Travelling the USA: The Stats

Road music. Chilis. Of course.
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  • Miles driven: 5,456. Within a whisker of our initial estimate of 2,500 to 3,000 miles…
  • States visited: 17. Although yes, we’re including a few drive-by states in that
  • Fortifying ice creams consumed to energize the driver (and passenger…passenging is hard work I’ll have you know): about 25. Basically at least one a day if we were in transit
  • Pigs slaughtered in the fulfillment of James’ search for the perfect ribs: I’d say about 4 medium size oinkers. (For the curious, the perfect ribs were actually some we had about a year ago in Chef Leon’s little shack up in Vermont….unfortunately now closed down due to cleanliness violations…)
  • Hours spent hiking in incredible spectacular scenery in a hopeless attempt to un-wreak the damage caused by above-mentioned ribs: 25. Half a pig??
  • National parks visited: 5. Yeah, we achieved value for money on our annual America the Beautiful pass!
  • Maximum speed: James says 90mph, which was when I was driving (hadn’t quite got the hang of motorway speed control on the first day out of NYC). I however think this is a vicious lie, I’m pretty sure he went faster than this overtaking that Ferrari that time…
  • Occasions we took a minor and slightly unintended detour: about 30. Occasions we swore at the satnav: also about 30
  • Beasties slain in our relentless race across the land: 7,002. 7,000 winged insect type beasties which met their ends on the windscreen, 1 chipmunk (James) and one kangaroo rat (Lucy. James says this is endangered but I’m pretty sure that’s not true….)
  • Meals in chain restaurants: one McDonalds salad in the Air and Space Museum in Washington (we had no choice on this one); one Arby’s and one Denny’s – these are both a little like eating at a Little Chef, i.e., you wrinkle your nose at them until you happen to be looking for dinner in deepest darkest nowhere at 10pm, at which point one becomes rather appreciative of their all round culinary excellence. And the fact that they’re open. And the MILKSHAKES!
  • Nights camping: 4. This is way less than we’d hoped, but the campsites in national parks get booked up about a month in advance in summer which kind of threw a spanner in our camping plans. Which brings us onto….
  • Nights in plush hotels: 6. Oops. Of which Miami effortlessly wins the award for most bling by virtue of the crystal chandelier in our shower
  • Top temperature: 110 degrees (Fahrenheit – crossing the Mojave desert). Fortunately, we were in our lovely air conditioned car, so neither of us actually died
  • Inches of rain: about 10, evenly shared between two rather spectacular rainstorms, one whilst camping in the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the other whilst I had the wheel, coming out of New Orleans
  • Pounds of excess luggage shed at various points: about 40, including the cooler, the coffee machine and the “so light they almost don’t count” marshmallows
  • Times we missed the office? Zero.

Hello Makaga!

Write a blog, they said (grumble grumble). Try to make it different, they said (grumble grumble). Engage with your audience, they said (grumble grumble).

Lucy and I decided a while ago that we would write the very occasional post to say hello to individual friends of ours that we are missing on the road, and we decided that it would be suitably arbitrary to address these to our most prolific blog commenters. Strange, I know, but roll with us here. So, with a grand total of five (hurrah), hello Matthew!

This is Matthew.

As you can tell, he is a bit of a creative genius. Product designer extraordinare, snappy dresser, burgenoning swing dancer and one half of the legendary Matthew and Michelle, he and she have livened up our New York nights out with their unique blend of style, panache and awesome outfits. Put simply, they rock.

But what can we do to pay homage to Matthew appropriately? Well, one of Matthew’s recent side projects was “April Neckwear”. Starting on the first of April, every day, for a full month (via Facebook) he did this:

It was great. We had serious tie envy. So, in honour of Matthew, we have decided to repeat April Neckwear, but amended slightly for our traveler status … and the fact that we aren’t exactly long on closet space in our rucksacks … and the fact that laundry day doesn’t come around too often. So, with apologies to Andy Warhol, here we go:

Matthew, mate, we miss you.

Time Flies

We have just spent five hours flying East from Los Angeles to Miami. Five hours to go back over one month of driving. It feels simultaneously slightly ridiculous and actually rather awe-inspiring. This country is huge – how people actually managed to make it to the West Coast on foot and on horseback back in the day I have no idea.

Given the amount we have crammed into a month, it feels like we have been on the road for ages. However, given we decided to start our trip with a drive across the States, there was no Big Moment Of Arrival in a foreign country and hence no real feeling of departure. As a result, time has been playing little tricks on us: in Washington DC it felt like we were away for a long weekend. In Kentucky it felt like we had taken a week’s holiday. In Texas it felt like we had managed to sneak in a rare two week holiday (although the concept of an actual, untrashed two week holiday without being interrupted every single day by work emails and calls is completely unfamiliar to both of us). Only once we got into the canyonlands after two-plus weeks did it start to feel like something longer. Like gardening leave, perhaps? Who knows.

 

A hippie interlude if I may (Lucy has them occasionally, so why can’t I?). I honestly can’t remember a time in my life when I have been outside at night in the countryside for a long enough period of time to be aware of the moon waxing and waning.

But, like, dude, what does it meeeeeaan? Well, it’s been four weeks and I need a haircut – that’s what it means.

Laundry Day

Well today was set aside for admin, laundry and the like. Oh yes, there was also a knife fight.

So, we have been travelling across the States for a month now. As such, we are holed up in San Diego in a not particularly inspiring hotel (you know the type – spend more on a nice dinner than on a room for a night) tying up loose ends before we head off to South America. I could write a short PhD thesis on the merits and potential downsides of outsourcing various parts of one’s life. I have friends who contract out most of the raising of their children; I have others who believe it is bad for the soul to have a house too big to clean yourself. Anyway, let’s not get into the specifics, let’s just say that no matter how successful I may (or may not) become, I don’t believe I will ever use hotel dry cleaning services unless someone else is paying for them. I mean, six pounds for a pair of pants – come on guys! Sooo … on the road I am becoming a dab hand at public launderettes, having now used one at least twice in my life. This afternoon I had a very happy hour or so indulging in the guilty pleasure of washing, drying, folding, matching socks, drying Lucy’s things. I also pottered for a couple of hours on my laptop, sorting things out for when wifi is less available, and we packed and repacked our rucksacks in different ways. It was a very happy, pottering kind of day.

Mmmm. Laundry.

Mmmm. Packing.

Mmmm. Pottering.

Oh, did I mention a knife fight? Did you want to hear about that? Well, we went down to Prospect Beach to check out the surf, soak up a bit of sun and eat half of our bodyweight in cold stone ice cream sundaes. It must be the school holidays as there were the usual tipsy sunbathing teenagers, there were a couple of couples with their sandcastling toddlers, a mumble of bad surfers were surfing badly. We were very happily sat watching the waves, eating our ice cream and wishing we were back in the office. Idyllic, really. Anyway, some of the teenagers were getting a bit rowdy – one guy and three girls, some swearing, nothing bad – and one of the toddler mothers went over to ask them nicely to tone it down a little. We couldn’t hear exactly what was said, but the body language was universal: open hands, pointing out the young child close by, gentle downward motion to ask to quieten down a bit. All standard.

Now, where I come from the response is to apologise and to calm it down a little. San Diego, not a bit of it – the response was immediate from (let’s call him) shorty, tattooed, baggy pants guy (or shorty, for short): “NOBODY TELLS ME TO QUIETEN THE F*** DOWN! NOBODY! DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE, M*****F******?”. The girls started shouting at each other, then slapping each other, then the guys started shouting at each other, then pushing each other. At this point shorty pulls a knife, screams and lunges for the other guy, who (after a short period of almost visibly soiling his board shorts) plucks up his courage, smacks shorty in the face, picks up his skateboard and smacks shorty in the face, then picks up an oil-drum trash can and – wait for it – smacks shorty in the face. The lifeguards turn up, shorty waves his knife at them, and as a result seven (we counted them) police cars turned up and the police proceeded in an orderly fashion to – you guessed it – smack shorty in the face. Instant karma I guess. Shorty was then carted off to the cells.

It was extraordinary. During all of this the toddlers kept playing and we kept eating our ice creams, about 15 yards away. We finished our ice creams, the cops started taking witness statements. People stopped taking pictures and we rushed home.

You see, I had a wash on.

Improvisation in Joshua Tree

I’m definitely not the first person to use a big fluffy air mattress in a tent. I’m certainly not the first person to fry the electric inflator of the mattress by running too high a voltage through it in an attempt to recharge it extra fast. I’m probably not the first person to jury rig an improvised air mattress inflator using … erm … a car exhaust pipe. However, I am probably one of a select few to do all of the above having woken up that morning in a five star hotel in Las Vegas.

We are in Joshua Tree national park, having driven from the Aria Hotel (cunningly yield-managed to an extraordinarily cheap price on a Sunday night); across the Mojave Desert (which has NO gas stations, for those of you who are thinking of setting out from Las Vegas with a half empty tank); along one of the few remaining portions of the original Route 66; and into the hills of Joshua Tree, all playing obligatory U2 at wildlife-scaring volume. It is meant to be the last hurrah of our flowery tent – due to be thrown away when we reach Los Angeles – and I am lying awake rather worried. The tent is cozy and snug, and we have a double air mattress full of exhaust fumes.

[The Tent's Last Hurrah (although we eventually relented, and posted it back to the UK)]

Blowing it up actually worked surprisingly well, with Lucy gently gunning the accelerator on request and me clasping the valve over the car exhaust as if a good night’s sleep depended on it. The mattress leaks, however, and exhaust fume asphyxiation in a tight tent isn’t how I intend to go (skydiving head down into an active volcano, for those who are curious). Thinking it through very carefully, however: a slow leak, large tent vents, a fresh breeze and mandatory catalytic converters make it safe, and we sleep tight.

Joshua Tree is famously inhospitable. How the early settlers got their tent pegs in I don’t know. We sleep extremely well under a clear starlit night, then get up at 6:30am and trek for three and a half hours from through the scrub in the scorching heat, down Lost Horse Trail, past an abandoned gold mine and finally up to a view of the San Andreas fault. World class hiking, but we are somewhat national-parked-out at this point having been to Zion, Grand Canyon and Bryce in the last few days, and we are overdue in San Diego for running water, electric light and good sushi.

[Lucy doing her finest Joshua Tree impression – instructions: please wave your hands in the air like you just don't care!]

Short Runs in Strange Places – Las Vegas

There is a feature on the running machines in our gym in New York. While you are pounding away on an artificial slope in an air conditioned room surrounded by neurotic, exhausted office worker types you can dial up videos of great scenic runs of the USA. It’s called the Virtual Active system, and with surprisingly little imagination it transports you: alongside the Niagra Falls; through ancient New England forests in the fall; through the legendary national parks of the United States. I don’t know if it’s the pumping music, the endorphins from the exercise or that strange runner’s trance, but it’s actually pretty compelling, to the extent that when you finish it comes as a bit of a surprise to be transported back to New York City and the real world.

There is a particular run which is my favourite: half an hour through the deep canyons of Utah and the deserts of Arizona, with a final sprint along the Las Vegas strip. I don’t know what it is about this specific run that I particularly like – maybe it’s the bonkers scenery or perhaps, less kindly, it’s the virtual running through all the clotted crowds struggling from casino to casino. Anyway, I had promised myself numerous times in my little gym in New York that – one day – I would do the run for real.

Well, Lucy and are currently in the wish-fulfillment business, so here you are:

Vegas Baby – Yeah!

I have a theory about Vegas. It’s a town that reflects your mood (am I hippy enough to say your energy??) in a super accentuated kind of way. If you let it, it can really, really bring you down. Who hasn’t felt a little concerned for the state of the human race after a half mile stroll through a casino? Watching a typically massively overweight person feeding electronic quarters (cash is so passé) into the one arm bandit whilst slurping on a super size soft drink. Dead eyes everywhere you look broken only by the green eyed stares of the deeply envious as someone wins big (given they’re playing the quarter machines, maybe up to …oooh, $150….). Or watching the impact of a licensing law that allows – shock horror – drinking on the streets. Cue half yard frozen slushy margaritas and all day amateur drinking hour. Realizing that in this town, given the quirks of Nevada state law, an 18 year old can legally watch the naked girly shows, but not the topless ones (these are licensed to serve alcohol, which the naked bars aren’t, so an 18 year old is denied entry…).

Sure, it has its issues. But here’s a confession. I kind of love Vegas. I could pretend that it’s all down to the new sophisticated image of the town, fine quality dining and world class shows. And yes, we ate great food whilst we were there (albeit at a Thai restaurant in a strip mall – considered the best Thai food in North America but maybe not quite what the Vegas tourism board had in mind). And we have seen some truly remarkable shows there too (this time, Mystere by Cirque du Soleil, which, annoying and slightly pointless baby theme aside, was wonderful in the sense that it genuinely left us both full of wonder…just how long does it take to develop abs like those….??!!). We even checked out a Chihuly exhibition and only turned down Monet for lack of time.

But to be honest what I really love about Vegas is its sheer undaunted brassiness. It’s a town built for people to have fun without even the smallest thought for taste or decorum. It’s big, bold and vaguely psychedelic – they have acre sized fountains tuned to music, a miniature Eiffel tower AND Empire State building, an animatronic giant singing frog (in the “classy” Wynn hotel believe it or not), a volcano that explodes every hour!! How can you not love THAT?

It’s just that you have to fight for your good times. Hold on (hard) to your sense of whimsy and pretend the bad stuff (I’m looking at you, Treasure Island pirate show that has been revamped with a sexy-siren sing-and-dance-off….urrrggghhh) just isn’t there.

Or just bugger it, get a half yard frozen pina colada and go win some big bucks.

Canyonlands

Leaving the wide open plains of Texas and New Mexico behind us, we started on the part of our US roadtrip which I’d been most excited about – a tour through the Canyonlands scenery of Arizona and Utah. Some of you may have heard of the Grand Canyon – well, this is just one part of a wider tract of land which was subject to a rather large seismic shift a few million years ago. The shift, acting as it did on an area of sedimentary rock, shifted whole tranches of the land up and down and side to side, creating canyons, mountains, and weirdy beardy poky bits along the way. Or that’s my interpretation anyway… those of you with a basic geology knowledge are likely reeling with horror…

Alternatively, if you’d prefer, the great flood came along, Noah filled his boat with provisions (including plenty meat for the carnivores), and as the flood subsided, the sheer power unleashed created the Grand Canyon. Plus assorted other weirdy beardy poky bits as above. Never let it be said that I’m narrow minded.

Anyway, the upshot of all this geological / biblical activity is some truly spectacular rock. I promise that’s more exciting than it sounds……

Our Canyonlands debut was in Monument Valley, traditional home of the Navajos (and, given it’s in scrub desert and has no natural resources and precious little in the way of life-supporting environment, it’s an area of land that has been generously ceded by the US to the Navajo nation). We were staying at the View hotel, and yes it was very aptly named, no ability to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority there. We has the most amazing stay – great scenic drive through the monuments, watching the light change from our balcony as the sun set and the stars rose, and then getting up at dawn to wrap ourselves in Navajo blankets and watch the sun rise over the red stone towers. Probably my happiest time yet on the trip.

So encouraged were we by this whole room with a view lark that we attempted to repeat the experience at the Grand Canyon, choosing to stay at the North Rim (rather than the more usual South Rim) due both to my total hatred of other people getting in the way of MY views (James assured me this might be a problem at the South Rim…one of the most visited sites in the States) and the promise of a Rim view lodge. Unfortunately, the room dematerialized on (five hour long) route, leaving us to the tragic fate of having to stay on the hotel verandah drinking cocktails to get our fill of canyon-ey goodness instead. Life’s tough. We did also get up at sunrise here, but what with it being a canyon and all (and it being FREEZING cold), the views were actually more spectacular during the middle of the day. Which was fine as the North Rim is so high that midday temperatures are pleasantly mild.

Same cannot be said for Bryce or Zion National Parks, our two next destinations. Here the thermometer clears 100 fahrenheit in the heat of the day making hiking at best a sticky and miserable experience and at worst fatal. Our solution was to hike in the early morning, starting at say seven to complete a half decent hike by eleven or twelve before the heat really kicked in, before driving on to wherever we needed to be in the afternoon heat. Worked a treat and left us feeling very virtuous after a week of six a.m. rises and lots of hearty hiking. The views in both these parks are amazing. Bryce is like a sci fi set designer’s fantasy of another planet, with great pink and yellow sandstone “hoodoos” (long vertical how-on-earth-did-they-develop? spires), the most remarkable scenery I have even seen. Zion is sort of like a classical (and amazing) mountain-based park only all of the mountains are bright red, contrasting with the lush river valley below. Here we hiked Angel’s Landing, a steep and almost entirely undeveloped path over sheer rock with steep drop offs at either side. Terrified as I was (and believe me, I was!), the views were amazing and totally worth it.

An incredible week in some amazing locations and, after the food and drink excesses of the South, great to get back to a simpler existence.

Next up: Vegas and then California!

Adobe, Art and Aliens….

…Traveling through New Mexico

The road from Dallas took us west over some of the most deserted land I’ve seen for a while.  The distances are so huge that you have to be reasonably careful about planning your route – a “short” detour here to see something half cool can add several hundred miles to the journey.

Coincidentally (honest guv’nor), our route took us through Roswell, home of the first of the mainstream UFO / government cover up incidents back in the 1940s.  I kind of wanted to see this anyway, expecting a town full of slightly bad taste alien paraphernalia.  Alas, it was all actually pretty restrained, with only the occasional alien lamp-post and Coke machine (sorry Tekla) to remind us what we were here for.  There’s an enthusiastic museum which certainly leaves the impression that something was covered up, though who knows what.  The truth is out there….

Next stop Santa Fe, a very beautiful town consisting almost entirely of unpainted, earth toned adobe houses that reminded me a little of….well, Mexico.  Funny that.  It’s also home to the Georgia O’Keefe museum (she painted almost entirely in New Mexico in her later life), which gave us a much needed burst of culture before we headed off for some New Mexican cuisine – gotta love staying in a town where tacos are actually an authentic part of the cuisine and culture!

101 Uses for a Subaru Impreza

So we went online and hired a compact car to take us across the States.

For those of you who are European, a short teach-in: rental car companies over here have historically bought cars very cheaply by locking themselves into long term bulk purchase contracts – good for Chevy, good for Hertz, until there is a massive economic downturn and smaller, more environmentally friendly cars become fashionable. At that point Hertz etc. have huge inventories of huger cars that nobody wants and that they can’t stop buying. Whenever you hire a car, therefore, they either beg or force you to take a free “upgrade” to some monster truck that does about eight miles to the gallon and steers like an ocean liner.

Anyway, rant over. Hertz gave us a “compact” Toyota Rav4, which full of fuel, people and luggage weighs a little shy of two tons(!). We stamped our little New York feet, and after much aggro and driving around town we ended up with a brand new shiny black Subaru Impreza with about 750 miles on the clock. Result!

She’s beautiful. She doesn’t have a name (unless someone wants to suggest one), but she sits happily on the motorway at 80mph for hours at a time, she handles beautifully, has just enough room for our luggage, comfy seats and a good stereo. Road trip car heaven, unless … you happen to take a black car from its native habitat of New York City and take it into the 100 degree heat of the sunniest places in the United States. Leave her in the sun for anything more than a few minutes and you come back to a shiny Japanese steam oven on wheels.

But we are resourceful, practically minded people. So far our little car has been:

A clothes drier


A pizza oven


An emergency James warmer


Any more suggestions on a postcard please!