I have become an absurdly anxious traveller. Every little detail now preoccupies me until my flight has actually left the ground: visas, check-in, reaching the airport and, what I suspect lies at the root of this late-onset anxiety, a plethora of Covid tests and form filling.
Connections and transiting also now fill me with dread. Two weeks ago, I had three flights booked to take me from London Heathrow to Rochester, New York. At every stage, I convinced myself it was going to be a disaster. As it happens, the first connection in Lisbon was a doddle, and the second at Newark was fine, although only because I'd left four hours to allow for the logistical nightmare that is US passport control.
The upshot of this stress-fest was, however, an equally absurd euphoria on finally reaching my destination. I hadn't been in the US for more than two years; indeed, for three quarters of that it was not legally possible for me to enter the land of the free. With all that having been cleared away last November, however, I immediately began planning a return.
My chosen destinations in the US always bemuse my UK colleagues and baffle my American friends. This trip was no exception. There was the familiar tilt of the head and a rhetorical 'you're going to Rochester?!' As a post-industrial city in upstate New York, it's fair to say that Rochester took a while to reveal its charms. There was a smattering of Art Deco and an historic house (once owned by Kodak founder George Eastman) but what I'd really come to see were the abandoned subway tunnels.
The Rochester Industrial and Rapid Transit Railway – more commonly known as the Rochester Subway – operated between 1927 and 1956. Constructed in the bed of the old Erie Canal, two miles of the route downtown were built in a cut-and-cover tunnel which became the only underground portion of the subway. It fell victim, of course, to the expressway and motor vehicle boom, but relics remain. And I really like relics.
Websites were infuriatingly vague as to access points, and those they identified I found were either fenced off or too dark to enter. Close to giving up, I spied a trail by the river which looked as if it might lead into a section of the underground tunnel. It was, however, extremely muddy, so I went to a general store to buy some garbage sacks and electrical tape, which I used to protect my inadequate footwear. Passers-by must have wondered what on earth I was doing.
I was glad I persevered, for the reward was a most extraordinarily atmospheric network of graffitied tunnels, platforms and other subway detritus. I briefly caught sight of two others exploring (I was curious as to how they'd got in) but otherwise I had the once bustling underground domain to myself. I kept imagining I could hear passengers chuntering and trains rattling along non-existent tracks.
Syracuse was my next stop, another post-industrial town a short Greyhound bus ride from Rochester. There, even museum staff questioned my itinerary, but Syracuse boasts a fine university campus (including a moving memorial to students lost in the Lockerbie crash), some top-notch brutalist architecture and the Erie Canal Museum, where I was questioned closely about Boris Johnson and 'Partygate', which, it turns out, our American friends have been following avidly.
During the boom years, someone once remarked that Syracuse had the appearance of 'New York [City] in miniature'. Although this would stretch credulity today, there were hints of that at the Niagara Mohawk Building – an orgy of chrome and Art Deco stylings – and on its industrial fringes.
At this point, I was compelled to improvise, never easy in a country which regards public transport as a necessary evil. But after an unexpected weekend in New York City – the best sort, a friend shrewdly suggested – I made my way up the Hudson Valley to take an internal flight from Stewart International, a regional airport which in pre-pandemic days offered one-way flights to Edinburgh for as little as £60.
En route I indulged in a little more urbexing (urban exploration, usually involving trespassing) at the abandoned Glenwood Power Plant, which sits on the Hudson just north of Yonkers, a poor commuter town far removed from the sleepy backwater depicted in the musical Hello, Dolly
. Like Rochester's subway tunnels, Glenwood is endlessly mooted for regeneration, but nothing ever comes to pass. Further up the line was Beacon, a hip town trading on its direct rail link to NYC, and – across the river – Newburgh, a once handsome settlement which has suffered due to the absence of such a connection.
Next stop was Florida. Again, this provoked that slight tilt of the head and the incredulous cry: 'You're going to Tampa?!' Liberal Americans generally hold Florida in contempt, largely on account of its politics, which are up there with Texas when it comes to upsetting Democrats. Almost to signify this shift from liberal to conservative America was the announcement, just before my flight took off, that masks would no longer be required. Everybody cheered.
I found out later that a Trump-appointed Florida-based federal judge had struck down President Biden's mask mandate as unlawful, which meant masks were no longer required on public transport in the US. Something else kicked off while I was in the Sunshine State: Governor Ron DeSantis went to war with Disney, revoking a long-standing arrangement whereby the corporation essentially ran its own municipality, collecting taxes, fixing roads and providing emergency services.
The reason? Disney had politely suggested DeSantis be nicer to gay people, for the Florida legislature had recently passed the 'Don't say gay' law, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the UK's now-repealed Section 28. I found this a bit confusing, for I found Florida to be a very gay (or at the very least gay-friendly) state. Rainbow flags were everywhere in Tampa, another city which defies its many detractors; the nearby St Pete's (St Petersburg) and in Key West, which became my port of call after I realised that Miami really wasn't worth much of my time.
Geographical extremities fascinate me and Key West didn't disappoint. Chickens roamed the streets and my visit coincided with the 40th anniversary of the secession of the Conch Republic, a micronation which regarded the US Border Patrol as heavy handed. Its flag flew everywhere (alongside the rainbow Pride banner). Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams had homes here, while Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy sought refuge in the 'little' White House. It wasn't difficult to see why.
From Miami, I was to fly back to London via Bogota, a cheaper option now that Transatlantic flights have become less affordable. On this occasion, my anxiety regarding transiting proved justified and I missed my connection. It wasn't so bad, a hotel and meals were provided, and I had a day to reacquaint myself with an engaging South American capital. The Colombians, however, were still all masked up and, rather pointlessly, disinfecting everything in sight. This came as a bit of a shock after a week in Florida, where it was almost as if the pandemic had never happened.
David Torrance is a writer and historian