Above-Ground at Miramar

By Sam Thoburn (University of California, San Diego, USA)

I write every day, but not very often on this blog. So for that, my many, many readers, I apologise.

The Spring Quarter out here began three weeks ago, and among my new classes is one in travel writing. Since San Diego is a recruitment and command centre for both the American Navy and Air Force, I thought it would be interesting to look into that military history a little. To that end, I have been (and will be) visiting the city’s military cemeteries and writing about them. Here is the first piece I wrote, to be read in the knowledge that Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, just announced that he is deadly serious about reducing water usage across the state:

Above-Ground at Miramar

For such a level place, with so few trees, there is a great deal of birdsong. Is the song that of the Coastal California Gnatcatcher? The informational board installed in front of a fenced-off area of scrub would lead me to believe so: it tells the tale of vernal pools in San Diego County, a kind of seasonal wetland of which 97% are gone, leaving only those at this Miramar Air Force base as habitats for such endangered species as the San Diego Fairy Shrimp and the 4-inch-long Coastal California Gnatcatcher.

That unique fauna sets Miramar apart from other military cemeteries. But just like any of its kind, Miramar has the obligatory marble-white gravestones laid out in rows so perfect that they form straight lines from almost any angle.

Each gravestone bears these rows of information about the dead, engraved very deeply and arranged with as much precision as the stones themselves: name, rank, military branch, wars in which they fought (most commonly, still, Korea and Vietnam), dates of birth and death and sometimes a short tribute from the surviving family. On top of all those, in the uppermost portion of the stone, there is usually a religious symbol from a template; most often, it is some variant of a Christian cross, while the odd one bears the Star of David, and others carry ambiguous symbols like that of a silhouetted man blowing into a bugle or the sideways eight meaning infinity. The range of possible images must be limited to nine or ten, with one chosen from that small collection, which I suppose a family member must pick out. On the opposite side of some of the stones there are memorials for the non-serving military spouse. There is less ceremony to these—no religious symbols – and in fact they are easy to miss if you are not looking for them.

There are the usual graveside adornments – flags and flowers most commonly. Every flower is brightly coloured and alive, which seemed like a strange lack of tarnish for a cemetery until I read on a noticeboard, posted along one edge of the main graveyard plot, that “All floral items will be removed as soon as they become faded and/or unsightly”. Flowers bloom there all year round then, and the grass stays green as well. Every other facility in California must turn off its sprinklers if it is to conserve ever-precious water, but it would be a brave man who ordered the grass of national cemeteries to be left to the whims of the year-round sun. I will know that all hope of salvation from the drought is lost when there is parched grass at Miramar.

The artifice of green grass is clear enough when you move from the eastern to the western side of the entrance gate. This national cemetery only opened in 2010, and though thousands are already interred there, the ground is not nearly full. One or two plots of ground have been prepared on this western side to await those who will pass on in the coming years, but the space is not yet completely developed. Past a certain point, the road that leads around the plots is unpaved, becoming a track through the dirty yellow dust of wild scrubland. I walked over it slowly, heeding as best I could the warning sign by the low administration building (“BEWARE OF RATTLESNAKES”), and wondered how long it would be before this, too, would be sacred memorial ground and true mourners would stand there instead of me.

The Country from the Air

By Sam Thoburn (University of California, San Diego, USA)

San Diego is a long way from most places, and this year in America is precious time to be used diversely, so in the last three months I have flown more often than ever before in my life. And when I fly, I usually fly at night. That hasn’t been a conscious choice, but it has held true for the past few months. A break has come in that pattern now, though, and it has left my nocturnal partiality as nothing at all.

For Christmas and New Year, I was in New England with my parents and my brother. It was a lovely fortnight in a corner of this country I have never seen before, and I tried not to take it all for granted. I was disinclined to leave for home, if I may so call California after three months here. The journey back over the country and into the sun was in unusual daytime, and it was in two stages: Boston-Chicago, Chicago-San Diego.

On the first leg, early in the morning, I saw nothing through thick layers of cloud and sleep. The Midwest and its flat plains of crops were invisible from 34,000 feet, our cruising altitude. I read between naps, the personal screens showing only paid programming after taxying (and not being inclined to pay for Spongebob). Coming in for a soft landing at O’Hare after three hours in the air, we found the product of the cloud cover: heavy rain on the tarmac and slick-hooded runway workers.

The second flight was delayed and I waited at the gate, watching a talking-heads show about Taylor Swift’s career, eating a sandwich that covered my lap in crumbs.

That latter aeroplane was packed. There was some confusion as we boarded; double-booked seats and misprinted tickets for Boise not San Diego and dogs unwilling to leave their seats. I was in the back row (where I like to be, unharried, and not imposing on anybody when I recline my seat) and I had the window seat.

For hours there was nothing to see but the wonderful niveous down that clouds form when seen from above. No longer inclined to sleep, though, I kept looking, waiting for a little more. The first announcement the pilot made in midair warned of imminent turbulence as we passed over Denver. That shook a lot of people awake. I like turbulence; it reminds me, on a long flight, that I am defying physical laws, suspended in the sky unnaturally and wonderfully; it shouldn’t be too easy. But on that five hour flight, I found that that reminder need not be physical. It can come, too, in the view from a small porthole window that you crick your neck to look through.

The clouds thinned out as the plane stopped shaking, and I saw Colorado below. I have never been to Colorado, so my only expectation was to look down on snowy mountains. And it must be that from such a distance, such an impersonal height, stereotypes are made, because all I saw were mountain clusters peaked in glowing white: the Rockies.

Mountains became rarer as we moved along, and instead there was more level ground. A plateau hundreds of miles long, a vast once-brown mesa, dusted in snow. State lines not being visible from the air, and my US geography being rudimentary, I took the sight of snow to mean that we were still over Colorado.

The plateau dropped away into a sheer river gorge, shepherding water down from more mountains in the far background. I could see not only its great depth, told in long shadows at its most impressive point, but its origin upriver, too, as a shallow cut in the rock. On the high ground between the forked branches of canyons, there were squares of I cannot imagine what crop laid out in perfect squares and inlaid with concentric circles of winter furrow. These fields too were white in places.”We’re almost there,” the pilot said then, “and if you are lucky enough to be on the right-hand side of the plane, you’ll have a wonderful view of the Grand Canyon this afternoon. They had snow here just last week.” Arizona, then.

We followed the course of rail and road lines—forced across the country in a strangely straight line, with nothing to navigate around—until they stopped or turned at sharp angles to keep from falling into that ravine. I have never stood on that precipice myself and taken in the view for myself, and perhaps my foreignness showed; all my mind could conjure, as we crossed over the edge and I first faced that gaping monument, was that the rock I saw was as red as Manchester brick.

A Month at UCSD

By Sam Thoburn (University of California, San Diego, USA)

I wrote my first entry for this blog weeks ago, when I had only been here for a day or two. When I wrote it, I was spending nights on the floor of my half a room and feeling, perhaps unsurprisingly, terrible. Aside from the barren nightly arrangements, every time I noticed that a turn of phrase or a product in the supermarket was even slightly different from what I know it to be at home, my assumption was that this was a change for the worse. I maintained rather longer than I should have the arrogance of the traveller, who laments with every mouthful the fact that Special K just isn’t the same in America. I am very glad that the blog I wrote at that time was not published, because it would only give you a bad impression of the place where I now live, when in truth the problems were my own. Perhaps if I had read the pertinent Study Abroad literature more closely, the first trials of my year abroad would not have affected me so much – I was not the first to feel that way, nor will I be the last. And so here, after almost a month in the country, is what I have to say.

There is one inescapable thing about being in America that I took to as soon as I arrived, and that is the feeling, every time I open my mouth, that I am foreign. At home near London or in Manchester, my accent is reassuringly dull and commonplace, seemingly without a region. Here, though, my voice is unique enough and close enough to Queen’s English that people are inclined to like hearing you speak. In the first week I was here, the campus was half-asleep: it was International Orientation Week and all of the local students had yet to arrive. Among those that were here already, I gravitated, as we all do, to those with whom I shared the most, and so my first friends were English and Irish students in exactly the same position as myself. The accents we have, when heard in San Diego, are unifying and bonding, and every time you hear one it is reassuring.

Once the campus filled with students from all over California and other states, the scale of the place and the communities it supports struck me. It is nothing like Manchester, I can tell you that much. (In fact, yesterday was the first day since I arrived that I wore jeans. Every other day has been the height of summer. After a few weeks of that, believe me when I say that rain sounds like a distant and wonderful thing.) I can walk from the bottom of the campus to the top in twenty minutes, but most don’t; skateboards, scooters and bicycles of all kinds will run any pedestrian down if they are not looking in every direction at the same time.

These American students had their own Welcome Week which, as far as I could tell, bore no resemblance to my Fresher’s experience in Fallowfield. For one thing, it was more or less an entirely sober week. Most importantly, though, and alien to me as a student in Manchester, the emphasis is placed more upon school spirit—every other person you walk past on campus is wearing a UCSD T-shirt or jumper or baseball cap. There is a two-storey bookshop, but more than half of its shelves are given over to official UCSD stationery, clothing and souvenirs. In that sense, the week is a complete success.

After a little while, I began to appreciate the prevalence of frozen yoghurt and fruit smoothie shops here where I live, just north of San Diego and east of La Jolla. In the third week I also managed to leave the discomfort of my little sleeping bag behind when I won a free mattress on the flip of a coin. In these weeks, FaceTime has become a huge part of my life, as have considerations of the eight hour time difference – the notion that, a third of the time, I am living on a different day to all my family never seems normal.

I am not even coming close to recounting the month entirely, or even its highlights, and I think that I will stop trying for now. That is how it is bound to be: a month on your own in a new country gives you a lot to write about.