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