Typing this at 6 am in our hotel in Chicago – we should be in SLC, so we’re behind schedule before we’ve actually started!
Quite a day yesterday and it already seems light years ago. Journey to Heathrow was fine, though there was quite a long delay in Luton which started to concern me. Anyway, I checked in and met Steve in Costa Coffee as planned. The flight was fine and we arrived in Chicago exactly on schedule. We walked through deserted corridors towards immigration with an ample 90 mins to spare before our flight to SLC. We then arrived in the immigration hall to see enormous queues awaiting clearance. We were still there when our flight left for SLC. What made it more annoying was the constant repetition of a pre-recorded message starting with one of those mellifluous American male voices saying ‘Welcome to the United States ’. We guessed that there would be another flight to SLC, but we still had to clear customs and recheck in our bags with American for the onward flight. So, we joined another line of frustrated punters who had missed their flights. When we finally got to the desk we were told that American did not have another flight but they could possibly get us on the United flight at 2008. They booked us on it and told us to rush to the United desk to check in – too late, the flight had closed! So, back to American to rejoin the line of frustrated punters who had missed their flights. I was by now getting very angry and ready to lay into the American agent on the desk, but of course it was nothing to do with American that we had been delayed. Why should they pay for a hotel for us when they were not responsible for the delay? Anyway, we got a subsidized voucher for a hotel near the airport and relaxed with a couple of beers and a bar snack (which was very nice and reasonably priced) in the hotel sportsbar, surrounded by screens showing baseball, so we know for sure now that we’ve arrived in the US.
Got a few hours of good sleep and we’re now ready to get in the air again. We still want to drive into SLC and see the centre, though this means that we shall be pushed to get into Zion National Park by nightfall. Might have to book into a hotel! What I now realize is just how much I want to get into the car so we can control our own destiny and make our own choices. Rarin’ to go!
Got to the airport in good time for our flight to SLC. Breakfast at the airport and then security. Bugger me, if they didn’t frisk both of us and go through our bags, taking swabs which they then tested on a computer. Glad to see the back of Chicago ! Great descent into SLC with snow-capped peaks surrounding the city. Picked up the car and headed downtown to Temple Square , home of the Mormon religion. Yuck! Beautiful buildings surrounded by a 15 foot wall and looking like an ice sculpture. Hordes of men in suits and young girls in long dresses to help you, all wearing serene smiles. Heard a few minutes of an organ recital in the Tabernacle – amazing acoustics, which were demonstrated by someone tearing paper and dropping pins on the stage and which could be heard throughout the auditorium. Also popped into the Family History Centre, which was most impressive. After an hour, it was back into the car and onto the open road. Took the I15 south towards Las Vegas , hoping to reach Zion and the camp site before nightfall. No hope really and we ended up phoning ahead and booking a room in a recommended B&B in Cedar City . Lucky to get a room in Cedar City as it has a very popular Shakespeare festival all summer every summer. Haven’t found out why yet. Amazing B&B – very ornate with every corner and surface stuffed with toby jugs, dolls etc. Had a lovely dinner at the Garden House. Dressed salad followed by a great slab of prime rib of beef with asparagus – all for £9.
Back to the Great Yellow Inn for bed. Really nice guy runs this place. He also has another place across the road – called the Across The Road Inn!
Mileage on Day 2 – 250. Weather hot, hot, hot. Steve and I are having a wager on the total mileage.
Had an excellent breakfast in our B&B. Most of the clientele were there for the plays, including some critics who were having a very erudite discussion about last night’s performance. We were joined at our table by an American couple who, it transpired, were locals. They were about to look after the four children of some friends, who had bought them a night in the B&B as a thank you. I told them that we had been in Temple Square and they asked me what I thought about it. After I told them, predictably it transpired that they were Mormons.
Eventually, we got under way and it felt as thought the adventure was really beginning. As we approached Zion National Park , our destination for the previous night, the landscape became quite extraordinary, and once we were in the park, stunning. We did some of the prescribed routes, which I think Steve has detailed, and boy was it hot – over 100. Walking uphill was very debilitating and we eventually realized why – these national parks are at over 8000 feet! We had a wonderful day and then set off for Bryce Canyon National Park . The drive was again extraordinary, a landscape like I’ve never seen. To cap it all, as we were driving along we came across a herd of bison, including young, in a field, and they were grazing alongside the fence at the roadside. We eventually arrived at Bryce and found our pitch in the campsite. To my amazement, the tent was up in 5 mins, looking totally uninviting. Anyway, we went and got some beers and dined royally on Pringles, marshmallows and Budweiser (we are generally eating very well by the way). As night started to fall, I wandered up a slope about 100 yards from our tent, to discover that I was looking straight across the canyon. About 100 photos later, it was time to sample the delights of the self-inflating mattress and pillow. More of that in tomorrow’s entry!
Mileage:150. Weather – hot, hot, hot, hot at over a 100. Quite a relief to be told when we arrived at Bryce that the temperatures are about 20 less than Zion .
I woke up this morning – many, many times! Despite that, I think I had more sleep than at any time on the trip so far. Comfortable would not describe it, but it was ok. I also managed to avoid having to get up to use the facilities during the night. Steve had to, and had an interesting encounter with a deer! I’m sure he’ll mention that (we do not see each other’s journals). Anyway, a healthy breakfast of fresh fruit and we were off to the canyon. What an amazing place – I don’t think I’ve been anywhere quite so unique and enervating. We initially went to several of the viewpoints to see the canyon in the early morning light and then we went on a 3-mile hike down on to the canyon floor. The only problem here is that all the trailheads are on the rim of the canyon, so you always finish by coming back up. We were over 9000 feet at times today, and as soon as you start climbing you struggle for breath and feel the lack of lactic acid in your legs (this is not just me, Steve feels it as well). Anyway, the hike was amazing (finding superlatives is becoming difficult), despite the heat (a comfortable 85). Yes, I’m remembering to put the sun cream on. No showers here, by the way, so we’re getting a bit ripe!
After lunch (£6 for an eat as much as you want buffet – just outside the park gate so probably a rip-off price!), the unthinkable happened – clouds came over and it started to rain! We are in the month of high risk of thunderstorms, after all. We did hear thunder but never overhead. Anyway, the rain scotched our plan to go to a rodeo this evening. Instead, we dined on Budweiser and Pringles (is this becoming familiar?) and will probably have some marshmallows when we get back to the tent (don’t mention that word). The idea of the marshmallows was to roast them on the campfire, but we’ve never got round to buying some wood for the fire!
Anyway, a glorious day that will take some beating. It’s an early start tomorrow – getting up early shouldn’t be a problem, as long as the back and legs are still functioning. 400 miles to Durango , our longest leg so far. Having just a great time, completely up to expectations.
Mileage: about 60, hot at 87 but then rain (big drops and very cold).
Got up this morning after a rather uncomfortable night to discover that I had managed to roll off the sleeping mat – as Steve remarked, they really should put that in the instructions! Anyway, we were mightily impressed that we were able to strike camp and be on the road by 0705 – not sure that our sleeping neighbours were similarly impressed. One abiding memory of camping in the country is that everyone within a 50 yard radius seems to be in your tent with you. Anyway, today was our first big journey – 400 miles to Durango with a diversion to the Mesa Verde National Park , time permitting. What a magical day it has been. We crossed southern Utah into Colorado through the most unremittingly hostile terrain you could envisage. A truly spectacular, post-holocaust landscape. It was just how I imagined our trip would be. We drove about 300 miles and came across 6 towns, not of which were worthy of the name. We pinpointed a place called Monticello as our lunch stop, which turned out to be a good choice. Last Thursday was Pioneer Day, a state holiday, and Monticello was having a town fete on the ‘village green’. A couple of stalls selling tat and about 5 food outlets! Anyway, we had a good Carne Asada for lunch, followed by a web cake! I struck up a conversation with an old lady who was cooking whole turkey legs on a huge charcoal grill. This concluded when she asked me which part of Germany I came from. One thing I’ve rapidly learnt is that the answer to the ‘where do you guys come from?’ question is not ‘near Cambridge ’, it’s ‘ England ’. They don’t have a clue! That said, everyone is so friendly and interested in what we are doing.
Anyway, we made the National Park. It is a site of some large cliff dwellings that were constructed in the 14th century and evacuated about a century later. No-one knows why they were built or why they were abandoned. Very interesting. We rolled into Durango about 1800 and collected our tickets for the railroad journey. Hampton Inn is very nice, with Cloud 9 beds, the best, Steve tells me, and most welcome as far as I am concerned. Went into town on the trolley (50 cents a ride!) and had a meal and a few beers in the recommended bar in Durango . An excellent day!
Mileage: about 450. Weather, warm but with quite a bit of cloud cover and some rain later on.
July 22nd, 23rd
Day 1, Day 2:
Well, would be lovely to say that we've arrived safely at our destination, Salt Lake City . Especially given the exact and thorough exercise we've gone through in planning every single day of this holiday. Unfortunately my favourite US Customs & Immigration had other ideas. They have those important, efficient looking uniforms. Talk about false marketing. They're rubbish! The 2 hours it took them to get our flight through meant we (and many others) missed our connecting flights. The only bloody point of Chicago O'Hare (the world’s busiest airport, which we've affectionately renamed Chicago Night'Mare) is connecting flights. Get it right! Given that we had departed from the world’s second busiest airport (Heathrow), we probably broke some kind of record for queues in one day. Definitely a PB for me, smashing my existing Aug 10th 1985 at Alton Towers best.
They nearly got us on another flight, and had us running around the check-in desks like a couple of blue-arsed flies (the running type I guess, not the flying type). But it was a false hope. We were stuck. And so I write this in the lovely Wyndham Hotel (our room, left) about 40mins outside downtown Chicago, up ridiculously early cos of jetlag and a fire alarm some plonker set off. At some point I'm hoping Dad gives me my book back. I think he's trying to hide the extent of the water damage he caused when the brand new book was literally minutes out of the shop (sorry Mum, I know I should never buy full price books – perhaps you gave us that advice because you had similar experiences with father?). And to think Carly was worried about a creased spine and folded corners! But it does give me time to get a bit of an update down on paper (well, screen, if you're being fussy).
So, we're on a flight to Salt Lake City this morning. The aim is to give Salt Lake City short shrift (basically, a cursory glance as we pick up our rental car and drive through to get on the road South). By all accounts, it's a fairly good choice of place to give short shrift. However, it’s a bit weird to be flying in to a place and immediately have to turn around and set off on a 6-7 hour drive somewhere else.
So, it’s been an inauspicious start, and it’s a big drive to a campsite planned next (have I made a dangerous assumption about flights and car pick-up going smoothly?). I’m feeling the pressure. The camping was most definitely not Dad’s idea. And it took A LOT of persuading. And after the start we’ve had, we don’t want any more problems. God I hope all the bits are in the tent bag, and we don’t get lost in the desert, and the bears leave us alone. Or I’ll never hear the end of it. We can’t wait to get behind the wheel of a car, and on the road, and under our own control. I’ve been wondering what we’ll do with all that time together in the ‘cockpit’. That sounds terrible doesn’t it. It’s like the reverse of that Russell Brand item on his radio show where they come up with words that sound nice, but actually mean something terrible (like brainwash, or ethnic cleansing…….I came up with one as well – athlete’s foot). Anyway, more likely we’ll just complete a thorough analysis of what Iwelmo will bring to the team next serason, and who Merlin the Magician is going to start come opening day, and what will happen to him if he doesn’t get them to the play-offs again.
Well we nearly caught up on our schedule.. We ended up staying the night at the most over the top B&B in a town called Cedar City . I think the guy collects collections. Cedar City sounded terrible. I have an immediate bad feeling about anywhere called something ‘City’, though I haven’t actually been able to work out why (have I been to any terrible places called something ‘City’?). But it is actually a reasonably nice little town, and currently in the midst of a Shakespeare festival. Earlier in the day we’d managed the flight to Salt Lake City generally without incident (the air travel god had given us the day off). Although Chicago Night’Mare could’t resist a parting shot, having us both selected for the thorough search at security. And shortly after midday we had our car (pretty much our home for the next 3 weeks) and were on the road. We gave Salt Lake City about 90 minutes of our time, taking a look round all the main Mormon Buildings in Temple Square . They were incredibly impressive. The sound of a pin dropping in the Tabernacle was like no pin drop I’d ever heard before. But it was all a bit creepy. And the city just seemed to be hotels.
About 2:30 we hit the I15, with Zion National Park our destination. We felt brave enough to get off the Interstate and on to the more scenic highway (89), but once we’d managed to lose that within 5 minutes of getting on it, we decided just to head back to the Interstate and get some miles under our belt. The scenery was still absolutely spectacular. Flat plains, with mini-mountain ranges on either side, and burning heat. It felt like it really probably hadn’t changed since the pioneers had crossed it. The road wound ahead and behind like a river, all long shallow curves. I had views in my mirrors that looked like Easy Rock CD covers. The other excitement of the day was seeing a blowout happen. In fact Dad was so excited he accelerated to get right in the midst of the hot shredded rubber shower. Apparently just a case of confusing the accelerator and the brake. That gives me great comfort for my remaining time in the passenger seat.
I can’t not mention that he just got out of the shower praising how delightful it was to shower in soft water. To paraphrase, ‘oooohhh, I love it when it lathers up right away’. I bet he made a foam hat for himself in there. I truly am learning a lot about the man. Anyway, gotta go as it’s my turn. Just got to clear out his bath toys first.
Great day. Felt like the first real day of the holiday. The first day we didn’t have to deal with any airports. A great brekkie at our chintzy b&b got us started. Computer frustrations have pretty much meant us giving up on any internet contact with the outside world (at least wirelessly). Anyway hit the road to head to Zion National Park . Only took us an hour, and then we were there, amongst the hordes of other tourists. Before that though, we stopped at an awesomely cheesy mock Wild West town. It was in a canyon called Virgin as well. Talk about making it easy for those slogans on tacky souvenirs.
They really have the Zion experience set up well. A free shuttle bus takes you up and down the whole canyon. You can alight wherever you want to do a hike. All nicely trailed out and clearly signposted. We ended up doing 3 hikes. A relatively shaded Riverside Walk, the short Weeping Rock trail, so named as you end up at a rock alcove with dripping springs. Welcome refreshment as it was getting bloody hot. We stopped off for a beer and then finally hit the Lower Emerald Pool trail, which felt like pretty hard work, but probably entirely because we were in the best the sun had to throw at us. The hikes flew by as the Funster kept me amused. I think the highlight was him likening Mum to Jackie Charlton.
Then it was back on the road to Bryce Canyon , and more importantly, a campsite! Most amazingly scenic and fun drive. We went through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, 1.1 miles long and built back in the 1920s. Numerous stop-offs to photograph the scenery. We saw some bison. Dad made the mistake of asking what the difference between a buffalo and a bison was. Sometimes he just lines them up for me.
As we drew nearer to Bryce Canyon I could feel Dad getting nervous. There was still plenty of sun in the sky, and nothing that seemed likely to stop us. He could tell he was running out of chances for anything to save him from a first night of camping. I had begun to learn why he doubted his suitability for such accommodations. His choices of where to place things seem entirely devoid of any consideration of when or where he may need them next. Sunglasses and socks always disappear from handy, easy to find places (like the glove compartment, or on his feet), and reappear (after much head scratching) in the weirdest spots (like deep in the trunk, or next to the spare tyre).
However, I think he was surprised how easy it was to put the tent up (especially if it's left for someone else to do - if you ever see a misleading photo of him stood proudly next to a tent with his chest puffed out, I've provided evidence of the true story), and was in a much cheerier mood once we’d also invested in a cooler, and a few things to fill it with (Clamato and Bud Light). Restless as ever, he headed of on a sunset stroll, and within minutes was back to get me. Just metres from our tent was our first view of Bryce Canyon, and it was spectacular. So we headed to bed with our hearts filled with glee, and stomachs full with beer (we didn’t really do dinner).
The one thing that’s amazing about camping is how it seems like everyone in the campsite is in your tent with you. It makes the acoustics in the Mormon Tabernacle seem pathetic. And there’s not many other places you find yourself bumping into a deer on the way back from the toilets at 3am. I did get some sleep though. I realized I could have got more when Dad pointed out I could blow up my sleeping mat. Almost made me look forward getting my head down tonight. But before that we had a canyon named after a husband and wife called Bryce to explore.
Bryce Canyon is absolutely freakin’ spectacular. Zion is nice, but Bryce is unique. Hopefully some of the shots do it justice. We did a drive around in the morning taking in the viewpoints. Unfortunately we had to move camping lot cos someone had ours reserved that night. So we had to pack up everything, move 100 yards, and set it all up again. But being the practiced outdoorsmen we are, we already done our drive by and moved lots by about 11, and were ready to get out hiking. A cloudy day this time. Slightly unexpected. But this and the altitude kept everything a lot cooler, and the hikes were never anything more than a pleasant stroll. Having said that, we avoided anything in the trail guide where the words ‘strenuous’ or ‘arduous’ were involved. During our third little hike the rain came. Bit cheeky. I wasn’t expecting to see rain for 3 weeks. But apparently July comes 2nd of 12 in number of thunderstorms. And yep, we had it all. Forked lightening and thunder. It was kind of cool. And then I remembered the tent. And how we’d not bothered with tent pegs, or guy ropes, or all that nonsense. I’m sure it would have been more amusing for all you if this had developed into a disastrous story of a washed away tent and a night out under the rain. Fortunately for us though, the tent was fine.
We disappeared off to watch a lovely sunset from a café with an outdoor patio and that most priceless of commodities, high speed internet! Oh, and how we dined. It was the same as the night before. Pringles and bud light. Well, you’ve got to stick with a winner. Anyway, to close out, it was bed at 9pm. Up at 6am, and the start of another day.
Big driving day. At least 400 miles to cover. Packed up and out by 7.05 am. Impressed huh?
The first couple of hours were scenic highway 12. And my, how scenic it was. We passed through about 3 different landscapes. Miles where the road snaked around or sometimes through walls of rock. There were injuns watching us from the top of the rocky outcrops. And they followed us. Luckily we found a waterfall to hide behind. Oh shucks, I’ve got myself confused with Last of the Mohicans.
And then we also had flat, arid, god don’t even know how to describe it scenery. And then green and trees, bit like ol’ England . As far as we could tell we were still at high altitude pretty much the whole way. In fact Utah seems to be all high up in the air. We never seemed to go below 7000ft. Highest point in UK is only 4000something ft. If Dad mentions that in his blog too, then I have to give him credit as he passed on that bit of information. Despite starting off slow, we’d covered a good 300 by the time we stopped for lunch at about 1:30. Dad wanted to stop in a town called Blanding, but I suggested hanging in there until Monticello . I’ve come up with what seems to be a foolproof system for knowing whether a US town is going to be a dump or lovely before I even get there. The clue is in the name. Hell I was wrong about Cedar City , but that’s because I focused on the wrong part. City instead of Cedar. There’s nothing better than trees. But back to our new choice. Monticello sounds nice and exotic and warm. I could imagine the man from Monticello saying yes. It even includes a lovely warm deep tonal string instrument in the name. Whereas Blanding just sounds, well, Bland. We drove through Blanding and it was an absolute dump, and predictably, Monticello was having a town fair, which was lovely, and we had carne asado with rice (con arroz I believe), and funnel cake from a stall where the lady asked Dad where in Germany he was from, but I’m sure he’s covered that. She was mighty embarrassed. We probably shouldn’t have laughed at her so hard.
Back on the road, and much closer to our destination, which gave us time to fit in the tour round Mesa Verde National Park that we had planned. Mesa Verde was the first national park set aside “to preserve the works of man”. Nicked that sentence from the leaflet verbatim. It is fascinating though. These Ancetral Puebloan dudes lived there years and years ago and built these cliff dwellings. You’d really need to see pictures to appreciate, but yahoo travel planner sucks (got them up there in the end). The amazing thing is that these cliff dwellings were built 800 years ago. And they weren’t discovered until the 1880’s when these two cowboys looking for a lost cow in the snow stumbled across them. So, untouched for over 500 years. The Ancestral Puebloans had shipped out all of a sudden in around 1300. To this day they can’t work out why. These cliff dwellings were bloody cool though. And on top of that, it was just lovely to see Americans looking at history that was actually old.
Got into Durango about 6. Aaaaahhhh Hampton Inn, bed, warm drinks, yummy yummy. But before I could get my head down, we obviously had to go out. But don’t let the bravado in that sentence fool you. I managed food, two pints, and an ice-cream, and then told my daddy I wanted to go home. He didn’t actually say wimporama, but I could see it in his eyes. So we got the 50c tram back to the hotel (nicest people ever on those trams), and I went straight into an awesome sleep. I was on cloud 9. Literally as it happens:
our dreamy beds
This morning it’s the choo choo! Specifically the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. It’s a steam train that’s been running continuously since 1881. And I found out another secret about Dad. For the whole day I felt like was accompanying a senior, but a junior. It’s definitely cowboy country. But they’ve made the whole thing all nice for the tourists, with conductors and brakemen all in nice old fashioned uniforms etc. Once we set off, the excited child I was set about proving that it was possible to look out of both sides of the train at the same time. Even after 3 hours he seemed convinced that his nimble bench hopping had allowed him to see the entire route on both sides of the train. I don’t think he sat down once. I, on the other hand, found the whole thing exceptionally relaxing. I think there’s something about the rocking on slow trains that takes me back to the cradle. I spent virtually the whole thing sitting down, watching the landscapes slide by, reading my Booky Wook, pausing only occasionally to brush down the seats where the child I was with had left a big dusty footprint.
Silverton looked interesting once we got up, though unfortunately we only had 10 minutes to enjoy it. However, I’d already decided I was coming back by then, so I’ll catch it another time. With white water rafting, gliding, flying fox, biking, there’s definitely enough for a few days fun holiday there.
The other interesting fact was that we were right by the continental divide, which Dad had informed me only 2 days earlier was the line which separates those rivers that flow to the Pacific and those that run to the Atlantic. Interesting huh.
After that it was a 200 mile drive to Santa Fe, and our quaint adobe B&B. We got there in time to wander down a street of quaint adobe dwellings, and find a quaint adobe restaurant. Bloody nice actually. The city is SOOO quiet though. We saw no one on the streets, and nearly all the restaurants had shut at 8:30pm. Stayed up ‘til nearly 11pm. Latest yet.
Up and at ‘em. Half a day to explore Santa Fe . Turns out that’s enough, though it is a very pretty place. All history and art galleries. And goddamn pretty houses. We couldn’t stop snapping. That is going to be one boring part of our photo album. We took in a bit of art (Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams exhibiton), and generally wandered around. Unfortunately it’s realized it’s a popular destination for rich middle-aged Americans, and kind of caters to that, which ruins it slightly (it’s a bit like Florida ). Should have known what to expect when I saw that it had been voted 2nd best by Conde Nast readers. Left not long after our delicious Carnitas from the apparently world famous food stall by the square.
700 mile drive to San Antonio . We knew we wouldn’t get in until tomorrow, but had no idea where we were going to stay the night. We decided Fort Stockton . God west Texas is dull. There is no reason to ever be there. Straight road with nothing either side.
And back on the road with still about 300 miles to get to San Antonio . Drive was a bit nicer as we got further into Texas . Only one thing of note really on the drive. We’d been wondering for a couple of days whether it was legal to overtake on the inside in the US . We’d kind of decided not to worry about it too much. That was until Dad suddenly realized the car he was undertaking at 80 was the Sheriff’s (when he was alongside), and braked suddenly to about 60, and hovered there on the Sheriff’s back wing. SUSPICIOUS. So the Sheriff decided to brake some more to see what we’d do,, and dad kept braking until we thought it was ridiculous and just went ahead and undertook (the car behind then did without hesitation). Anyway we’d piqued his interest and we think he must have checked out the license plate on his computer or radioed on because not much later he sped up alongside us and gave us a good long look. I looked back. He blinked first. And once I got dad breathing into the brown paper bag he was fine.
We only had two things we wanted to do in San Antonio , and that was the Alamo and the River walk. We did both that afternoon, and to be honest where rather underwhelmed. San Antonio reminded me a bit of San Diego , which was also a bit of a disappointment to me. We weren’t even crazy about the restaurant recommendation we’d had for Mi Tierra in the market place. We did, however, see the hotel where Robert Johnson made some of his recordings.
One other thing we did start doing today was stopping at a random museum or art gallery in some random town on the way to our destination. See the real America . This was normally sought from our Lonely Planet US guide from 2002 (thanks Rich). Today, it was the Museum of Western Art (the museum formerly known as the Cowboy Artists of America Museum) in Kerrville . Did you know cowboys are artists too? They have a special society and they have nearly all worked as ranchers. The museum was bloody nice! Done up really well. Somebody must have spent a fortune. And it wasn’t visitors. There was no one in there, and the staff seemed genuinely shocked to have someone visiting from the UK . I thought the lady on the desk was going to ask if we were lost. Lots of nice pictures of cowboy scenes, and ‘bronzes’ (sculptures in bronze) of similar. An educational segment as well. Sounds like a tough old life for the pioneers. Feeling like I should help, I made a small purchase in the gift shop, and am now the owner of a Texas state flag bandana. I think Dad may have mentioned it.
The other thing of note was passing a big hoarding at the side of the highway advertising a firm with the slogan ‘We Sue Lawyers’. A little reminder that we were in America .
Another fascinating day. Our drive into Santa Fe filled us with foreboding about what the place would be like but in fact it’s fantastic. Because it’s so small, our B&B was only about 15 mins walk from the centre, so we were able to leave the car there while we spent the morning in town. Never seen so many interesting buildings, all in the pueblo style, and so many beautiful galleries and boutiques. Clearly, a very fashionable place, full of wealthy, elegant people and generally lacking any obvious downside. We meandered round and took loads of completely gratuitous photos, trying to be arty-farty. The American artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted in New Mexico and has a museum in her name in Santa Fe (she died a few years ago). We went in there and there was a joint exhibition of her work and the photographs of Ansell Adams (one of Steve’s favourite photographers as well as mine). Also, many native Americans were selling their wares under a government-sponsored scheme outside the old governors’ mansion. Some lovely stuff on offer. We had the most glorious lunch, purchased from a street vendor who claims to be recommended in many guides and newspapers.
We left Santa Fe at about 1430 to begin our 700+ mile drive to San Antonio . This felt like a real road trip, as we had no plans about where we were going to stay tonight and wanted to get as far down the road as we could. In the end, we covered over 400 miles, effectively in a straight line on Highway 285 from Santa Fe . One place we went through (or past) was Rosewell, famous for its association with UFOs in the 1940s. We passed a site where one is supposed to have crashed. We also lost an hour when we crossed into Texas , which didn’t help our cause. Texas provided the first state line we’ve seen. It’s been fairly flat and barren so far; presumably we’ve dropped in altitude, but it has not been apparent to us. One thing that has been completely absent in 1500 miles is road works! The skies were wonderful, and as it got dark we could see lightening in the distance. There was also much evidence of oil drilling. Steve’s blackberry earned its corn as we identified a place called Fort Stockton for our night-stop and he was able to check out motels and make a reservation in advance. Luckily, and surprisingly, we found half a box of Pringles in the car which sustained us on our way. This was our first night driving and we rolled into Fort Stockton at around 10 pm and quickly found the Quality Inn (not too difficult in most of these American towns). As soon as we walk into a hotel room, all these gadgets appear and every free socket is immediately in use! So, we have about 300 miles into San Antonio on the Interstate tomorrow and should be there by lunchtime.
Mileage: about 450. Weather: perfect in Santa Fe , getting sticky in Texas (91 at 10pm)
My best night’s sleep and on the road good and early. 80mph speed limit on the Interstate in this part of Texas , so we made rapid progress. We’ve discussed the fact that we might get pulled over by the sheriff at some stage and it nearly happened this morning. I was driving and must admit that I behaved very suspiciously. He checked us out with the Mk 1 eyeball but did not actually pull us over. As we approached San Antonio we decided to make a detour to Kerrville , to the Museum of Western (ie cowboy) art. There were no signs to it and we had both to call the museum and ask the way to get there. When we walked in, the two old ladies at the desk seemed positively amazed to see visitors. Anyway, it was excellent – all the contributors have to have been cowboys and there were some lovely paintings and outstanding bronzes. It was obvious that the museum has wealthy benefactors (this is Texas after all) and doesn’t rely on admissions and public donations A lovely building in nice grounds and well worth the visit. Steve bought a Texas flag bandanna (more of that later).
Got to San Antonio at lunchtime – hot, hot, hot! After lunch, we wandered along the Riverwalk, for which the town is famous. They’ve transformed a rundown area of the riverside into walkways lined with restaurants and the inevitable shopping mall. Very contrived and we were not impressed. We then went to the Alamo fort, which has become a shrine to what Americans believe embodies their nationhood (conveniently forgetting the fact that they kicked the Mexicans out of what became Texas ). As we went into the surviving bit of the fort, we had to remove headgear and shuffle round various displays in a long line. We didn’t stay long. A different kind of yuck to Temple Square in Salt Lake City but yuck, nevertheless. We had a drink in the bar of the Gunter Hotel , which is where iconic bluesman Robert Johnson had 3 of his 5 recording sessions in the 30s. I ordered an orange and lemonade (7 Up) and got a glass of each!
As we headed back to the car, Steve removed his bandanna to discover that all the colours had run in the heat and he had a blue forehead. Excellent! We then found our motel, which Steve had booked (and very different to the accommodation that I book!) but it was fine (apart from the drunken Brits who woke us up in the middle of the night). We dined in a Mexican restaurant that had been recommended to us by some folks at Bryce Canyon . Had the world’s largest Margaritas (and some neat tequila).
San Antonio was our first encounter with hordes of American fatties and we were generally not too impressed. Not sorry to leave.
Mileage: about 350. Weather: searing.
Our longest drive – 550 miles to Natchez , again with no accommodation booked. Made an early start after breakfasting on the boxed remains of the previous evening’s Mexican. Cold fajitas – beautiful! Encountered our first significant traffic on the interstates around Houston but we were in Louisiana by lunchtime. Another state line and a ‘Bienvenu en Louisiane’ sign! Our first stop in Louisiana led me to meet James Brabham, a charming Southern gentleman who wanted me to confirm that his surname was English. As soon as we hit the state, Steve was on the phone to a friend arranging to meet for a drink in Baton Rouge . An amazing stretch of road took us over swamps, rivers and bayou for mile after mile. We were going to stop in Lafayette but a sudden sharp downpour caused us to continue to Baton Rouge , where we visited the Rural Life Museum of the Louisiana State Univ. This featured a range of typical buildings from around the Civil War era. An excellent visit and we were the only people there. It was now around 1600 and off we went to meet Steve’s friend for what turned out to be a hugely enjoyable Chinese meal. Our original plan was to camp in the Natchez State Park (to which I readily agreed, surprisingly) but once we got back on the road (via some areas of Baton Rouge that we would rather not have seen), we realized that we were not going to arrive in daylight. Steve made some phone calls and we eventually booked in at what was formerly a grand plantation house and now a B&B. It looked splendid when we arrived in the dark, complete with a pub/restaurant in the grounds. Accommodation was in the old servants quarters, which smelt of damp, unfortunately. As we were getting ready for bed, a huge cockroach came in under the door. We managed to corner it and do the necessary. Despite that, the humidity, the noise of the cicadas, the seeming opulence were all straight from a Tennessee Williams play. A very enjoyable day across three states.
Mileage: 550. Weather: mop your brow!
Our plantation stay entitled us to a free guided tour of the ground floor of the house, which was conducted by a charming, elderly Southern lady with an almost impenetrable accent. We learnt two new words – gasolier (gas chandelier) and flambocious. We eventually got on the road, heading for Memphis but with no clear idea of our route. This turned out to be a memorable day. After a run round Natchez , which before the Civil War housed more than half of all the millionaires in the US , we headed up the Natchez Trace. This is a federal historic route, with no commerce along it and heavily patrolled for speed compliance. It runs from Natchez to Nashville (about 500 miles) and is very pretty. In the 19th century, traders would sail their goods down the Mississippi to Natchez or New Orleans to sell them. Since they could not sail their boats back up the river because of the currents, they would break them up and sell them as lumber. They would then walk back to Nashville along the Trace.
We left the Trace after about 40 miles to see Port Gibson, which Gen Grant deemed ‘too pretty to burn’ during the Civil War. We then tried to get back on the Trace but got a bit confused and ended up heading for Vicksburg , which was besieged during the Civil War. It’s an interesting place, if a little run down, located on a bluff over the Mississippi . Steve took us to the Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia , which was good (and there were some other people in there!). We then decided to head for Memphis along the Mississippi Blues Trail, taking in the birthplaces of luminaries such as BB King and Muddy Waters. It also took us to some places where we definitely should not have been! One highlight was twice asking directions from people with very strong local accents – and speech impediments! By now it was late afternoon and we had not eaten. Courtesy of our guide book, we found our way to Crawdad’s, a local restaurant, where we had steaks like I’ve never had. We then went to Po ’ Monkey’s Lounge, a local juke joint, hopefully for a drink. This was brilliant. Po ’ Monkey is a 67 year old black man who has this self-built shack on the edge of a cotton field which defies gravity to stand. Unfortunately, we were 2 hours too early for the evening’s entertainment, but he appeared from his shack at the back of the joint. He explained that he had just got in from the cotton fields and was about to get himself ready for the evening (he wears a purple suit and a yellow tophat). He took us into the club and showed us round – what a character and what a chance encounter. We were just sorry that we could not stay for a drink and a taste of the music. Brilliant.
We then jumped in the car for the journey into Memphis . As we approached the city, there was a huge thunderstorm and torrential rain. Fortunately, it did not last too long. We found the hotel without too much difficulty and decided to spend the rest of the evening quietly. Beale Street will wait until tomorrow.
Mileage: about 350. Weather: oh, boy!
Another early morning, and so we checked out of our perfectly adequate but nothing more Alamo Inn Motel. Comedy in the morning when dad walked in on me in the reception calling out for ‘Ranjit’ the Indian owner. Dad’s face was an absolute picture. Turned out when Dad had been referring to him as Ranjit in our room the evening before, he’d had no idea what his name really was. Ranjit never did respond to my calls, despite me having seen him about a minute before. Probably just round the corner thinking ‘do they think they’re funny? bloody racists’.
And then we were on the way to Natchez , the start of the Natchez Trace Parkway , and once home to over half the millionaires in America . It was to be a 3 state day. Couple of hundred miles on the I10 in Texas , which seems to go on forever, then into Louisiana , and out the other end which leaves you in Mississippi . But we wanted to stop somewhere in Louisiana . Because of rainstorms and the availability of a friend, this ended up being Baton Rouge , and the random museum choice was the Rural Life Museum - http://appl027.lsu.edu/rlm/rurallifeweb.nsf/index. Again most enjoyable.
After dinner it was 2 hours to Natchez . We were planning to camp, but as we read more about these huge homes that the millionaires owned, that have been turned into B&Bs and inns, we decided to ring ahead and book one. We got a room at Dunleith House - http://www.dunleith.com/. It was grand, but unbelievably damp, and a cockroach sneaked in a gap in the door. Dad meted out some capital punishment for its cheek, old-school style. Big computer scare. Few beers in the converted coach-house, populated by a bunch of rich Americans, and then to bed.
Started with a tour of the old house with a proper Southern belle. They did live quite the party life in the good time (before the civil war). Although we found out we were in the old servants quarters, which I wasn’t best pleased about. Today we were driving along the Natchez Trace Parkway . The 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway commemorates an ancient trail that connected southern portions of the Mississippi River, through Alabama , to salt licks in today's central Tennessee . We were going to do a couple of hundred miles of it and get off at Tupelo (where Elvis was born) to head to Memphis . Unfortunately Dad was navigating, so we ended up in some random town called Vicksburg , which is absolutely not on the Natchez Trace Parkway . So we thought we’d go to some random museum. The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum features the history of one of the Nation's beloved beverages, along with equipment of the type that Joseph Biedenharn used to bottle Coke for the first time anywhere in the world in 1894. Walking in, it’s just like a proper old candy store, where they’d have had those huge jars of sweets. Proper time-warp. Even had the scary old lady behind the counter (although I always imagine it being men when I picture an old-fashioned candy store in my mind). Vicksburg was an interesting little town, but like with a lot of the smaller places we pas through, it’s hard to imagine living there now. The entire town’s all kind of feel like museums. Once we were at Vicksburg the plan for the day changed to driving up the Mississippi Delta. Especially since it has been said that The Delta "begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (in Memphis) and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg". Of course for us it was the other way round. That also meant driving up Highway 61. Again all sorts of history. Sometimes called the " Blues Highway ," and featured in loads of songs. Supposedly Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49. I think we drove right past it.
We stopped in Greenville because we read about a place called Doe’s Eats. We were proper scared though. Once the old lady in the rough looking garage we’d bought gas at said ‘y’all be careful on Nelson Street . It’s rough and you’re not from around here’, we basically decided to just do a drive-by. It was a damn rough street. We also discovered they’re creating a Blues Trail - http://www.msbluestrail.org/blues_trail/. Unfortunately despite having leaflets advertising the trail, the location of the existing markers is not noted anywhere. Genius. But there is one on Nelson St . Even the lady in the visitor centre said, to only stop and take a photo and then get out of there. Encouraging. We didn’t even stop.
Much nicer was a place called Merigold. We stopped for a gorgeous steak at a big log cabin - http://www.crawdads1.com/, and then drove down a dirt road to find one of apparently last remaining juke joints. It was seriously amazing. A shack. Read about it here, it’s interesting - http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/02/us/02jukejoint.html/partner/rssnyt?_r=1&oref=slogin. Luckily we caught Po ’ Monkey finishing work and he showed us around. It’s seriously a shack. We were there on a Thursday, one of only two nights a week it opens, but unfortunately, we couldn’t hang around as we had to get on to Memphis. Made it to Memphis about 10pm. Highway 61 Visited. First impressions of Memphis not good.
Fairly busy day in Memphis , starting with the National Civil Rights Museum. Another hearty recommendation here. It’s EXTREMELY powerful and moving. I really knew very little about it, and the museum is crammed full of information. We were there for three hours and didn’t manage to see everything. The whole story gives you both feelings of great shame and disgust for how some humans can act, but then great admiration and respect for the bravery and determination of others. I hope I learnt something.
We had to leave to catch our backbeat tour bus which was taking us to the home of the King. The most visited home in all of America . Even more than the White House. Graceland of course. The drive out was great, with us on an old bus with a blues man, Memphis Jones, entertaining us with stories and info, as well as playing Elvis classics on the way. I’m no big Elvis fan, unlike my Dad, even though Suspicious Minds has recently become my karaoke duet go to. However, I left with a much improved impression of Elvis. He seems to have been a nice guy. And Graceland is really not that lavish or huge. It’s proper home, and everything in there was stuff he used. Not things just for the show of it. He obviously liked his toys, and having fun. It was a quite cool shrine to 70s kitsch and décor. Reminded me a bit of some of Mum and Dads old houses. And we saw a couple of the obligatory Elvis look-a-likes. Luckily Dad hadn’t dressed up, but I did worry a bit about the extent of his feelings towards the man. Especially when he said ‘he does look good in a uniform’.
Once we were back in Memphis , we ended up walking miles in the goddarn heat for food at a famous place ( Arcade ) that was closed. So went somewhere that wasn’t famous. That evening was our night out on Beale Street . In contrast to that morning, the street was really buzzing. We listened to a bunch of bands and drank a bunch of drinks. The undoubted highlight was a one man band street musician playing a guitar made from a cigar box outside the ……… Brilliant. Bought his cds. A much wiser decision than buying that Hurricane cocktail.
Rough as a dog unfortunately. Had to drag myself up to get down to Beale Street (kid doing somersaults down it below) in time for our bus tour. Again with Backbeat tours, and hosted by Memphis Jones, who proved just as entertaining as the previous. The focus this time was a trip and tour round the legendary Sun Studios. Home of the Million Dollar Quartet back in the 50s, Jerry Lee Lewis (The Killer), Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Tour proved interesting, and we heard a lot of sound clips that really gave you a sense of the history of the place, and how amazing that so many legends ended up coming out of the small studio, and all the random coincidences that seemed to lead to the stories and the recording. Photo of spot where Elvis recorded 'That's alright mama' to left, with original microphone. If you asked Dad, he’d probably say there must have been a higher power at work. By some stroke of fortune, even though the studio was closed for nearly 30 years, and other businesses used the building, the original studio was evidently never torn apart, so a lot sits there today just as it was back in the 50s.
We had lunch on Beale Street . Ribs. Had to be done. I was still struggling, and we it was soooo hot (104) so we decided not to do the Stax museum, which was a bit out of town, and instead head straight on to Jackson , our destination for the night. Really just a sleepover on the way to Nashville . We realized how bad it must be when we discovered that despite being quite a large town, it doesn’t even get a mention in the guidebook. So no random museum we could pick to visit unfortunately. But we do love Hampton Inns. The cloud 9 experience once again, which I took advantage of in the afternoon as well as at night. But we got all our washing and computer stuff done. It’s proper suburban America there. Dominated by the strip with all the chains – shops, hotels and restaurants. There’s an original downtown somewhere, but I don’t think anyone goes there. So there’s not really much else to report. Oooh, we did have a lovely steak at Redbones though.
Our big day in Memphis . What a strange place. The walk from our hotel to the trolley stop is about 30 yards and we were hustled twice in that distance! Once downtown, we saw the hustle and bustle of Beale Street but all around there seemed to be urban wastelands – old buildings and the spaces where they used to be. We walked a few blocks to the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. I wasn’t too sure what to expect but was completely overwhelmed by it. They’ve maintained the front of the old motel and built the museum alongside and behind it. So, as you approach, you see the balcony where MLK was shot. The museum gives credit not only to the black activists but to the white people involved in the movement; interestingly, more radical elements such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael only get passing mention. The main focus is on MLK and his words, both written and spoken, are incredibly powerful. As you finish the tour, you end up at a big window behind where MLK fell – incredibly moving. From there, you can also see where James Earl Ray was positioned. All in all, a tremendous experience.
A complete contrast after a lunch of Memphis Soul Stew – Graceland . The ultimate in American commercialism and we did the lot – the house, the airplanes, the cars, the jumpsuits, Elvis in the Army – and it was great! We did the tour with Backbeat Tours and our guide on the coach, Memphis Jones, told us loads of Elvis tales and sang lots of his songs to his guitar accompaniment. We were given tambourines, shakers and bongos and a good party atmosphere prevailed. The house is not excessively large and was clearly designed to be lived in. Elvis loved his toys and they are all on display. Thoroughly enjoyable, if a little warm.
In the evening, we went to Beale Street – I think I’ll leave it there!
Mileage: 0. Weather: well over 100 and very sticky.
Managed to rouse Steve in time for our second Backbeat tour around Memphis . Memphis Jones was again our guide and rhythm implements were duly distributed among a very high spirited group of people. First stop was 706 Union Street , the home of Sun Studios, where Elvis made his first records. The delightful Cora showed us round with great enthusiasm and we all stood on the very spot where Elvis did and held a 50s microphone. We saw a different side of Memphis today, with some fine civic buildings and then some beautifully elegant residential areas. Memphis Jones kept us all amused and we had a good old singalong. We went to the site of the Stax studios, which are now a museum, in a not so great part of town, and then back to Beale Street . After lunch, we ambled round to the Peabody Hotel to see the ducks in the fountain in the foyer and then back to our own hotel to pick up the car. Interestingly, after our 2 hustlers on the first morning, we were never approached again. We had some good fun in Memphis .
A couple of hours drive took us to our nightstop, Jackson , and our first real downtime of the trip. Steve took to his bed to overcome the Beale Street Blues while I did the washing, our first opportunity. In the evening, we had dinner at redbones and turned in for a reasonably early night. We’re back in a Hampton Inn, home of the glorious Cloud 9 mattress.
Mileage: about 90. Weather: 104!
A bright start for the drive to Nashville and we were there by about 11am. We parked by the most impressive Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I was keen to see the Ryman Theatre, the original Grand Old Opry, which was closed for tours at 1200. Steve was not so bothered, so he headed downtown and I went round the Ryman. It’s an old converted church and has an interesting history. We met back at the museum and did the audio tour. Neither of us are big country fans but no expense has been spared on this; all the latest electronic gizmos are there. A most impressive place. Today was a special day for the new mayor, so there were all sorts of things going on – school marching bands etc. The old commercial main street of Nashville – Broadway – has been left in its original late 19th century state and is full of bars with bands and shops selling Stetsons, cowboy boots etc but there are a lot of new buildings around Broadway. Lunch in a bar coincided with Andy Murray winning the Masters tournament, so we saw the first set of that – a good bonus.
I’ve just read Steve’s blog for the first time but I shan’t waste time defending myself from these scurrilous allegations. Anyone reading this knows me well enough not to believe it!
Wow, what an evening. We saw an advert for a bluegrass venue in the restroom at the Country Museum and when we checked it out on the internet it got good reviews. It was a bit of a walk from the hotel and when we got there it was just a small low building on a street corner. Normally, there is a cover charge to see a band but on Sundays you get in free and local bluegrass musicians come in and jam. Everyone else just sits around drinking beer and eating pizza. It was fantastic. At one point there were about 30 musos giving it everything on guitars, banjoes, double basses, mandolins and fiddles. Early on it was mainly good ol’ boys but much younger musicians came along later. As a bonus, three of the fiddlers were the most attractive you could wish to see. A truly memorable experience.
Mileage: about 120. Weather: cool today – mid-90s.
On our way to Nashville . A short 2 hours drive, so, we were there around midday, and straight to the Country Hall of Fame and Museum to see all me & Dad’s heroes. Not. They tried to charge us for parking! But we used our Hampton Inn contacts to get a spot in their carpark. I had time for a quick look round the ‘District’, which is the preserved historical section of town where all the bars, restaurants and tourist shops are. I then I met Dad for the museum. A bloody impressive building and a really good museum. Unfortunately not on a topic I was really interested in. Worth the visit nonetheless, but stupid audio tour headsets (as modelled by Dad). It was there, above my urinal, that I saw the ad for the Station Inn and it’s live bluegrass. Once I saw this place ranked 2nd in Yelp, it had to be our evening destination. Throughout our walking round during the day, it had become evident that Nashville was really nice and also very different to Memphis . As well as having the historical part, it seemed to be a successful city behind that, with an obvious busincss district and a lot going on. No hustlers either. By the time we’d got to the Station Inn, it was also clear that Nashville was the Cutie Capital of the US so far. Anyway, Station Inn was fantastic. Pretty sure it was mostly locals, and Sunday night is amateur Bluegrass jam night. So we drank pitchers of bud light, ate pizza, and enjoyed the show. My little Cotton-Eyed Joe dance that was supposed to be for Dad’s amusement only was noticed by some of those playing unfortunately, and I thought it might turn nasty, but they were lovely.In case you're wondering if being on the road with nothing but each other or company for so long has turned us a bit loopy, please see attached photo. Dad spent a long time setting this up, and thought it was brilliant.
Dad’s affectionately nicknamed me Budguts. He’s so mean. And it’s so unjust. Another day, another state. This time we’re off to Bardstown , Kentucky , and the Bourbon Trail. Unfortunately it’s Monday, which is always bad in the US (cos they have everything open on Sundays), and once we got the local guide, quite a lot was closed. No free Heaven Hill historical tour, and no ‘My Old Kentucky Dinner Train’. However, we got our random museum fix at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History (displaying very funny poster if you can see the writing below), and also visited the very pretty Makers Mark distillery (and their talking family portraits). We learnt everything we ever wanted to know about bourbon whiskey, and they even let us stick our arms in the vats of whiskey mash. My arms still stink of it (like old flat beer - or is it just that I've never smelt my arms before). Best if you don’t do it with the arm your watch is on. Makers Mark is famous for their red wax seal on each bottle. As we got to witness, this is done manually. It took me back to my crappy student jobs, and they looked like they’d been there for years. Despite this, I couldn’t resist paying to personally dip my own bottle. Dad took a video. It’s brilliant.
That all took a bit longer than expected, so we never made it to the Jim Beam distillery. Quick catch up at the hotel, a Comfort Inn for tonight. And then back to the first place we’d popped into that day (originally for coffee when we’d first arrived) for dinner. The Old Talbott Tavern, a building dating from 1797, and also having been voted one of the World’s Best Whiskey bars by a UK magazine, had fine looking menu of traditional southern fare. As we were in Kentucky we decided to have the Southern Fried Chicken, at which point we were amazed to realize that we had never quite made the link that KFC came from Kentucky , so used were we to it being just a brand. Anyway, the dinner was bloody terrible. Just dripping with grease. Although I have to say the Fried Green Tomatoes were quite nice. It’s not just a movie. At this point I was beginning to accept that despite the Brits pride in being willing to fry anything, the Americans don’t half do bad. So disappointed were we with the meal we decided to skip on the 5 shot bourbon sampler and head home. Once we’d realized that ‘My Old Kentucky Dinner Train’ train tracks by the restaurant looked very similar to the train tracks by our hotel, we did our own version of the trip, and walked along the tracks. There was some kind of cool glowflies all around the place, which caught us by surprise. Relieved to have made it back to the hotel without being done for trespassing, we cracked open the souvenir hand-dipped bottle of Makers Mark and settled down to an early night.
An early start to get us on the way to Bardstown in Kentucky . As we crossed the state line we entered another time zone, so lost an hour. We also passed the 3,000 mile mark; not quite certain whether we’ll make 4,000. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned our trusty steed, a Toyota Corolla affectionately known as X17 after the first three of the registration. It’s very comfortable and we can just about squeeze our suitcases in the boot. The back seat is always a dump, of course.
Kentucky is very attractive with gently rolling wooded hills and very green, despite the heat. The communities are neat with charming houses dotted around. Bardstown fits that bill and when we arrived we adjourned to the Talbott Inn (1797) for coffee served on the balcony by the charming Candice. She persuaded us to come back and dine in the evening, since she would be on duty until 8pm. After that, we went to the Oskar Getz Museum of Bourbon (we were the only visitors, needless to say). After a quick sandwich in the deli, we headed for the Makers Mark distillery, which was much deeper in the countryside than we imagined. A beautiful location and a very interesting tour led by another amusing and bubbly guide. We had some samples, of course, and decided we would invest in a half bottle. One of the features of Makers Mark is that the cap of each bottle is hand dipped in hot wax; Steve was able to sign and hand dip our bottle. The idea is that you keep it as a souvenir; ours is open alongside me as I type this. We hoped to go to the Jim Beam distillery but time did not permit. So off to our Comfort Inn and then to the Talbott Inn for dinner served by Candice. When we got there, she had been sent home because they were not busy and we had the worst meal of the trip. Their version of Southern Fried Chicken would not have done justice to a fish and chip shop, greasy chicken fried in greasy batter. Very disappointing. Hence, the decision to clear the palate with the bourbon.
Mileage: about 200. Weather: a most acceptable 94.
An early start and one of those good days where we don’t know where we’re going or how we’re going to get there. The original intention was to night-stop in Chattanooga but we decided we wanted to see the Smoky Mountains in Eastern Tennessee (Dolly Parton country) so we headed south east from Bardstown for about 100 miles before crossing back into Tennessee. On the way, we discovered that we were in the vicinity of Col Sanders original Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant (we’d never really made the connection before). Homage was duly paid by Steve – the thought of another dose of southern fried chicken was literally more than even I could stomach. That said, they’ve made a pretty good job of combining a museum with a working restaurant. What a pretty state Kentucky is but all these lovely houses standing in their own grounds are surrounded by grass. Not a garden in sight. Anyway, we passed through lovely towns and countryside before arriving at Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, just outside the Smoky Mountains National Park . Double yuck! These towns have apparently been transformed by the opening of Dollywood, which is nearby, and are sadly a monument to the worst excesses of American tackiness and commercialism. The only time we have come across this on the trip. Anyway, the National Park is up to the usual standard – layer upon layer of heavily wooded mountains – and halfway through the park we crossed into North Carolina , a bonus state! In a weak moment, I agreed to another night’s camping, so we duly arrived at Deep Creek campground in the southern edge of the park (in Cherokee country). A lovely location by a fast-flowing river with lots of people tubing down it. We had a hike in the forest and popped into town for firewood, beer and Pringles (outrageous - $1.29 a go). Yes, man-child Steve was about to get his wish and roast some marshmallows! I must confess that they were delicious. And so to bed (please let this be my last night ever under canvas!).
Mileage: about 300. Weather: the usual.
A fitful night’s sleep, not helped by the fact that a group of people quite near us decided to strike camp in the middle of the night. This involved illumination by shining three lots of car headlights straight through our tent while they dismantled everything and had shouted conversations between the cars and their pitch (about 50 yards). Selfish or what. There was also some impressive thunder and lightning around, though it never dropped on us. I must say that one of the good things about camping is that you get up feeling awful but rapidly feel really quite good. The ‘communing with nature’ effect. This was helped by the fact that Steve afforded me the great honour of letting me put his tent in the trash bin. Deep joy at Deep Creek. And so off on our last long journey to Savannah in southern Georgia . This took us through some pretty countryside in North Carolina and northern Georgia . We had a quick run around Athens and then lunch in Macon before the final run down to Savannah , our final destination by car. Our arrival in the hotel car park resulted in joyous scenes of high fives, tinged with sadness. Tomorrow, X17 is returned to its owner, Alamo .
Two nights in a Hampton Inn, equipped as always with Cloud 9 mattresses. Perhaps the night on the inflatable mattress was just to prepare me for this. We actually made it to the hotel pool for the first time, where we indulged in a childish ‘plunging’ competition (in memory of Slim Edwards) and out for beers and dinner. Steve’s favourite pig-out venue is the Outback Steakhouse, so we treated ourselves to Bloomin’ Onion and steaks – excellent. Perhaps we’ll try some real food tomorrow night!
The big news of the evening is that our journal has been categorized as profane!
Mileage: about 300. Weather: more of the same.
We’ve decided we can take in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee after all. And that’s where we’re headed now. It was only on the road this morning when looking for places to stop off on the way that we realized there’s only 9 pages of the 1144 page guidebook dedicated to the state of Kentucky . That doesn’t say much for Kentucky , but it’s a really nice, pretty state, with lovely houses, countryside, and ranches. I just don’t think much goes on. Just horse-racing, golfing, and bourbon making. But it’s always when we make decisions like that that we come across a gem, and so fitting considering our realization last night. Corbin, home of the original Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. It’s a KFC with a museum in it! It was 10:30am, but neither that or the previous night’s southern fried chicken could stop me, and I tucked into a 1pc Crispy Breast meal. Got another indication of how slow Kentucky is. The guy cleaning the tables actually sat down to do it. I’ve never seen someone stretch out a job so much. But then I’ve never seen Rachell and Tanvi at their jobs.
And so right now we’re on our way to Pigeon Forge – described in the guidebook as ‘an impossibly tacky complex of motels, outlet malls, and country-music theatres’. We’ll never have enough of that stuff. And finally Dad’s will stop banging on about me updating my journal. Although he is moaning about my wish to see Dollywood. He wouldn’t stop going on about school holidays and queues so I signed him up for the mailing list without his knowledge whilst I was checking the prices. If you think that’s a bit out of order, then you obviously haven’t had to put up with his roadtrip habit of launching everything over his shoulder onto the back seat when he’s done with it. This includes his banana skins. I can’t believe mum has let him get away with these terrible habits without punishment. He should have been signed up to for Dollywood emails long ago.
Both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg were both as described. Absolutely heaving with people, and full of tourist shops. We stopped in Gatlinburg out of necessity for something to eat, but then were straight into the park. It’s quite small, but is the most visited National Park in the US , and it shows. It’s nice though, and quickly evident why it’s called the Smoky mountains, although it does make it quite difficult to take pictures. We stopped in a couple of places, but were mostly aiming to get to the campsite on the south side (yes, campsite – powers of persuasion) in time for some hiking. The south side of the park was a lot quieter, almost seemed to be struggling, but the campsite looked lovely, and we got a spot for the tent right near the river. Then we found the trail for our hike. Dad was giggling away and insisted I take a photo, and head 'Stuart off on Whank Trail', which I thought was a bit juvenile and inappropriate, but he’s the boss. Great 3 mile hike up and down the creek, by which time he’d stopped giggling. Then in for supplies – Miller Lite and Pringles. We still had marshmallows from earlier, so this time we decided to get firewood and make a fire. I even went for a paddle before dinner. I don’t need to tell you it was awesome. Unfortunately our night’s rest was ruined by some selfish drongo’s leaving in the middle of the night, obviously determined to make as much noise as possible.
I could tell by the creaking when Dad got to his feet this morning that he was done with camping. After much deliberation, we threw away the tent. Well Dad did without my knowledge. That’s a lie, but I wasn’t going to have room for it. Been through a lot me and that tent. Today we were driving to Savannah . That meant another state – Georgia . Georgia is like Kentucky , a pretty state which takes up very few pages in the guidebook, and is dominated by Atlanta , which we weren’t going to. We had quite a ways to drive, but hoped to stop at a couple of places on the way. First off, Athens , famously home to the B-52s and REM. It was rubbish. So we carried on to Macon . Also rubbish. We could never work out where the centre of these towns where, couldn’t find a coffee in the first, and had trouble finding anywhere to eat in the second. They’re bloody religious around here. We were amused by a sign outside a Baptist church saying ‘send God a kneemail’, and the café we ate at had the welcome sign pictured. But they don’t seem to bothered with clear road signs. And it’s clearly the Blowout State . Sides of the highways littered with shredded rubber. We were quite happy to give our random journey museum a miss today (it would have been the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and just get to Savannah . I’d been going on about Outback Steakhouse since I got back to the US . I have a love hate relationship with this restaurant chain. I always complain about it (the usual chain stuff), but something always draws me back. Probably their Big Bloke Drafts (always served in a frosted mug). When we passed one in downtown Savannah a block before our hotel, it had to be a sign. Remember, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. So we obliged. It delivered. I forgot to mention, we had our first swim. Bit pathetic given we’ve been on holiday in soaring temperatures for over 2 weeks. It was the best hotel pool we’ve come across though. On the roof, with a view across the Savannah River . We did Slim Edwards proud. Nice nightcap of Makers Mark and our cloud nine mattresses saw us nicely to sleep.
A leisurely start to the day and then we strolled around beautiful, elegant Savannah . After Gen Sherman burnt Atlanta in the Civil War, his troops cut a 50 mile wide swathe of destruction through Georgia and all the way down to Savannah . They rested in the town for six weeks, so it was spared from destruction. It has a two and a half square mile historic district full of wooded squares and antebellum mansions. We toured Davenport House, the first brick built house in town (early 19th century). When we adjourned to a bar for mid-morning refreshment, Steve discovered that he had lost his credit card. After a few panic phonecalls, it was discovered in the safe at the Outback – great relief all round.
Savannah is actually on a river and was a huge cotton port in its heyday but is very near the Atlantic . In the afternoon, we drove the 18 miles to Tybee Beach where we swam in the sea (something I haven’t done for years). Never have I known such a warm sea – gorgeous. As we were drying off, the skies darkened and storm clouds gathered. Once we were back in the car, a massive thunderstorm arrived. We were now about to do the thing we have been dreading – return X17 to its owners. We drove out to the airport and handed it in, following a photocall of us sitting on the bonnet clutching a box of Pringles. The young lady clearly thought we were deranged. I won the wager on the mileage – I predicted 3958 and it turned out to be 3929. We took the airport bus back downtown (for the princely sum of $1) and fell into the Hang Fire bar to drown our sorrows. It was Happy Hour – second drink for $1 and free pizza. A great hangout as well.
Back at the hotel we removed all evidence of the beach and returned to the Hang Fire for a few games of darts (something else I haven’t done for years). Later in the evening, in another bar, I was introduced to an arcade game called Big Buck Hunt. Great fun, and Steve really impressed me with his pump action shotgun technique. The town was livening up now and he was really on a roll. Fortunately, I had the room key, so I was able to rein him in and usher him back to the hotel for our early start on the train to Charleston .
Mileage: just a few. Weather: steaming until the storm, then very pleasant.
An early start to make the train to Charleston . And what an interesting experience taking the train in the US is. A few points:
It appears to be the way that poor people travel, so most of the passengers are black.
You book your bags into a freight car.
Stations are out of town, like airports.
There are no platforms, so the Amtrak staff bring some steps out and all the boarding passengers enter by the same door (it took us 20 mins to board at Savannah ).
Seats are huge with loads of legroom, and power sockets to plug laptops into.
Each carriage has a dedicated attendant, who is up and down the carriage all the time. She puts stickers above each pair of seats stating the passengers’ destinations, and then comes to remind you when you destination is approaching.
Incredibly cheap – less than $20 for a 100 mile journey.
That’s probably all very boring, but I found it fascinating!
Very interesting taxi ride into town with a Guyanan driver who left Guyana the year after it became independent in 1966. He was very complimentary about colonial rule and highly critical of what has happened since.
And so to Charleston . We expected it to be very similar to Savannah but it is even more amazing. The historic district is 5 sq miles on the tip of a peninsula and is beautiful. The houses are mainly 18th and 19th centuries and still seem to be privately owned. Down at the seafront there are no commercial outlets, just street after street of these old houses. If it wasn’t for the cars, you’d think you were on a film set. This is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired but the town seems to have escaped any subsequent damage, though there was a big earthquake in the 1880s.
We had lunch at Hymans, the south-east’s best seafood restaurant. Good it was too – never had so many scallops. Every table has a little plaque telling you which famous person has eaten there. While there, we had an amusing encounter with Rita the Greeter, a 70+ old lady from the Bronx who zaps you with a sticker saying that you are a Hyman’s fan and engages you in amusing conversation. Being from the Bronx , she doesn’t mince her words.
This evening, we have had the Sticky Fingers (no relation to the UK chain) ribs experience and watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Just about the first time we have had two proper meals in a day.
Weather: overcast but warm this morning, it then cleared but we had the customary mini-monsoon at 4pm. Gorgeous this evening.
So Savannah . Nice city man. Lovely just to walk around. Historical cobbled area with bars and restaurants right down by the water’s edge. And then a nicely done tourist area in the old market square. And then more streets with nice shops etc. Bloody hot, but I’m bored of saying that. After lunch we decided to take the drive out to the beach on Tybee Island , as the sun was shining and it was our last day with the car. Beach was lovely and we hung with all the beach bikers and went for a swim. Another classic from Dad, who described the sea as ‘like MacDonalds Chips’. It was salty. I think he drank a bit too much of it as he passed out on the beach, presumably from dehydration. Amusingly, the whole time we were on the beach a thunderstorm was happening a few miles away. Got a pic of a lightning fork as Dad was packing the car. The rainstorm hit us minutes later, but we’d timed it perfectly as were driving to the airport. In case you’re worried that we might be back soon, it was only to drop the car off. Quite an emotional moment for both of us. We’d become very attached. Hence the too many photos. The rain came at a great time to clean up our one scrape on the car, and we even carried out a well hatched plan to park close to another car to also conceal it. Predictably ruined as concealer car promptly reversed out of its spot just as the Car Rental lady approached. As far as we’re aware, we still got away with it. So, we are now carless, but we weren’t complaining too much when we got the bus back and it only cost a dollar.
Back in Savannah , we stumbled on a bar with happy hour drinks and free pizza. That sorted us for dinner. And then we just bar crawled. Unfortunately I’d lost my room key and Dad made us go back just when everything was starting to pick up. We had very much enjoyed our couple of hours of Buck Hunter. In case y’all are worried, it’s an arcade game. But we had an early morning to catch the train to Charleston . The other good news of the day was that I managed to use my Banana Republic vouchers and get myself a whole new summer outfit for the princely sum of $6.40. Unfortunately I now have no room in my bags for presents.
Amtrak train to Charleston , departing 8.20. Dad thrilled to be able to get up at a stupid hour in preparation. We were both very concerned to read on the BBC website that Russian tanks were rolling into Georgia . It seems the train was early enough for us to make it out just in the nick of time.
And so on to South Carolina . I think Dad will go on about the train journey as he seems to have found it most interesting. Public transport has been great so far though. 20 bucks for a 2 hour ride. We’re expecting Charleston to be pretty much a repeat of Savannah , confirmed to us by our taxi to the station.
Charleston was another walking city. And as with most of our stops, an eating city. We had a seafood lunch at the famous Hyman’s restaurant. Nice, but didn’t change my opinion of fish as food. There were a few highlights though. We did meet Rita the Greeter, who’s sole job seemed to be walking around the restaurant giving out stickers (pictured) and chatting to you. Bit weird.
Having a bottle of wine between us at 11:30am led to a bit of lethargy on my part in the afternoon. Combined with my earache from our swim the day before, I really was feeling rather sorry for myself. Dad was wonderful as the mother figure, taking care of me. Charleston was even more spectacular than Savannah , Huge houses that date from before the civil war and some even before independence. We’re not sure how they all survived, as they were destroyed pretty much everywhere else. Especially once we’d found out that the first shots of the civil war were fired in Charleston . Also, these houses seemed to be mostly private residences. There must be a lot of rich people in Charleston . However, I preferred Savannah because Charleston is way too geared up on the tourist front. Their welcome centre is amazing, and that’s fine, but it seems like every other shop is another ‘tourist helpdesk’ selling guides. We walked around a fair bit of the peninsula and did a tour of one of the houses (the Edmonton-Alston House). Most impressive as a lot of the pieces and furnishings date back to the original owners (unlike previous tours we’ve done where they’ve tried to ‘recreate’ the look. Dad did somewhat take over from the guide - entertaining the kids on the tour by bouncing them up and down on the bouncy bench (pictured) until he was told off. After that he just entertained them with his unique elbow up drinking technique (also pictured). Back to the hotel for a nap and I was up for a big night out. By the time we’d finished our rib sampler for two at Sticky Fingers, that thought was long gone and we just chillaxed with some Maker’s Mark before bed.
Wasn’t that Opening Ceremony amazing!
And finally, Dad’s composed another still life photo for everyone – this one representing our holiday.
While Steve was preparing himself for the day, I went for an early morning stroll into town. The weather was perfect and Charleston looked stunning again as it prepared itself for the day. What a fabulous place. I returned to the hotel and Steve and myself wandered down the main shopping street, which was also very attractive, before taking brunch at Jestine’s, the premier southern food restaurant. Not a big fan of southern food but this came recommended and was very good. Then a taxi to the airport and the inevitable anguish as our flight to Charlotte was slightly delayed and our connection to Boston looked doubtful. In the end, all was ok. As we arrived in Boston , city boy could scarcely conceal his excitement at being back in a big city and after a quick pitstop we headed downtown. The entertainment district was a larger version of Covent G arden , full of Irish bars and teeming with families and youngsters. A vibrant environment and an impressive downtown area. We’ll see more in the morning. After an Italian meal, it was back to the hotel.
An early start into Boston to walk the Freedom Trail, three miles that run from Boston Common across the river to Bunker Hill in Charlestown , stopping off at various places of interest from colonial days through to the War of Independence. The sky was clear blue with some puffs of cloud and the temperature in the low 80s. Perfect. The walk was a delight, taking in some really interesting sights but also highlighting modern Boston . Bunker Hill has an obelisk atop it and we climbed the 294 steps to the top. Steve bounded upwards and I realized that I was still carrying the backpack. At least when we got down, he volunteered to take it. We had real problems with our thighs and calves when we got down and had to cling on to anything we could find, including each other. We then made our way to a highly recommended café, the Parish, that features sandwiches designed by Boston ’s top chefs. And delicious they were. We intended to go to Cambridge after lunch, to walk round Harvard, but the mini-monsoon that we had become used to in the south arrived and boy did it rain. So we stayed in the café for a while and then made a dash for the subway station. I again found myself carrying the backpack!
Back at the hotel we chilled out, watching the Olympics and the PGA golf and packing for the return journey tomorrow.
This will see us fly back to London and the end of what has been an amazing adventure and experience. With the exception of San Antonio , everywhere we have been has at least lived up to, and in many cases, exceeded my expectations. My sincere love and thanks go to Val for encouraging us to undertake the trip and to Steve for being a great travelling companion. We’ve had loads of fun and banter and experienced some unforgettable things together. Hopefully, my reputation will recover from his attempts to destroy it in his journal!
Things I do not like about the US
1. Motel breakfasts and the food generally. So much is unhealthy and much of it tastes the same. And what do they do to milk and butter? Perhaps I’d feel the same after 3 weeks of eating out anywhere, but I’m not so sure. That said, I’ve had some fabulous steaks.
2. Edge of town shopping strips.
3. Texas generally and San Antonio specifically (based on very limited experience).
4. US immigration. Do they want us to visit their country or not?
5. TV and radio.
6. Union and state flags everywhere.
7. Huge trucks thundering along at speeds in excess of the average family saloon and depositing blown-out tyres everywhere. Steep hills do not even defeat them. They also appear along the main streets of picturesque towns like Savannah .
8. The God-forsaken places that a lot of Americans find themselves living in.
9. Mornings after the Beale Street experience.
Things I do like about the US
1. Americans – everyone we have met has been polite, charming, friendly and helpful.
2. National parks – the jewel in the crown!
3. Pringles at a dollar a go.
4. The Interstate system and driving generally. It’s very straightforward and relaxed. We’ve also managed to find our destinations without too much difficulty, including hotels in cities like Memphis and Nashville .
5. Hampton Inns and their Cloud 9 mattresses.
6. Southern Utah generally and Bryce Canyon specifically – the scenery is mind-blowing. How did people ever pioneer such a wild, inhospitable place in the late 19th century?
7. Sitting at bars eating, drinking and watching sport on the TV.
8. Backbeat tours and the music generally.
9. Tour guides who really seem to enjoy what they’re doing and manage to make it special and memorable for you.
10. The easy availability of ice everywhere.
11. Air-conditioning everywhere. We turned it off in the car for about 5 mins as an experiment; without it, our journey would have been impossible.
12. Great showers and endless hot water.
13. The reinforcement of stereotypes. Everyone in the south does say ‘Y’all’ and everyone in Nashville wears Stetsons and cowboy boots.
14. Listening to Russell Brand podcasts while burning down the highway.
Half a day in Charleston before we fly to Boston , but I left Dad to it early morning and joined him mid-morning for a walk. I asked if I could get a pic of him doing the Charleston , but he did a moonwalk instead. We had probably our best meal in the South at Jestine’s kitchen. Jestine was 112. She’s dead now. The flight to Boston was fairly uneventful. We were rather worried about our 30 minute connection time. That doesn’t leave much for delays! The plane to Charlotte was tiny. We had to walk across the tarmac to it. It was slightly late, which got our heart-rates up, but turned out our flight from Boston was delayed as well. My luggage was the very first item off the plane for the first time ever! We checked in to our Holiday Inn Express in the middle of nowhere, then taxi in to Faneuill Hall. Then taxi went back to hotel cos I’d forgotten my wallet, and then back into downtown. Faneuill Hall’s like a big Covent Garden . Loads of people, cobbles, street performers. We had an average meal at Bertucci’s. Dad was mixing his drinks and got a bit Oasis. He was still rather wired when got up in the morning.
Freedom Trail, man. Got the T train into town. We’re really not in a nice area. Lots of smashed bottles on the streets. And the start of the Freedom Trail was a bit weird as well. Loads of bums. The Freedom Trail takes in 16 important colonial and revolutionary history sites. It’s a really nice way to walk around the city with a purpose (it’s 3 miles) and learn all about the tyranny of the English. I never realized there was such a big Italian district. We also saw people catching fish off the bridge, and walked 294 steps up an obelisk (pictured), which left us both with shaky legs, as I'm sure you've heard. Weather was beautiful and we ended up at a great sandwich shop (thanks Hoff) which I think Dad’s already mentioned. Our planned trip to Harvard ended up being rained off as the usual thunderstorm rolled in at around 4pm. It’s the first time any of our plans have really been disrupted, even though we’ve seen a lot of these thunderstorms. We’ve always seemed to be driving.
And, so it’s over. Just one more sleep and then a flight back. Has been wonderful, but I can’t wait to get back to work. Hope those who made it to the end enjoyed the account. The final picture is the result of 3 weeks holidaying with man/machine Stuart Harrison.