Mark Tanner - Adventurer, Writer and Amateur Beatboxer



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FBI-looking guys and big black cars

10 July 2000


Battered and torn from more than four staggering months of rotating a crank and fixing flatties, the odyssey was over. As much as I missed the fresh air and the experiences that could only be had from a bicycle, I made short work of the adjustment back to walking and driving and did not miss the hard lump of plastic that had been lodged between my legs for so many miles.


It was back to Winsor, Nova Scotia with Les to the big green house of JL and Rachel, which had been the perfect base for the Maritimes leg of the bike trek. Les only had a few more days on the Atlantic coast before returning West to wrap up his training for the Ironman. He had spent a good two years of his life in Halifax studying for his MBA at St. Mary's University, so we caught up with some of his old school friends, his old watering holes and saw the sites of the port city.


Halifax had long ago shooken off the short, chilly days of winter and was putting on the kind of priceless sunny weather that you remember from summers as a youth. I couldn't have asked for a better way to end my stay in the realm of Canada with JL, Rachel and the delightful Anne Gillis, spending my last week at the beach, capsizing canoes, playing in the mud and meadows, with some token karaoke tunes to keep things cultured.


An incredible chapter of my life had come to an end as I boarded the coach, headed for a new land, leaving behind Canada, which had been my home for the last couple of years. I glared out the window watching the trees flash by, recollecting the episodes since first landing in Vancouver on a drizzly September day.


Never before have I shared a bus with such a motley group of passengers – drunken rednecks getting on and off the bus from stop to stop who provided ongoing entertainment with random outbursts of stupidity for the duration of the 28-hour bus ride to Washington, DC.


My first impression of the Federal Capital was not a good one as I arrived through the neglected downtown area. My eyes were drawn past the run-down office blocks of the CBD to the impressive vista of the magnificent clean white dome of the Capitol building and towering Washington Memorial, dominating the city's skyline.


I was greeted by a welcoming committee of shady locals hovering around outside the greyhound station, one of whom joined me for the short walk to Union Station asking me for spare change in as many inventive ways as he could. I caught the metro to the end of the line in Maryland where I met our good family friends, Lorna (an old school friend of Mum's from Wellington), her husband Craig and son Ross.


Washington, DC was like you would expect, full of FBI-looking guys in suits and a lot of big black cars, but what struck me was the beauty of the city. Being the Federal capital, Washington is the showpiece for America, so the area based around the Capitol building and the grassy mall is surrounded by immaculately maintained stunning marble memorials, museums and federal departments.


I couldn't have asked for a better tour guide than Craig who seemed to know everything there is to know about American History and its significance in the Washington area. We spent one sunny day walking around the Mall, taking in all of the memorials celebrating some of the better known former presidents of the United States and those who had died while fighting for their country. My American history came a long way with a trip to Gettisburg, where we drove around the main battlefields of one of the most significant areas in the Civil War.

We went to Annapolis, the tidy historical capital of Maryland and home of the fine grounds of the naval academy. The busy seaside town provided a fine venue for sampling the local crab speciality, where my ad hoc approach to attacking the crabs with the supplied wooden hammer at a well-known seafood restaurant was quickly remedied by the helpful waitress.

Between the superb lamb barbecue dinners we also took a day out in Baltimore where the world-famous waterfront was hosting a convoy of tall ships, partway through a circumnavigation of the globe.


For a man who hadn't worked for many months, I likened to the fact that all of the sights in the capital were free, and I took full advantage of this. I probably saw more museums in the time I was in DC than my adult life leading up to it.

Each museum was unique from the last, all having metal detectors, bag scanners, and sizeable security guards enforcing policies that would make most airports look sloppy. Ever since I was a youngster, I have been fascinated with dinosaurs so to see the preserved skeletons of Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Triceratops and a Brontosaurus in the Museum of Natural History, like the ones you'd see on Scooby Doo, was a big thrill for me.


The Air, Sea and Space, Mint and American History Museums were also very interesting, and although it looked like it had not been refurbished since the beige and brown days of the 70's the FBI museum fascinated me. The live shooting range demo at the conclusion of the tour was a hit with the mostly American audience, who cheered loudly when the semi-automatic chugged out a couple of rounds. But the most moving of the sights was the Holocast Museum, which although it wasn't glitzy like most of the other museums (which would have been inappropriate), told the horrific story of how the Jewish were treated by the Nazi Party in the 2nd World War.

Just off the main drag of majestic embassies in Dupont Circle is the New Zealand Embassy, where Robby MacGregor, a mate from back home, plays a part in keeping international relations with our US friends in the defence arena. I stopped in to say Gidday and ended up spending a good part of the next few weeks knocking around with him, his girlfriend Jodie, her friend Melanie, and the rest of the crew at the Embassy.


A couple of great Fridays were started off at the kiwi bar in the embassy, where the Steinlagers were only $1, the swimming pool was refreshing and the barbi was chocka. Great to see a happy bunch of kiwis again as I hadn't really seen too many since leaving Wellington. Jim Bolger, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, now the ambassador for New Zealand for the United States, would also come in for a couple of beers. He turned out to be a genuine, down to earth guy.


I hadn't planned to stay too long in the capital city, just enough time to see Lorna, Craig and Ross, a few museums and the White House, but hanging out with Robby, Mel & co was a blast so I ended up filling a lot more days in the Capital city. Sights such as the Pentagon (the largest building in the world), the Arlington Cemetery, and the host of other famous spots, became familiar backdrops, best seen from the bench seat of Robbie's wood-panelled Cadillac station wagon.


Timing couldn't have been more appropriate to take advantage of the Independence Day celebrations on July 4, in the mall, where countless people from all over were gathered watching the extravagant and lengthy display of fireworks, followed by a busy night in town and a few buds in honour of independence from the Poms many years ago.


I left on a Greyhound, knowing I would be back before too long...


The next logical progression on the journey north was Philadelphia, PA. Philadelphia is commonly left off the itinerary of visitors to the Northeast, but after a too short 1 and a half days there, I realised how much of a mistake this would be.

My first impression of Philadelphia was similar to my first impression of Washington, DC – another dirty and ugly, big American city, but not unlike Washington DC, after having a proper look around, I found pockets of the city to be beautiful with stunning 18th century architecture.


Philadelphia is a city rich in history – it was where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and claims to have "America's most historic square mile". There have been a lot of movies filmed within city limits including recently, 'The Sixth Sense' and the timeless classic, Rocky, in which the grandiose landmark of the Philadelphia Museum of Art provided the stairs that the hooded Rocky slogged up for his training.


I was only in Philadelphia for a short time, so I thought he best way to see most of the sights was parked next to the window on a city tour bus where I could get my bearings and plan a strategy for exploring the city deeper on foot. I had started early, so the bus wasn't yet teeming like some tours you see with camera-bearing tourists pouring out of the windows, it was just me and the party of middle-aged southern women who spent a good part of most weeks travelling while their husbands clocked up long hours in the office. Being the only male on the tour, I was a bit of hit with the old girls.


We chugged around the streets past the lovely old buildings and the sleek modern buildings, but the highlight for me was Fairmount Park. Bordering the Central Business District, the park is the largest landscaped park in the United States. The city's tall buildings gave way to the peaceful green, relaxed spot populated by rollerbladers, cyclists, walkers and rowers on the Schuylkill River enjoying their day in the sunshine.


After a lap of the city and park, I made my way back to the spots that had sparked my interest, with the first spot being a guided tour of the majestic city hall. Built over 100 years ago, the structure towers over the city and is still the largest municipal building in the US (larger than the Capitol building in DC). At around 500 feet high, the building was an engineering feat when it was built and would have been the tallest building in the world, had it not been pipped by the Washington Memorial in DC. Buildings in Philadelphia have only recently been allowed to be constructed higher than statue of William Penn on top of the building.


I spent the sunny afternoon strolling down Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the tree-lined street with flags representing every country in the United Nations, before wondering through the redbrick residential neighbourhoods, taking in a few churches, fountains and monuments.


Possibly the nicest thing about Philadelphia was the people who lived there. Philadelphia wasn't economically booming to the same degree as a lot of America, and isn't a tourist Mecca either, so the locals appreciated visitors to their city and enjoyed showing it off with pride.


Various sites around Washington DC, Baltimore and Philidelphia






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