The Great American Road Trip

by Ciaran Flannery, Assistant Producer, Urban/Rivers team 


As one of two Americans working on Human Planet, I was immediately suspicious when I was told I had two shoots to direct in the USA.  This could be a good way of getting rid of me I thought, merely steal my Irish passport and I’m stuck back home.  Fortunately my Human Planet colleagues are far too scrupulous to think up such a nefarious scheme, so I set out for Austin, Texas at the end of August to film the world’s largest urban bat colony for the “Urban” programme.

 Austin prides itself on being weird and funky, and my mission was to capture that as well as the spectacular emergence of the bat colony from under the Congress St Bridge.  Days were spent lining up shoots and nights were spent capturing the flavour of the city – particularly the self-given moniker “Live Music Capital of the World.”

Prepared for a long road trip

Here I am, preparing for a long road trip

 I arranged to see one of my country music heroes – Billy Joe Shaver, who was playing a show at a beer garden.   I was in rock and roll cowboy heaven.    The morning of the show, I pulled back the blinds of my hotel room and looked out on a biblical deluge.  The epic Austin drought had ended, and now the city was filled with buckets of rain.  Billy Joe couldn’t even make it down from Waco for the show.  And worse, the bats now wouldn’t need to come out early.  Monsoon rain poured for the next three days – which is what we needed in India a month earlier on another shoot…

 Estes Park

Policeman on a scooter in Estes Park

Policeman on a scooter in Estes Park

  Off to Colorado to film elk in Estes Park.  Because Estes is just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, the town gets thronged with tourists, especially on the weekends.  And tourists love to ask what you are doing, especially right when you are filming.  This routine had endless variations, but my favourite was when a heavy set gentleman in a cowboy hat clambered out of his Texas-plated pickup and stopped to stare at us.  My cameraman and I were carrying the HD camera and tripod to set up and film elk interrupting a golf game.  “Where y’all from? The radio station?” he asked. 


The Detroit City skyline today

The Detroit City skyline today

 The shoots now over, I sent the kit and footage back to the UK with my cameraman and headed off to recce Detroit.  I had read about Detroit and seen photos of its urban decay, but nothing prepared me for the devastation of the city.  Thousands of acres of the city are abandoned. You can drive for blocks without seeing a building. And then the buildings you do see are burned out shells. 19th century timber baron mansions have forests growing out of them.

Trash burning in Detroit

Trash burning in Detroit

The city was once the world’s wealthiest and now classic art deco masterpieces lie empty.  The factories of Motown and the Arsenal of Democracy during WWII are silent, save for the sounds of scavenging brick farmers – people who pull the bricks from the walls to sell at salvage yards.  In some neighbourhoods there are now more pheasant than people - an apt example for our “Urban” programme, showing how quickly nature colonises abandoned cities.  I’ve been to slums all over the world.  I’ve filmed in the Lower 9th in New Orleans after Katrina.  And the only place I’ve ever been that compares to Detroit is Kabul.


My last stop on the never-ending North American road trip was for the “Rivers” programme and hit close to home.  I was born in Canada (yes, it gets confusing – American and Canadian with an Irish passport), and just before spring in the Canadian capital of Ottawa they blow up the ice on the river, and set a frozen waterfall free.  As a boy, I was warned to stay away from the Rideau River, which flowed just behind my house – don’t go near the ice when spring blasting season happens.  Here I was, almost 30 years later, recceing my old neighborhood.  As I walked around the neighborhood I stopped by my old house, where I used to skate after school, where my dad taught me to play baseball, where I knocked the wind out of me jumping my bike, and where I used to throw crabapples at buses.  It was a sweet ending to a long road trip.

Rideau Falls, Ottawa

Rideau Falls, Ottawa

 Cardiff Coda

Finally, it was time to fly back to the UK.  Completely exhausted, I landed at Heathrow and was shuttled back to Cardiff.  All the way I was dreaming about the joys of climbing into my bed and sleeping comfortably before rejoining the office rat race.  As I let myself into my flat, a neighbour came up to me.  “Are you Ciaran?”  “Yes”.  “Well I have a strange story for you.  While you were gone my cat got into your house for 5 days – I got him out, but I don’t know what kind of mess he made.”  The cat hadn’t made much of a mess, but he did choose a choice spot – smack in the middle of my mattress.  Ahh! the relationship between man and nature in the Urban environment indeed – no rest for the weary!

One Response to “The Great American Road Trip”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Lovely blog Ciaran! Ceci x

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