For me, flying has turned into an endless adventure. In the past year, I've had journeys cancelled or delayed by storms and even an airline company going bust. Two weeks ago it was drones at Gatwick, meaning I reached New York City two days later than planned, though judging by the television news I got off lightly, both logistically and financially. As I crossed the Atlantic, I re-watched Stephen Spielberg's retro movie 'Ready Player One,' finding a scene in which a drone gets smashed to pieces with a baseball bat strangely satisfying.
So I spent the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 on either side of the United States, flying from east to west coast on Christmas Day. Not only was the sprawling JFK Airport surprisingly busy that day, but MTA (the creaking Metropolitan Transit Authority) was surprisingly functional. Normally, reaching one of the world's largest airports is an adventure in itself. On this occasion I 'rode' (as the locals say) the Long Island Railroad to Jamaica and then transferred to the AirTrain. Everything, remarkably, was on time.
My 25 December flight meant I got two Christmases, which for someone who doesn't really care for this time of year was an unexpected indulgence. On the 24th I dragged my partner into central Manhattan to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree ('official' photographs: $5, inadequate selfies: free) and the shop window displays on Fifth Avenue. I also couldn't resist a visit to the chintzy Trump Tower, which under NYC law has to allow public access in spite of its now infamous tenant. This was everything you would expect it to be, gaudy, brash but also strangely engaging. Upstairs were backlit panels showing off Trump's property portfolio, including Turnberry and, mystifyingly, an unidentified Scottish castle.
My second Christmas took place in various parts of the San Francisco 'Bay Area,' mainly involving visits to various branches of my partner's engagingly complicated family. On Boxing Day – a holiday and terminology unknown to most Americans – we found time to check out some of the obscure Americana I've come to love from my frequent visits to the US. En route to San Jose, we stopped in Colma, where the population of the dead – around 1.5 million in various cemeteries – outnumbers the living by nearly 1,000 to one.
Among them is Wyatt Earp (in, unexpectedly, a Jewish cemetery) and the lesser known Joshua Norton, whose memorial stone is inscribed: 'Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.' Once a wealthy San Francisco businessman and landowner, Norton later lost his fortune and, on 17 September 1859, publicly declared himself emperor. Remarkably, Norton's imperial delusions were encouraged by local newspapers, including the issuance of various decrees and his own currency, which was widely accepted in the City by the Bay. The army even provided him with a uniform.
Some of Norton's decrees – such as those calling for a bridge to be built across San Francisco Bay – were far from eccentric, but however articulate and well-read he reportedly was, he remained a crank, not unlike those who still populate one of the United States' more raffish and eccentric cities. On 8 January 1880, following a 'reign' of nearly 20 years, Norton collapsed at a street corner. 'Le Roi est Mort' ('The King is Dead') declared the San Francisco Chronicle, with more than 10,000 mourners taking the trouble to see him lie 'in state.'
One of Emperor Norton's most famous 'orders' was that the United States Congress be dissolved by force. On that occasion, Capitol Hill simply ignored him, but over the 2018-19 holiday season the US Government partially shut itself down during an ongoing dispute between President Trump and the now Democratic-controlled House of Representatives over $5bn for the commander in chief's promised 'wall' along the US-Mexican border. As a result, many of San Francisco's excellent (but federally-run) museums and attractions were closed.
Fortunately, others had managed to escape the chilling effect of disrupted federal appropriations. On the last Sunday of 2018 I spent a happy afternoon on Angel Island, often known as the west coast version of New York's Ellis Island, only this immigration station specialised in turning people away (mainly of Chinese or Japanese origin) rather than welcoming them to the US. Thus the beauty of Angel Island is at odds with its historical purpose, particularly the urban ruins at Fort McDowell, once the bustling centre of island life.
Moffett Field, which lies just north-west of San Jose, also has a counterpart on the east coast. In the 1920s and 30s, both Moffett and Lakehurst, New Jersey, were home to massive airships, then at the cutting edge of military and civilian air travel. Moffett is still dominated by the massive Hanger One, one of the world's largest free-standing structures. Both bases experienced disasters: in 1935 the USS Macon (ZRS-5) was damaged in a storm and lost off California's Big Sur coast, while two years later the German passenger airship Hindenburg (LZ129) caught fire while trying to dock at Lakehurst, producing dramatic and familiar images.
Delving into all this led me to an unexpected connection with Scottish aviation. This year, 2 July will mark the centenary of the first east-west aerial crossing of the Atlantic, when the R34 airship flew from East Fortune to Mineola, Long Island, taking 108 hours and being virtually out of fuel by the time it arrived. The return journey almost a week later took a little over three days. Today, notwithstanding storms and drones, the flight takes less than seven hours.