The Sunday Times: RV There Yet?

Writer and historian Amanda Foreman took her family on an epic motorhome adventure. Would it drive them all round the bend?

Crossing Devils Garden, Utah
Crossing Devils Garden, UtahANGELA HAYS

Imagining yourself behind the wheel of an RV and actually driving one are two completely different things. I discovered this shortly after we hit the road in our 30ft rental for a 1,500-mile odyssey from Denver, Colorado, to Las Vegas, Nevada. As soon as I pressed down on the accelerator, other faculties such as breathing and thinking stopped functioning. My husband, Jonathan, took over, and remained in the driving seat for the rest of the trip, while I quietly buried my pride beneath a pile of flip-flops and rain jackets.

Did I mention there were seven of us — including five children? Masochistic, perhaps, but my motivation in initiating this most ambitious of family holidays was sound. Last year, I wrote in The Sunday Times about the poisonous effect social media can have on families, and on girls’ self-esteem in particular. With four daughters — Helena, 16, Halcyon, 13, and 11-year-old twins Xanthe and Hero (15-year-old Theo completes the gang) — this is particularly pertinent to us.

We’re the Foremans: Amanda and family in their RV
We’re the Foremans: Amanda and family in their RVANGELA HAYS

The latest research offers hope, though. The best antidote to the rapacious demands of the internet, experts say, is its reverse — the power of lived experience. And so we decided to put that theory to the test by taking to the road.

Everything was new and exciting at first. Look, a herd of cattle blocking the road! Oh, we blew the electrics! It was when we left the cool mountain ranges of Colorado and descended into Utah, a dip that sent the thermometer climbing into the 30s, that reality took over.

We were heading for Moab and its two national and one state parks. Some of the best scenery in the totemic road-trip movie Thelma and Louise is here. I kept repeating this fact until Helena reminded me that they’d never seen the film and couldn’t care less. The atmosphere of the RV, already thick with sweat and hormones, was beginning to grow heavy. Knees and elbows were making contact where they shouldn’t.

Our first hike was through the Arches National Park, so named after the formations that stake the desert like a thousand oversized Durdle Doors. Our trail took us to Devils Garden, with its giant phallic pillars. Another led to Landscape Arch, the longest natural arch in the world. A peculiar tension emanates from it, as though at any second something will snap and the whole thing will collapse. I recognised the feeling.

Arches National Park lives up to its name
Arches National Park lives up to its nameALAMY

Three children claimed to be on the edge of survival by day’s end (heat, thirst, sand in shoe, etc). A night’s camping at Devils Garden did it for the rest.

The evening had started well. We ate under the starriest sky I’d ever seen. The intense blackness around us served to highlight the strange symphony of sounds wafting from the brush. After dinner, we sat in companionable silence, listening to the music of the desert. If we could have stayed that way until morning, the night would have been perfect. But shutting down an RV for the night requires concentration — not the futzing and farting about of a family of camping novices. By the time we had secured the awning, washed and put everything away, cleared the only escape route of detritus, converted the “dinette” into a quasi-bed large enough for a small person, or in our case reluctant twins, turned the banquette into a sofa bed (tricky with the seatbelt fittings running down the middle) and stashed the teenagers into the bunk above the driver’s seat, mercury had started rising in the worst way.

I lay on my side in the back alcove, feeling the grit between my toes and the sweat between my eyes, waiting for the inevitable blow-up. There was a yell, a thwack, and the RV started shaking on its plastic levellers. My husband and I leapt out of bed and turned on the lights. The children froze, the twins in mid-wrestle. Each returned sulkily to his or her place.

Once peace was restored, Jonathan and I listened for signs of a round two: was that it, or merely the first skirmish in a battle to the death? “It depends,” I said, “on whether we kill them first.”

“Where do we go from here?” Evita sang over the sound system as we headed to our next stop the following day. There were three more destinations to see before we arrived at the Grand Canyon. “This isn’t where we intended to be,” she warbled.

“Don’t listen to her,” my husband told the children, “she’s being a wuss.”

I was beginning to fear the wuss factor would end up trumping the wow factor. Your basic renters’ RV is essentially a tin can on wheels with a lavatory attached. By midweek we had wrecked the place. Only the desperate and foolhardy dared face the loo. Every spare inch of the RV was occupied by wet and drying clothes, creating a steam-room effect without the refreshing scent of eucalyptus.

On the prowl: a puma roams through Moab, Utah
On the prowl: a puma roams through Moab, UtahGETTY

A gentle rain accompanied our arrival at Bryce Canyon. Despite the name, it’s not a canyon at all, but a series of natural stone amphitheatres created by millions of years of frost-thaw cycles. Each one is filled with densely packed pillars and spires called “hoodoos”, which turn crimson and ginger in the sun. Our goal, as we set off from Ruby’s Campground, was to see the sun set over Bryce’s most famous amphitheatre, the hauntingly named Silent City. There was a whiff of mutiny in the damp air. Nothing obvious, but if I had suggested going back to the RV, no one would have complained.

We trudged through the pines towards Inspiration Point (by God, did we need some) in a long, straggly line. Glimpses of Silent City flashed through breaks in the trees. The hoodoos seemed not alive exactly, but immobile. I looked back and saw that the stragglers had stopped. They, too, were staring at the rocks.

At the Point, we waited in vain for a break in the clouds. Our son suddenly shouted: “It’s a peregrine falcon, I’m sure of it.” His sisters clustered around, taking photographs as the bird swooped and then banked hard into the air. “They do this to impress their mates,” Theo informed us.

Back at camp, we broke out the chocolate Oreos in celebration of Theo’s surprise expertise in all things avian. The rain also cleared in time for us to light the barbecue and go full-on carnivore. There wasn’t a peep from anyone that night.

Gorgeous: the Virgin River flows through Zion National Park
Gorgeous: the Virgin River flows through Zion National ParkALAMY

The next morning, we reached Zion National Park right on schedule, a first for us. This day was a hike through the Virgin River to the Narrows, where the orange-brown walls of the canyon rise 1,000ft, but the gorge is only 30ft across. The water was cold, the rocks slippery, providing ample opportunities for a whinge. None came. I noticed a subtle change as we waded upriver: the children were the ones out in front. That wasn’t all. Over the next few days, blisters that would have been incapacitating at the beginning of the trip were now displayed with pride.

The news that we were camping on the rustic side of the Grand Canyon, at the North Rim, didn’t faze anyone at all. The South Rim, which overlooks the Colorado River, gets 10 times more visitors and has two dozen main viewing points. The North is higher, colder, smaller, with just three principal viewpoints, and is so quiet that you can hear the trees rustling in the early-morning breeze. It means you have one of the great natural wonders of the world all to yourself. We could picnic among the most spectacular scenery without another person in sight.

If there was a wuss among the group, it was me. We had trekked to Cape Royal, where a wooded trail leads to a dramatic plateau that offers one of the widest panoramas of the canyon. The children were naturally drawn to the ledge, carelessly dangling their legs over the side. I was torn between wanting to capture the moment for ever and shouting at them to get back. Jonathan intervened. “It’s all right,” he said. “They are free.”

There wasn’t an ounce of regret when we dropped off the camper in Las Vegas. I doubt we will ever rent an RV again. Yet we ended the week feeling truly content. Without being sappy about it, to experience nature in its untrammelled state is to feel insignificant and uplifted in equal measure.

We came, we saw, and were conquered, happily.

Amanda’s guide to a stress-free US motorhome holiday
Do book your campground berths at least six months in advance. I’m not exaggerating.
Do find out what your RV comes with. Usually, it’s practically nothing.
Do check the depot for “left behinds”. We picked up a barbecue that way, and donated it back at the end.
Do bring physical maps with you — there isn’t much coverage out in the sticks. Praise be.
Do have a games bag with amusements that don’t need charging, such as playing cards, colouring books and chess.
Do take the desert heat seriously. Load up on hats, sunscreen, insulated water bottles and handheld fans.
Do make a list of chores. There should be no passengers on your trip, only crew members.
Don’t overpack.
Don’t attempt more than four hours’ driving a day. It’s not much fun for the people stuck in the back.
Don’t assume that you’ll be allowed to use your generator past 8pm. Plan your meals ahead of time.
Don’t leave out any food overnight. Nature is not your friend. Nature wants to swarm over your leftovers and/or eat you.
Don’t forget to check your water levels every day. Remember how disgusting it is when you flush the loo on a plane and nothing happens when the trap opens? Now multiply that by five.
Don’t expect kids to be as rhapsodic about the scenery as you are.

Hiring a six-berth RV sleeping six for 10 days in November, picking up in Denver and dropping off in Las Vegas, starts at £830, including one-way fee, with Road Bear (roadbearrv.com). A 10-day fly-drive package from Denver in October costs £1,225pp for a family of six, including RV hire (bon-voyage.co.uk). A World on Fire by Amanda Foreman is published by Penguin

Family ties
Have you successfully bonded as a family on holiday? Or had a disaster? Tell us and you could win a £250 holiday voucher; see Letters for details. Email travel@sunday-times.co.uk

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-to-survive-an-rv-motohome-road-trip-through-utah-colorado-denver-las-vegas-nevada-america-with-the-family-q2j9hvnlg

The Sunday Times: No more midlife crisis – I’m riding the U-curve of happiness

Evidence shows people become happier in their fifties, but achieving that takes some soul-searching

I used not to believe in the “midlife crisis”. I am ashamed to say that I thought it was a convenient excuse for self-indulgent behaviour — such as splurging on a Lamborghini or getting buttock implants. So I wasn’t even aware that I was having one until earlier this year, when my family complained that I had become miserable to be around. I didn’t shout or take to my bed, but five minutes in my company was a real downer. The closer I got to my 50th birthday, the more I radiated dissatisfaction.

Can you be simultaneously contented and discontented? The answer is yes. Surveys of “national wellbeing” in several countries, including the UK, by the Office for National Statistics have revealed a fascinating U-curve in relation to happiness and age. In Britain, feelings of stress and anxiety appear to peak at 49 and subsequently fade as the years increase. Interestingly, a 2012 study showed that chimpanzees and orang-utans exhibited a similar U-curve of happiness as they reach middle age.

On a rational level, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed with my life. The troika of family, work and friends made me very happy. And yet something was eating away at my peace of mind. I regarded myself as a failure — not in terms of work but as a human being. Learning that I wasn’t alone in my daily acid bath of gloom didn’t change anything.

One of F Scott Fitzgerald’s most memorable lines is: “There are no second acts in American lives.” It’s so often quoted that it’s achieved the status of a truism. It’s often taken to be an ironic commentary on how Americans, particularly men, are so frightened of failure that they cling to the fiction that life is a perpetual first act. As I thought about the line in relation to my own life, Fitzgerald’s meaning seemed clear. First acts are about actions and opportunities. There is hope, possibility and redemption. Second acts are about reactions and consequences.

Old habits die hard, however. I couldn’t help conducting a little research into Fitzgerald’s life. What was the author of The Great Gatsby really thinking when he wrote the line? Would it even matter?

The answer turned out to be complicated. As far as the quotation goes, Fitzgerald actually wrote the reverse. The line appears in a 1935 essay entitled My Lost City, about his relationship with New York: “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”

It reappeared in the notes for his Hollywood novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, which was half finished when he died in 1940, aged 44. Whatever he had planned for his characters, the book was certainly meant to have been Fitzgerald’s literary comeback — his second act — after a decade of drunken missteps, declining book sales and failed film projects.

Fitzgerald may not have subscribed to the “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” school of thought, but he wasn’t blind to reality. Of course he believed in second acts. The world is full of middle-aged people who successfully reinvented themselves a second or even third time. The mercurial rise of Emperor Claudius (10BC to AD54) is one of the earliest historical examples of the true “second act”.

According to Suetonius, Claudius’s physical infirmities had made him the butt of scorn among his powerful family. But his lowly status saved him after the assassination of his nephew, Caligula. The plotters found the 56-year-old Claudius cowering behind a curtain. On the spur of the moment, instead of killing him, as they did Caligula’s wife and daughter, the plotters decided the stumbling and stuttering scion of the Julio-Claudian dynasty could be turned into a puppet emperor. It was a grave miscalculation. Claudius seized on his changed circumstances. The bumbling persona was dropped and, although flawed, he became a forceful and innovative ruler.

Mostly, however, it isn’t a single event that shapes life after 50 but the willingness to stay the course long after the world has turned away. It’s extraordinary how the granting of extra time can turn tragedy into triumph. In his heyday, General Mikhail Kutuzov was hailed as Russia’s greatest military leader. But by 1800 the 55-year-old was prematurely aged. Stiff-limbed, bloated and blind in one eye, Kutuzov looked more suited to play the role of the buffoon than the great general. He was Alexander I’s last choice to lead the Russian forces at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, but was the first to be blamed for the army’s defeat.

Kutuzov was relegated to the sidelines after Austerlitz. He remained under official disfavour until Napoleon’s army was halfway to Moscow in 1812. Only then, with the army and the aristocracy begging for his recall, did the tsar agree to his reappointment. Thus, in Russia’s hour of need it ended up being Kutuzov, the disgraced general, who saved the country.

Winston Churchill had a similar apotheosis in the Second World War. For most of the 1930s he was considered a political has-been by friends and foes alike. His elevation to prime minister in 1940 at the age of 65 changed all that, of course. But had it not been for the extraordinary circumstances created by the war, Robert Rhodes James’s Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-1939 would have been the epitaph rather than the prelude to the greatest chapter in his life.

It isn’t just generals and politicians who can benefit from second acts. For writers and artists, particularly women, middle age can be extremely liberating. The Booker prize-winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald published her first book at 59 after a lifetime of teaching while supporting her children and alcoholic husband. Thereafter she wrote at a furious pace, producing nine novels and three biographies before she died at 83.

I could stop right now and end with a celebratory quote from Morituri Salutamus by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “For age is opportunity no less/ than youth itself, though in another dress, / And as the evening twilight fades away / The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”

However, that isn’t — and wasn’t — what was troubling me in the first place. I don’t think the existential anxieties of middle age are caused or cured by our careers. Sure, I could distract myself with happy thoughts about a second act where I become someone who can write a book a year rather than one a decade. But that would still leave the problem of the flesh-and-blood person I had become in reality. What to think of her? It finally dawned on me that this had been my fear all along: it doesn’t matter which act I am in; I am still me.

My funk lifted once the big day rolled around. I suspect that joining a gym and going on a regular basis had a great deal to do with it. But I had also learnt something valuable during these past few months. Worrying about who you thought you would be or what you might have been fills a void but leaves little space for anything else. It’s coming to terms with who you are right now that really matters.

 

The Sunday Times: Wrong kind of feminist, right kind of candidate

Hillary Clinton was greeted with cheers in California last week but after 20 years as a political insider she has been struggling to connect with younger voters REUTERS

Hillary Clinton was greeted with cheers in California last week but after 20 years as a political insider she has been struggling to connect with younger voters
REUTERS

Some revolutions happen in an explosion of blood and violence; these are the ones that people remember. Others take place with a stroke of a pen, the pull of a lever, a collective shout of “Aye”; these are the ones that work.

By becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee for president last week, Hillary Clinton once again proved it is the quiet revolutions that matter most. She has gone further than any other American woman before her, and she did it by using rather than abusing the democratic process.

Clinton is writing a new chapter of US history. Whatever happens in the election — and I am absolutely confident she will win against Donald Trump — America has entered a new era of gender equality. The “highest and hardest” glass ceiling — the one with 18m cracks in 2008 — has at last been shattered.

So why are millions of women not taking to the streets to celebrate her victory? The answer is as simple as it is ironic: Clinton is a victim of her own success. Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: Google is strip-mining the world’s culture

Amanda Foreman says the tech giants are making themselves above the law (Max Nash)

Amanda Foreman says the tech giants are making themselves above the law (Max Nash)

Unequal battles are worth fighting when the principles at stake are high enough. That’s the message put out by the small consortium of American plaintiffs who have recently filed a petition with the US Supreme Court.

The suit asks that Google be required to pay for the content it acquires. By “pay” I mean actually pay money, in the way that John Lewis pays suppliers for the products it sells, or Sainsbury’s, or any retail business in the real world. It’s only the online world that sees no difference between stealing and sharing, and believes that being a blood-sucking parasite is a virtuous form of extortion because nobody dies. At least not immediately.

The consortium consists of professional bodies that represent writers, musicians, artists and photographers, the people most vulnerable to loss of copyright control. Google has already won the case in the Court of Appeals, so this is a last-ditch attempt to update for the digital age the laws on the “fair use” of people’s work — meaning how much of a person’s work can be used or reproduced without their permission. Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: America’s blind political class has nurtured the homegrown terrorists

America’s blind political class has nurtured the homegrown terrorists

Photo: Gage Skidmore

THE term “American exceptionalism” took on a bleak cast last week. A shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado that left three people dead and nine injured was swiftly followed by the massacre of 14 local health department workers in San Bernardino, California.

Given how many mass shooting incidents there have been this year — 353 and counting — politicians couldn’t avoid saying something about America and gun violence. In truth, mass shootings account for less than 5% of all gun homicides a year. But it is the assumption that the percentage is far higher that fuelled the outpouring of statements by Republican and Democratic presidential candidates on the merits of gun control.

There is a great deal to be said about the consequences of mass gun ownership. According to the Brady Foundation, almost 90 Americans die from gunshot wounds every day. The Republican contenders are against further restrictions, the Democrats are for, with Hillary Clinton intent on making a crackdown on firearms one of the defining platforms of her campaign. Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: America must mend its marriage before thoughts turn to divorce

Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

A quick way of assessing the emotional dysfunction of a family is seeing how often its members resort to “blamestorming”. The term (an American invention) refers to meetings at which everyone complains while offloading all responsibility on to someone else. The US is in the middle of a giant blamestorm right now over race, crime and policing.

Depending on which side you’re on, the police are either wilfully murdering black males or are the victims of social persecution. Meanwhile, after reaching historic lows, the crime rate is increasing again: murders are up 19% in Chicago, 33% in New Orleans, 56% in Baltimore and 60% in St Louis over the past year.

Some experts say the two issues are linked, calling the phenomenon the “Ferguson effect”, after the uproar in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal police shooting last year of an African-American man named Michael Brown. Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: A view from afar: Tinderella’s hollow victory – rising above men yet more at their mercy

Photo: Startup Stock Photos

Photo: Startup Stock Photos

The first words I say in The Ascent of Woman are: “There has never been a better time to have been born a woman.” I believe this to be true in aggregate and in particular for women in America. By every measurement we are either gaining on or are ahead of men. Since 2011 women have made up half the American workforce and the majority of the country’s graduates. But if we are getting our cake at last, guess what: we aren’t eating it, too.

When I was growing up, the message was that girls can do anything that boys can — and probably better. I don’t think it was meant to be a prophecy but it’s rather turned out that way. In America today the average undergraduate ratio is 57% women to 43% men. That’s the average, mind you. In some places it’s even worse. At Sarah Lawrence College, where I was a student, it’s more like 70-30.

Outside universities the gender gap isn’t much better. Among young adults with degrees there are five women for every four men. In some cities such as San Francisco, which is full of computer geeks and engineers, the imbalance is hardly noticeable. But others have turned into man deserts, especially for female graduates between the ages of 25 and 34.

Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: Pick of the day: The Ascent of Woman

Photo: Amanda Foreman

Photo: Amanda Foreman

The Ascent of Woman (BBC2, 9pm) 

The historian and biographer Dr Amanda Foreman really does want to rewrite history. In this series she sets out to show that a story of the world that excludes women “is an untruth that must be challenged.” In this first episode, titled Civilisation, her case studies include an Anatolian statue of a fleshy mother goddess, the Sumerian poet Enheduanna, who became the first author to be known by name, and the “ice maiden” preserved on the Russian steppe.

It is depressing, however, to see how quickly societies became obsessed with controlling women: the first law on veiling was written in Assyria 3,000 years ago; and it is hard to detect any female voices in ancient Athens because women, considered to be “imperfect”, were silenced. It is a serious look at a serious subject, its only gimmick a smart one: speaking to modern women from these grand civilisations about their feelings on the past and present.

The Sunday Times: Women’s equality dream comes true – 8,000 years ago

Photo: The Sunday Times

Photo: The Sunday Times

As a graduate student at Oxford I remember writing a throwaway sentence about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, being a dilettante much addicted to “unhelpful dabbling” in politics. That was the standard line on her then: rich, pretty, oversexed, undereducated and willing to trade kisses for votes on behalf of the Whig party. Naturally such a person was unworthy of any serious study, especially anything to do with politics or power. If I’m honest, I think I was rather embarrassed by her. Georgiana seemed to be the kind of woman who confirmed every male prejudice about our fitness for public life.

I never questioned my own opinions until I was deep into my PhD thesis on attitudes to race in 18th-century England. I was interested in learning more about Earl Grey, the prime minister who as a young man in 1806 had proposed a motion to abolish the slave trade. While delving into his life I discovered his affair with Georgiana and her private letters about it.

 

The first time I read them it was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over my head. It was immediately apparent that everything I thought I knew about her was false. Worse, it was a vicious caricature of a brilliant, effective and tragic woman. I realised I had inadvertently colluded in the trashing of her reputation.

Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: ‘The Ascent of Woman’ – Saturday Review

The Ascent of Woman

BBC Two, 9pm

There has never been a better time to be born a woman, says Dr Amanda Foreman. There are more female heads of government and more women running organisations today than at any time in history. It’s far from perfect, but it’s better than it was. In this fascinating series, she traces the ascent of women from ancient Mesopotamia to the present day, and asks why history became almost exclusively male, why almost every civilisation set limits on women’s sexuality, speech and freedom of movement, and why the status of women is so vulnerable to the dictates of politics, economics and religion. If you judge a civilisation by the way women were treated, she says, the ancient Greeks were as bad as the Taliban.