America to Angel

Hey Chel you know it’s kinda funny, Texas always seems so big
But you know you’re in the largest state in the Union
When you’re anchored down in Anchorage
Anchorage – Michelle Shocked

MICHELLE Shocked’s retelling of a letter received from a friend at the heart of ‘the largest state of the union’ is one of those lovely musical rediscoveries which pops up from time to time.

It earned a place in my collection and regular rotation back in the days of tapes and Walkmen, only to vanish as, briefly, vinyl and then the shimmering new invention of CDs took over.

AnchorageBut Anchorage resurfaced to provide the most obvious of titles for a post on my London to New York blog four years ago and wormed its way onto a number of playlists which have helped it into the top 20 of the most played tracks in my iTunes collection (currently ensconced at number 17 which, must admit, came as a bit of a surprise).

And boy did she – or, to be more accurate, her letter-writing friend – get it right. Alaska is big. Over the course of a little more than two weeks, we clocked up mile after mile (more than a thousand at one point without hitting a single traffic light) into the heart of the 50th state and a brief detour over the border into Canada and it is huge. And stunningly beautiful.

Chilkoot Lake, Haines, Alaska
Chilkoot Lake, Haines, Alaska

Locals will proudly tell you that you can cut Alaska in half and it would still be the two biggest states (“Pissing off Texans for 50 years” was a popular slogan as they celebrated half a century as part of the union) and such were the natural wonders on display around every corner, you can (almost) forgive them for giving the world Sarah Palin.

Anchorage itself is functional. Surrounded by some magnificent countryside (but that’s pretty much a given up in that part of the world), the state’s largest city is designed to withstand the harsh winters and supply those working all around it.

It also contains one of the most remarkable bars, Chilkoot Charlies. Not too much to look at from outside or even when you first go in, it unravels itself as you head through the various different parts as the night wears on – as it seems to do endlessly under the midnight sun.

There was lots of people, there was a band playing for hours on end, there was a bloke selling pizzas in the middle of the bar at 2am and there was a bloke from Philadelphia in the beer garden who was distinctly hostile until we got into a prolonged, passionate debate about baseball. Beyond that, it was all a bit hazy.

But it left an impression, as did much of Alaska and large chunks of America as a whole – which is where this section of the iPod journey came in.

Three very different songs simply titled America kicked things off – by Howler, Laura Veirs and Simon and Garfunkel’s finest moment, which is saying something, and provider of another blog post title on that trip from sea to shining sea.

To say nothing of America Snoring by Grant Lee Buffalo (lead singer Grant-Lee Phillips used to pop up as the town troubadour in The Gilmore Girls, fact fans), American English by Idlewild, American Idiot by Green Day, American Music by The Blasters and two versions of American Slang by The Gaslight Anthem (although apparently with the same vocal delivery on the acoustic version as on the fully plugged original).

That’s all somehow apt as travelling in America and music go hand in hand. There’s something about the wide open spaces which has infused so much of the sound produced there and a string of road trips to – to date – 39 of the 50 States have always involved plenty of live music.

And any road trip has to have a soundtrack to help eat up mile after mile.

Americana has become the hip phrase for some of that music – “Country music for people who like The Smiths” according to Billy Bragg – and it is a style that is increasing across my collection, none more so than that produced by Ryan Adams, who popped up again with Amy, one of the centrepieces from his classic break-up debut album Heartbreaker.

Throw in …And Carrot Rope by Pavement and this chunk of songs was dominated by our friends over the pond.

To go with all this Americanisation, this side of the Atlantic responded in this group of tracks with three versions of the quintessentially English Anarchy in the UK from the Sex Pistols.

And it rounded off in Bristol with Massive Attack’s Angel, but only after two tracks from Boston, Massachusetts with the same title from Belly and the Drop Nineteens, gazing through their fringes at their shoes in a run through of the early Madonna track.

Along the way, we have gone past the 300 mark – all 30 seconds of And You Will Know Them… by …Trail of Dead – reached 11,000 to go and got halfway through the As.

And we thought Alaska was big.

 

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Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Original posted on London to New York, June 6, 2010

Arcata, California

IT has always been a mystery why scriptwriters insist on using people’s birthday recollections as ways to introduce important plot details about their past.

Countless films or television series use a major character revealing something that happened to him on their 13th birthday which has shaped the way he feels about God/clowns/Battenburg cake or the early works of Simon and Garfunkel.

Apart from the fact that it is a lazy piece of writing, it is difficult to identify with if you struggle to actually remember past birthdays.

Yes, there was the one (my 10th?) when large chunk of my front tooth was smashed out while climbing out of a swimming pool.

Happy Birthday
Happy Birthday from Phebes

And my 18th, sandwiched on the day between my sister’s wedding and my first A Level, sticks in the mind.

But very few others – even my 21st is a bit of a blur, think we might have had a barbecue in the unfinished extension – remain distinct, although  several of them (dependent on age) were definitely spent in The Brunswick or Dr Fosters in Gloucester or The City Arms or O’Neills in Cardiff.

My 40th, however, might just stick in my mind a bit longer (once various details have become clear due to pictures and the testimonies of eye witnesses).

It began sedately enough, curled up on the back of the bus in Seattle, listening to Nirvana. Yes, it is obvious, but hey, when in Rome. Or Seattle.

But let’s rewind to find out how we got from a campsite in Banff to snuggled under my sleeping bag in the shadow of the Space Needle in Seattle, listening to Kurt Cobain tear his voice to shreds.

Banff
The view down the mountain-ringed Main Street in Banff – First time I have seen it without piles of snow

Having experienced a couple of bitingly cold winters in Banff (contact lenses frozen to shades, anyone?), it has always been a place on the list to go backto  in the peak summer season and after a couple of hours wandering the familiar main streets, it certainly comes with a very different vibe.

It remains a very pretty little town, but the tourist trap feeling kept slightly in the background during the ski season comes right to the fore and smacks you in the face.

Want anything practical, or even something cold to drink without going in an expensive bar, and you are out of luck. Want a T-shirt, a cuddly moose or expensive trinket with Banff plastered all over it, your luck is in.

The Fudge Shop also needs better signing, judging by the amount of Americans who wandered along shouting “where’s the fudge shop?” to their compatriots across the street.

Via a brief stop in the ski town of Revelstoke, we hit our pre-night drive stop Kelowna, which holds more of the vibe from those previous trips to Banff, more real people in real, relaxed surroundings.

Kelowna
Waiting for a bus in Kelowna

They do, however, need to brush up on their comedy after our meal was interrupted by a comedy night which consisted of a bunch of students swapping tales which must have seemed hilarious late at night after a few ‘cigarettes’.

Originally unable to drag ourselves away from the car crash in front of us, we eventually found ourselves a comedy free pub, albeit plagued by the concoction that is Clamato Juice (yes, that really is tomato juice with added clam) poured into lager.

Phoebe’s weirdo magnet, whichattracts the more bizarre clientele of any bar over to us, kicked in again as Donald – who appeared to have been taking his cigarettes a bit too strong – explained his theories on life, the universe and coffee.

We finally crawled back onto the bus to hit the road and begin a whistle-stop tour of major west coast cities – Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco – inside five days.

That itinerary has prompted some disquiet in the group as we were in and out of three major ports of call so quickly in favour of more time spent out in the American wilderness.

Vancouver Exchange
Not quite sure how the Scottish pound is at a different exchange rate in Vancouver

There are reasons – the sheer logistics of getting across the States for starters – and the National Parks are simply stunning and do justify the time spent there, but as we have rolled out of each city, the overwhelming feeling has been that we have not come close to seeing all it has to offer.

That was certainly the case in Vancouver where our first hostel since Anchorage provided a much-needed opportunity to catch up on some laundry.

Instead of exploring what appears to be a vibrant, fun-loving city without too many airs and graces, much of the afternoon was spent fighting for a place in the queue for the washing machines – although Nick, Mike and I did manage to get out on foot to explore Gastown (think a scruffier Greenwich Village in New York) and get lost in a shopping arcade.

We did at least get a proper night out in the city and a group of us headed out to have the curry we had promised ourselves for some time.

Vancouver
Let off the leash for the first time in a few nights in Vancouver. Chaos inevitable.

Not sure it was worth the wait, but a fun evening was had in a local bar amid the randoms.

But far too soon, certainly far too early, the next morning we were back on the road to Seattle and our final major border crossing.

Remarkably, most of our border crossings have gone very smoothly and this was no great delay, but there was a slight anxious moment as the border guard asked for a few documents not to hand (return flight details for starters) and being the only one on the bus with a full US visa became a handicap.

It wasn’t a major problem, in the end she got fed up and waved me through, but if anyone from US Immigration does stumble across this, perhaps your different offices should get their heads together.

What they said at the US Embassy in London was at odds with what they came up with when on arrival at Whittier (when they were convinced the visa in my passport was specifically for preachers), which was all completely different from what they wanted heading into the Lower 48.

USA Border
Welcome to America – The not altogether welcoming border at Seattle

There’s no return flight because there’s no return date. There’s no return date because, until actually in the US, there’s no way of knowing 100 per cent how long they would allow in the country, whatever it said on the visa. London, and all guidebooks and expert advice, said one thing. At the border into Washington, they said another.

Having reached Seattle, we parked up under the Space Needle, caught the monorail into town and wandered around Pike Street Market, which even a confirmed non-shopper like me could have wasted hours in.

But the high spot of the last day of my 40th year was our evening trip to Safeco Stadium for baseball.

It was, to be honest, a pretty awful match. Seattle Mariners are fairly dreadful and the LA Angels are not, waltzing away with a 7-1 win which was never really in doubt.

Baseball
The starting line-up at the baseball in Seattle – Guy in front less than happy at beer spillage over his son

But a good time was had by all as the cold descended, including confirmed non-sports fan Phoebe who was less than impressed that her giant bag of popcorn was sweet and not salted.

And so my 40th year came to an end, back on the bus listening to Nirvana – my actual birthday managing to span three states as we crossed out of Washington overnight, breakfasted in Oregon and careered into California and the Redwood National Park.

Having trekked into the trees in the afternoon and spent much of the day chilling out, we headed into the town of Arcata in Humboldt County – the acknowledged pot capital of the USA – for birthday shenanigans.

After a bit of a false start via the only quietish pub in town, we stumbled into a rammed dive bar off the town square and it all began to get a bit hazy.

Space Needle
Space Needle, Seattle

There was Guinness, tequila, Jager-bombs and other alcoholic delights passed my way. They were downed. After that, details are hazy.

As with the previous birthday party on this trip, there were repercussions, but more of that next time, when we’ve worked out exactly what happened.

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Teach Yourself Overland

Originally posted in London to New York blog, June 5, 2010

APOLOGIES for the lack of updates in the last week, but there has been very little chance to write or file copy as we careered south through Canada and into the United States.

Normal service should be resumed in the next few days, but until then here’s the Unofficial Abridged Overland Dictionary – designed to provide outsiders (see Randoms) with the slightest idea of what we are talking about when they bump into us.

200 metres – Measurement used by Phil to describe the distance from the bus. New Zealand metres are obviously a lot longer as the walk, laden down by gear, is invariably considerably further than 200 metres. 

Bag Explosion – The phenomenon which ensures that, however hard you try to keep your stuff together on the bus, your belongings will end up scattered all over the place, including ones you have never been (see Phebes; see Tortoise Orbit). 

Bag Party – The long-awaited moment when everybody’s main bags are unloaded from the luggage hold to give full access to the stuff you only think you need. Some will not wait for the party and take every opportunity to get their stuff out (see The Oirish). 

Bear – Creatures we have either been trying to avoid or desperate to see (depending on whether we have been out walking or on the bus). Or large, bearded Kiwi. 

Bear Bells – Worn by hikers on their bags to scare off bears – or to irritate their fellow travellers. The same walkers are also likely to carry pepper spray to ward off bears. Local joke is that you can tell black bear pooh because it is full of fruit and gopher fur. Brown bear pooh is lined with bells and pepper spray. 

Bear Bin – Secure metal bin used to store food when camping to prevent Yogi and his mates getting at food. Anything that smells must be kept in the bin when not in use (that’s toiletries and stuff, not my socks, a pair of which were forcibly wedged outside the window in Anchorage). Failure to do so can end in death – either for a camper who has attracted a bear into camp or for Yogi as bears who get the taste for human food are routinely shot. We received a slap on the wrist from Mr Ranger, Sir, for leaving out beer cans. 

Bigger Than Jesus – Nickname for Marlo, the world’s coolest man (inevitably shortened to Jesus). 

Buddy Check – System which ensures everybody is on the bus before we head off. I have to check Mike and Marlo are on board. Nick cheated and picked Phil (tour leader) and Matty (the driver) as we ain’t going anywhere without them. Not sure who, if anybody, is checking I am there. 

Clam – Officially, a type of sea creature used to make a Canadian drink called Clamato Juice (inexplicably drunk by Phil in a pint of lager). Unofficially, schoolboy sexual innuendo.

Crème Brulee – To be said in as posh an accent and loud a voice as one can manage (think Kenneth Williams crossed with Stephen Fry). Ordered by Freddie in such a voice in restaurant in Juneau, just before he got hit by the stomach bug (see What the bloody hell is going on?; see Rothschild). 

Cubby Hole – Only sleeping place on the bus which will not result in somebody standing or leaning on you during a night drive. Underneath the two tables halfway down the bus, originally thought to be dark and uncomfortable, now much sought after.

Cwtchy Coo – One of several contributions from the ‘Welsh’ contingent. In its simplest term, a description of a pretty young lady. In more vulgar form, a description of what would happen if any of us were to get together with said young lady.

Day Bag – Small bags containing essentials, designed to prevent constant raiding of the luggage hold. Supposedly the only things we have on the bus with us. Yeah, right.

Dippy Eggs – Fried eggs with enough runny yolk to dip bread into. Americans would call them Sunny Side Up, although runny yolk should also be available from eggs cooked Over Easy.

Drunken – Early nickname for Duncan, possibly deriving from slip of the tongue. Stuck because it was strangely apt.

Drunken Lords – Early description via Google translate from Spanish to English of Mike, Nick and I on Enrique’s blog. Not sure if the Spanish version is more or less polite about us.

Frangipani – Much-hyped hair treatment at the spa during the cruise. Or nickname for Fran. Not sure how we managed to have a nickname three syllables longer than her actual name. 

Fuck No – Phrase beloved of original driver Martins on the rare occasions when he a) spoke; b) joined us for a few drinks (see Fuck Yes; see Marius). 

Fuck Yes – Companion phrase for Fuck No uttered by Martins (not to be confused with its unofficial brother fuck yeah, which he never said) (see Fuck No; see Marius). 

Green Tortoise – Our transport throughout Canada and the USA and bed for much of the last five weeks. Company formed in 1973 so do not believe any passing hippy who wanders up and says: “Oh man, I rode the Tortoise back in the 60s…” 

Growler – Evidently some form of beer container belonging to Jane which has gone missing on the Green Tortoise. Her constant pleading of “has anyone seen my growler?” met with schoolboy sniggering. 

Has anyone seen…? (also Where’s my….?; also Have you got my passport/wallet/camera/hairbrush?) – Plaintive plea from Phoebe as she attempts to find whichever item of hers has joined the list of her belongings which have been strewn around the bus (see Bag Explosion; see Tortoise Orbit). Followed by looks to Phil, Nick or me to see which of us she entrusted said item to sometime in the last 24 hours. 

Kenny Thomas (abbreviation, Kenny) – Named after obscure singer Kenny Thomas’ solitary hit single Outstanding and used when something (see Dippy Egg) has reached that level. Quite possibly Nick Machin’s finest contribution to the English language (only serious competition coming from Dippy Egg). 

Juggasoraus Rex – Direct steal from The Inbetweeners. Best used to describe when Pam’s cleavage almost caused me to go blind in Vancouver. 

Legal Team – General threat from Freddie, first issued on the Trans-Siberian, to get a high-powered legal team onto us when we were winding him up about plans for his birthday. Only served to make us even worse. Actual legal team believed to be at other end of phone ahead of Freddie’s birthday in Chicago. 

Marius – Alter ego of original driver Martins on the rare occasions when he was able to join us for a few drinks (see Fuck No; see Fuck Yes) and the day after when he was even less capable of speech than normal. 

Night Drive – Form of transport used to get us from one place to the next overnight. First on board should take the beds at the back and work towards the front, leaving the stragglers to fall into bed at the front. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. When we are all on board, Matty (or his successors) head to the wheel, start rolling and await the first request for a toilet stop (normally within the first half hour). 

Ongaru – Ancient, mystical term originally thought to derive from West Wales. Shouted as term of encouragement or pleading for somebody to get on with something. Also worked, albeit just the once, to summon a waiter on the Diamond Princess. 

On Top – One of the least popular sleeping berths (except, strangely, with Mike and Nick) on the luggage racks of the Green Tortoise. Comes with unexpected bonus of being groped in the darkness as people search for bags they thought were on that bunk. 

Phebes – What Phoebe officially likes to be called (see Phoebe Kate; see Puggle; see Skanky Weasel). 

Phoebe Kate – One of the things Phoebe is actually called (see Phebes; see Puggle; see Skanky Weasel).

Puggle – A baby echidna (small, spiky, Australian creature). As revealed by Phoebe (small, spiky, Australian creature) in bus quiz in the opening two days, hence earning herself a nickname which has stuck for the rest of the trip (see Phoebe Kate; see Phebes; see Skanky Weasel). 

Randoms – Name given to all outsiders. We may communicate with them, but they will never understand. They weren’t there maaaaan… 

Red Lines – Dangerous shot consisting of tequila, Tabasco and vodka and featuring a red line halfway down the glass as fed to Mike in Vilnius by a strange Icelandic bloke. Resulted in Mike losing much of the next day. 

Rothschild – High-class wine. Entire group left in suspense when Freddie did not attend second wine tasting session on Diamond Princess to find out the answer to the burning question of the entire trip: “How are they going to deal with the Rothschild?”. 

Roy – Strangled shout, initially issued by Mike, as a tribute to former Republic of Ireland manager Jackie Charlton’s summoning of midfielder Roy Keane. In no context to be confused with anybody else of the same name (see Soy). 

Shitfight – Phil’s term for anything that involves a lot of people attempting to do the same thing in a limited space or length of time (used often when loading/unloading bags, entering hostels or – at its best – when boarding a train in Moscow). 

Skanky Weasel – Yet another nickname given to Phoebe after four days on the Trans-Siberian Railway with no access to a shower and limited range of washing facilities. Variation: Cranky Weasel 

Soy –Variation of Roy in restaurants in China (see Roy). 

Terrible – Mike’s verdict on any act or phrase which he deems inappropriate. Most often used after something he has done or said himself. Often followed with the phrase: “I think I may have got away with it”. 

Thank you my friend – Term of address used by Mike. The rest of us were using it without realising within days. 

The Oirish – Easy catch-all name for Leila and Dave. Find one, the other is not normally far away. 

Tortoise Orbit – The strange void into which belongings vanish on the Green Tortoise, only to turn up (hopefully) in a completely different spot from when they were last seen (see Bag Explosion; see Phebes). 

What the bloody hell is going on? – To be said in the poshest possible voice (as only normally heard in an episode of Jeeves and Wooster) when woken during the night on the boat by rolling into the wall (see Crème Brulee; see Legal Team; see Rothschild). Late variation: What the fuck? – Used when Freddie was prodded in the arse while asleep in Vancouver, accompanied by leap and full turn in the air. 

Whiffy – Spanish for Wi-fi. Invariably Enrique’s first question when we arrive at a new destination (see Wi-fi). 

Wi-fi – As much as there may be plenty of sights to see and experience in our new destination, the one thing guaranteed to get half the bus excited is the presence of wi-fi access. Laptops are reached for far quicker than maps, guide books and cameras (see Whiffy). 

Wow moment – The times that make going without showers, changing clothes or much sleep worthwhile and the reason we are all doing this in the first place. 

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Can’t Get There From Here

Original posted in London to New York blog, May 31, 2010

Petersburg, Alaska

THE Second Amendment of the US Constitution declares “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”.

The Mosquito Amendment, being written in braille on my left forearm, declares “the right of the people to bare arms shall be infringed by horrible, little buzzy things who leave you covered in welts and scabs and have you itching like crazy or covered in sticky, filthy anti-histamine cream”.

We have heard tales of a huge drop of Deet – the active ingredient in most anti-buzzy bastard sprays – in parts of India and Nepal which all but eradicated the rampant population.

From my experience of the last couple of weeks, the sprays are of no use whatsoever, but if the Alaskan authorities want somebody to drop bucket loads of the stuff on the annoying little gits, then then we will have a willing volunteer.

Inside PassageI love the smell of Deet in the morning, it smells of… actually, scrub that, it smells absolutely foul.

Of course the mossie problem – a quick count has the number of bites and scabs on the back of my right hand alone at about 20 – has been magnified by the quite remarkable weather, which held out throughout our stay in the 49th state.

Since the downpour which greeted us in Whittier two weeks ago, we have not seen one drop of rain in Alaska. The only rain we have had came during a detour into Canada.

We have had some cold nights, particularly as we edged to within 140 miles of the Arctic Circle, but the days have been glorious – the coldest night in Denali National Park to the heat of Juneau spanning more than 30 degrees Centigrade in little more than a week.

Mossie Bites
Scars of battle between the mossies and me

The warm weather brings T-shirts, shorts and sandals and acres of open skin for the mossies to attack. And boy have they risen to the challenge.

Not everybody, Phoebe for one appears not to have been bitten at all, but for those of us in the firing line, it has been a frustrating few days.

Even in the evenings, fully clad from head to foot, hands buried deep in my pockets and with my hoody top pulled tight, they’ve still found their way in.

Tonight, we have the sanctuary of the overnight ferry from Petersburg, out of Alaska and into Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

This is our third ferry down the Inside Passage on the Alaskan panhandle, the thin sliver which runs down the coast between the mountains, glaciers and the coast. It is also, bar a few small planes, the only way to get around in this neck of the woods.

Our first ferry belatedly ushered out of Haines to the state capital Juneau. In largely glorious sunshine, it was four hours on deck soaking up some breathtaking scenery and the wildlife it contains.

Douglas Island
View from the capital – Douglas Island seen from Juneau

Bald eagles have been regular companions during the last week, but there were sightings of sea otters, reports of whales and a lengthy escort by a pod of creatures.

There were those, seeing the white markings and black bodies, who argued they were baby orcas, but we were soon put right and informed they were a type of porpoise. Either way, they were spectacular.

Juneau itself is not what you expect from a state capital.

It is small and there’s not that much to the city centre, with most of its downtown shops and businesses geared to serving the cruise liners which line up at the dock (there were between three and five each day we were there, including a visit from our old friend the Diamond Princess).

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier

There’s also not many places which can host a large green bus and a few tents dotted around it, hence us setting up camp 20-odd miles out of town.

Sadly, this caused a split in the group with half a dozen ‘rebels’ opting to stay closer to what action is on offer in a city centre hostel – or hotel for one of their number who fell victim to the pet stomach bug.

Why they did it is understandable and any resentment between the two camps has been buried since we reunited over a few beers. But we are in this trip together and, in my mind, we should stick together pretty much regardless.

It’s also a shame, because they missed out on a pretty good laugh at the campsite as we sparked up a roaring fire and broke out the marshmallows and a few beers.

Not that Fran was laughing as she became the latest victim of the stomach bug and set up home in the toilet block for the night. A guy did the same the following night and reported two bears wandering past the window.

Thankfully, she was soon back on her feet and back to full health, but not soon enough to enjoy another of the ‘wow’ moments on this trip – the Mendenhall Glacier.

Nugget Falls
Nugget Falls at Mendenhall Glacier

Having skied for many years, the odd glacier has crossed my path, but not normally on a stunning blue sky day and very rarely this beautiful, particularly if you throw in the neighbouring Nuggett Falls.

Our trek down to see both also produced another type of wildlife – the paddling Puggle.

Puggle is the nickname Phoebe has been landed with. Actually, it’s one of several, but the less flattering Skanky Weasel only applies to those times when we’ve been away from showers for a few days.

It harks back to day two, all those weeks ago, as we drove across Germany and Phoebe’s contribution to Phil’s team-building quiz: What do you call a baby echidna?

The name has stuck and, with her insistence on wandering around barefoot whenever possible, the walk down to the glacier provided plenty of opportunities to paddle in the lake and she left little wet Puggle tracks all the way down (quite helpful to track her as she walks inordinately fast for someone with such little legs).

Douglas Island
View from the capital – Douglas Island seen from Juneau

The glacier trip also produced not one, but two reprimands for Matty.

First up came one from Mr Ranger (it was like being in an episode of Yogi Bear) for parking in the wrong place and then, most dramatically, from the elementary school teacher who stepped out in front of the bus to scold us for turning in their car park. She actually made the time out signal in front of the bus.

She had a point, but why are her children playing in a busy car park in the first place?

There were no such run-ins with authority the next day as we ploughed into Juneau itself to sample its delights and did what has now become traditional when we hit any form of civilisation – grab our laptops and head off in search of wi-fi access.

Don’t worry, we didn’t spend all day in the same bar tapping away. Some left to head out on walking trails, some went to Wal-Mart (bizarrely) while several hit the multitude of barbers in Juneau and, in my case, grabbed the first haircut since Cardiff.

From there it was back out to sample the delights of Juneau by night.

Ohmer Creek
The reward for the basic campsite at Petersburg was this…

Poor old Nick, however, never reached that far as he became – in quite spectacular fashion – the latest victim of the sickness bug.

Shame really, he missed a good night which finally saw me enjoy a basketball game with a spectacular finale (Lakers v Suns, Western Conference Final, Game 5), but by the time we got back to the coach to head onto the ferry, we were delighted to see him back on his feet.

Freddie was not so delighted to see Nick had raided his collection of Coke at the back of the bus to hasten his recovery.

And so starts the tale of two nights which kicked into action sometime after 1am.

The first came on the ferry from Juneau to Petersburg, which a group of us opted to spend wrapped up in sleeping bags on the aft deck to watch the scenery go by and the sun rise.

It was surprisingly pleasant and the plan is to repeat it tonight. Hopefully, this time some of us won’t sleep through the sunrise.

The next night – following a quiet day on a Petersburg campsite, enlivened by the late arrival of a local not too happy we had pitched our tents all over the space he claimed to have reserved by throwing a flea-bitten tent on the ground – had a rather less pleasant outcome.

Petersburg
Leaving Petersburg on the ferry to Prince Rupert

The sickness hit sometime between 1am and 2am and boy does it come on fast.

Around 11am I was lying awake listening to my iPod, feeling fine. By midnight, I was fast asleep (eyewitnesses can vouch for this – or should they be earwitnesses). By around 1am, I was lying there wondering why the previous night’s veggie lasagne was having such a strange affect on me.

About five minutes later, we had an answer as, propped against the wall of a less than salubrious toilet, the lasagne returned with a vengeance.

Crawling back to bed and for long spells sat watching the dawn break, it was with huge regret about the amount of feta cheese consumed the night before.

Thankfully, the bug appears to last no more than 24 hours and this bout appears to have come in on the shorter side of that.

There won’t be anything too extravagant passing my lips until breakfast, but at least there was significant recovery to enjoy the lovely town of Petersburg, although not to eat the sandwich Mike kindly made me for lunch. Apologies, both for that and sitting on the one he made himself.

There’s not much in Petersburg, but it is charming, friendly and enough to recharge anyone’s batteries.

You can tell how good a place is by how energised everybody is when they eventually return from their exploring to descend upon the bus. Everyone was buzzing tonight and enlivened by wonderfully hot ferry showers, we head to Canada in high spirits.

And nobody, it appears, is sick…

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Haines & Strange

Original posted in London to New York blog, May 24, 2010

Haines, Alaska

AMONG the welter of advice passed our way before we headed out of London what seems another lifetime ago, one nugget of information appears to ring true for all inhabitants of the bus.

All of us were assured, by friends wanting to be helpful or shop assistants seeing the chance of a few winter clothes and expensive sleeping bags going on their sales figures, that Alaska in May would be cold and wet.

And while a couple of evenings have turned very cold when the sun eventually vanished in the early hours, we have been in far greater danger of sunburn than suffering from the cold.

Takhini Hot Springs
Hot stuff at Takhini

As for rain, that has been confined to our detour into Canada on top a mountain pass and a 20-minute shower in Takhini, when most of us were already wet as we boiled in the hot springs.

To avoid us constant forays under the bus to fish stuff out of our main bags, we have been limiting access and packing smaller day bags to equip us throughout the next 24 hours or so.

My bag included gloves, woollen hat and stuff to keep me warm and dry at the start of this leg. Now it is stuffed full of shorts, T-shirts and suntan cream. Forget Jack Frost, the only thing nibbling at sandal-clad toes are the mosquitoes.

As well as the weather leaving us slightly dazed and confused, for much of the time since docking in Anchorage we have barely had darkness.

Haines Highway
Spectacular views at the top of the Haines Highway from Canada back into Alaska

As we drift south towards the Canadian border and onwards to the Lower 48 States, it is now getting dark around 10.30pm, but for the bulk of the first week back on land, the combined effects of it still being light until the early hours and a couple of erratic time changes left us all a little disorientated

Nothing like, however, as disorientating as the sickness bug sweeping through the camp, claiming roughly half the bus to varying degrees over the past few days.

One ended up deserting the campsite in favour of the adjacent hotel, while two sufferers have set up overnight camp in toilet blocks of differing degrees of comfort to make life a lot easier.

Haines Highway
And the view was pretty good down in the valley

As a consequence, life on the bus and campsite has had to change a bit.

The bus is currently being attacked with bleach and disinfectant and the kitchen has been closed down until the weekend at least.

And, before somebody else alleges otherwise, we can rule out any link between my stint running the kitchen and the current outbreak – at least three victims ate elsewhere that night and didn’t sample my burritos.

Kitchen stints have been split into teams of three for an evening meal and the following breakfast and, on the whole, have produced some pretty good food.

Washing up and packing stuff away onto the bus has also become a well-drilled art, particularly as it seems to be the same old faces weighing in every time.

Breakfast is mixed in with the scramble to pack down tents and return the cushions and assorted stuff onto the bus, which has produced a few bits of tension with Pam and myself installing ourselves as cushion monitors to prevent a repeat of the evening when there were not enough left aboard for the bus dwellers.

Haines
View from the campsite in Haines

Despite illness problems and campsite conflicts, the past few days have sailed along dominated by stunning scenery and wildlife.

When you left us, we were back in Canada, rolling onto the ferry across the Yukon at Dawson City at the start of the long haul to Whitehorse (part of a 1,000 mile stretch without a traffic light).

Courtesy of a late night and a sore back from sleeping in a cubby hole on the bus – very comfortable, but not the easiest of access- much of the drive passed me by, as did much of Whitehorse itself.

But, awoken from a snooze under one half of Phoebe’s sleeping bag and a pile of other clothes, we got our first sighting of a bear as he gambolled on the grass verge before heading back into the undergrowth.

From Whitehorse, we veered back towards to Alaskan border via a night at the Takhini Hot Springs and probably the warmest swim any of us have had.

The drive from Haines Junction across the border to our stop in Haines has to rate as one of the most thrilling pieces of road around.

Chilkoot Lake
Sunset over Chilkoot Lake, Haines

Having travelled on some stunning roads in the Alps, Pyrenees and the eastern USA – not to mention this trip – the Haines Highway ranks right up there.

Flanked by high, snowy mountains, it drops down to run alongside a wide, fast-flowing river where initial howls of horror on discovering our comfort stop’s facilities were closed were replaced by cries of glee and the clicking of cameras at the sight of a giant moose playing to his audience on an island in the middle.

The town of Haines itself is pretty spectacular, draped around a natural harbour and flanked by a range of towering mountains.

It must be pretty bleak in winter, but with the sun out it is stunning and smalltown America at its best and friendliest.

It is also our starting-off point for the ferry down the Inside Passage, the only way down the panhandle of Alaska to state capital Juneau and beyond, cut off from the interior as it is by the mountains and glaciers.

Subdued by the first outbreak of sickness and the growing need to wash (both ourselves and our clothes), our scheduled day in Haines was taken up largely with housework and pootling around the camp, particularly for those of us on cooking duty.

But news that the evening ferry to Juneau was delayed until morning proved a blessing in disguise as a group of us piled on the bus for a short evening trip to Chilkoot Lake.

And, not for the first time this trip, sitting on the banks of a lake as the sun disappeared behind a mountain produced a real ‘wow’ moment.

Sitting on the edge of such a remarkable setting was good enough, but then something broke the water about 30 yards out – a sea otter fishing away regardless and providing us with a stunning show until swimming off downstream , only to be trumped by the bald eagle sat in the tree across the river.

We had seen a couple flying over the harbour the day before at a distance, but this commanding bird sat yards away, seemingly uncaring about his grateful audience and soaking up the evening sun.

Truly marvellous and well worth an extra night in Smalltown USA.

Mosquito update: Basically, the little buggers appear to be telling their mates about the bountiful meal to be had down at the local campsite.

My arms, hands and knees are an interesting mixture of old and new (in one place, a new bite on an old scab), my back has become a new favourite (they’ve moved up from my arse, but not without leaving their mark) while they have moved down from my hair to my face.

And as for the huge great welt on my big toe – this means war…

Next time: Glaciers, waterfalls, imitation orcas, paddling Puggles and more bloody mossies

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