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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Why’s It Always Dairylea?

Original posted in London to New York blog, June 16, 2010

New Ulm, Minnesota

WARNING: This entry is long and contains some explicit references to cheese.

THIS entry was supposed to be extolling the delights of America’s National Parks and looking ahead to the final run through Chicago, Niagara Falls and on to New York.

It may, in the best tradition of this blog, have started with a quote from Blackadder about the final push.

Instead, there is little option than to open up with the latest in an occasional series of valuable travel tips which this blog feels necessary for anyone involved in a similar trip (particularly if that trip is led by a 6ft 4in snoring Kiwi with a penchant for smelly cheese).

New Ulm
Nick’s T-shirt shows the scars of the New Ulm cheese debacle

This tip is useful for anybody, no matter if they are travelling or not (particularly if they know a 6ft 4in snoring New Zealander… well, you get the drift).

And the tip is: Never agree to share a load of washing with anybody who has a penchant for smelly cheese (particularly if they are from New Zealand).

How different today’s recharge our batteries day in New Ulm, Minnesota might have been if somebody had bothered to pass on that advice beforehand.

For starters, we could have… hang on, let’s just consult the visitors’ guide.

Right, the 10 things to see and do in New Ulm, suggests dancing with a gnome; going cuckoo; dining like the Deutsche; sleeping late… but instead, the last few hours have been in the launderette.

New Ulm
Cheesy sock

That’s a touch unfair on New Ulm which seems a very pleasant place. Nick apparently wants to live here, but he has had a chance to get out and about.

Since we rolled in at Flandrau State Park in the early hours, it has exerted a certain charm – helped by perfect blue skies and sweltering heat, as well as some refreshing (ie cold) showers at the outdoor pool which dragged in crowds of screaming kids as we went about the task of tossing everything off the bus and repacking ahead of that final push.

Which is where it all started to go wrong as a plan was hatched to throw my half load of washing in with Nick’s T-shirt, Phoebe’s jeans and Phil’s… well, let’s just say some of his stuff.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The quite simply stunning Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – Best viewed from a few steps back

Little did anyone realise the packet of blue cheese which Phil has been fermenting in the sun at the front of the bus for the last couple of days was in among his washing pile – until opening the machine at the end of the cycle found it all over various items of clothing (Nick’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones T-shirt and one of Phil’s socks were the worst hit) and its scent over everything else.

Hence the delay in getting out to see the town as we wait for the second wash to end and it all to come out the dryer. We’ve even had to put the original machine through an empty cycle to get rid of some particularly offensive residue.

This is not the first time Phil’s cheese obsession has betrayed him.

In Riga, as we geared up for life on the Trans-Siberian train, he was particularly proud of his market purchases, which included a packet of containers into which he put some particularly stinky cheese and a pile of fresh coffee.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
And looking back down the canyon from the other direction

He was less than complimentary about our efforts in stocking up for the trip, prompting Nick, Mike and I to dash around the markets and get as much as we could before they closed.

And a successful trip it was too with our magic pepper rescuing many a meal and still adding that little bit of extra spice to dinner on the Green Tortoise.

It was made even sweeter when Phil left his precious cheese and coffee in the hostel in Riga and has been reduced to begging for our pepper ever since.

Yellowstone Falls
Yellowstone Falls does just that into the Grand Canyon

Whatever happened to that cheese remains a mystery. If anyone found it in Riga, hope you enjoyed it, along with a nice cup of coffee. The cheese in New Ulm is still making its mark in the launderette with a lingering smell – we are still here, courtesy of the need to send the wash through the dryer a second time to add a fresher fragrance. And dry it.

Ahead of us tonight is another drive which will see us awake in the suburbs of Chicago, our first big city since San Francisco 10 days earlier.

Since then we have been rattling through the American National Parks and those of you who have been paying attention will recall the mention of National Park Overdose Syndrome.

However, something of an epiphany means the prospect of hiking around these remarkable bits of countryside is met with enthusiasim (despite opting for the bus ahead of yesterday’s six-mile yomp through the sun-baked Badlands of South Dakota) and whiling away the evenings around the campsite – although we are all chomping at the bit to be let loose on the Windy City tomorrow.

Mammoth Falls Hot Springs
The weird and wonderful landscape at Mammoth Falls

The epiphany came at some point during our hike along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Having spurned the first day in Yellowstone in favour of watching football, inspiration was high on the shopping list and it certainly arrived – following a quick stop to watch bison and argue about the difference between them and buffalo – as we walked through meadows and barren moonscapes of the thermal springs and onto the dramatic sheer valley carved out by ancient volcanoes and the Yellowstone River.

Take a look at the picture and you will notice there is plenty of the path between me and the edge of the cliff in the pictures.

That was partially due to the discovery of a new fear – the sight of other people on the edge of big drops. While no great fan of heights, evidently seeing somebody else on the edge really puts the fear of God into me.

But the walk along the rim, overlooking the Yellowstone Falls, is pretty spectacular and worth the odd wobbly moment when you look down.

Mammoth Falls Hot Springs
The Hot Springs carve out a unique landscape

As is the walk through the Mammoth Falls Hot Springs which provides a cool, if slightly other-worldly, landscape of bubbling water, calcified cliffs and multi-coloured rocks, all set amid some spectacular Wyoming scenery.

The day was rounded off in the small town of Pray, Montana, where we passed a hugely enjoyable evening with hot springs, basketball, beer and live bluegrass before climbing aboard the bus. 

Devils Tower
Close Encounters of the OzBus Kind – Devils Tower

We awoke in South Dakota for one of the finest ways to start a Monday morning, in the shadow of Devils Tower (pedants beware: the apostrophe was left off the proclamation when it was made the USA’s first National Monument in 1906 and has never been added).

For those of us of a certain age, Devils Tower is the place where the aliens landed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and which Richard Dreyfus kept sculpting out of mashed potato), but for Native Americans it is a sacred site and for geologists it is a volcanic plug of huge interest.

For those of us who know very little about any of that, it is a spectacular, slightly eerie place and a walk round it provides a string of wondrous sights.

Devils Tower
A closer encounter with the Devils Tower

Via a short stop at a Prairie Dog Town – honest, that’s what they call the field where the cute little critters, or pests depending on who you listen to, hang out – we headed to South Dakota’s top tourist attraction.

And my verdict of Mt Rushmore – once we had driven through endless miles of signs for tawdry tourist cash-ins and the tacky, coach load-friendly town of Keystone – was largely ‘is that it?’.

Mt Rushmore
Mt Rushmore’s behind there somewhere

Yes they are a collection of quite impressive big heads on a mountain, but it really is a case of walk up (past the gift shop, the museum, the ice cream parlour and through the patriotic overkill of the corridor of flags, informing you when the US ‘acquired‘ the likes of American Samoa and Guam), take a picture, turn around and go home. And it is all surrounded by tawdry tourist traps and that over-the-top ‘America-the-Great’ propaganda.

Mt Rushmore
Aah, there it is

When the time comes to compile the list of great things we have seen on this trip, Mt Rushmore will not be featuring too high – certainly well below some of the other amazing things we have encountered in the last few days.

It did provide a moment of amusement when Duncan gathered a group together for the customary shot with his charity (RMHC) T-shirts and the mist rolled over the cliff top to obscure all four of the presidents.

Badlands
Sunset over the Badlands

There was no such problems the next day, which we spent in the Badlands of South Dakota.

Remote, tough and desolate they may be, but bad? Never.

They are strikingly gorgeous and provide some excellent walks through both the prairies and the cliffs which rise out of the ground like teeth.

One such lengthy set of cliffs gave its name to the town of Wall, where we whiled away a few hours in the baking sun.

Wall Drug
Jackass on a Jackalope at Wall Drug

There’s not much in Wall except the Wall Drug store, which has taken on epic proportions since its founders started putting up signs for free ice water to pull in passing motorists during the Great Depression in 1936.

Since then the store has ballooned from one shop to an entire block and the signs for Wall Drug now crop up all over the world (and on the variety of T-shirts we walked away with).

It also now includes a café, an array of amusements (tacky, but funny in a strange type of way) and a variety of shops selling just about everything you never thought you might want from a small town in South Dakota. You can even still get free ice water.

Badlands
The wonderful view over the Badlands

The Badlands Bar at least charges for its beer, but the World Cup (Brazil v North Korea) was free on ESPN, even with the annoyance of Ally McCoist as the excellent Martin Tyler’s co-commentator.

Why do television stations insist on saddling Tyler with irritating Scotsmen?

All irritations, except maybe the odd lost jumper, were forgotten as sunset in the Badlands saw Lukas guide a group of us out into the cliffs, via a climb up a wobbly ladder, to witness a spectacular view over the prairies.

A perfect end to the day.

NB If you were wondering about the things to do in New Ulm, and why wouldn’t you?, you can dance with the gnomes at all major festivals as they act as the city’s ambassadors; they appear to have a lot of cuckoo clocks on sale; there is a strong German heritage which is still reflected in the restaurants and there are comfortable beds in the B&Bs to sleep in (yes, that is one of their 10 things to do).

Badlands
A special moment – One final sunset over the Badlands
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He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s A Marmot

Original posted in London to New York blog, June 12, 2010

Jackson, Wyoming

THE Abridged Unofficial Overland Dictionary a few entries ago has sparked a few unexpected consequences.

The reaction from my fellow travellers with some of the definitions put forward for end-of-tour T-shirts, while there has been a clamour for other phrases to make it into a second edition

And over the last few days, several other phrases have popped up which need some explanation.

Among the phrases hopefully explained in this entry are:

  • The ones shouted at us by our white-water rafting guide when we were called to the rescue of a capsized boat;
  • A warning that bears were on their way, while camped in the middle of a forest with nowhere to hide if one of them did decide to wander through camp;
  • The litany of drivel spouted by the American behind me at the bar during the England v USA World Cup match;
  • What I meant when calling for Peter Crouch to come on (actually no, scratch that. There really is no explanation readily available).
Sunset over Nevada
Sunset over Nevada

Let’s start in fairly sedate fashion as we roll out of California and into Nevada. Don’t ask me where exactly, it had a load of trees and mountains surrounding it when we woke up, but then so has pretty much everywhere on this leg of the journey.

Wherever we were, we couldn’t use our intended route due to a landslide, so we headed off instead for a walk around Angel Lake and then onto the town of Wells, Nevada – described by new driver/guide/cook/guru/ ballroom dancing expert Lukas as having nothing but “a gas station and two brothels”.

We stopped, briefly (at the gas station), and headed straight out to what the locals know as Twelve Mile Pool.

While our previous hot spring stops came complete with entrance fees, nicely-maintained pools and showers, this one came with a 45-minute yomp up a dirt track, open-air changing, nothing but stones and rocks on the floor and plenty of algae and slime on the wall, the one piece of interference from man in its whole construction.

You had to be very careful how you held your beer, but its rustic charm ensured a group of us spent a very rewarding couple of hours there before heading back down the track and if a vote was had, it would go pretty comfortably in at number one in the hot springs chart.

Snake!A swift return trip to Wells – still no sign of the brothels – and we headed into the night, slipping through Utah before arriving in the ski town of Jackson, Wyoming, and our first real sight of rain since Whittier.

Top of the agenda for the day was white water rafting on the Snake River, although the original dozen victims, sorry volunteers, was narrowed down to an intrepid six – Nick, Phil, Barry, Phoebe, Marilyn and myself – by the time we were hauling ourselves into wetsuits.

We had been warned the river, swollen by melted snow, was running fast beforehand, but it was nothing untoward as we paddled off and safely negotiated the first few lumpy bits.

It all started to go a bit haywire when, moments after our guide had helpfully pointed out where somebody drowned last year, the heavens opened, pouring rain and hail down on us and making us far wetter than the river could manage – or so we thought.

Having given up paddling and coasted down a fairly flat bit of river as we took what shelter we could – none, basically – and with thunder and lightning adding to the drama under leaden black skies, we bore down on The Lunch Counter, the biggest of the rapids on our paddle downstream.

Jackson
The antler arches in the town square, Jackson

With the river running exceptionally fast, it was more of a place for your lunch to return than a counter to order it, but we ploughed on into a series of waves more akin to walls of water.

The last one pitched us almost vertically before we crashed back down to the water and drew breath, only to look down river and see the occupants of our companion raft strewn all over the place as their craft drifted upside down.

For what seemed like an age, but was probably no more than five minutes, we were the emergency services – the real search and rescue squad having just sped the other way in the aftermath of an incident which made the front of the Jackson Daily News the next day.

Don’t think our guide said anything too complicated, mainly “forward”, “back” and combinations of the two in an increasingly frantic shout as we began to pluck people, including a couple of young children, from the water and got close enough for one of our guides to dive onto the upturned raft and pull those clinging to it out of the torrent.

We then headed past the stricken raft, including one stretch where we seemed to go nowhere despite our best efforts, to collect the flotsam and jetsam as it came our way and eventually both boats and all hands were safely secured on the bank.

As the other raft’s occupants headed up the bank to the road, we negotiated the last few bends as Nick and myself discovered our journalistic instincts were still in full working order as we began to mentally write our pieces on the drama.

Jenny Lake
Jenny Lake

Thankfully, with nobody hurt and the only real injuries to one or two guides’ pride (you’ve never seen anyone quite so relieved as the lead guide), our pieces are likely to go unwritten.

It was with some relief we pulled into Colter Bay Village in the Grand Tetons National Park – our base for the next three nights – and discovered a bar to sit and share our dramatic tales.

The next day was far more sedate, a walk around Jenny Lake with its charming yellow-bellied marmots (one of whom Phoebe christened Norman for some reason) about half an hour south of our campsite, followed by probably the final laundry before New York (hopefully not the final shower) and the invention of a new frisbee game which involves aiming at each other’s strategically-placed beer cans around the campsite.

Norman the Marmot
Norman the Marmot – The original Travel Marmot pops up to say hello at Jenny Lake

And so we passed a genteel evening eating and drinking by the campfire, interrupted only by camp security informing us “the bears are coming”.

We may be close to Yellowstone, but don’t think they meant Yogi and one or two faces were less than enthralled by the news. There was a distinct drop-off in traffic to the toilet, which was normally overloaded with charging iPods, cameras and laptops, once dark had fallen.

Yogi, Boo-boo and pals stayed out of sight, although the day’s early risers were treated to a dawn chorus from the neighbouring coyotes, prompting one or two to remain in their sleeping bags a while longer.

When morning did break, it was decision time – head off for the first of two days in Yellowstone National Park or get dropped off at the swish Jackson Lodge just down the road to watch England’s World Cup opener against the USA.

You only get few opportunities in life to witness the Old Faithful geyser, but a select band of us opted to a phenomenon just as reliable – England infuriating their fans in a major competition.

The decision to opt out of a day in Yellowstone was partly down to National Park Overkill Syndrome (which thankfully has been cured by some spectacular scenery in the last couple of days, of which more next time), partly down to the fact my legs were killing me after a lot of walking and largely down to my desire to watch the game amid the Americans.

If you want to get to know a country and its people, there are very few ways better than to sit in a bar watching sports with them and this was no exception.

Admittedly, many of the Americans there didn’t really care or know too much about the game or even who was playing and they only just outnumbered the initially noisier band of English fans.

But with the commentary in Spanish (a bit like watching football as dubbed by the Fast Show – ‘Wayne Mark Rooney, Scorchio!’), we had to fill in a few gaps in their knowledge.

It was us, however, who were left scratching our heads after the contribution of the American guy behind us.

He seemed nice enough, but quite what he meant by shouts of “Quarter It”, “Split It” and, every time the US won a tackle, “Good Midfield” remains a mystery.

His best came towards the end with the combination of “Possess, Possess, Possess…Triangle… Great Overlap”, followed by a round of applause as the Americans kicked the ball out of play.

Oh well, at least he wasn’t calling for Peter Crouch to come on…

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Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize

Original posted in London to New York blog, June 7, 2010

San Francisco, California

“ARE you going to San Francisco?”
WELL yes actually, just not for bloody long enough.

Not that any time we spent there would have been long enough to explore this mesmerising city, although it’s not a place built for walking around.

We had around 36 hours from rolling in to rolling out, complete with change of bus and a fresh pair of drivers, and between us we only scratched the surface of the city in the bay.

We weren’t helped by arriving on the shores of San Francisco bay in not exactly the best state of health, courtesy of the short, but intense, celebrations of my 40th birthday the night before.

Golden Gate
The Golden Gate Bridge. It’s there somewhere. Honest.

My head was shrouded in a fog similar to that which enveloped the Golden Gate Bridge as we woke to what should have been one of the iconic views of the whole trip.

And things were not helped by Mike’s decision to climb off the Green Tortoise and head back to Wales where he can enjoy some more mist-obscured views on a regular basis.

Why he opted to head back two weeks from the end of the line is down to Mike, but his absence has been felt, particularly by those at the back of the bus.

Mason Street
Down The Slope – The hill back down to our hostel in San Francisco

With Mike’s final decision still hanging in the air and fortified by a proper American diner breakfast, a group of us set off to explore the city – straight up a bloody big hill.

You would have thought that our decision to head for the water might have meant a downhill walk to sea level, but San Francisco has water on three sides and one huge crest in the middle.

Eventually, having hauled ourselves up the hill and down the slope, our select little band found ourselves down by Fishermen’s Wharf and Pier 39, both Class A tourist traps.

Despite that, and sizeable crowds on a blisteringly hot Sunday, they are not oppressive or too tacky and there is plenty to catch the eye.

Sea Lions, Pier 39
The sea lions do a passable imitation of the back of the bus at Pier 39

Phoebe was like a kid in a candy store. Quite literally as she stumbled across The Candy Baron store and, added to the slurpee she had just downed, went on a bit of a sugar rush.

Not that you need any form of artificial stimulant to enjoy the sea lions who have made their home on the pontoons alongside the pier.

They are hugely entertaining and you can watch on for ages as they climb over each other to find the best place to sleep.

They reminded me of travelling on the bus as they are smelly, noisy, spend hours sprawled out asleep and one of them was the spitting image of Phil when he heads back to the sleeping area on the bus and crashes out among our feet. He makes a similar noise as well.

Golden Gate Bridge
The Bay Bridge – albeit from a distance on the boat to Alcatraz

Sad to say, the exertions of the previous couple of days had caught up with some of us and having let a streetcar take the strain for part of the return journey, we made maximum use of the hostel to catch up on some kip – and showers – before bidding farewell to Mike with a couple of quiet beers.

Refreshed and with final farewells said, we headed out (via the flatter outside route) into an even hotter day on the bay to visit Alcatraz, military fort turned infamous prison turned Hollywood setting (via another trip to the Candy Baron, where Nick took on the role of Pied Piper with an array of sweets).

And a mighty interesting trip it was too.

If it wasn’t for its less than salubrious history, Alcatraz would probably now be a coveted plot of land with spectacular views in the middle of San Francisco Bay, albeit reached via a treacherous mile and a half of water.

Welcome to Alcatraz
Welcome to Alcatraz

But for more than three decades up to 1963, this was the most notorious prison in the States, housing the likes of Al Capone and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, who for all his

kindness to birds – albeit, never during his time on The Rock – was a bit of a bastard to human beings.

He had a tendency to kill them, while even his winged friends were largely a cover for an illicit

Cell at Alcatraz
Cell at Alcatraz

still he was running in his cell before being transferred to Alcatraz.

Our brief introductory talk from Ranger Al debunked his myth and several others – including the tale which inspired the Clint Eastwood movie Escape From Alcatraz, although the three-man breakout did happen with none of the bodies/escapees ever found.

San Francisco from Alcatraz
Tormenting view – San Francisco seen from Alcatraz

You get to see the cells occupied and tunnelled out of by the three men, plus other infamous and bloody spots throughout the prison on a fascinating audio tour, voiced by former wardens and inmates.

Not sure the stabbings and prison riots need to sound quite so realistic, but well worth the admission fee it all is.

Sadly, we got to see very little of the rest of San Fran, just managing to get back to the hostel, pick up our gear and cram an all-you-can-eat-for-just-a-few-dollars Indian buffet down our throats before being collected by the new bus for the next leg of the trip.

Lower Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls

The new wheels come complete with a fresh two-man driving team, Matty being replaced by Lucas and Charlie, who had actually climbed aboard in Seattle and had his eyes well and truly opened by the chaos of Arcata.

It also witnessed another change of pace from our whirlwind tour of the west coast’s city sights to the grandiose settings of the big American National Parks.

And we started with a biggie, waking up the next morning on the banks of a swollen river in Yosemite Valley.

What followed was a glorious day sweltering under a roasting sun and walking the miles of trails around the valley in the shadow of great granite buttresses which rise vertically around you – rather like walking around a huge, open-air cathedral, only with more running water.

Yosemite
One of many stunning views around the Yosemite Valley

Eschewing some of the more ridiculous sounding trails (“keep going up the hill for four hours…”), my more sedate day’s walking opened up with the short trip to Yosemite Falls which are quite spectacular.

From there it was a quick trip to the visitors’ centre (where Pam had to prod me awake during their film on the park) and a walk up to Mirror Lake for lunch before branching out on my own for the three-mile yomp back along the valley to the bus (via a swimming pool and its much-needed showers).

The Yellow Brick Road
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – The plan for the final leg of the trip

It was no surprise that we turned in early that night, partly because the bus was already on the road, but not before enjoying the spectacular route out of the park and a quick bout of the new obsession sweeping the group – cribbage.

It’s a far cry from my days learning how to play in the cutthroat sessions at family gatherings, which have helped establish a bit of a reputation as a shark.

Long may it continue…

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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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