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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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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