota to St Paul. This is our route from Cave City to Iowa City.

Before reaching Fort Defiance, we had already crossed the Tennessee River, which joins the Ohio River near Paducah, KY. Just before Paducah, we turned west and reached the banks of the Mississippi at Wickliffe, just down river from the confluence.

There are two impressive bridges crossing the Ohio and Mississippi. Seeing the enormity of these constructions makes you really wonder at how much an obstacle these rivers were during the westward expansion of the settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today the Mississippi alone boasts more than 130 bridges along its length.

The Cairo Ohio River bridge on the left (5863 feet) and the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge on the right (5175 feet)

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped here in 1803, and it was a strategic location during the Civil War, for obvious reasons commanding the approaches upriver to both the Ohio and Mississippi.

River selfies! We are standing at the tip of Fort Defiance, the southernmost tip of Illinois. Top: the Ohio River, with Kentucky on the far bank. Middle: the confluence of the the Ohio and Mississippi, looking south, with Kentucky on the left bank, and Missouri on the right. Bottom: the Mississippi River, with Missouri on the far bank over the Cairo Mississippi Road Bridge.

Leaving Fort Defiance, we headed north along the Mississippi, on IL3 until Red Bud, when we headed north and skirted around St Louis to the northeast to reach our next stop at Troy, IL.

The following day, the penultimate one of the trip, took us from Troy all the way north to Iowa City, mostly along the banks of the Mississippi. I can’t deny I faced the 43 miles from our hotel on I-270/70 around the north of St Louis with some trepidation. Although it wasn’t quite as busy as I had feared, there was some careful navigation and changing lanes constantly to ensure we headed out in the right direction. Eventually we reached our exit and headed north on MO79, having crossed the Mississippi to cross into Missouri, and then the Missouri River.

Just over 40 miles north from where we left I-70, the road ran parallel to the Mississippi, and just a few meters away. Having been on the road for a couple of hours, and looking for the inevitable comfort break, we stopped in the small community of Clarksville. There’s a lock and a dam at this point on the Mississippi, and just at that moment a large grain barge (probably empty) was moving through on its way north.

Clarksville has been flooded many times, and some of the riverside properties looked as though they wouldn’t be able to sustain yet another one.

At Louisiana, MO (about 36 miles north of Clarksville) we stopped to view the Champ Clark Bridge from a high vantage point. Built in 1928, this bridge no longer has the capacity for the traffic on US54. By the end of 2019 a new and wider bridge will be in place.

In southern Iowa, north of Montrose, we were reminded once again of the great migration westwards, of pioneers seeking a better life, in this case Mormons heading to Utah. In 1846, Mormons were hounded out of Illinois just across the river, at Nauvoo. The river is well over 1 mile wide here.

A bystander told us that the white building on the opposite bank in Illinois was a Mormon temple, now abandoned.

We turned inland at Muscatine, IA to spend our last night at Coralville, a suburb of Iowa City.

The following morning, we continued our route north across Iowa: flat, rather boring landscape, and mile upon mile of maize. Once we crossed into Minnesota, we turned northeast to Winona and the Mississippi once again. To the west of the town, there is access to Garvin Heights Lookout, some 500 feet above the river. What a view, north and south!

In this stretch of the river, it forms a series of wide lakes. North of Winona, we stopped briefly to view Lake Pepin.

Then it was time to push on, and complete the final 63 miles of our epic road trip via Red Wing and Hastings, MN. Leaving the Mississippi at Hastings and pushing westwards to wards St Paul, we finally arrived at the home of our elder daughter Hannah and her family alongside the Mississippi in the Highland area. The final three days were certainly a Mississippi adventure, although I never aspired to be a latter-day Huckleberry Finn.

The video below covers the final three days of our trip from Fort Defiance to the Twin Cities.

 

 

Ten days, eleven states (4): It’s all in the branding

Everyone, every company and organization needs, it seems, a brand. A logo that identifies the brand, and a pithy slogan that suggests orientation, ethos, qualities, aspirations.

Take the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for example, where I worked for almost 19 years. It has a distinctive institution logo, in a defined font and font color, and a branding logo and slogan, that succinctly describes the objectives and mission of the institute: Rice Science for a Better World. I was a member (Chair perhaps, I don’t remember) of the committee that came up with this slogan, and my former colleagues in the Communication and Publications Service (CPS) under Ohioan Gene Hettel, then developed the clever logo below.

In the automobile industry, take Ford for example: Go Further . . .

or Nestlé as an example from the confectionery and food industry.

Branding is a real industry, and there’s a lot of ‘science’ behind adopting and deploying the right brand. Even cities get involved.

US states are not immune. As we travelled around the eleven states on our journey from Georgia to Minnesota in June this year, I took photographs of all the state signs at the state lines (except Kentucky – I had to find its brand logo elsewhere). Each of the eleven (with the exception of North Carolina, Missouri, and Minnesota) had a brief slogan to describe itself, such as Virginia is for Lovers, or Wild and Wonderful (West Virginia).


The one that caught my eye, however, and is (as far as I know) quite famous world-wide, is the Kentucky brand.

What an inspiration! Encapsulating, one would think, two of the things that Kentucky is most famous for: the breeding and racing of thoroughbred horses (viz. the Kentucky Derby) and the distillation of fine bourbon whisky.

But these were not, apparently, the ideas behind the brand. Kentucky Unbridled Spirit means that the state is a place where spirits are free to soar and big dreams can be fulfilled. We relish competition and cherish our champions for their willingness to push beyond conventional boundaries to reach new heights of success.

Kentucky has obviously thought in depth about branding. As it states on its website, and citing a Tufts University study, A brand’s purpose is twofold: One – it serves as a major tool to create product differentiation: and Two – it represents a promise of value. From a consumer’s viewpoint, a brand is – above all – a shortcut to a purchasing decision.

Read more about Kentucky’s branding decisions here. I still see racehorses and whisky, and that not so bad really.

Ten days, eleven states (3): Ambling through the Appalachians

Our journey through the Appalachian Mountains (the main focus of our 2017 road trip in the USA) took almost four days traveling through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.

The Appalachians comprise a large system of mountains and valleys, covering a vast area of the eastern USA, and extending into Canada. We explored just the southern end.

Day 4 began in Greenwood, SC where we had stopped the night after traveling north from Savannah, GA the previous day. Leaving our hotel not long after 8 am, we headed west crossing quite soon back into Georgia and working our way northwest through the Chattahoochee National Forest towards Blairsville, GA.

The winding 35 mile climb on GA60 into the Chattahoochee (map) began at Stonepile Gap. With towering trees either side of the road there were few places to stop or see out over the landscape. One of these however was Chestatee Overlook, where we had a first real view of the rolling—and heavily forested—Appalachians.

We expected to arrive in Blairsville after 5 pm, but we were there by 3:30. Rather than heading straight to our hotel, we decided to make a 50 mile circuit to the north and east of Blairsville, and quite by chance came across the entrance to Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia, at 4784 feet.

There is a steep drive up to the car park, and a shuttle bus takes you up the final (and very steep) final mile to the observation platform. We arrived around 4:30, just in time to catch the final shuttle of the day, but allowing only about 15 minutes at the summit before the last shuttle would depart for the car park. Given the steepness of the descent (14%), and concerns that my right leg might suffer, we opted for the return shuttle. The visit was somewhat marred by several bikers (who were old enough to know better) using the climb to the car park (a couple of miles at least on a winding road) to ‘race’ their very noisy chopper motorbikes. Quite unnecessary really.

However, it was a glorious afternoon, and the 360° panorama afforded views into North Carolina and Tennessee to the north, and probably Virginia to the east. Just imagine what it must look like in September and October ablaze in all its Fall colours.

The following day, Sunday, our destination was Johnson City, TN taking in the Cherohala Skyway (map), a 50 mile scenic route stating at Tellico Plains, TN and ending at Robbinsville, NC.

The day started fine and sunny, and we weren’t disappointed in the Cherohala. Then we headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, crossing south to north (map) towards Gatlinburg, TN on US441. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the park (one of the busiest in the whole of the country), the weather had deteriorated and it was raining heavily. The Smoky Mountains really were smoky. On the off-chance that we would be above the clouds, we took the seven mile diversion to Clingmans Dome on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, the highest point in the Smokies, at 6643 feet.

There was not a lot to see, to say the least. But dropping down towards Gatlinburg, the clouds did lift and we saw something of the Smokies after all.

From Johnson City, we headed next day rather circuitously to Charleston, WV via the Cumberland Gap, and the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

Not long after we headed out, we ran into one of the most intense storms I’ve ever experienced. It was raining so hard I could hardly see in front of the car. We did wonder whether our visit to Cumberland Gap would be a wash out. But the closer we got, the weather started to improve, and the sun was even shining as we arrived at the national park. From the Pinnacle Overlook it was hit and miss, now you see it, now you don’t as the clouds closed in, then cleared. But we did have some wonderful views, nevertheless.

The Cumberland Gap has been a major route through the Appalachians for Native Americans and the Europeans who settled there, and wanted to head west.

Cumberland Gap was a strategic route for both Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War, and exchanged sides from time to time. There are still earthworks high up on the Pinnacle.

The following morning we set off early from Charleston, west into Kentucky. It was going to be a long day, and a rather complex route on minor roads through the Daniel Boone National Forest. This was gently rolling country, but nevertheless magnificent in terms of the trees lining the highways.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we hit the main highways again, heading further west to Cave City, KY for the night, and the next highlight of the trip: Mammoth Cave National Park.

Ten days, eleven states (2): Sauntering around Savannah

Savannah, Georgia. Founded in 1733, the oldest city in Georgia. It must be one of the most picturesque cities in the whole of the USA. Sitting just 20 miles or so upstream from the mouth of Savannah River on the Atlantic coast.

A city of squares and cobblestone streets, colonial houses, and Spanish moss dangling ubiquitously from trees surrounding the many colonial squares and lining broad avenues that cross the city.

Savannah. A city overflowing with Colonial, Revolutionary War, and Civil War history. A city full of historical markers, and some historical surprises. And, unfortunately, a city with one of the highest gun crime rates in the whole country.

Savannah was the first port of call on our recent road trip from Georgia to Minnesota. I’ve wanted to visit the city for a long time now. Not sure why that was the case, but it is one of those cities that you just have to visit, at least once.

We were not disappointed. And we had just an afternoon and morning to see the sights.

Having arrived to the USA on the Wednesday evening, and traveled just as far as Macon (about 80 miles southeast of Atlanta on I-75), we set off just after 09:00 on the following morning, after a reasonably comfortable night recovering from the journey over from the UK.

South of Macon, I-16 is mostly tree-lined the whole way to Savannah, and there’s little opportunity to see what the landscape is like, other than it’s rather flat. We easily found our hotel, Planters Inn on Reynolds Square, in the historic center of the city (see map), and I’d arranged for valet parking of our vehicle at a nearby multi storey car park.

Once we had settled into our room—upgraded to a larger one with a balcony—we set out to explore the River Street area just north of Reynolds Square, and find a bite to eat for lunch.

There’s so much to see. Along the Savannah River, River Street is lined by cotton warehouses now converted to commercial premises and apartments. Fortunately we were there at the beginning of the tourist season, but I can imagine that later on in the season, this area must be thronging with tourists. I was particularly taken with the wrought iron balconies that were a signature feature of many of the warehouses along River Street. It’s not hard to imagine what the cotton trade must have been like, and ignominy of slavery.

By Thursday evening we were rather tired, enjoyed dinner at the Cotton Exchange Tavern on River Street, and retired early to bed to catch up on our jet lag.

Next morning, with storms threatening by about 10 am, we decided to set out very early to explore the colonial streets of the city to the south of Reynolds Square, and heading to Forsyth Park. We had breakfast at 6:30, and were out of the hotel by 7:30. Within half an hour the first showers appeared, but lasted for just a few minutes, and it was more or less bright thereafter.

There’s one rather interesting surprise in Reynolds Square: a statue of John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, who spent a couple of years in Savannah from 1735.

An old cemetery is now the peaceful Colonial Park that we wandered through, the final resting place of so many of the great and good from Savannah’s past. It’s almost next door to Savannah’s Cathedral of St John the Baptist.

Colonial era houses still line Jones Street, and the history of Savannah during the Civil War of the 1860s is evident everywhere. Confederate President Jefferson Davis stayed there. Savannah was occupied by Union troops under General William Tecumseh Sherman after laying waste to Atlanta.

Forsyth Park (some 30 acres) lies at the southern end of the historic district, with an impressive monument to Confederate soldiers.

We returned to the hotel after about three hours, rather hot and sweaty, and took advantage of the hotel offer to use one of the restrooms on the first floor, to freshen up. Having cooled down, settled our bill, and called for our vehicle from the valet parking, we set off for Greenwood, just under 170 miles to the north in South Carolina, over the Talmadge Memorial Bridge around 11:30.

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Ten days, eleven states (1): Almost 2800 miles from Georgia to Minnesota

Ten days, eleven states (1): Almost 2800 miles from Georgia to Minnesota

Yes. That’s right. Eleven states in just ten days.

2764 miles to be precise. Ninety-four gallons of gasoline consumed. Almost 30 mpg at just USD209. That’s not bad considering we rented a Jeep Patriot SUV (with a Connecticut licence plate!).

I’d opted for a car rental through Rentalcars.com and chose Alamo as the best deal. Just USD357 for the actual rental, USD250 for the one way drop-off fee, and USD98 for roadside assistance cover and various taxes.

I had planned our route meticulously, taking in various sites and landscape features I thought would be interesting, and avoiding as much as possible any of the interstate highways. I bought Rand McNally road maps for all states except Virginia and Minnesota (we already had a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for MN). I checked precise US and State Routes using Google maps since the scale of the Rand McNally didn’t always show the road name. I even used Google Streetview to check the various intersections, and before we traveled I already had an image in my mind of the entire route.

I prepared daily detailed route plans on cards, which Steph used to navigate us across country from Atlanta to Minnesota, with each map marked at decision points corresponding to the route card details (you can just make out a series of circles on the map below).

Fortunately, US roads are very well signposted and road signs (e.g. US61 or GA23, for example) are posted every few miles. It was hard to go wrong, but we did on three occasions; nothing major, however. My first mistake was leaving the car rental center at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. I turned on to I-85N instead of I-85S, but was able to turn around within a mile. On two other occasions we made a turn too early, but realised almost immediately. Not bad really for such a long road trip. Nor did we encounter any road works that held us up, or any road accidents. We almost never saw a police car.

These four map links show the actual route we took over the ten days:

Atlanta – Savannah, GA – Greenwood, SC – Blairsville, GA
31 May – 3 June
Blairsville, GA – Cave City, KY
4 – 6 June
Cave City – Iowa City, IA
7 – 8 June
Iowa City – St Paul, MN
9 June

We stayed in ‘chain’ hotels like Best Western, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and the like, about USD100 or so a night. In Savannah we stayed at The Planters Inn on Reynolds Square, close to the river and other historic attractions, and this was our most expensive at around USD230 including taxes and valet parking. Breakfast (if you can call it that) was provided in each hotel. For lunch, eaten by the roadside or at a scenic viewpoint, we picked up a freshly-made sandwich and with some fruit from the hotel, we had enough to keep us going until a substantial dinner in the evening. Surprisingly, we ate Mexican on three nights and had very good meals. There was even beer! Twice we ate at the nearby Cracker Barrel Old Country Store – reasonable food but no beer. Walking into our second Cracker Barrel in Troy, IL it was déjà vu; the layout of the restaurant and the store was identical to the one we patronised in Johnson City, TN.

Anyway, here is a summary of our epic road trip.

31 May, Atlanta, GA – Macon, GA, 82 miles
Our flight (DL73) from Amsterdam landed on time just after 14:15, and despite arriving at an E pier and having to walk the considerable distance over to the new F International Terminal for immigration and customs, then taking a 15 minute shuttle to the new car rentals center beyond the airport perimeter, we were on the road not long after 16:00. We were headed to Macon on I-75, some 82 miles southeast of Atlanta towards Savannah to spend our first night, and recover—to the extent possible—from our long day of travel from Birmingham (BHX), arriving to our hotel (Best Western on Riverside Drive) just around 18:00

Just arrived at Best Western in Macon

We had the room on the right of the balcony, overlooking Reynolds Square

1 June, Macon – Savannah, GA, 167 miles
Since we had only a relatively short journey to reach Savannah, and because I wanted us to get a good rest before setting off once again, we didn’t leave Macon until after 09:00. Our hotel in Savannah (Planter’s Inn on Reynolds Square) had contacted me that morning by SMS asking what time we expected to arrive and hoping to have a room ready then. Not only was our room ready at just after 11:00, but we’d been upgraded to a balcony room. Once we had settled in, we set off on a leisurely stroll around the historic riverside where the old cotton warehouses have been converted to restaurants and other retail outlets, as well as apartments.

Savannah oozes history (and Spanish moss) – a direct line of historical events from the early 18th century, when it was founded, through Colonial times, and the turmoil of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

2 June, Savannah – Greenwood, SC, 196 miles
We spent the morning in Savannah absorbing the Colonial, Revolutionary and Civil Wars history of this beautiful city. The weather didn’t look promising, with thunderstorms forecast, so we left the hotel by 07:30 and wandered through the various squares, parks and colonial streets for three hours, with just a small shower to bother us. After freshening up at the hotel and checking out, we were on the road again by 11:30, headed for Greenwood in the northwest of South Carolina.

The US17 route out of Savannah crosses the Savannah River over the fine-looking Talmadge Memorial Bridge, completed in 1991, 185 feet above the water.

We passed through a heavy rainstorm for the first 20 miles or so, but the weather brightened, and we stopped for a bite to eat beside the road in glorious sunshine. The road north was almost completely straight passing through small towns with names like Denmark, Sweden and Norway. There wasn’t much evidence of much agriculture, just some maize on this coastal plain with rather sandy soils. Communities seemed quite impoverished (according to the 2010 census it is the 7th poorest state). Nevertheless, the Southern Baptist (and some Presbyterian) churches and chapels stood in stark contrast. I’ve never seen so many places of worship so close together. There must be a lot of wicked souls need saving in South Carolina (and surrounding states) to require so many churches, often within just a few hundred yards of each other (or closer).

We were in Greenwood by 17:00, found our hotel, the Hampton Inn, and enjoyed steak and seafood meals at the Red Lobster outlet beside the hotel.

3 June, Greenwood – Blairsville, GA, 195 miles
Distance-wise this was never going to be one of the longest days, but I had planned our route climbing into the Appalachians through the Chatterhoochee National Forest on US60, a winding road among the trees.

We departed from Greenwood around 08:00 and made our first stop at the SC-GA state line to look over the Savannah River at Calhoun Falls. We had another stop at Cleveland, GA to tour the historic courthouse museum, and arrived in Blairsville by about 15:00.

Not wanting to go straight to our hotel, the Comfort Inn, so early in the day, we opted for a 55 mile round trip taking in some of the hills and forest to the north and east of Blairsville, arriving to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia at 4500 feet, around 16:30 just in time to take the last shuttle bus to the summit, and down again. I decided not to walk the 1 mile descent from the summit to the car park because the average gradient was more than 14%, and Steph and I were concerned that I might hurt my right leg, which is still giving me some grief 18 months after I broke it.

4 June, Blairsville – Johnson City, TN 282 miles
This was our opportunity of really traveling through the Appalachians. I’d chosen to travel east along the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina. We had expected some poor weather this day, so set off as early as we could get away in order to enjoy the early morning brightness. The Cherohala offers some spectacular views along the way, and we were not disappointed at all.

Looking south from the Cherohala Skyway over North Carolina

But the further east we went, the more cloudy it became, and by the time we reached US441 to cross the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it was raining quite hard and we didn’t really see very much at all. We took the side route of about seven miles to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point over 6600 feet. Couldn’t see a thing! But lower down on the north side, the weather improved and we did see something of the Smoky Mountains.

We then dropped down to Gatlinburg in Tennessee. If you’ve ever harbored the desire to visit Gatlinburg – don’t. What a tourist disaster! A narrow highway through the center of the town, tackiest tourist souvenir stores lining both sides, and even though this was early in the tourist season, there were throngs of people about. I’m glad we were only passing through. Then it was on to our hotel on the outskirts of Johnson City.

5 June, Johnson City – Charleston, WV, 380 miles
The focus early in the day was the Cumberland Gap, northwest of Johnson City by about 80 miles or so. Not long after leaving Johnson City, along US11, we passed through one of the heaviest rain storms I’ve ever experienced. I could hardly see in front of the car. But by the time we reached Cumberland Gap, the clouds had lifted somewhat, and the sun appeared.

The ‘Cumberland Gap’ is familiar to me from my skiffle days, as sung by Lonnie Donegan.

We went up to the Pinnacle Overlook, hoping to see the views over Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky – even as far as North Carolina on a good day. It was only a case of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ as the clouds came rolling in, then dispersed. As a major pass through the Appalachians, the Cumberland Gap was strategically important for both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War of the 1860s, and changed sides every so often. There is still evidence of military occupation high on the Overlook.

Looking north into Kentucky and the town of Middlesboro. The highway has just emerged from the tunnel through the Gap.

Then later in the day, heading east towards Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, we traveled along The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in Virginia. Until I was planning this trip, I wasn’t even aware that the Trail was a real entity, not after I’d heard Laurel and Hardy singing about it.

6 June, Charleston – Cave City, KY, 371 miles
Our destination this day was Cave City in central Kentucky where we planned to visit the Mammoth Cave National Park the following day. Heading west out of Charleston on I-64, we turned south at Morehead in Kentucky (about 110 miles west) to head south through the Daniel Boone National Forest.

We traveled some 125 miles along scenic highways and byways. Then we turned west on the Cumberland Parkway west of Somerset, KY for the rest of the day’s trip to make up some time and so as not to arrive to our hotel too late. However, Kentucky is divided into two time zones, so we gained an hour (from Eastern to Central Time) about 80 miles east of Cave City.

7 June, Cave City – Troy, IL, 367 miles
The Mammoth Cave National Park opened at 08:00, and we were at the Visitor Center not long afterwards. I had booked a tour of the Frozen Niagara cave some months back, at 09:20. This was a guided tour, the first of the day, and to a cave that was easily accessible. I didn’t want to contend with scrambling over rocks with my leg. In any case we planned to stay at the Park only until late morning as we still had the whole day’s trip of over 350 miles to make.

We enjoyed the cave, along with a group of fewer than 30 others. The caves are kept closed and it’s generally not possible to visit them alone. What amazed us is that the cave system, at over 440 mapped miles is the largest system in the world. The Park gets very busy during school holidays, and we were fortunate to have visited when we did.

Our next port of call was Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the southernmost point of Illinois. Most impressive.

Then we followed the Mississippi north towards St Louis and our hotel in Troy just northeast of the city, catching a glimpse of the famous Gateway Arch as we skirted the city center on the Illinois side of the river.

8 June, Troy – Iowa City, IA, 332 miles
Our plan was to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri into Iowa. Heading west around the north of St Louis we crossed both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers close to their confluence. Heading north on MO79, we stopped at Clarksville to stretch our legs, and look at the dam and lock, where a very large combination of barges was being ferried northwards slowly against the current.

Further north we stopped also at Louisiana, MO to view the Champ Clark Bridge that connects MO and IL, from a vantage point high above the river.

Then it was on to our next, and last, overnight stop in Iowa City.

9 June, Iowa City – St Paul, MN, 333 miles
Our last day on the road, heading north on very straight roads, before crossing into southern Minnesota and crossing the Bluff Country eastwards to reach Winona on the Mississippi.

Just south of the Iowa-Minnesota state line we passed through Cresco, IA which proudly advertises itself as the birthplace of Dr Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution in wheat and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1973, who I had the honour of meeting when I worked at IRRI.

In Winona, we took a short diversion to a scenic overlook about 500 feet above the river valley and had a spectacular view north and south.

Then we set off with added determination to arrive to Hannah and Michael’s in the Highland Park area of St Paul by late afternoon, and the end of our enjoyable 2017 road trip adventure.

Here are the individual blog posts about the various places we visited: