A break from college with a J1 at 61


When you're a 21-year-old student, getting your J1 visa and heading off to travel across America is exciting. Being 61 adds an extra dimension . . .

THIS YEAR I headed off in June - like hundreds of other Irish students - on a J1 visa, with the prospect of work and travel in the US during the summer holidays. Having just completed the first year of a four-year degree course in European studies at the Institute of Technology in Tallaght, I met the first J1 requirement of "full-time third-level student" easily.

But the "over 18" requirement was more challenging. Usit's computer system developed indigestion over my application, spitting back that my age entry was invalid, but the company's young travel agents wrestled it into submission. The insurance company initially insisted that I either pay a loading, or get similar cover from another insurance company, virtually signed in blood. Eventually, they gave in gracefully too. At least at the American embassy visa interview it was only the porter who did a double take when I asked for directions to the J1 queue. I'm 61.

Usit agents choose the cheapest route to get you to your destination. For me, that meant going via London and Washington to New York. It also meant going through immigration at Washington, including reclaiming and resubmitting my heavy rucksack, because this was my point of entry into the US. A fellow traveller in the manic queues in Washington airport informed me that United Airlines, with whom I was flying, had let go 950 employees that day. Two flights to John F Kennedy International Airport had been cancelled, and I was rescheduled for a flight the following morning.

I had left home at 4am after three hours' sleep, and it was now after 9pm in Washington - after 2am Irish time. My courage, and my back, were at a low ebb. I got directions to a nearby hotel, and crashed.

The following morning, courage and back renewed, I caught a flight to New York where, to my utter amazement, I was safely reunited with my rucksack.

I stayed in New York only long enough to catch a Greyhound bus to Boston, and suddenly I was seeing New England countryside for the first time - passing clapboard houses, harbours and inlets, and snub-nosed American trucks. I also got talking to the first in a series of friendly and curious American people that I met in a kaleidoscopic journey across the United States to San Francisco.

If I rotate this tube of shifting mirrors, I see many images . . .

My main memories of Boston include the eight bronze ducklings of Robert McCloskey's children's story Make Way for Ducklings; the Liberty Trail and colourful Quincey Market; 104 rose bushes to celebrate Rose Kennedy's life; thunder and lightning storms of Biblical proportions and the Mapparium, a 30ft-high globe made of 608 stained-glass panels showing all the countries of the world (you step inside it onto a 15ft glass bridge). A little girl sat in the lap of an enormous bronze teddy outside a hospital, while her grandmother told me Ireland was absolutely her "favourite place on earth" - and that someday she's going to go there.

My main impression of Chicago is of a city full of sunshine by a lake so big that you can't see the opposite shore. Around the University of Chicago old houses with shadowy-tiled halls and quiet quads are set among peaceful tree-lined streets. Downtown, hundreds of stalls of different foods at the Taste of Chicago festival in Millennium Gardens attracted thousands of people, while Crown Fountain spewed its cool waters over the laughing children who paddled in its mosaic pond. I listened to open-air music, wandered down to busy Lake Michigan, and went on the city's elevated railway line - the Loop - just for the craic.

Chicago ended in happy companionship when a friend from Ireland, May, joined me for two weeks. On our last night in the Windy City there was a huge fireworks display for the eve of the Fourth of July.

Amtrak's Southwest Chief train carried us, for two nights and three days, from Illinois through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and then into California - through three different time zones. The countryside changed from green, to sun-baked golden fields, to scorched desert. We crossed the Mississippi River with what seemed like only a few feet between the track and its awesome depth and, much later, the Rio Grande. We'd go to sleep in fold-down narrow bunk beds, and wake up to a different world. We met different people, from different parts of the United States every day in the dining and observation cars - people like the woman who announced that she was going to her cabin to "hide" under the seat when we came to a tunnel. Instead, she stayed while the whole observation car cheered her through it. Hugging goodbye, she whispered that she was going through a divorce, and the journey had been very important for her.

WE FINALLY ARRIVEDin Los Angeles. Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive are not my kind of place, but it was interesting to see the Hollywood sign up in the foothills, and to search the famous handprints on Hollywood Boulevard for familiar names. And good to walk on Santa Monica's miles of sandy beach and great big boardwalk, with its gorgeous carousel and big Ferris wheel, passing fast food restaurants and stalls, artists and buskers, fishermen and families, all under a magnificent blue sky.

I found Las Vegas mind-bogglingly ostentatious, with reality and environmentalism equally fragile concepts. Yet the flashing, garish lights and sights are worth seeing - once - and in the middle of all of them you can come across something that is surprisingly delicate and elegant, like the dancing fountains in front of Bellagio's hotel.

What struck me at the Grand Canyon was the dry heat, the immensity, the timelessness, the skyline sculptured only by nature and legend, and the technological feat of the Skywalk - a semi-circular structure made completely of glass that allows tourists to walk out over the west rim of the canyon, as if were walking on air. It's owned and managed by the Hualapai Indian tribe, as this part of the Canyon is on their lands. T-shirts selling at the Canyon show Indians dressed for battle with the legend: "Fighting terrorism since 1492".

Things changed once we arrived in San Francisco, which was to become my home for almost two months. Here May said goodbye, and I stopped being a tourist - moving into a house where Ciara, a laid-back decorative painter from Dublin, lives with her dog, Finn, as well as Mary and Trace, her French and American "room-mates" (housemates to you and me).

Here, the memories are of shopping at Trader Joe's and going to the launderette; looking for a job walking dogs; the cold summer mist that can take a long time to burn off here in the city; developing a familiarity with local transport, while developing strong lungs and legs on San Francisco's hills; finding new streets, new parks, new beaches, usually with Finn on the end of a leash, and new people to talk to everywhere. Here too, I spent time becoming part of the "Irish mafia" that pulls you in, protects you, and is comfortingly familiar, yet sometimes disconcertingly different, because most of these people have lived here for more than a decade.

Among the things I won't forget are the Golden Gate Bridge; vertigo-inducing views from most of the streets where I live; cable cars; huge eucalyptus trees; Pier 3 and Fisherman's Wharf; the beautifully-decorated timber Victorian houses known as 'Painted Ladies'; the Hispanic nature of the Mission District and the enormous colourful street murals, often illustrating the close ties between the African-American community here and this city's tradition of jazz.

Other things were special too, such as the rainbow-coloured flags of Castro; statues of a Chinese St Joseph and Mary in Old St Mary's Church; the Aids chapel in Grace Cathedral and a living monument to Martin Luther King in the form of a waterfall in Yerba Buena Gardens, with photographs and excerpts from his speeches in a walkway behind the cascade.

The story of the occupation of Alcatraz by Native Americans of many different tribes who lost the island after 18 months, but reclaimed their identity, and the sight and the surfers coming in at sunset on Ocean Beach near gannet-covered rocks, have each in their own way become part of my mental landscape.

Other memories here form part of the kaleidoscope - an overnight trip to Reno in Nevada to see my grandnephew, Tristan, dance in Burn the Floor/FloorPlay(it is to ballroom dancing what Riverdancewas to Irish dancing); a few days in San José where Ciara painted, I wrote, and Finn chased squirrels; the quiet ranches of Santa Rosa and the vineyards of Napa valley; and, above all - but not confined to San Francisco by any means - stories . . .

MOST OF THESEI heard on buses, on trains, on streets, among friends, but some I heard as part of a project to collect the oral histories of Jewish American women during the first World War for an online archive. Dog-walking had been my "dream job", but I soon realised that dog-owners here would as easily trust an unknown with their children as they would with their pets. So I contented myself with walking Finn, and answered an advertisement for writers-cum-interviewers to take part in the above project. It has been, and continues to be, fascinating.

Their stories have kept me spellbound, but so too have the "street stories" I've heard in this vast country that is so amazingly diverse - geographically, culturally, architecturally, and in terms of food, wealth, and politics. (I've never seen a McCain sticker on my travels, and I've yet to meet anyone who supports him, yet newspapers and TV continue to say that the race between McCain and Obama is close. I can only deduce that I attract like-minded people - and stickers.)

Next weekend, I'll visit Yosemite before taking another Amtrak train - the Coast Starlight - up along the Pacific Coast to Seattle, and then the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago, before flying to Washington, and then home. And, truth to tell, I'm almost ready for it. I've loved travelling, but I've become tired of hugging people "goodbye". I want to be hugged "welcome home" again.

Yet, when they ask me here: "Will you come back again next year?", I find myself replying, "No, I'm sorry, I can't. Next year I'm going to Australia."