IMG_1890One of the highlights of my recent cross-country road trip was Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. And how could it not be a highlight? Here is scenery that both inspires and excites in a corner of Colorado once called the ‘Switzerland of America.’ One of several wide valleys at around 8,000 feet, which include North Park, Middle Park, South Park, and Winter Park, FullSizeRender-18Estes Park itself was renowned for its beauty. But for the long line of British aristocrats that visited the area from the early 1800s, it held a hint of their own landscaped reserves surrounding country estates, yet was a formidable hunting ground, brimming with wildlife they would not encounter back home. No wonder then, given the immense wealth of these visitors,  they would want to have it for their own. And one man set out to do just that.

4thEarlOfDunravenWindham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, 4th Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl, an Anglo-Irish peer, first viewed the Rockies in 1869, aged twenty-eight and on his honeymoon. He had gone to Oxford and served in the Queen’s Life Guards. Best known for being a journalist, writing articles on travel and hunting, he was generally considered an enlightened and rather progressive man for his background, and mixed socially with writers, actors and musicians. His boyhood had been spent reading the western novels of Mayne Reid and Fennimore Cooper so that, despite having a young bride in tow, he now aimed to travel west and hunt. Circumstances conspired against him that year, however, and his party reached only as far as Denver. The dramatic backdrop to this burgeoning town was enough to enthrall him. In the next sixteen years, Dunraven was to travel annually to the west, sometimes more than once a year. After all, Denver was ‘only’ seventeen days from Liverpool.

FullSizeRender-19Estes Park had been home to Arapaho and Ute and occasional Apaches. Trappers had passed through, and Missourian Joel Estes came in 1859 to try his hand at ranching there. Griff Evans arrived in 1867 and built cabins to accommodate tourists and lead hunting trips. In 1872, Dunraven finally set eyes on the area for the first time. He had inherited title just a year earlier, and now commanded his family’s extensive fortune, including banks, railroads, shipping and coal, as well as four mansions scattered throughout the British Isles. Having hunted throughout the west on visits over the last three years—including one hunt led by William Cody and his pal, Texas Jack— Dunraven now stayed at one of Evans’ cabins for three weeks and subsequently set his heart on having the park for his private hunting ground. The earl had caught ‘prairie fever’ as Mayne Reid had called it.

Why Dunraven favored Estes Park came down to several details, as varied as the beautiful sunsets, the dry air, and the fact nearby Denver was a station for no less than five railroad lines. He loved the area so much that he paid Albert Bierstadt $15,000 for a painting of Estes Park, the first of many he would take home to remind him of his place in the west. The way Dunraven set about obtaining ownership to six thousand acres was a modus operandi that would be employed by numerous ranchers throughout the west in the coming years. Exercising his vast resources, he had his agents bribe various American citizens to make use of both the Pre-emption Act and Homestead Act to either buy or prove up 160 acres each. By choosing the sites wisely, Dunraven enclosed more acreage without access to water. Thirty-one claims were filed for his use.

FullSizeRender-21But such a land grab could not go unnoticed. Squatters moved in, and a grand jury was set to investigate his claims. While none of this came to anything, and Dunraven kept his land titles, the harassment showed him the writing on the wall. He had the roads improved and built a hotel as well as a sawmill. Back home in Britain, he was increasingly involved in politics, and would later serve in Her Majesty’s government under Lord Salisbury, as well as in the Senate of the Irish Free State. The Earl made his last visit to Estes Park in 1882, but it was not until 1908 that he sold his land to F.O. Stanley and B. D. Sanborn. Stanley, of course, built the now-historic Stanley Hotel. Rocky Mountain National Park was signed into being in 1915.FullSizeRender-20

It is a strange anomaly that a man who wrote approvingly about the preservation of Yellowstone as a national park for the enjoyment of the general public, and later would be instrumental in passing the Irish Land Purchase Act of 1903 (permitting tenants to purchase land with favorable terms from their landlords), should want to illegally secure such a large swathe of American countryside. But Dunraven was very much a product of his background, if an enlightened one, and only the first of many Brits who would seek to use the west for their own profit and enjoyment.

My first book, Loveland, deals with this in part. It is to be re-released by Amazon Encore on Sept. 15th.


Photograph of Lord Dunraven in public domain.  All other photos Cristal Downing and myself.



IMG_0423The judges have decided—the votes are in! Having traveled more than 8,000 miles and scoured the country for the very best, here are the 2015 DOWNING ROADTRIP AWARDS…in order of encounter.

  1. BEST HISTORIC SITE: Gettysburg National Military Park, http://www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm  Gettysburg, PA

    Linda Johnston and me

    Linda Johnston and me

  2. BEST HIKING GUIDE: Linda Johnston, http://www.lindasjohnston.com
  3. BEST COLLEGE REUNION: Laurie Graybeal, Charlotte, NC.
  4. BEST MUSEUM: Museum of the New South, http://www.museumofthenewsouth.org Charlotte, NC
  5. BEST NIGHT OUT: Nashville, TN http://www.nowplayingnashville.com/org/detail/32141/Music_City_Nights_LIVE
  6. BEST DINNER RESTAURANT: Etch, Nashville, TN http://www.etchrestaurant.com
  7. BEST HISTORIC HOUSE: Graceland, Memphis, TN
    The ceiling in Elvis' media room

    The ceiling in Elvis’ media room


  8. BEST WEIRD ATTRACTION: The Peabody Ducks, Memphis, TN http://www.peabodymemphis.com/peabody-ducks/
  9. BEST UNEXPECTED GEM: a tie between Augusta, MO, and Manitoulin Is., ON, Canada http://www.augusta-missouri.com & http://www.manitoulin-island.com
  10. MOST GENEROUS LOCAL: Eunice Boevehttp://www.euniceboeve.net

    Angela Bates, Eunice Boeve, me and Cristal at Ernestine's BBQ, Nicodemus

    Angela Bates, Eunice Boeve, me and Cristal at Ernestine’s BBQ, Nicodemus

  11. BEST NATIONAL PARK: Nicodemus, Nicodemus, KS
    Lake Estes

    Lake Estes


  12. BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Walk or run around lake in Estes Park, Rocky Mt. National Park http://www.evrpd.com/marina/lake-estes-trail-a-picnic-areas
  13. BEST DRIVE: Lake Estes, CO to Rock Springs, WY http://www.visitestespark.com & http://www.rswy.net
  14. BEST PLACE TO STRETCH YOUR LEGS AND HAVE LUNCH: Steamboat Springs, CO http://www.creekside-cafe.com & http://www.steamboatchamber.com
  15. BEST TRAVELING COMPANION: Karen Casey Fitzjerrell
    Karen Casey Fitzjerrell

    Karen Casey Fitzjerrell


  16. BEST HOME STAY: Lazy P Ranch, Buffalo, WY http://www.vrbo.com/656153IMG_2105
  17. MOST SCENIC DINNER: Buoy’s in Gore Bay, Manitioulin Is., ON, Canada, across from the Queen’s Inn http://www.buoyseatery.com & http://www.thequeensinn.ca

    Buoy's at closing time

    Buoy’s at closing time

  18. BEST LAKE: Lake Huron, Great Lakes, Canada and USA http://www.great-lakes.net/lakes/huron.html
  19. BEST HOTEL: The Omni King Edward, Toronto, ON, Canada http://www.omnihotels.com/hotels/toronto-king-edward?gclid=Cj0KEQjw0ZauBRDOnoGQ2PTb9YoBEiQAQ6m_7LgtH67avVzFAsgyGSjTKKV5LSAw4Kzuvv50zDu-JHsaAjAY8P8HAQ
  20. BEST HIGH SCHOOL REUNION: Gemma Wain, Editor, Toronto, ON, Canada
  21. BEST LUNCH RESTAURANT: Signs, Toronto, ON, Canada http://signsrestaurant.ca
  22. BEST PLACE TO AVOID AT ALL COST: Taylor’s Tea Room, Dundas, ON, Canada http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g2645488-d4853835-Reviews-Taylor_s_Tea_Room_Takeaway-Dundas_Hamilton_Ontario.html
  23. BEST AND MOST PRIZED PURCHASES: Two photographs by Janusz Wrobel, studio in Dundas, ON, Canada, and Honorable Mention to hand blown glass by Sam Stang http://www.januszwrobel.com/#1 & http://www.samstang.com
  24. BEST WATERFALL: Niagara, ON, Canada & NYS, USA, with an


    Honorable Mention to Munising Falls, Munising, MI, http://www.niagarafallstourism.com & http://www.gowaterfalling.com/waterfalls/munising.shtml

  25. BEST WINE-RELATED ACTIVITIES (OTHER THAN THE NIGHTLY DRINKING OF IT): Canandaigua Wineries Visits http://canandaiguawinetrail.com

Thanks again for traveling with us. If you have any questions or comments related to our awards, they’ll be gratefully received!IMG_0822



FullSizeRenderIt’s been a long last day, Cristal doing all the final driving from Rhinebeck into NYC, dropping things at her apartment, at my apartment, and then out to my house. She’s dealt with double parking, cutting in, blocking in, speeding and reckless driving on top of all the other traffic woes. But here we are, safe and sound, at home in East Hampton. Our groceries have, happily, been delivered—a perk of living out here—and the first load of wash is in. My own suitcase is still half-unpacked and I haven’t touched the two months of mail waiting for me; the garden is distinctly overgrown, and there were 59 messages of varying importance on the answering machine. But here we are, seven weeks later, having had the experience of our lives and enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.IMG_2450

We have a list of some twenty-five awards we’d like to share with you in a day or two, but for now I am signing off. There is no deeply felt summation here; I fear I would get sentimental in the extreme if I tried to do so. But what I would like to say here is that America is every bit as varied and diverse in both its population and its landscape as I hoped it would it be. We are so incredibly lucky in this wide ranging variety, it is impossible to compare our country with anywhere else. Cristal and I both had a fantastic time—there is no other IMG_2452expression to round it off—and we both would do it again.

Stay tuned for the Award Ceremony, but for now, thank you for coming along—we’ve enjoyed your company.


Springwood, Hyde Park

Springwood, Hyde Park

The sitting room at Springwood

The sitting room at Springwood

My daughter’s take on visiting ‘Springwood,’ the Hyde Park home of Franklin Roosevelt, was that visiting the homes of famous people was like reading People magazine; her point was that the way people lived is no reflection of the impact they had on the world. Good point, but I dragged her along anyway.

For anyone who has seen the recent Ken Burns

FDR's bedroom

FDR’s bedroom

series on the Roosevelts, actually visiting the house is an insightful supplement. Here is the story of the financial hold his mother had on him and Eleanor, and here is the story of his tremendous fight to hide his incapacity to walk while showing a great capacity to think and live normally.

One of numerous letters sent to FDR as President--it just says, "Attaboy."

One of numerous letters sent to FDR as President–it just says, “Attaboy.”

The Presidential Library—the nation’s first, and started while he was still in office—is a comprehensive showcase of the Depression, a sad chronicle of the nation at its lowest point. In addition, the estate also includes Top House, FDR’s getaway, and Val-Kill, the cottage Eleanor designed and furnished independently of her mother-in-law’s influence and her husband’s harried life.

Eleanor's sitting room at Val-Kill

Eleanor’s sitting room at Val-Kill

The visit was a splendid last day of sightseeing for us before we head home tomorrow. And how did Cristal feel at the end of it? She said she was glad she went because now she would like to know more about the Roosevelts and what they accomplished.

The view from Springwood

The view from Springwood

FDR's grave in the rose garden

FDR’s grave in the rose garden


FullSizeRenderIn the last days of travel as lengthy as this has been, the mind slowly turns toward what awaits at home. For Cristal, who had only been back from three years living in Colombia (less some visits home) for one week before departure, there are applications for a new full-time job to get out, a renovated apartment to move into, and the arrival of her boyfriend to look forward to. My own mind is swimming around two months of mail and bills to deal with, bathrooms that will be modernized, doctor appointments and the start of a new book. As Cristal deals with numerous deliveries and unpacking belongings sent from Bogota, I’ll be considering the cheapest way to update my house, and making plans to escape once again in October—to a conference and on to Wyoming. It’ll be a busy August, no doubt.

IMG_2408For today, we made a start on sorting what needs to be dropped in the city and what will be taken on to my house, and how to place everything in the car for the speediest evacuation of luggage on city streets without parking spaces. We wonder why we have so many breakable goods in tow and why the suitcases don’t close. We’re thinking ahead to lunch in the car and fighting traffic on the Thruway.

The Beekman Arms, oldest inn in America

The Beekman Arms, oldest inn in America

But today also offered us a small glimpse into old America. Settled by the Dutch, in 1686, as much of the Hudson Valley was, Rhinebeck also played a part in the Revolutionary War. The oldest inn in America is here and, even today, there is a local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution. But it is to the old Dutch families that the area mostly owes its character. On our last stay, a couple of years ago, we visited one of the Vanderbilt mansions. Tomorrow we’re off to see the Roosevelt homes.IMG_2417


There we were, taking the long way—the scenic route—down from Canandaigua to Rhinebeck, tooling along pleasantly through the glorious Catskill Mountains, when a speeding car whizzed past us practically slamming into another vehicle, who just managed to slip into the right hand lane directly in front of us. Had the speeding vehicle hit the other car, it would surely have spun around in front of us including us in the crash. Cristal and I were both shaken by the incident, but remain in fine fettle. What the occupants of the nearly-missed car were like, I dread to think.

IMG_1031The Catskills, after the Rockies and the Tetons, are mere hills, but green ones at that, thick with trees, bisected with rivers, dotted with old towns. We took a detour to visit an old hotel at which I had had several vacations as a child. It has just undergone a name change along with its twenty million dollar makeover, but looked pretty much the same. It strikes me now as something from another time, another era, and it wouldn’t appeal to me to stay there now. Its sister hotel, on the other hand, right next door, is in gloomy decadence, rather like an old southern mansion that has been left to decay.IMG_1035

So here we are in our last home away from home, a small chalet-type house in Rhinebeck, in the Hudson Valley. Compared to other houses we’ve rented over the past weeks, and homes we’ve stayed in as B and Bs, it somewhat misses the mark. We found the beds unmade, a single toilet roll at 2/3 use, which we’ll have to replace, air con only in the bedrooms—insufficient at 85 degrees—and, worst of all, Cristal’s ‘room’ was the chalet attic, boiling hot with no shades on the windows. We have duly moved her mattress and bedding down to my room. I’m not sure if we’re ‘spoiled’ travellers; we discussed this earlier today, wondering about our expectations. As Cristal is currently unable to find mugs for our evening tea, I don’t really think our expectations are too high.



IMG_2402IMG_2400Some years back there was a campaign for good food and healthy eating with the slogan, “You Are What You Eat.” In fact, it started as a television series in the UK and spread from there. It’s an adage I’ve tried to follow, but obviously, when traveling, it’s far more difficult than at other times.

Here in the Finger Lakes, as I’ve been saying, life pretty much revolves around food production and wineries. There’s a good-sized Amish and Mennonite community whose pristine farms line the roads with cabbages, corn and other vegetables. FullSizeRender-17We started our outings today with one of the markets they attend, and ogled the variety. After that, we went on to a “Garlic Festival’ at one of the wineries, an event brimming with oils and vinegars to buy in flavors you’d never think of, honeys of every variety, and, needless to say, real garlic—not the store-bought stuff that’s virtually tasteless, but garlic that sings and zings in your mouth. No “EEEE-uwwwws” here, please; this was delicious stuff. And finally, we ended the day with a ‘wine walk’ in the town of Canandaigua, going from shop to shop, tasting wines and cheeses, cookies and dips.IMG_2405

But one man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the saying goes. Here at our B and B the day starts with what the innkeeper obviously views as a gourmet breakfast. This morning this consisted of tea, mango juice and pure grape juice shots (nothing like Welch’s). There was a gigantic blueberry muffin waiting on our plates as we sat down, swiftly followed by peaches on whipped feta IMG_2399atop bruschetta with a balsamic reduction. Before the last bite was down, blueberry pancakes were staring us in the eye with two rashers of bacon, baked with a sprinkle of sugar and walnuts. Finally, with hardly a second to spare, a mound of sliced strawberries sitting on a split scone sat in front of us, pretty as a picture. I won’t describe yesterday’s breakfast in such detail, but I will tell you it ended with wine ice cream on chocolate cookies.

If I am what I eat, I dread to think exactly what I am.IMG_0981


IMG_2387On Sundays opposite my New York apartment there is a farmer’s market. Most of the vendors come down from the Finger Lake region here in upstate New York, standing out in winter weather with numb fingers, half asleep from their very early rising to get to the city. Today, in glorious summer sunshine, I got to see their produce first hand.

vineyards in the Finger Lakes

vineyards in the Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes region is primarily known for its wine. New York State wine used to be a joke many years ago, but a number of the wineries have now managed to build their reputations to an acceptable level. Cristal and I did a bit of a wine tour around the Lake—to the extent that it’s something of a miracle I can still write today. As Designated Driver, I had to decline tasting at the last winery—beginning to feel somewhat wary of facing these winding country roads.

Carp in The Japanese Garden at Sonnenberg Mansion

Carp in The Japanese Garden at Sonnenberg Mansion

Our tour also included a stop at the Sonnenberg Mansion, a post-Civil War home

The 'Old Fashioned Garden' at Sonnenberg Mansion

The ‘Old Fashioned Garden’ at Sonnenberg Mansion

in the Tudor style built by Frederick and Mary Thompson, a wealthy NY banker and his wife. Mary apparently loved flowers and gardening, and the grounds around the house are divided into twelve different types of garden. But what caught my eye was the story of how flowers actually ‘saved’ her life. She was travelling in Europe when she discovered the tulip festival in the Netherlands was taking place. She therefore changed her plans to return home and went to see the tulips. Mary had had tickets to travel on the Titanic…

Weeks ago in Nashville, as we wandered around The Old Opry and read stories of the great and the good of country music, there was the biography of Waylon Jennings. Jennings, before he was truly famous, had been a guitarist for Buddy Holly. He gave up his seat on Holly’s fateful flight to another man.

Life is full of those, ‘what if I had done this?” or “ what if that happened?” but for most of us, it doesn’t hit with such a resounding thud.IMG_0986


As I write this, I am watching a load of clothes perform a wild dance of twists and turns in a tumble drier—a reckless carousel of laundry. Having managed to previously get the wash done in either homes or motel laundry rooms, we have finally been reduced to a Laundromat. It’s not a pleasant experience, sitting here in intense heat, but a novel one for me, and perhaps good fodder for a book. Oldies but goodies are blaring on the sound system, and the pin board has some interesting notices, everything from smoked meat to a cute puppy found without a collar.

FullSizeRender-15We’re in Canandaigua in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Our license plate is no longer unusual, no longer an object of comment, and I’m pleased to be able to use the US dollar once more. The magnificent view of Niagara has been traded for an attic room view of Lake Canandaigua. We chose this area to go wine tasting, which we hope to do tomorrow. But for now, forgive my brevity, having wasted a couple of hours from one of our last days, we’re going to gather the semi-dried clothes and get the hell outta here.


IMG_2364On this blistering hot day, taking the boat to see Niagara Falls up close and personal was certainly a welcome outing. Very well organized, the seemingly thousands of people are shuffled through air-conditioned pathways, elevators down to the docks, poncho hand-out and on to the boat in military fashion.IMG_2348 While I dreaded donning the plastic rain protection in the heat, I couldn’t get it on fast enough once we approached the falls. That’s one heckuva lot of water.

As we sauntered back along the riverfront path, a small girl of about six years went running past us crying her eyes out and calling for her Mama. She finally collapsed on the lawn sobbing, and two young women went over to help her as we came up. A small crowd gathered for a while but dispersed when it seemed the two young women had things under control. Cristal and I stayed to help. The child spoke French but not English. As we discussed how we could help her find her parents, a man came running up, thanked us abruptly as the child acknowledged and recognized him. However, he grabbed the child, speaking to her in some other unidentifiable-to-us language. He started to yank her along—still whimpering—as the four of us stood watching in some dismay. We discussed what had happened: she was talking French but he wasn’t. Was he the parent? A step-father? An uncle? While I wouldn’t say she went off with him happily, she went off willingly. I pointed out that, just because we didn’t like the way he treated her, didn’t mean we could prevent a relative or guardian from taking her. The experience obviously left us all bewildered and uncertain, a bitter taste in our mouths and the thought, had we done the right thing?

So, like the man in the program says, what would you do?FullSizeRender