Feeling Gravitys Pull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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