Wow Moment

Lake Baikal Sunset
Wow Moment – The sun sets over Lake Baikal

 A version of this article originally appeared in a travel company’s e-newsletter in November 2010, explaining a concept which became common currency on the London to New York overland adventure – and just some of the reasons travel got under my skin.

IT was the first or second day that the term ‘Wow Moment’ surfaced. We would, we were told, recognise one when it arrived and everybody’s would be different.

Rule number one: Drink it in. Savour it and bottle it away in the memory.

Rule number two: Respect everybody else’s ‘Wow Moment’. Let them get on with obeying rule number one.

As the days and weeks wore on, we all remembered that phrase and those rules as, individually or in groups, we had our ‘Wow Moments’ and began to recognise the signs of a new believer – the fixed grin, the sparkle in the eyes and the way they chattered on afterwards at least one octave higher than normal.

Mine arrived about as far from what many of us would know as civilisation and on part of the trip that had failed to stir my imagination before departure.

Wrapped up against the cold on a headland on Olkhon Island, stuck in the middle of the frozen Lake Baikal in the empty expanse of Siberia, one of those perfect moments appeared.

Four days from Moscow to Irkutsk by train, six hours on less than smooth roads and a two-kilometre walk across the frozen lake was more than worth it.

We’d spent an exhilarating day in jeeps on the ice when somebody suggested a post-dinner stroll to the headland to watch the sun set.

Which is how half a dozen of us found ourselves dotted along the cliff in the peace, watching the sun set over the mainland and shadows fall between the reflected glare from the ice. Quite, quite magical… the perfect example of a ‘Wow Moment’.

Well, it was mine and could have gone on for hours – if it wasn’t so cold as the sun dipped away, forcing a rapid retreat to the warmth of our homestead.

That was my ONE moment, but there were others that produced a similar reaction or gave my travelling companions the same feeling, those places and events to savour as we wound our way around the globe for three months.

The whole trip split into five six distinct legs, divided by a change of transport or geographic switch and each packing in enough highlights and memorable experiences to provide a remarkable trip in its own right.

First up was the European leg and its series of fascinating cities – Bruges, Heidelberg, Prague, Krakow, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn – before crossing into Russia and the twin giants of St Petersburg of Moscow.

There’s plenty of history to explore from St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, the memories of the Soviet Union in Red Square and the horrors of Auschwitz – a ‘Wow Moment’ in its own, macabre way and certainly a day trip which will leave its mark – plus the burgeoning cities of the Baltic States and the charms of Prague along the way.

The second leg began in Moscow when we boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway, a travel experience in its own right, which would carry us all the way to Beijing.

En route we stopped off not just in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, but also in Mongolia, where we were provided with the friendliest welcome imaginable and another contender for moment of the trip – a night in a toasty, traditional ger in the middle of a national park. The most relaxed night of the entire journey.

A lot of time has been spent trying to explain the third leg of the trip to people. A bewildering assault on the senses – all of them – it provided a completely new dimension to the whole trip.

There is just one way to describe it – China.

From the moment we arrived in Beijing, China started working its way into our affections and never really stopped during our 10 days there.

Beijing provided some remarkable sights to tick off the traveller’s must-see list – Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, the Birds Nest Stadium – Xi’an gave us the Terracotta Warriors, the ancient walled city of Pingyao a taste of old China and, of course, there was the Great Wall at Badaling, not to mention the precipitous Hanging Temple at Hengshau Mountain and Yungang Grottoes.

But China is more than its sights. To truly experience this magical country, get down the hutongs (side alleys) and into the markets to get among the people, the sights, the sounds, the tastes and the smells.

If arriving in China was a culture shock, leaving it provided another on the fourth leg as we climbed aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship – two weeks to kick back, relax in relative luxury and do as much or as little as you want. With stops in Korea, Japan and back in Russia at Vladivostock thrown in.

Leg five began as we stepped off the boat and onto American soil for the first time in Whittier, Alaska, and another major change – from luxury cruise liner to the Green Tortoise sleeper bus. Believe me, you have never travelled quite like this.

The Tortoise, our home from sea to shining sea, whisked us north through the wildlife and dramatic scenery of Denali National Park to the treat of Chena Hot Springs and midnight sun within reach of the Arctic Circle, before turning east into Canada and through the Yukon back to Alaska and a series of ferries down the Inside Passage and to the Canadian border again – all the while focused on the mountains, lakes, rivers, bears and moose which make this such a spectacular place to travel.

The final leg across the Lower 48 States of the USA actually started north of the border in Vancouver before we rejoined the USA at Seattle and crossed from west to east via the quite stunning splendour of its National Parks – the beauty of the Grand Tetons, sheer scale of Yellowstone and desolate wilderness of the Badlands – the charm of smalltown America and bustle of Chicago and finishing point New York.

Throughout all that, of course, was the sheer joy of sharing it all with a bunch of people who turned from strangers to friends, confidantes and a temporary family as we clocked up the miles.

Experiencing all these wonderful places was one thing, experiencing them with these people elevated it all to another level.

This select band of people who understand my love for Chicken, Alaska (permanent population, ‘err… about nine’) and who shared my 40th birthday celebrations in Arcata, California.

And each one of them has their own tale to tell, their own ‘Wow Moments’, their own travel story.

It’s out there for you to write your own as well.

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Guitars, Pontiacs, Hillbilly Music etc etc

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 23, 2010

IT is, with some regret, that this entry begins with some sad news. Not quite a death, more the very serious, soon to be upgraded to terminal, state of health of some constant companions throughout the journey.

Yes, it is with great sadness that this article has to reveal the rapidly deteriorating health of the pair of shoes which have carried me around the world.

Until they finally fall apart completely, they will still be worn – unless it is raining, when the water pours through the increasing leaks through the worn-through soles and disintegrating sides. They are, quite literally, on their last legs.

My feet became a bone (or collection of bones) of contention on the trip, but their perilous state through the mosquito-nibbled, infected in-growing toenail, blister-ridden days of North America cannot be blamed on the shoes.

Not even the less than pleasant smell can… oh hang on, maybe that one was down to the shoes. Or my socks. Or me.

Whatever, we went through a lot together since that joyous day we met in the Go Outdoors shoe department in early March.

Sad to report, the relationship was not totally monogamous. There were other shoes.

There were occasional flirtations with a brand new pair of ‘smart’ shoes bought simply for wearing on the boat and spent most of the journey rammed into the bottom of my rucksack.

A pair of sandals captured more of my attention, but we had a messy, painful break-up in a welter of cheese, recriminations and blisters after an unscheduled walk back to camp in New Ulm.

There was even, oh the shame, brief liaisons with Phil’s ‘jangles’. But that was purely because his were always easy to find at the front of the bus and were the only other ones that fitted me.

But, despite those dalliances,those size 12 grey and black Regatta Isotex shoes stayed loyal and carried me through the town squares of Europe, the less than salubrious back streets of St Petersburg, the wilderness of Mongolia, Beijing’s Forbidden City, the sun-drenched city walls of Xi’an, the ice and snow of Hengshau Hanging Temple, the decks and basketball court of the Diamond Princess, the sodden streets of Vladivostock, the trails of North America’s National Parks and the streets of its big cities. And into a few bars.

For the final five weeks of my trip, the right shoe spent endless hours on the accelerator pedal of a little white Pontiac, clocking up 6,000 miles in a five-week trip which rattled through some of the big cities, musical hotspots, small towns and scenic drives of the eastern half of the United States.

Not going to bore you with the full inside tale of every stop, but after two weeks of goodbyes in New York, Boston and back again my route took me, sweltering the entire way, to (deep breath):

Washington DC, where the temperature gauge hit 106 and at least six bottles of water were consumed walking up and down the National Mall; Front Royal, Virginia. which is merely the front door to The Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, between them more than 550 miles of twisting, sloping tarmac draped along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains and providing the most fun you can have in a car with a top speed limit of 45mph; Greenville, South Carolina, scene of a quite spectacular thunderstorm; the extremely big Clemson University Stadium (known as Death Valley); the extremely cool college town of Athens, Georgia, and the extremely hot Pensacola Beach, Florida, thankfully with an extremely welcome, and welcoming, beach bar just yards from both the water and my room.

From there it was back through Alabama, flying through Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery, while stopping at the US Space and Rocket Center (sic) at Huntsville (Rocket City, USA – home to Space Camp) and over the Tennessee border to the town of Shelbyville. They were in the middle of celebrating their 200th anniversary and while there were plenty of vintage cars and a chilli cook-off to savour, there was no sign of a lemon tree. Or any bars within walking distance of the motel.

That carried me to a 10-day reunion with Nick which saw us play football for England against Ireland in a hostel match alongside the Parthenon in Nashville (where we did OK for the oldest players on view) before savouring the music, Sun Studios, Rock n Soul Museum, a Barry John lookalike and Minor League baseball in Memphis and racing through Mississippi to New Orleans.

And let’s stop the whirlwind tour just to catch our breath, mainly because New Orleans deserves more than being dismissed that quickly and you really can’t sum up this  city in just one paragraph.

Admittedly, our three-night stay was not packed full of sightseeing. Partly because the thought of paying more than $40 to be bussed out to see the areas left desolate by Hurricane Katrina just seemed a bit wrong and partly due to the weather which kept me in the very friendly, very comfortable hostel for most of Sunday.

Venturing out once before dark that day, to make the less than 10-minute walk to the local Wal-Mart for supplies and to solve an emergency underwear situation, nobody has been so glad to get inside an air-conditioned building.

It was not just unbelievably hot, but it was remarkably heavy and steamy – the muggy air a hangover of Hurricane Bonnie, which was downgraded first to Tropical Storm Bonnie and then, kid you not, to Tropical Disorganised Collection of Showers and Thunderstorms Bonnie, which had dumped what seemed a pretty organised collection of showers on me in quite violent fashion on the run (yes, it was that bad) from the Charles Street Streetcar back to the hostel the night before.

But, of course, we did get out and about around the French Quarter.

Both of us were surprised at quite how tawdry Bourbon Street was with strip clubs promising live sex shows (we didn’t go in) intermingled with the countless collection of bars (we did go in) offering live music and a bewildering array of drinks offers with which to enjoy it all, most of which a waitress in The Famous Door poured down my neck from a series of test tubes.

Hangover notwithstanding, going back in the daylight was equally as eye-opening. Wandering off Bourbon Street and around the side streets of the French Quarter gives an insight into a fascinating, vibrant, unique piece of Americana at odds with much of the rest of the city, let alone the rest of the country. Definitely one to go back to.

While Nick headed back east on a Greyhound, the Pontiac was pointed across Lake Pontchartrain, through Louisiana and into Texas, stopping for a couple of nights in Austin – another extremely cool college town boasting a university stadium which dwarves anything in this country, a bewildering selection of bars with live music and friendly locals with which to enjoy it all – and onto baking Dallas, where they really should clean up that white cross on the road next to a grassy knoll. It is clearly visible from the sixth floor window of the neighbouring (ex-)book depository.

From there it was time to start heading back east, through Arkansas, which saw the start the ever-changing collection of bracelets and bangles hanging from my right wrist in the cute, biker-ridden town of Hot Springs and wandering in Clinton’s steps in Little Rock before haring back through Tennessee, into Kentucky.

Finding Elizabethtown virtually shut on a Sunday – and sadly bereft of Kirsten Dunst – it was north through Louisville, via a visit to the Louisville Slugger baseball bat factory, and shot up to Cleveland and the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame Museum, which while still a fascinating few hours of anyone’s time, hasn’t really been freshened up from my last visit four years ago.

The final few days took me across Upstate New York, via the excellent Baseball Hall of Fame in leafy Cooperstown, roads shared with horse-drawn Amish carriages and down the Hudson Valley to New York and one final weekend with Phoebe, which ended – almost inevitably – sometime around 4am in Greenwich Village.

And that, a host of small town stops apart, is the abridged tale of the five-week trip – bar a few key points and tips which will be addressed in the next couple of entries.

Well, actually no – that’s not quite it.

It appears my right shoe is refusing to go quietly after spending so long wedged down on the accelerator pedal. It opted to end the trip in style, judging by the post which arrived this morning (via two redirections) with a Tulsa postmark, addressed to Cardiff, England.

It was with a mixture of confusion (never been to Tulsa and have never met anyone from Tulsa) and annoyance (the rent cheque from my tenants redirected with it a week ago has still not turned up) that opening it the Alamo car hire logo popped up at the top of the letter.

It was almost binned as the standard ‘thank you for your custom’ letter it appeared to be, until the dollar signs lower down caught my eye.

For the last 50 or so miles, after the only major missed turn of the entire trip, was some sort of felony.

Instead of merging from the New York State Thruway onto the New Jersey Turnpike and enjoying a simple run down the Interstate to the Lincoln Tunnel and into Lower Manhattan, I ended up paying $10 to cross the River Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge, got lost in Yonkers and sat in a nose-to-trail traffic jam through the Bronx for more than an hour with a horizontal petrol gauge.

That was not news, but it also appears missing that turn meant not going through the right toll and a fine (with Alamo’s $10 admin fee) of $24.16. That’s about £16.

It all raises one simple question: How do you miss an entire toll booth the width of an Interstate?

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Left Of The Dial

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 9, 2010
 
Passin’ through and it’s late, the station started to fade
Picked another one up in the very next state… I’ll try to find you, Left of the dial’
Left of the Dial – The Replacements, 1985
 

THINGS have changed since Paul Westerberg sketched that classic picture of trying to tune into a friend’s new band on the American alternative/college radio stations, tucked away on the left of the dial.

It still holds true about stations fading out on you and the need for constant re-tuning to pick up something worth listening to.

Actually scratch that, they don’t seem to fade out as such, more magically retune to a default setting which is guaranteed to be playing John ‘Cougar’ ‘Soddin’ Mellencamp. Altogether now: ‘Little ditty, about Jack and Diane…’

Sod the fact that Jack has long since left Diane with four kids in the trailer park and even a last-ditch attempt to save their relationship on Jerry Springer ended with Jack facing charges of assault and the eldest child being recognised as the ring leader of a cow-tipping ring. They still play that song everywhere you bloody go in a perpetual medley with The Black-Eyed chuffin’ Peas.

No, let’s not get this party started. Let’s play something people might actually want to listen to as they hit the open road in sweltering heat…

Sorry, but these are the sort of things which get to you when you drive 6,000 miles in five weeks around the USA in a little white Pontiac, playing the twin games of seeing if the temperature gauge tops 100 degrees Centigrade again today and desperately trying to find something worth listening to on FM radio.

Left of the dial these days seems to bring you just two things – God-fearing bible-bashers, paranoid their listeners will rush over to the dark side (that’s the Devil, not AM radio) if they don’t mention Jesus at least once every 10 seconds, or right-wing talk shows raging against Obama and calling for him to be impeached, either for having the cheek to win an election or just because it’s too damn hot.

Occasionally you’ll get right-wing God-fearing talk show hosts going on about Jesus and Obama, but best not to hang around on those channels long enough to find out how close they got to comparing the President with the Devil.

Apart from that, your choices are local sports phone-ins (wildly entertaining in a ‘are they really having a half-hour debate about the third-string wide receiver at the local high school?’ sort of way), national sports phone-ins (much the same, but debates about the third-string wide receiver of the Cincinnati Bengals. Or Lebron James. Or Brett Favre) or, eventually, some music.

Music radio comes in three distinct categories – country, rock and pop. Wait long enough and all three of them will eventually play Jack and Diane and you are pretty sure to get Don’t Stop Believing thrown in as well.

The country stations are not just kept to the South, although down there it is hard to find anything else (unless it is country rock), but crop up all over the place and ram the dial from left to right.

Occasionally they will pull in unsuspecting listeners with something that’s only vaguely country, but it won’t be long before someone’s warbling about their lost love running away with their pick-up truck on the same day their dog died by throwing itself off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Actually, that’s a bit harsh from someone a bit partial to the odd bit of country (more the alt-country, American variety than the populist Grand Old Opry stuff) and did stumble across two little gems which will always bring back good memories of the trip – check out Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer by Billy Currington and Drinkin’ Bone by Tracy Byrd (which we first stumbled on performed by a drunk Canadian at a karaoke in Banff). You may notice a link…

The rock stations differ only in their interpretation of the term ‘rock’. Some opt for anything with a guitar which is not necessarily, but not totally excluding, country. Others opt for the heavier, metal-based form of the genre, although even they get dragged back to more mainstream fodder – presumably to please the advertisers. All of them will, before too long, play Journey and that bleedin’ Mellencamp bloke.

Which leaves us with the pop stations. Like their rock brethren, they do have the excellent habit of running about 45 minutes of consecutive music together each hour before a big lump of adverts. Sadly, most of the music will be shit.

The odd station will veer more towards the vintage market and throw you the occasional bone of a good tune to get you interested and ensure you stick with them for the next few miles in the hope of another one.

Instead, you will get anodyne rubbish, mixed in with the hourly ritual of Don’t Stop Believing, Jack and Diane and those really, really annoying Black-Eyed Peas. At least they come up with recognisable intros. “I’ll change that tune in…”

All this ended up with two outcomes – enough time listening to ESPN Radio formed firm opinions on the Cincinnati Bengals third-choice wide receiver, Lebron James, Brett Favre (shouldn’t have come back Brett) and whether the Tampa Bay Rays can stay the distance in the AL East title race (Go Sox).

Secondly, it meant that by New York honed back into view, I knew what was going on in the charts, could sing along to not one but two Katy Perry tracks (much to Phoebe’s amusement) and had even downloaded a couple of tracks making waves in the ‘hit parade’ (Eminem and B.o.B if anyone is interested).

But amidst all of this, every so often the spirit of Paul Westerberg was summoned and something more akin to his words would spring from the speakers as the radio sifted through the left of the dial.

First of them came climbing towards the highest point on the staggeringly gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway – a 450-odd mile ribbon of sinuous, breathtaking road through Virginia and North Carolina (which we would have got to it this in this entry but for getting sidetracked by the rant about American radio).

Given the gradient, the succession of sweeping curves, the onset of rain and clouds as the road shot up (even with the temperature gauge way up in the 90s) and the steep drop off to the left, perhaps playing with the radio dial should have been replaced by fully concentrating on the road.

But it was worth it for that unmistakable, slightly distorted rhythmic opening, the first thumps of Bill Berry’s snare and straight into Michael Stipe’s very personal murmur, all sounding like it was recorded in somebody’s basement.

Never has Radio Free Europe sounded so good as, cranked right up, the Pontiac careered (as much as you can do with a 45mph speed limit) around the last few upward bends and pulled into the car park at the viewpoint.

Those already there were torn between watching the, supposedly, glorious view disappear as the clouds rolled in to engulf everything or the strange-looking bloke sat drumming (badly) on the steering wheel of his hire car and singing along to whatever was blaring from his stereo.

After taking in what was left of the view and used the facilities, not only was it sheeting down with rain and the cloud cutting visibility to mere yards, but all that was coming from that station was a despondent hiss – never to be heard from again on the, very careful, way down the other side of the hill, back to glorious sunshine and, probably, Don’t Stop Believing.

Refusing to stop believing produced, just once more, my reward while heading south down the interstate through Alabama from Athens, Georgia to Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Fed up with the completely humourless, know-it-all host of a sports phone-in centred on the football rivalry between Alabama and Auburn Universities, the dial was turned full left in search of something worth listening to.

And, somehow, heading south on the I-85, up popped the Cocteau Twins, followed by The Cure, followed by… actually, can’t quite remember. But Auburn University college radio had somehow transported me back to the late 1980s with their Old Time Lunchtimes – akin to a re-run of a vintage Annie Nightingale Request Show from a Sunday night in my teens, without the letters (written in purple) from lovelorn goths.

Which is why, pulling into a service stop to stock up on cold drinks, The Sex Pistols were blaring out of my car, Pretty Vacant attracting the sort of looks it hasn’t engendered since 1977.

With high anticipation and having scurried back to the car, starting the engine only found… distortion and the eerily familiar sound of a radio station going out of range.

Sadly, pulling out onto the interstate, Johnny Lydon’s sneer was replaced by the inevitable…

‘Little ditty about Jack and Diane, two American kids growin’ up in the heartland…’

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Feeling Gravitys Pull

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 1, 2010

EVER since this blog started nine months ago, one part of the home page has been flashing orange, asking for one simple piece of information – the date it all ended.

For months it remained untouched because there was no end date. The day we arrived in New York was set in stone, but that wasn’t absolute zero.

That little piece of stamped paper in my passport, obtained after much explanation, a lot of form filling and one endless day sat in the confines of the American Embassy in London (give me a day on the pot-filled road from St Petersburg to Moscow any time), enabled me to stay in the USA until mid-November.

All that, plus explaining it all over again when we re-entered the States in Washington and, fortified by a good few beers, at Niagara, was not going to waste, so the plan was to stretch that final date out as long as possible.

And putting up a date would have been too much like a full stop. The end of this adventure. A bloody great stop sign in this new, much-cherished section of my life. Putting a finishing date up seemed like cutting that off, the end of this life, the return to normality and whatever comes next.

Don’t bother looking for that bit of orange text. It’s not there anymore. Finally, after a couple of weeks back in the UK – having returned just before the need for that infuriating visa actually kicked in – the question this site has been asking for months was answered by the flight home

It’s not as long in the States originally planned or hoped for (the visa will just have to be used sometime before it expires).

If that original plan was still in operation, it would probably have taken me to the west coast again now. Or exploring some small town in the south, explaining exactly where my ‘pur-etty’ accent comes from and why Wales isn’t really a part of England. And almost certainly watching baseball.

But coming home is not the full stop it originally seemed. More of a semi-colon – breaking up one part of my trip and laying the ground for the next part of an ongoing tale.

The next few months could have been spent clocking up even more miles in America, to go with the many thousands clocked up on the bus/train/boat/Green Tortoise in the previous 13 weeks.

But it began to dawn on me, quite early on after branching out from the safety of the trip family, that stretching this single trip out for quite so long would have ended with the largest, most abrupt of full stops imaginable on this odyssey.

The bank balance would have been exhausted, the credit card bill would have been out of control and travelling overkill could well have set in. There would have been little alternative than to return to the daily grind, both for financial reasons and to get some grip on reality.

Not that it has been easy coming back. Still living out of the same rucksack and, with my house still rented out, relying on the kindness of others to put me up, being back has been totally disorientating. It still is.

There’s a strange feeling of being out of place, out of time, out of synch with everything and everybody.

From a world inhabited by like-minded souls, be it swapping gossip and kit on the bus or swapping tales from the front line in a New Orleans hostel, it’s back to a world that doesn’t belong to me any more.

People’s lives are going on at a different pace, in a different direction and it’s hard to fall into place.

The closest is that lost feeling after coming out of a relationship, where your idea of normal has been skewed and there’s a constant sense of something missing. Well, apart from the urge to listen to a load of miserable, introspective music – at least, no more than normal.

I’ll get there, it’s just taking a little bit of time. And I’ve got no intention of shaking off the wanderlust. Not yet.

A few days back freelancing in the old office have helped get some semblance of normality – and helped to pay for the seemingly endless trips to the bar which go with this carefree, not working life – and, hopefully, more of the same will help to keep the bank balance in reasonable health and chip away at the credit card bill.

But the long-term plan is not to answer the oft-asked ‘what now?’, but ‘where now?’.

That earlier than originally planned return from the States means never reaching a point where the desire to travel, explore and generally get to know people and places all over this world was quenched. And there’s still enough money sat in that bank account to pay for another trip. For now.

So that’s the plan – or at least the fledgling part of one.

Having headed out to New York this time, top of the options list at the moment is another epic trip, this time veering south east after central Europe and ploughing on down through Asia and on to Australia, ending up in Sydney.

From there, well…. who knows? There’s always the option to get sensible and return to the daily grind, but we’ll worry about that when we get there. The plan has changed, been ripped up, recycled and tweaked so many times in the last month or so, who knows what it will look like by the time some form of decision is needed?

So top of the agenda, with some form of income needed in the meantime is to work out exactly what comes next.

The first couple of weeks back have been largely looking backward, editing the blog, collating an album of pictures from the trip and a variety of reunions – Nick (who lives here, of course), Mike (who also does now), Julie and Gerda, Dave, Pam and Phoebe (who I’d already been reunited with twice in New York) have all made it to Cardiff in the last couple of weeks.

And while more of that remains on the To-do list (yep, that old pre-trip favourite has returned and is breeding), it increasingly involves things throwing my life forward. Earning money stands near the top of the list. Just below not spending too much of it.

But there are a couple more items of business to settle before this blog gets consigned to the past).

First up is the next entry in which the Green Tortoise gets swapped for a little white Pontiac and I head out onto the wide open roads of the USA.

Then it’s time to sort out another date – the start of the next trip…

Next time: Life In The Furnace with John ‘Cougar Soddin’ Mellencamp

NB This entry originally appeared on the original version of this blog on another website (www.travelpod.com if anybody wants a simple way of cataloguing their own travels), which includes the start and end date mentioned in the opening paragraphs.

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The Carnival Is Over

Original posted on London to New York blog, June 22, 2010

New York, New York

WHO would have believed that arriving in Manhattan would provide something approaching a return to normality? The city that never sleeps as the place to kick back, relax and draw breath?

But after 94 days, 21 border crossings, six birthdays, two May 10ths, one rampaging bug and temperatures ranging from about minus 10 degrees C below to up in the 90s, we have arrived in New York.

And after 13 weeks living in each other’s pockets, we are having to adjust to life on our own again.

New York
End of the line – Toasting arriving in New York (well, Jersey City over the Hudson) with Phebes

Well, almost. There are still seven of us staying in the same hostel and there’ll be a select gathering in Boston at the end of the week, but numbers are gradually dwindling.

The first overland trip from London to New York is over. We are out on our own again, left to plan our own travels, our own destinations, our own futures – which, in my case, means working out just what to do next.

Don’t worry, there’s going to be no musing at length about my options (although if any travel editors or anyone looking for freelance writers stumbles across this…).

But having given non-committal answers (or long, rambling ones that don’t really address the question, depending on how many drinks have been downed) to any questions about my future over the past few months, the time is drawing near when some sort of plan emerges from the vague outline in the back of my mind.

Not yet though. For a little while longer at least, the USA is my backyard to explore.

And having gone through the rigmarole of getting an American visa, it would be churlish not to use it.

The Bean
The Chicago skyline (and me in there somewhere) reflected in The Bean

It lasts until mid-November, although the chances are the Atlantic will be crossed well before that.

But between now and then, there’s a lengthy stop in Boston to join in the July 4 celebrations, toss some tea about and cheer on the Red Sox.

After that it’s a bit sketchy, although a road trip down to Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and, possibly, Austin, Texas, is on the cards before the coast starts calling – just haven’t worked out yet whether it is back to the east coast or head on west to spend some more time in the cities we flew through on this trip – San Francisco, Seattle and, maybe, back over the border to Vancouver.

But that’s all in the future, this blog is supposed to be reporting on what has already happened – starting with the fight to remove the smell of cheese from our laundry in the small town of New Ulm, Minnesota.

The good news is the smell appears to have gone (not that you want to unzip my laundry bag to find out), but the bad news is the impact the whole drama had.

The second wash and several cycles in the dryer to dispel any lingering cheese odour stranded Phil and myself in town long after the bus had gone back to the park.

It all meant a very pleasant, if hot, walk back through the suburbs wearing sandals which don’t really fit me properly and are more often used for short journeys to the shower or around the bus.

Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain, Chicago

The end result was that while Phil was racing the children of New Ulm to be first into the open-air pool when the lifeguard returned to duty, the huge blisters which had appeared on the soles of both feet were attracting my attention.

Just what you want when the next day’s task is to cover as much ground as possible around Chicago in little more than 12 hours and more of the sweltering temperatures which have accompanied us over the last week or so (tomorrow’s forecast, up to 96 degrees C).

Patched up and joined by Phoebe, Pam and Nick, we headed into the centre of Chicago from the suburb of Lincoln Park – via the lovely Nookies diner where Phebes and I were left debating whether that was Oscar-winning actor Adrian Brody on the adjacent table.

The rest were not much use as they had no idea who he was, but Phoebe claimed the sighting as genuine and as we split up to do our own thing, there was an extra little spring in her step.

My step was not quite so bouncy but, with the help of the open-top tour bus to eat up some of the miles, managed to cover a fair amount of ground.

Four years ago, on my first visit Chicago didn’t really rate that highly on my road trip – it was all a bit too concrete, stifling and vertical.

But its charms began to seep in a bit more this time.

John Hancock Tower
Cocktails on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Tower

Millennium Park has undergone a bit of a facelift (and provides a perfect setting for a break from sightseeing, even getting me to experience a bit of open-air opera) and the whole lake front area buzzed with activity.

A little too much activity by the Shedd Aquarium where free entry had drawn two-hour long queues which ended plans to visit what memory tells us is a must-see, but at least getting off the bus saved me from the breakdown which stranded Julie and Gerda on the top deck.

The initial four Chicago raiders reconvened on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Tower for a quick cocktail before coming down to earth or, more accurately, under it for a few rounds at the Billy Goat Tavern.

Made famous by John Belushi in a Saturday Night Live sketch and a curse on the Cubs baseball team, the bar has few frills, even fewer niceties and was once the fabled hangout of the Chicago Tribune’s sportswriters. My kind of place.

Enlivened by the tavern, we headed back uptown and, via a brewery pub and dingy blues bar we stumbled back onto the bus for another night on the road.

Canada
World’s second biggest country. Just in case you missed it.

We awoke somewhere in Austenburg Ohio for a quick breakfast in a Waffle House ahead of a complete contrast to the previous day, a lazy afternoon on the beach and swimming in Lake Erie before heading to the banks of the Allegheny River in Pennyslvania to set up camp.

It provided the base the next morning for our final bus clearance and kitchen clean before the final sprint to the finish, accompanied by a flurry of card signing and form filling as we rolled into Niagara Falls.

Having been to the Falls before and instantly impressed, the underwhelming reaction from several travelling companions a little strange, even when we’d walked over the Rainbow Bridge into Canada to get the more spectacular view of the Horseshoe Falls.

Maybe we’ve been spoiled over the past three months and have come to expect a little bit too much from places.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

Don’t expect too much from the town on the Canadian side which is a neon explosion of casinos, tacky tourist traps and attractions – like Blackpool if it was modelled by Americans. Phoebe loved it.

But we did find one dive bar to belatedly toast Freddie’s 19th birthday freed from the drinking laws across the border, although what the American immigration staff thought of us as we crawled through our final border in dribs and drabs is anyone’s guess.

Somehow they let us all through and we settled down for our final night drive, waking in Jersey City on the banks of the Hudson River, complete with the classic vista of the Manhattan skyline for the obligatory end of tour pictures.

And that, pretty much, was that as the group began to fragment – some taking the ferry across to Manhattan, others riding the bus to the hostel with the bags and then heading to wherever they were staying.

Those of us who opted for the ferry, meandered our way to the hostel via a Times Square brunch and waved goodbye to Freddie – the first of the gang to leave as he jetted back home in the evening.

Times Square
Times Square marks the end of the trip

The rest of us reconvened in a Times Square bar for one last supper as more goodbyes were said.

And one by one they peeled off until, just after midnight, left alone playing darts in an Upper West Side bar with drivers Lukas and Charlie and life outside the group became a reality once more…

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