Sunday, June 26, 2011

Thirteen – Slowing the Roll

Of course what was round the corner was Hooters. The guy on my right was from Oakland and watching the baseball on the TV on my left. The guy on my left was from Eritrea, and now San Fran, and was watching the soccer on the TV on my right!
We were then joined at the bar by Curtis from SF who gave me some tips on gambling in Vegas, and a card telling me how to win at blackjack. (Or at least lose slowly!) His friends arrived for a birthday party so he left and was replaced by a guy from Carson City.
I took a wander round the neighbourhood but there aren’t many bars around the wharf and it was a Tuesday night. However there was some good music blaring out of “Lou’s” so I wandered in and enjoyed Jojo Diamond and his amazing 15 year old son playing some great blues rock, with a lot of fantastic guitar solos.
In the morning I wondered whether to stay on the bay. I like the place, but I’ve done the touristy stuff before.
My decision was made when Chris from BBC World confirmed I could visit their downlink site in Napa.
So I drove up Telegraph Hill (singing Dire Straits’ Telegraph Road of course) and admired the view from Coit Tower, then hit the road.
The lucky guys at Intelsat have a picturesque location in the sun-drenched Napa valley for their collection of huge satellite dishes, including the 16.4 metre dish for BBC World. Mike and Sammy happily gave me a tour round. They definitely know what they’re doing and I was pleased my brain still functioned in “work mode”!
Mike then recommended an Italian restaurant nearby so I had more than my usual lunch butty and contemplated what to do next.
From SF I’d imagined myself continuing south along the coast. But this would mean back-tracking (Gulp!) this morning’s drive. Alternatively I could head inland to Lake Tahoe. I decided I’d been on the coast for a while, and a break at the lake might be a nice change.
I was tired by the time I reached the lake, but overjoyed to see it was even more beautiful than I remembered. I was even happier to find an ABVI across the road from a small lakeside beach (ABVI?  “America’s Best Value Inn” -  keep up!). They even had a hot tub on the balcony so you could sit in it and gaze at the lake – and the people walking past on the street!
The lake was beautiful, the weather was beautiful and the girls were beautiful, so I decided to stay an incredible two nights! I found a sports bar in the Lakeside Pizza joint, advertising Sports, Dancing and Pool Tables. However it was pretty empty on a Wednesday night. I spoke to a guy called Jim who gave me a long list of recommendations for San Diego, so I gave him the blog url so he can see how they pan out.
Walking back to the ABVI I discovered they’d set up an inflatable screen on the lakeshore. I watched “Scott Pilgrim vs the world” for free, in possibly the most picturesque cinema ever!
The next day was a blessed relief not needing to drive anywhere. So I got in the car and went for a drive around the lake. It’s 74 miles, but with incredible views from every angle it took all afternoon. I’d hoped to enjoy running by the lake but there wasn’t a good stretch between private land. The bike track just follows the road, not the lakeside. I ended up jogging down a lot of dead ends.
They’d promised me a busier night at Lakeside so I returned for “Beat the Clock”. 50 cent drinks from 8pm, rising by 50 cents every half hour. Although ironically they didn’t have a clock! It was a lot busier so I joined forces with James and Paul in chatting up the locals, only to find that the most flirtatious was the girlfriend of Tyler, who we’d also been talking with.
Things quietened quickly after the drinks prices went up and J and P went home so I joined a group of lads and we walked up to Fat Cats. It was karaoke night with a bar full of white kids singing/rapping/ruining Snoop Dogg songs. I sampled the local beer then called it a night. Actually I called it a good night, and considered sticking around for an unprecedented third.
However Tahoe City had limited options – did I mention I was in Tahoe City? No? Well, I was in Tahoe city, and it had limited options for nightlife. I’d driven through South Tahoe and passed the casinos in the Nevada border town of Stateline and thought they looked like fun.
With eight minutes to go until checkout I managed to book a room for Friday and Saturday nights. (Yes I know, but not booking in a tourist town at the weekend would have been asking to be extorted on arrival!) I then had another leisurely drive round the lake, stopped at the beach at Sand Harbour, before reaching the Big Pines Motel.
I instantly regretted booking 2 nights. Typical, the first time I commit in advance and the place has thin walls, noisy plumbing and even noisier neighbours. I’m between two rooms with Japanese families in, who make a racket to-ing and fro-ing for a couple of hours. I ask for a room swap but the place is full. (Of course my hangover from cheap booze isn’t helping!) I leave the noisy kids and go for some peace and quiet in the casino.
There’s 4 casinos here so I scope them all out and find the Mont Bleu is having a Corvette show which is worth a quick look. The Horizon looks like a dive, the Harrah’s looks OK but I can’t figure out how to pronounce it. Finally Harvey’s (What’s with all the H’s?) has a decent Sports Bar so I’m watching baseball and chatting to guys again. Maybe I could invent a bar that shows stuff girls want to watch, hmm, I could call it “The Bar of Soap”.
Er, oh yeah, Harvey’s… and I’m talking to Sean, who sells vacuum cleaners for 3 grand each!! Apparently they’re really good.
Levi and Lindsay are behind the bar so I get some tips on where to go later. Sean really likes Lindsay, and I can’t blame him, but he’s also trying to be nice to his colleagues. So he’s distraught when they give him a free ticket to the comedy show, just before Lindsay agrees to stick around for a drink with us after her shift. Poor Sean has to leave just as Lindsay returns looking stunning in her “going out” clothes.
Opal is the club to go to on Friday night, not least because the girls are getting free drinks. There’s go-go dancers and body painting and all kinds of craziness unsuitable for a family friendly blog. It was another good night.
In the morning I finally get to lounge by a pool in the sunshine, then wander down to the hotel’s “private beach” which it shares with half the places in town.
Back to the sports bar, and I find Americans watching “soccer” and getting excited! It’s the Concacaf final. They lose to Mexico, but don’t start a riot or smash up the bar. It’s only soccer after all.
Opal is not as good tonight and they won’t let me into “Vex” because they don’t recognise a UK driving licence and think I should be carrying my passport around with me! However the “Cabo Wabo” manager has enough sense to realise I’m over 21 and let me in. I’m glad how this works out because I was growing weary of the “grind” music in the clubs, and the Cabo has a band playing Rock covers. Everyone jumps around like lunatics and I stagger back to the hotel in the wee hours, glad I’ve booked an unprecedented third night (the noisy neighbours had checked out)
Sunday and it’s decision time. Return to the headlong dash down the coast, to make Vegas for July 2nd, or trundle to Vegas, then have another couple of weeks to do San Diego and the coast.
Obviously more time is better, but I’m wary the cost is mounting. However, I’m beginning to feel like I’ve learned a lot from this trip, and one thing is not to go to places without a goal. I’ve seen Australia before and it’s mid winter in New Zealand. I’m also weary of the new – (though still loving the experience!) So I’m thinking a couple of weeks in California, a couple of weeks in Hawaii, then head home over a couple of weeks.
With this detailed plan decided, I book a silly flash car for 2 weeks from Vegas and try to book a flight. I have another Crisis in Paradise when Hawaiian air don’t accept UK credit cards so have to find a way around, then I have to fix the hotel PC to use their printer, but I’m finally sorted. Just enough time to write this blog, before packing up, ready to mosey on.
Best have a quiet night tonight then…
…though a couple of beers watching the baseball couldn’t hurt?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Level Twelve

The Oregon coastal scenery has one advantage over California, it’s more lush. There’s beautiful greenery right up to the sea. The reason for this is clear the next morning when I emerge for a run on the beach to be greeted by horizontal rain!
I’ve got a jacket and it’s still a beautiful spot, or at least it would be if you could see more than a hundred yards in the fog. This presents a problem for the drive. How can I enjoy the scenery if I can’t see it? But if I stay put what am I going to do in the rain? …and what if it’s the same tomorrow?
Of course I plough on.
There’s nothing quite so grim as seaside resorts on a wet, foggy day. It’s a miserable drive. Then
I break my glasses.
Well, I didn’t so much break them, the clever hinge-less frame fell apart in my hand. Nuts! This is a real problem as I don’t have a spare set.
“Why don’t I have a spare set?” (Oh, I’m very much talking to myself after five weeks on the road)
“Because I only need them for driving, and my sunglasses are lightly shaded and prescriptive, so I can use them.”
“So it’s not a real problem?”
“Er, no I guess not.”
 In fact, my Oakleys reduce the glare from the fog, which is good because it fails to lift all day. I also fail to find a spot on the shore, as there’s a huge stretch of dunes mid-Oregon. So I stop in the remarkably uninteresting town of North Bend, and watch “Inception” on TV.
Luckily the next day the fog lifts, and the skies clear. I was contemplating jumping on the interstate and heading for California, but things are back on track. I stick to the gorgeous highway 101 through places like Gold Beach and Crescent City, and I’m into California.
The first thing I reach is the Redwood National Forest. OK, so it’s just a lot of huge trees, but it is a beautiful drive with the afternoon sun shining through. I even stop for a walk when I see a sign in the middle of the forest, simply saying “Big Tree”.
As I drive on the view reminds me of something. It’s a scene from a video game. In fact it was my favourite Arcade game, and a major influence on my love for video games, driving and life in general. Outrun. Driving across all the landscapes of the USA in an open-top Ferrari with a blonde passenger. Now I don’t have the Ferrari, nor the passenger, but this trip is the real-life version of that game. I’ve driven through snow-capped mountains, along sun-kissed shorelines, through shaded forests and past glittering lakes. It’s a lifelong fantasy come true, cue the “Magical Sound Shower”
Eureka! Was the name of the next town on the coast. Although I think they missed a trick by not getting an exclamation mark like “Westward Ho!” They also missed a trick by not having a beach, so I’d recommend stopping at Crescent City!
Another day and it’s (use your best doom-mongering voice for this) “The Valley of the Giants”!
Which is a grand name for another stretch of forest. It’s another scenic drive though, until I’m forced back on the freeway and we’re stuck behind trucks. Finally I can make a break for it, at the appropriately named Leggett.
This is the start of highway 1, and I cheer as I pass a sign saying:
“Narrow winding road, next 22 miles”
There then follows a dozen of the most incredible miles I’ve ever driven. (..and I’ve driven many of the “best roads in the world”, “Roads to drive before you die”, and the Nurburgring Nordschleiffe). The road changes direction, elevation and surface, often at the same time. I rise and fall a thousand feet through twisting chicanes and hairpin bends. Unlike the mountain passes of the alps, this all takes place in a forest, with trees at every turn, leaning into the road for a better view of the action, and threatening to end the fun with a crunch. There’s also logging trucks, with a schedule to keep, thundering towards me over blind crests and cutting sharp apices. Speed limits are irrelevant in this tortuous twisty world. I catch only a few cars, and the wonderful generous people move aside and let me hasten onwards. Even the motorcyclists move aside as this mad fool and his daft American tyres squeal through another bend at close to 18 miles an hour!
(Actually my eyes were so far out on stalks I couldn’t see the speedo, but I promise I was keeping to a speed I could stop in the distance I could see to be clear! It’s a long walk to Vegas, even further on broken legs.)
After what could have been minutes, or hours, I emerged into the blinding sunshine to find myself high on the cliffs above the Pacific and another stunning view. I stopped to take a breath, and blink.
Now I don’t mean to make a big thing of it, but I spent the night in Fort Bragg. They have a small beach, and a cycle track. However they’re lacking in nightlife. I found a brew-pub, and then a local dive, but nothing special, I guess it was Monday night.
Tuesday, and highway 1 twists along the coast. The blue skies, bluer seas, and sandy bays go on forever. Between the dawdling traffic and my many stops to take pictures or gawp at the scenery it’s slow progress towards San Francisco. Finally I get to recreate the scene from Basic Instinct.
No, not that one! The drive down the last part of highway 1! The twists and turns, and the traffic, reach a crescendo, then we pop out onto the 101 in time for the toll bridge.
I’ve been to SF twice, but never arrived from the North. It’s an incredible entrance to the city. The Golden Gate Bridge emerges from behind a hill in all its splendour. Then as you begin to cross it, you see the city on the slope facing you. As you marvel at the view you realise there’s something else in your periphery – Alcatraz. Wow.
But where to stay?
The first time I visited SF was with a few friends. Jigna found a decent little hotel, right by fisherman’s wharf. It would be great to stay there again, but after 11 years I couldn’t remember the name of the hotel, or the address, just the photo of the view from the balcony.
So I drove across the city, and was reminded why this is one of the few cities I love. The hills and views are incredible, and there’s no traffic at 5pm! I drive down the tourist riddled Lombard street – “the crookedest street” and head for Fisherman’s Wharf, trying to remember which street I want.
It’s no good. I can’t quite remember, and I can’t find it. Well, it was a long shot. I’ll try one last lap round and, hang on, I remember the Sheraton, it was near that.
There it is… “the Wharf Hotel”!
…and the vacancy sign is on.
…I get a room with a balcony like before.
I’m giddy. It’s not just the memories from another time, another me. It’s the first time since I left England that I’ve been anywhere familiar! The ship became familiar, but for the last 5 weeks it’s been All new, All day. To know what I’ll find around the corner is an amazing sensation, and I’m smiling like a loon.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Eleven - Going Coastal

So I was in a beautiful small town, near Vancouver, tired from another 5 days on the road and slightly overwhelmed by new experiences after the Rockies. It was time to stay put.
I had a nice run in the morning and a cooked breakfast. Rich had told me that the drive North to Whistler surpassed even the Rockies and was only half an hour so I went to see. It didn’t, but it was nice to take it easy for a day.
I hit the bar early to get a spot to watch the game but it was packed already. This was not like the FA cup final were half the city will be cheering for the opposition. Vancouver is pretty much the only team in BC, in the only sport that counts. This is like watching England in the World Cup Final. Luckily the place has a second room and I get a seat at the bar itself. It’s also a brew pub for Howe Sound brewery so I’m not drinking Bud Light for a change.
I chat to Jamie and his wife Laura.  The place soon fills up as the atmosphere builds. Then the Bruins score. Oh well, it’s only one goal, and the Canucks are hanging in there this time. But the Bruins, and particularly their Goalie are too good. As the Canucks try desperately to get in the game they just fall further behind. I’m not too bothered. If they’d won a glorious game I’d have wished I’d gone to Vancouver, plus after hanging out in Massachussets I’d been hoping the Bruins would win the cup.
The next morning I wake up to discover they’ve been rioting in Vancouver. I see a comment that this doesn’t fit the Canadian stereotype, but as I mentioned last blog, they did it before. It seems to me that whether they’re British, American or Canadian, there’s lots of nice people, and a small number of idiots. It’s just that the idiots get more airtime, and the American idiots especially so.
I leave Squamish and really enjoy the drive South to Vancouver, there’s an incredible bay with mountains almost 360 degrees around. I’m Southbound back to the USA, and after spending my last Canadian cents at the petrol station (without buying petrol!) it’s time to cross the border.
Siiting in the queue I rehearse all the possible questions and answers which might come up. I pull forward at the hut and he asks where I reside:
“Are you lost?”
…and I’m back in the USA. Which means I’m in Washington, and that’s my 48th and last of the contiguous states. Wahoo!
I’m also in Blaine, which is the North West of the Four Corners of the USA. So I’ve done 3 of those too, with just San Ysidro remaining.
It’s decision time again. I want to hug the coast, but Seattle’s in the way, and you know me and cities. I could go inland, but it’s a very long way round to drive through a small mountain range. After the Rockies I don’t think the Cascades are going to blow me away so I risk Seattle. At 3pm the highways are already jammed so I trundle into town. There’s only one thing that draws me into the centre of Seattle, and that’s the space needle.
But next door there’s the Experience Music Project. Now this sounds worryingly like a museum, but it’s supposed to be highly interactive, and there’s exhibits on Jimmy Hendrix, Nirvana and Battlestar Galactica, so what’s not to like?
Well, all of it if you’re me. I’d rather sit down with a good stereo or movie system than wander round looking at pictures or costumes. Oh well, I gave it a try.
After the fog of New York it’s a relief to find Seattle in sunshine and I enjoy the Space Needle. I’m not on the edge of weeping (manly) tears like I was on the Icefield Parkway, but it’s a nice view across the city and bay.
The traffic’s awful so I become possibly the first person in the history of the space needle to use the mounted telescope to see if I can figure out a way to walk to Hooters. It being America, I can’t of course, so I’m forced to drive for 20 minutes to cover 1 mile, then pay five dollars to park again!
At least I can have a burger and a coke and sit out the traffic, and it’s a great location on the waterfront.
Closed for refurbishment.
So a group of young Japanese tourists and I look around glumly for somewhere else to eat. There’s only poncey restaurants serving clam chowder. (Showderrrr!)
I have a word with GPS and he suggests the Hooters in Tacoma. It’s only 30 miles straight down the interstate, but it’s going to be hell in the traffic. What to do? Well, I’ve got my supply of goodies from the Canadian petrol station to keep me going, so I chance it. (After persuading the attendant to give me my five bucks back!)
They must bunk off early in Seattle, the interstate is busy but flowing at 6.30. Maybe it’s because they’re 3 hours behind the East Coast. So I make Tacoma just after 7 and find my exit. With half a mile to go it’s not looking promising, and I wonder if GPS has lead me on another wild goose chase. But then… what’s that? A glorious orange sign! …and sweet mercy, there’s a Days Inn next door!
Boneless Chicken wings and beer, with some great music playing, fantastic. People celebrating birthdays wearing huge tin-foil hats, and a waitress who carries pints of beer on her head. The only thing missing is a game to watch. Thanks to the time zones, most games have finished by 8pm Pacific. We’re reduced to shouting at “NFL live” who don’t have a game for three months, so are explaining the intricacies of the “prevent defence”.
Friday, and I decide not to spend 8 dollars to go across the Tacoma Narrows bridge and back. Besides, it’s not as fun as the old one. I head out to the coast, finally getting an uninterrupted view of, and the chance to dip my toes into, the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach, Washington. (Coincidentally, I left the Atlantic at Long Beach Island!).
LBW wasn’t much to write home about so it’s South into Oregon. I don’t know much about Oregon, but the first few miles of coastline are stunning. I come over a rise and find a view from the cliffs to match anything I’ve seen. Miles of sandy beach curves into the distance with giant hills in the background.
I even decide to stop early and find an Inn by the beach in Manzanita. I have a run on the sand, a swim in the outdoor pool overlooking the sea, and head for the “San Dune” pub. Only to discover there’s a farmers’ market going on in the street. There’s a very hippy vibe to this town. So I decide not to eat at the pub for a change and I have a freshly bbq’d burger and a home-made cherry pie, listening to a guy from Chile play pan pipes.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ten - Over The Top

Aside from the seven foot tank sitting in the middle of the room, there was nothing remarkable about the bar at Invermere, nor the fish and chips they served (The chips that come with fish are chips, not like the chips that come with everything else, which are crisps). What was remarkable about the tank, was the lack of fish. (Fish tank, not Sherman!) The barmaid explained that they had a lot of fish, but they died mysteriously. They also have a “cannibal” fish which quietly munches the other fish when no-one’s looking. This seems to be a common problem, my friends Nat and Gem have a similar issue, though a more modest tank!
Anyhow, it was a quiet night so I was able to get an early start and head for highway 93. The Icefields Parkway was a road I’d been looking forward to since I started this crazy trip. For once I wasn’t disappointed.
Unlike in the Alps, were the roads climb dizzying hairpins to incredible mountaintop passes, in the Rockies the roads pass between the peaks. The scenery is simply stunning, and because you’re not busy lining up the next bend, straining your neck to see where the turn ends, you can appreciate the view more. So I found the perfect tunes with some help from Bruce Springsteen (The Rising) and John Fogerty (Revival) and lost myself in the mountains for a few hours.
The peaks were still white with snow, the clear mountain lakes bright blue. Wildlife ran freely, occasionally across the road. A black bear lolloped across the road a few yards in front of me, egged on by his mate. A deer darted to the side of the road, then reconsidered remodelling my Toyota. The road passed 2000 metres high, then swooped down and up, at one point swinging round almost 360 degrees – affectionately known by the locals as the toilet bowl.
I came back down to earth at Jasper. I didn’t want to pay tourist rates to stay by the parkway, but it was a long way to anywhere else. So I decided to compare my usual strategy with the hi-tech alternative. After a quick pootle round the small town I determined that the “Tonquin Inn” looked the best value. So I searched for a free, unencrypted wifi spot, but everyone required passwords. I found an internet café in town and searched for hotels, to discover that the cheapest was the “Tonquin Inn”. So I booked online through a cheap deals site.
When I arrived at the hotel I asked what the rate was and she quoted me 13 dollars cheaper. D’oh!
Luckily she amended my booking to the cheaper rate and gave me a nice room with a balcony view of the mountains. She also pointed me in the direction of some good bars. In the first one I got talking to Andrew, a writer who was taking some time off to write a second novel. He came with me to the second bar which is why I don’t remember asking his surname or what his first book was!
He didn’t come to the nightclub, which was a wise move as the place was full of “kids” and made me feel old.
Still, it was a good night out and made me a bit slower heading off the next day. It was pretty much a transition day, getting out of the high mountains and heading towards the West coast and Vancouver. Speaking of Vancouver, the TV people said their hockey team were about to win the biggest prize in hockey, the Stanley Cup, so I tried to land somewhere I could watch the game.
Kamloops is a town built on the side of a hill, affording great views from even the cheap motels. They also have a great big sports bar so I happily marched in and asked for a seat at the bar.
“We don’t have seats at the bar”
What! I know this ain’t the US of A but its right next door! How can they not have a bar to sit at?! So I end up stuck in a corner on the only unreserved table while the place fills with people in oversized Vancouver Canucks shirts.
Fate has its revenge on the poor feng shui of the Canadians when the Boston Bruins tear the Canucks apart.
Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, and just like that it’s four nil. You can hear a pin drop. Well, actually you can hear a goalie shirt drop as one is thrown across the bar in disgust.
This means there’ll be a seventh and final game to decide the title in Vancouver on Wednesday 15th June. Which, coincidentally, is where I was heading on Tuesday 14th June.
I believe I mentioned before that cities and road trips don’t mix. I enjoy road trips for their singularity of purpose, just get up and go. Whereas to enjoy a city you need to know what to do, where to stay, how to get around, and even worse, to book ahead.
So it was with some trepidation I drove towards Vancouver. Sure enough, I went straight through the middle. I caught glimpses of the buildings from the brochures, of hookers and crackheads (oddly missing from the brochures) got stuck in a traffic jam, missed the park exit and crossed the bridge to West Vancouver. Here the city suddenly becomes more attractive. I can’t think of anything famous about Vancouver, but it is located on a beautiful bay beneath yet more incredible mountains.
So I rounded the coast a little further and stopped in a scenic little place called Squamish. The town beach and pier will be very nice when they’ve built them, but for now they have cliffs, waterfalls and mountains towering above. I check in to the “Inn on the Water” and am delighted to be able to walk round town for once.
Another bar, another “single serving friend”. Rich, from Utah works as a consultant from his laptop so is able to spend summers in British Colombia rolling down hills on a mountain bike.
So what now? I don't fancy the two thousand miles to Alaska, with few things to see or people to meet on the way. Let alone the two thousand miles back down the same road. So I'm heading South. I'm tempted to join the festivities in Vancouver, but it will be even busier, more expensive and difficult than usual.
...and last time they lost, they trashed the city.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cloud - Nine

So I’d booked a room, but first I had to get there. After the bleak state of North Dakota it was wonderful to drive across Montana. They call it the “Big Sky State” and there really is a lot of sky. Something to do with the clarity of the air, its an amazing sight.
That is until the afternoon when the clouds descended. The trouble with a big sky is it can hold a lot of cloud, and Montana has been getting very wet recently. I was diverted away from the flooded river road and onto the mountain road. This worked in my favour as the road sweeps majestically across plateaus four thousand feet high. During the breaks in the clouds it’s an incredible drive.
As I reach Great Falls the rain is getting very heavy, and the last few miles take forever, until I finally collapse onto the most comfortable bed in the world!
The Holiday Inn Express is a nice hotel with friendly staff, and I soon decide to book a second night. I relax in the pool and have a go at the 140 foot water slide which loops out of the building and back in. Only to discover it’s an opaque slide so you twist and turn in the dark. Gulp!
After an early night I get on with sorting boring stuff out, but there’s one major issue – the warning light on the car. I know Hertz will suggest I exchange the car, and I really don’t want to lose my electric seat and ipod connection! I’ll try to keep this brief:
Phone Hertz: “You need to exchange the car”. Boo.
Can’t I just get it serviced? “No”. Boo
The nearest exchange location is Great Falls Airport. Which happens to be just half a mile away. Yay!
Arrive at Hertz office. “You don’t need to exchange the car”. Huh?
“You can just get it serviced and we’ll refund you” Yay! (With some “Huh?”)
So I get straight into the service place, which is attached to a shopping centre so I can get my hair cut by a cute girl and then have lunch before collecting my car. And the service cost a princely 25 dollars!
Sometimes you’ve just gotta love the US of A!
In the evening I went to the Sip’n’Dip. A club with a pool behind the bar where real live mermaids swim around for your amusement. (It’s less exotic when you realise it’s the motel pool during the day) The bar is packed with people who’re in town attending a sheep convention. I talk to Connie from Oregon who spends a lot of time in Hawaii and gives me some tips. Everyone is then in hysterics at the antics of a couple of their colleagues who have been volunteered to join the mermaids to raise money for charity!
Mmmfday. I’ve completely lost track by this point. Time to hit the road again. The hotel manager confirms that they often get full around here too so I take the unusual step of booking tonight’s accommodation and get a cheap room near the Glacier National Park
I’m into the Rocky Mountains for real now, and the mountains still have snow on the top. In fact, the road I’ve come to drive is still closed for winter. The “Going to the Sun road” is said to be spectacular so it’s a real disappointment. However only the middle section is closed. So I drive the Eastern part, then loop around the Southern edge of the National park for 90 minutes on some pretty spectacular roads and drive the Western part. Unfortunately the Western part is pretty dull. Well, I mean it’s pretty amazing, but it’s lakes and trees. I’ve had my fill of those!
However, the Eastern side. Wow. It’s staggeringly beautiful. Soaring, snow-capped peaks over bright blue mountain lakes. The scenery literally took my breath away! Oh hang on, that was probably the altitude, but the scenery was utterly amazing.
The weather played its part with bright blue skies and sunshine. To think, had I not had a miserable night in the car I might have got here the day before in the rain and clouds and missed all this!
Leaving the park I convinced myself to stop at a restaurant. Here we go, long waits for reasonably good food…
Wow again. Trout, fresh from the Rocky Mountains. Sumptuous.
I’m running out of gushing adjectives so it’s lucky the hotel can only be described as a dump. A dump on a traffic island. With broken wi-fi, so it’s back to pot luck for the next place.
Since I’m heading back into the park I decide to buy some camping gear, just in case. Next to the guns and rifles in Walmart I find a tent, sleeping bag and pad for 50 bucks.
Today I’m skirting around the mountains in the valleys. Still very scenic, but I’d rather be on top looking down. I’m looking forward to the icefield parkway tomorrow. I decide to break my usual habit by stopping early when I spot a hotel in the middle of the valley with beautiful views in all directions.
...and a bar.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


No, I hadn’t passed out. It was another power cut, so I finished blogging in the dark!
Sunday, and finally scenic highway 35. Now I’m not good with guidebooks so I don’t remember where I got the info from, or even if I dreamt it, but scenic highway 35 sucked. I mean yes there’s a decent view of Lake Michigan every now and then but there is from every road around there. Oh well, I had a couple of scenic picnics then hit Wisconsin.
Once you get away from the Great Lakes you realise why anything with a view of a lake counts as scenic. Wisconsin becomes just fields and meadows. At least it’s better than being surrounded by trees. I was tiring of lakes, so decided not to potter North looking for more scenic roads (..and lake views) but to head for the hills. Unfortunately the hills are over a thousand miles away so there was going to be some interstate slogging first.
So where do you stay in the middle of Wisconsin? Well I mentioned I watched Titanic the other night and Jack Dawson talks about growing up in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin and ice fishing Lake Wissota. When I saw that they happen to be on the interstate to Minnesota, I thought “why not?”
By the time I reach Lake Wissota I’m busting for a pee, but the park ranger is very proud of her park:
“Hi and welcome to the park… normally it’s seven dollars, but today it’s a free house”
“Thanks, bye!”
“Here’s a map of our lovely park denoting all of our various facilities..”
“Facilities? Great! Where’s the restroom?”
“Well, we have a scenic lookout here, and a beach here, and a family campsite here…”
“…and they have a restroom?”
“There’s a chemical facility, yes, or if you drive further down the road, you’ll see there’s a launch strip for boats…”
Now I don’t know about you, but when I’ve got to go that bad I’m not interested in anything else, they could be dishing out free money or beer ice cream at the launch strip and I couldn’t give a monkey’s! So I tried my best not to run over her foot and went to take care of business.
Primary priority cleared, I discovered they do indeed have a nice park. I walked 3 miles down the lakeshore and back, and for the first time thought maybe I should get some camping gear. Then the kids started yelling and the insects started biting…
The car was claiming 102 degrees when I finished walking at 6pm. I think the car had gone a bit doo lally, but the temperature was still in the 80’s and set to get hotter the next day! I guess I missed ice fishing season.
I stayed at the Indian Head Motel (as in Native American, not Rajeev) and almost ducked under 50 dollars. However the sports bar next door was empty and the motel room was bloomin’ hot.
They say there’s more fat people in Wisconsin than any other state. So I was surprised at how hard it was to find breakfast! …and amazed to stand on an empty main street at 8.30am Monday! I love the small towns.
So it’s a shame that it’s Minneapolis next. I started off with MOA, or Mall Of America. I was disappointed to find myself in a medium-sized shopping centre in need of repair, then I discovered that was just the East Wing. There’s three more wings, four floors each and an amusement park in the middle with at least two roller coasters!
But I’m not into shopping and the back massage place was staffed by beefy men, so I’ll take Shepherd’s Bush’s Westfield centre and the Massage Angels any day!
My friend Steve married a girl from Minnesota so I asked him for a tip. He suggested Brit’s. The imaginatively named, but confusingly apostrophe’d British pub. It was very impressive, served a decent pint of Boddingtons and had a huge beer garden. I enjoyed a chat with a guy named Curtis, who worked for Wells Fargo and told me about life in Minneapolis.
It was only after I’d left and walked a few blocks in baking sun that I thought of one huge difference between Brit’s and a real pub. In England you pay for your beer when they give it to you, so when you empty a pint, you leave. So Curtis, if you’re reading this, I hope you didn’t end up paying for my beer!
I also discovered Minneapolis has the answer to the baking sun, in the form of skyways. Every block has a mall on the first floor (in the English sense of first floor!) and they’re linked between buildings by walkways. This keeps you out of the sun or snow! That is, if you can figure out the geography, and when you leave a building at street level it’s often not clear how to get up to the skyway in the next one, but still, a great idea when you get the hang of it.
So I actually enjoyed a city for once!
It then took an hour to drive one mile on the interstate, due to “pavement failure”, so I stopped in St. Cloud. Actually, I stopped there because the Days Inn had a big sign by the interstate advertising their pool and water slide! With temperatures in the 90s I was glad to get a chain hotel at a decent price for once.
Another quiet sports bar, another power cut. Actually, a power cut in a bar with forty screens was quite amusing. Like being back at work, but with less screaming!
Minnesota apparently has 10,000 lakes, but how many lakes can you appreciate? So it’s time to switch off with some good tunes and a blast up the interstate. The scenery gets more bleak and I reach Fargo, North Dakota, famous because a film was once set there.
With nothing else to do I visit Hooters. The locals tell me it was sub-zero temperatures here last week, and round here that’s zero Fahrenheit! Today it’s 95 degrees.
Even they can’t tell me about anything worth seeing until you reach the Western edge of the state, so I keep going to Bismarck, which has the other Hooters in North Dakota. Yes, I know, but I haven’t been in one since Connecticut!
I figure I’ll get a hotel room nearby so I can get pissed (in the English sense) but I end up getting pissed (in the American Sense) when they want 130 dollars plus tax in what looks like a cheap place. The place next door is full. I figure it’s the usual story with cities, so I’ll just not drink and get a place out of town. What I haven’t figured is that this is North Dakota. There isn’t anything out of town!
The “next town over” is ninety miles away. Oh well, at least you can do 75 on the interstate and it’s a sunny evening. But out here the storms gather quickly, and I’m suddenly in a deluge. Not the English, “ooh my wipers can barely keep up” stuff, more “Holy crap I can’t see anything!”
Actually, that’s not just our weedy rain, it’s their pathetic highways. Concrete highways, poor drainage, dim lines, no cats eyes, it’s only because they have so much space they don’t end up in a mangled heap every time it pitter patters.
Anyhoo, the shower is short-lived, and thankfully I’m not, and things brighten up briefly. I’m then passed by three matching vans with a lot of aerials and “Storm chaser tours” on the side. Gulp!
The clouds darken formidably, then form pretty rainbows and I don’t know whether to take cover or pictures. I stop at a rest stop and attempt to use the dodgy wifi to find a hotel but it’s hopeless. I reach the next town, Dickinson, but it’s full. This could be a long night so I stock up on food and drink and fill the tank.
Then a light pops up on the dash saying “Maintenance Required”. Oh crap, what now? I know it’s due for a service soon and really hope that’s just the service light coming on!
So what now? Stop at every hotel and get nowhere? Drive further away? Find a better wifi spot?
I’ve been on the road for ten hours and don’t want to sit still. Back on highway 2 the motels were by the road and had vacancy signs, if I can get back up there I can just drive until I see a room. So I head North. Besides, it’s the scenic route I would be taking tomorrow.
But there’s the problem, ND finally provides some twists and turns just as it goes dark and another storm kicks in. Roads I dream about driving in the daytime become a nightmare of aqua-planing puddles and dark precipices. Without “cats eyes” I can barely make out the road. I can’t get out of the way of the impatient trucks behind because I can’t see where is safe to pull over. The turns also lengthen the journey. What looked like a fifty mile jaunt takes a couple of interminable hours. Finally I reach Watford City and stagger into the motel to once again find my two least favourite words waiting for me: No vacancy. I plead with the owner for suggestions, but:
“I’m sorry son, the whole damn state is full”
Onward to highway 2, but it’s the same story. A kind receptionist rings round the whole town, but both hotels are full.
I’m screwed.
I don’t like North Dakota. So I give myself a small pick-me-up by crossing into Montana and find a rest stop (basically a car park with a restroom) where a few trucks have stopped. Fortunately the rest stop is not too bad. I’ve stayed in noisier hotels, and there’s a reasonable restroom.
The car’s sodding uncomfortable but at least it’s a warm day right? Nope, it’s dropped from 95 at lunchtime to 45 degrees! I don’t envy the likes of Sam Smith camping out with his bike, or the Canadian hitch-hikers. I do envy their sleeping bags and tents though! Luckily I have a lot of clothes, so I layer up, but then I have a panic attack – “What if I can’t get a hotel tomorrow, or the next day…” (Hey I didn’t call myself the Road Worrier for nothing, and after driving 15 hours I’m beyond exhausted!) Somehow I get a grip, calm down and finally get some broken sleep.
At six am, (or is it five - I passed back and forth across time zones last night!) I head off in search of breakfast. After an hour I find Nirvana.
It comes in the shape of a café with a friendly old waitress, fast service and free wi-fi. I’ve never been so happy to book a Holiday Inn.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Seven - UP

Where was I? Oh yeah, Ottawa. So I sat in the sports bar while the Canadians crashed into each other on the freeway, then I headed West. Next town over is Arnprior. I just wanted somewhere cheaper than Ottawa but ended up in a pretty little town with a river, a weir and a very small beach. I also discovered a speedway track but wasn’t allowed to use it.
The motel owner was the first true North American Indian I’ve met. His name was Rajeev and his family came from Delhi.
Friday. The local kids are having a party on the beach with a wicked slip’n’slide down the slope. Doubt they want me joining in though, so it’s onwards and West-wards. It’s a long drive on the Trans-Canada highway, which has it’s scenic moments, but also a 90kmh limit. So I crank the stereo and try to stay awake.
Impossible to capture the scale of the scenery out here with snapshots, my photos have become a collection of scenic picnic tables to at least show that I’m eating with some beautiful backdrops, if not so many random conversations. (The diners and restaurants were hitting my wallet and my belt!)
Sore from a long day, I’m seduced by the lure of Sudbury’s Holiday Inn and their pool. It’s not going to be cheap but I’ll pay it.
“One hundred and fifty nine dollars plus tax.”
OK, I feel fine, I’ll keep going.
A bottle of coke, a mint aero, some bouncy music courtesy of Darren Styles and I don’t mind being back on the road, even the road obliges me with a stretch of dual carriageway.
When I reach the next town I’m very glad I didn’t stay in Sudbury. I find a nice secluded motel by Lake Summetorother with a small beach and picnic area. My head is hurting after the long drive so it’s a quiet night in. They’re showing Titanic on the movie channel, and it reminds me of the good times just a few weeks ago on the QM2.
Saturday, and it’s still 240 km to go down route 17 until I reach Michigan. As I pass through another tiny town I spot some hitchhikers. Back in England I wouldn’t even dream about stopping. But out here it’s different, and these three look very young and harmless, besides, I’m here for an adventure, and to meet interesting people, so why miss the opportunity?
So I carry on past them.
But they’re smiling and having fun, and I’ve just passed a garage and could use some fuel. So I turn around and go back to fill up, which means I get a second look which confirms they’re kids, not some grizzled lunatic from the movies!
Julien explains that they’re students from Quebec and are heading out to British Colombia to pick fruit for the summer. He speaks good English so we can talk about a lot of things. Oralie speaks less English so she is put in charge of the ipod. Angelie sits quietly in the back, so I assume she doesn’t speak much English, or she’s thinking “this guy looks like the grizzled lunatic from the movies”
They’re sleeping in tents and cooking their own food which reminds me of the thunderstorm last night. Luckily the weather is growing warmer during the day, but I don’t envy them. By the time I drop them off in Saul Ste. Marie we’ve had a good chat about life on the road, and I’m wishing them well for their summer. I gave them my blog link so hopefully they’ll post a reply and let me know how they get on (…and how to spell their names right!)
We part ways because I’m heading back into the US of A and state 44, Michigan. Once again it’s fun at the border, trying to give concise, direct answers to questions like:
 “Who do you work for?”
But they let me back in and suddenly it’s big wide interstates and 70mph limits. I drive across the Mackinaw bridge, twice. It’s a nice bridge and I’m not heading down to Detroit, but I want to see Mackinaw City as it’s mentioned in one of my absolute favourite songs about the open road – Bob Seger’s “Roll me Away”.
It’s no wonder Bob hit the road.
I’m heading for scenic highway 35, on the North West coast of Lake Michigan, but highway 2 is also pretty scenic, so I stop in Manistique. There’s a boardwalk along the lake so I can finally have a run. I make it to the Lighthouse and back and am very glad the “Econolodge” has a hot tub.
It’s Saturday night and game 2 of the Stanley Cup (it’s an ice hockey thing) so I head to the local bar and grill. As I arrive I’m passed by a guy with a headband, short shorts and a ghetto blaster. Which means either they’re a bit behind the times here or it’s a party! Luckily it’s a 30th birthday bash with a brilliant 80s theme, so I eat my toasted patty surrounded by backcombed hair and neon outfits, with awesome  80’s tunes blaring out. I even get photographed by some guys writing a book on the “UP” which is what they call the “Upper Peninsula”, so keep an eye out for me on
When I return to the hotel I’m still relatively sober, so I start blogging. Then the lights go out…

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Chapter Six – You what?

It’s a Saturday and I’m going to meet an old friend in Massachusetts, but there’s an entire state to write about first:
Rhode Island - It’s not really an island.
Back into Massachussets and I head for Salem.
When I first moved to London back in 1998 I shared a flat with a lot of people, most of whom were foreigners on short term lets. One of the most memorable was a Croatian girl named Dolly, short for Dolores. She married an American and moved over here 11 years ago and I haven’t seen or spoken to her since. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook I contacted her but I had no idea if we’d even get on!
The Americans celebrate Memorial Day weekend with “cookouts” (which are suspiciously similar to barbeques) and Dolly invited me to join her and her family at a friend’s house.
So I show up to be greeted by a woman who looks like Dolly, but doesn’t sound like her. She has a loud New England accent and people keep calling her Dolores! I realise 11 years is a long time and worry this might be a long day. Happily, Dolly and I are soon reminiscing about good times, her friends are a welcoming bunch and keep me fed and watered, and her husband Carlos is a nice bloke who offers me a night at their house. Even their two noisy little kids are entertaining!
In fact, they plan to do it all again the next day at a bigger house with a bigger pool so I stick around. On Sunday morning we have a wander round the bizarre town of Salem. The attractions mix serious monuments (to people hanged or crushed in the witch trials), blokes dressed as pirates, and a statue to the actress from Bewitched! We then spend an enjoyable afternoon with a dozen or more of Carlos’s family and friends. Steaks and beer in the sun, while the kids enjoy the pool.
On Monday I bid farewell to Dolly, Carlos and the kids. The silence in the car is deafening and I’ve mixed emotions at returning to solitude. Still, nothing a dose of Iron Maiden won’t sort out!
Maine next and I’ve made 43 of the 50. Martin recommended Acadia National Park so I… you remember Martin, plumbing bloke on the Jersey shore! …yes, so I head round the Maine coast. It’s very pretty up here, when you can see past the trees, and the ANP is a beautiful place. I drive up Cadillac Mountain where you can be the first person in the USA to see the sunrise, and the views are spectacular at any time. Finally, after two weeks travelling I get to indulge in my favourite holiday treat and watch the sun set across my own swimming pool to the sounds of Chicane’s “Autumn Tactics”. Bliss.
Tuesday, and as I’m still heading East on this great Westward adventure I decide to go all the way. Lubec and the Quoddy head state park may not mean much to us, but it’s the USA’s Easternmost point! …and it has a stripey lighthouse!
I chat with some bikers on Harleys, which is appropriate as my next destination is one of the “four corners” of the USA, a challenge many Harley riders set themselves. The good folks at Rand McNally have done a mighty fine job of producing a deceptive map of Maine so it turns out to be a long trek North to Madawaska. I stop off at Houlton, notable for er, being where the US1, 2 and I95 meet.
I have a Chinese buffet (Well, I am in the Far East!) and then hang out in the “Irish” bar where the conversation ranges from moose heads to gay dogs.
Madawaska may be the North-Easternmost point, but it’s not the most memorable, and is something of an anti-climax after the trek here. I’m then surprised by Canada. You’d think after flirting with the border since Niagara I’d have been ready, but the whole thing came as a shock.
“How long are you staying?”
 “er, um, err, how long does it take to get to Michigan? 4 days or so, maybe a week?”
I don’t think border guards like woolly answers.
“Step into this room sir”
Ho hum. At least they’re not as scary as the US customs, though that could be because they could only put me back in my car, not on a plane! However there was only a repeat of the questions, by which time I’d decided a week was fine, and I was in Canada!
Except my GPS wasn’t. Well, it was physically, but we might as well have been in timbuctoo for all it knew. This surprised me as it had shown marvellous pre-cognitive awareness before crossing the border. Now it transpired it knew of interstates, or whatever the Canadians call them, but nothing else. It was also out by a few hundred yards so would tell me off for driving through the fields.
Next problem, I didn’t have any money. Still, they should accept US$ right?
I didn’t have a guidebook to Canada, so had no idea where to go. Oh well, Quebec sounds nice.
I’d also moved forward in time by an hour. Whoever heard of crossing a timezone heading North?!
Oh, and everything had turned French.
Still, on the upside, the speed limit on the motorway was 100!
I was finally heading West, but was driving blind. I know people got around for many years before GPS (I know I’ve gone American but it’s shorter to type than sat-nav) but travelling on your own it’s hard to drive and follow a map, and when you’re crossing continents it’s impossible to have enough small scale maps.
My mood lifted when I climbed a hill to find a beautiful lake with a picnic area, and I supped my Tropicana thinking it was worth the hassle.
So I bumble my way into Quebec. Spurning the motorway for the more interesting roads, then getting lost thanks to comedy road signs and detours. Eventually I make it, but it’s rush hour, it’s very windy and there seems to be dust everywhere. Quebec sucks, but I spot a Holiday Inn so decide to check in and get organised.
“We’re full”
I head to the budget place down the road, but a roof tile nearly clouts me as I fail to find the reception. Sod it, I’ll get some food first. So I drive into a strange city, tired and hungry with no idea where anything is, where I am or where I’m going…
…and that’s how I came to arrive at a street full of good looking people eating gorgeous food beneath incredible old buildings lit beautifully by the evening sky, Quebec Rocks!
But there’s a problem. People say I’m brave (or mad) travelling on my own, but it’s fine in smalltown USA. There you can sit at a bar and the friendly locals will usually chat happily. In a city it’s more difficult. In a city where they speak a foreign language you’re stuffed. Yes you can talk to one person, but as soon as they turn to a friend you’re lost. There’s a saying about loneliness in crowds, it’s worse when you can’t understand the crowd. I wandered round the beautiful walled city of Quebec and thought how I’d love to return here with somebody, some day.
West into the darkness. Hit the interstate then hope for a hotel sign. There’s one! Looks a bit of a dump but hey it’s cheap and the reception is a bar with two good looking girls watching the ice hockey. Unfortunately there’s no internet in the rooms so I’m forced to hang out in the bar while I download Canada to my GPS, damn! Katherine and Anna speak a liitle English, but I’m surprised how hard it is to follow their French. Then we’re joined by Adam who explains that even French people can’t understand Quebec French. No wonder I’m struggling. I think it’s like a foreigner learning some English, then trying to understand a Geordie!
Adam fetches his girlfriend (She’s from Western Canada and doesn’t speak French) so I’ve an ally and the five of us have a bi-lingual conversation until late.
Thursday starts badly. No free buffet breakfasts here, and despite my GPS now bulging with information, no sign of a Denny’s. I’m not happy. My easy banter with strangers has been replaced by puzzled looks, “I don’t speak French” and jokes lost in translation. I try to visit Montreal but the traffic’s a mess and the weather’s turning bad. So I just keep on going.
Canadian’s are supposed to be more intelligent than Yanks, yet they drive too close. Even when there’s nobody else on the road! My opinion is reinforced by two separate smashes that happen shortly in front of me as I head towards Ottawa.
I get off the interstate to escape the traffic. There’s a sports bar, and now I’m in Ontario they speak English.
It feels like I’ve come home.