Dec
4
2012

North Carolina and Virginia

We had intended to do a few days skiing in North Carolina but alas, the weather again has been too warm and has delayed the opening of most of the resorts in this area. The current plan is to do a bit of skiing once we hit Vermont otherwise we really will be running out of time, and states!

The drive through North Carolina was beautiful and this is definitely an area I would like to come back to and spend much more time than the couple of days we gave it. Plenty of outdoor activities to take part in during the summer months and plenty of mountains for skiing in the winter (well maybe not this winter). A lovely state!

We decided to spend a few nights in a place called Asheville which is a smallish town compared to Charlotte or Greensboro. The place was great, a real feel of a small, friendly town.

We went out for a nice Indian meal one night and also got caught up in Friday night American Football in one of the local bars. They are crazy about it and I spent most of the first quarter explaining to Abby what the hell was going on. Putting all those hours of playing NFL Blitz with my brothers to good use!

As it was the first Friday in December, there was a massive pub crawl going on with about 200+ people dressed up as Christmas things (mostly Santas). We had just got in the car to drive back to the motel at this point so had to wait for them all to stagger across the road.

From North Carolina we headed further north into Virginia in the direction of the capital (or capitol as they say)! The countryside in Virginia was equally as beautiful as North Carolina’s. We drove part of the Blue Ridge Parkway after watching them do it on Top Gear years ago and the views were stunning!

We ended up spending the night in a really small village called Lovingston which couldn’t have had more than a few hundred people living in it. There was only one motel and one restaurant in the village other than McDonalds which really is everywhere in the USA and Canada! To be honest the Village Inn where we stayed was one of the better places we have stopped in so far, but we really were in the middle of nowhere!

From here we are heading up to D.C. for a few mad days of sight-seeing!

Dec
1
2012

Nashville

Nashville was similar to Memphis apart from the downtown area was in better condition and there weren’t as many homeless people about (or if there was, they were better at hiding at least). We had a walk around the place in the morning and visited the state capital and some of the other buildings worth seeing. We also went for a walk down Printer’s Alley which wasn’t really all that exciting.

We found a cool painting on the side of a building so grabbed a snap of it.

We visited yet another museum, this one was dedicated to the history of America. Some of the exhibits were a bit weird and boring but we did find some old stocks that used to be used hundreds of years ago to punish thieves. Looking back, I don’t think we were actually allowed to touch them but I put Abby in them anyway and we never got thrown out, so maybe we were?

Oh, the only really important thing to mention about Nashville was we found a cowboy boot shop that was buy 1 pair, get 2 pairs free! All the boots were around the $300-500 mark so we got our money’s worth! Also, I was the one that got the two pairs not Abby as you would expect!

Nov
30
2012

Memphis and a visit to the King

We left New Orleans and headed up through Mississippi towards Tennessee. The drive up was very scenic and we took our time and stopped for a night in Hattiesburg. We saw our first real rain for 6 weeks which was quite welcome as it saved me having to wash the car which was filthy at this point.

Memphis for us wasn’t much different from any other city we had been to. The downtown area was in need of restoration, the people were friendly but there were quite a lot of beggars and homeless around. We had a drive around some of the residential areas when going from place to place just so we could see what it was like to live around there. The houses are generally much bigger than ours in the UK and spread out along tree lined roads, very nice.

We went to have a look at the Peabody Hotel which is home to the famous ducks. If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about (or believe me) you can Google it, but basically this hotel is home to 5 ducks. Each morning at 11am, the ducks are marched from their room down the hallway (along their red carpet) and to the main fountain in the middle of the reception area. They play and swim in the fountain all day and then at 5pm are marched back to their room. This march along the red carpet is orchestrated by the Peabody Duck Master (yes this is an actual position held at the hotel). Also the hotel restaurants do not serve duck on any of their menus out of respect.

So we couldn’t go to Memphis without a visit to Graceland, the home of Elvis. The morning we decided to go and visit the house it was rather cold but we were really lucky as the place was empty. There must have only been a handful of other people there at the same time so we pretty much had the house and grounds to ourselves to walk around.

I didn’t know much about Elvis other than the obvious details. He had a great house which included a cracking basement, a full size squash court (or racquetball court as they call it over here) also a nice bar and a pool table although he never drank, which I didn’t know. I didn’t realise just how much of a druggy he was as well but I suppose that’s what most of the musicians were doing at that time so why not him.

The amount of awards and number 1 records he had was unbelievable and just looking at the things he had in his house and in his garage, it was obvious he had more money than he knew what to do with. There was a whole room in the tour that was dedicated to all the charities and people he gave money to. He did donate a vast amount of money which was amazing to see and the amounts back in the 60’s and 70’s were enormous.

The two major things I didn’t know was Elvis had a twin brother who died during birth. Also I didn’t know that he wasn’t buried at Graceland originally and it was his dad that moved his grave from the local cemetery due to people trying to dig him up.

We went round his garage and saw all his cars, some of which are probably worth 10’s of millions if they were to ever sell. The pink Cadillac being the obvious one which was the first one he bought and still had when he died! Abby has band me making this blog just about cars, so more car pics upon request.

Also wandering round his planes was another example of having too much money as he had all the seat buckles made from solid gold. We watched a video of his plane being moved from the local airport to Graceland as they had to close all the roads. Apart from having to cut 20 foot off each wing and then re-attaching them later on, they had two guys sitting on top of the plane during the move to help lift the traffic lights up over the tail.

While in Memphis we went to a great BBQ place called Corky’s! They specialise in pork ribs and we can see why the place was packed! A massive smoke barn behind the restaurant is where they do all the smoking and the food was fantastic! It was so good we actually went back on our last night in Memphis throught their drive-thru no less!

Nov
26
2012

Louisiana

Heading east from Houston brought us to Louisiana and the first thing we noticed was how swampy it was. I for one hadn’t realised how much of the place was wetlands, it was like the Everglades. The main interstate through Louisiana is I-10 and a good portion of it is raised out of the water. The longest stretch we clocked was 15 miles and we could see all sorts of cool looking air boats zipping in and out of the swamps below us.

The weather was still rather warm (mid 20’s) and we headed to Baton Rouge for the day. We stayed just outside the state capital but went into a really nice Thai restaurant as Abby had the Thai craving again!

The next day we hit New Orleans (the Big Easy) and in particular the French Quarter. New Orleans was amazing, full of character and crazy but cool people. The Caribbean-colonial architecture and the spectacular gardens were well worth a visit. It’s also good to see that there is nearly no evidence of hurricane Katrina apart from inside the museum. The markets are an amazing place to wander round as well. You can get anything you want and if we hadn't already eaten we would have tried the aligator on a stick. Abby stopped me buying a real aligator head so I had to settle for the photo below.

We went around the Louisiana State Museum which has an exhibit dedicated to before and after Hurricane Katrina. Listening to some of the stories from survivors and local heroes was unbelievable. It’s difficult to believe so many people died and so much damage was caused by wind (something you can’t even see)! Inside the museum there was also an exhibit of some of the costumes from the Mardi Gras festival which was quite cool to see.

We spent some time around Jackson square watching some breakdancing group in the street entertaining people. They were pretty good and had a hell of a crowd at the end of their display. It must be amazing to be here during the Mardi Gras festival as everyone is so into their music and carnival culture.

 

New Orleans or N'awlins (to the locals) is definately a place to visit!

Nov
25
2012

Johnson Space Centre

On the Saturday before we left Houston and moved on, we paid a visit to NASA in the form of Johnson Space Centre. This was something I was looking forward to doing after going to Kennedy Space Centre about 15 years ago with my family.

I was a bit disappointed with Johnson Space Centre but I’m not too sure why. It didn’t feel like the place I imagined, maybe I’d hyped it up in my mind or maybe I was just comparing it to Kennedy (which is much, much better for a visit).

We opted to go on a the tour of the Saturn 5 rocket park and the training and development areas as opposed to Mission Control. We could have done both but would have had to wait for another hour after we had done the first tour. Also, as it was a Saturday and probably the only Saturday in the American calendar where nobody was in work, Mission Control would have been quiet. We saw pictures of it around other parts of NASA and to be honest I have to agree with what Abby said… It looks like a smaller, crappier version of Oswestry NNMC (that’s BT’s operational centre where both Abby and my dad work) for you lucky non BT people out there.

So, the Saturn 5 Rocket Park was tiny compared to the Kennedy one but did have a few things to look at, including one of the 5 engines that propel the Saturn 5 rockets into the lower atmosphere. I couldn’t help but think it wouldn’t look out of place on the back of Hank’s new drag bike! Food for thought there Hank… ditch the turbo!

The tour of the testing and development centre was better but again everything was very quiet because of the Thanksgiving weekend. We saw the replica mock-up of the international space station and also some of the new rovers they are designing for the new manned moon missions in the coming years.

The two young lads working for NASA leading the tour didn’t seem to know too much other than the obvious boring stuff. I chuckled to myself when he told us the height of International Space station’s orbit as it was way, way wrong. I mean come on, they should know that at least as they have to keep pushing it back up as its been falling out of the sky for the last 10 years. Abby rolled her eyes when I said this, calling me Sheldon (from Big Bang Theory).

Anyway, besides all that I am glad we went and Abby enjoyed it (or at least pretended to). If you ever have the option to visit either Kennedy or Johnson, I’d go with Kennedy.

Nov
24
2012

Texas and Thanksgiving

The further towards Texas we drove the warmer it started to get again and those nice cool -6 degree temperatures of Colorado seem years ago. As we had just packed all our sun clothes into the other case we ended up unpacking the whole car again once we arrived in Austin as it was 29! This doesn’t seem like a big deal but once you see just how much crap we have accumulated, it’s a nightmare. I really don’t know how we are going to get half the stuff home as even our $53 dollar, 5 set luggage piece is now full!

Anyway, Austin was pretty special. Weather was lovely, lots to see and do, food was fantastic. I’ll spare you the details of the 2hr car hire contract renewal saga again as it was around the 18th of the month and renewal time. All I will say is, go with HERTZ for all your hire car needs!

We visited the State Capitol and had a look around. There was a hearing going on about pension funds so we sat and listened to the senator reject a couple of different union pleas and then left.

We spent a good few hours walking down both sides of the river that runs through the centre of downtown Austin. This is a major run route for a lot of city people and shamed us into doing something energetic so we hired a canoe and went for a canoe down the river for an hour. Abby had a single oar as well although I don’t think it saw much water during the hour while she sunbathed on-board.

Some parts of the river were really clear and we saw lots of fish and a few turtles. I tickled one on the back as we floated past and it didn’t look too pleased as it descended rather quickly.

While in Austin I also had my first taste of Cactus in a nice Mexican restaurant we went to. It was pretty nice and I’d have it again! We also stopped until dusk to see the 1.5 million bats that live under Congress bridge fly out and down the river for the nightly feed. The pictures of this are not very good at all but I’ll try and upload a short video of it (if this rubbish bandwidth allows it!).

We moved on towards Houston after a few days but not before driving through Lockhart, known for being the BBQ capital of Texas. It was a really small little town all centred round a main square. There are a couple of really old smoke house BBQs here along with a load of newer ones. We were guided into Kreus Farmers Market by our USA travel book and it didn’t disappoint. You know you’re in a real good place when the signs inside say, “Don’t offend us by asking for BBQ sauce, you will be asked to leave!”  

As soon as you walked in you could smell the very faint hint of cherry wood being burnt and the various meats in the different stages of smoking. The heat coming from the smoke kitchens was terrific and we soon were eating the best BBQ food we have had in the USA!

We arrived in Houston on Wednesday 21st through some heavy traffic as everyone was driving home for the Thanksgiving holiday (Thursday and Friday). We had decided to spend our US Thanksgiving having a lazy day in bed watching films and doing some work. Most things would be shut anyway on Thanksgiving and also we needed to conserve our energy as we were going to experience our first Black Friday and go shopping at midnight. Black Friday is like the US equivalent of our Boxing Day sales, apart from most shops knock around 50% off most things.

Black Friday is a massive deal here, people were dressed up, shops were giving out bags and bags of free stuff, hundreds of thousands of people were out shopping. We queued up for about 45minutes to get into Best Buy and then proceeded to go to Houston’s biggest shopping centre ‘The Galleria’ to do the rest of our shopping.

We didn’t go too nuts but I did spend a fortune in Abercrombie again and also got myself a DSLR camera that was reduced by 50% so saved myself a thousand dollars there. Not bad! I think we finally went to bed around 5:15am.

Nov
21
2012

The games we play...

So I forgot to mention the other day about the game we have made up to help pass the time on the road. As you can imagine there is only so much eye-spy a person can take and some of the days we are driving for a good 6-8 hours, so we have had to make up another game to keep us occupied.

We first tried to play one of my favourite games from back home that I especially enjoy playing on the occasional sunny days we have! First what you do is find somebody that’s hogging the middle lane which back in the UK will generally mean motorways only, but if you are lucky enough to live by a three lane urban clearway, great!

I like to target convertibles with the roofs down but anything will do, especially if they are in the hogging position. Now the game is to get them to move back into the left lane so you first have to follow them (quite closely) for a set amount of time (I usually allow 15 seconds). If they move over, great, you put it down as a victory and so you find your next target and move on. If after the set amount of time they have not moved, you need to go to stage two.

You first have to overtake them (or undertake them, whatever you prefer) then you need to pull back in front of them (indicating properly of course) and leaving about a car and a halfs length between you. Then you take the opportunity to wash your windscreen until you either:

A – See the look of panic on the drivers face when they realise they are getting wet (convertibles generally)
B – They pull into the left lane to get out of the way of the water.

Now the Insignia was excellent at this game with its powerful jets, the Lambo will be even better as hardly any of the jets touch the bloody screen anyway! The Ford Edge however is not so good and because of this, we have had to create a whole new game! One I am especially proud of!

So far we have put down over 10,000 miles and have had numerous near misses due to other drivers. Luckily we have only had one major crash happen right in front of us and I’m relieved we got off the I-10 the other day just before that 40 odd car pileup in the fog. American drivers don’t seem to be able to anticipate anything on the roads and think indicators are just factory fitted defaults. Also as they don’t have any MOTs there are some right death traps driving round with whole wings and bumpers flapping in the breeze!

Ok, so the second game we have named ‘get American’s done for speeding’ works for two very good reasons:

1 – American’s are stupidly predictable and rubbish drivers
2 – The police are even more predictable
3 – It’s fun!

So how does this game work? Well as I said the police are really predictable and I have been able to develop my skills at predicting where they are hiding to catch speeding drivers. If the road dips or has an overpass, there will be a 70% chance of a copper there. If this falls within about 30 miles of a state border, the probability will increase to around 95%... so here’s what we do…

We find someone that is cruising around the max speed limit in the fast lane (nobody likes to use the slow lane even if not overtaking!). As the roads are so long and straight in America, we can usually pinpoint speed traps up to about 2 miles away but as a precaution, Abby acts as a police snooper!

So from about around 1 mile out from a potential speed trap, we increase our speed in the slow lane and undertake the car/truck at which point we are now doing about 5mph over the limit. They see the Canadian plates which they don’t like, so they speed up alongside us. They look at us, I look right back giving them a cheeky smile while sneakily increasing the cruise control up a few more notches. This goes on for about 10-20 seconds until we are a good few car lengths ahead doing around 10-15mph over the limit. Now the difficult bit is trying to time the next part perfectly…

The aim of the game is to cancel the cruise control just at the same time as we see them, or hear them booting it to try and catch us. But we need to leave ourselves enough time to gradually slow down (without braking) so we are doing bang on the speed limit just as we pass the potential speed trap. Now, if we have got everything right what should happen is, we should emerge from the underpass or over the crest in the slow lane doing exactly the speed limit with the other person beside us overtaking at about 20mph over the limit. Now we wait…

If we have been successful then in about 30 seconds we should see a load of dust kick up in the rear view mirror from the copper joining the highway. Then there is about 10-20 seconds of panic when we see the blue lights come on getting closer and closer to us. Then as they pass us and pull in behind the car in front, we casually indicate left into the fast lane and pass them both as they come to a nice stop on the hard shoulder.

I must say this game is really addictive and has worked well twice! The third time we got the police off the side of the road, they sat alongside us for a good 30 seconds giving me a good old stare, I thought I might have slightly overcooked it this time. But I must not have been his type, and he decided to pull over in the person in-front of the person we made overtake us. We were both actually catching him up so I don’t think we can claim that one as a victory.

Anyway, I wish we had discovered this game 5000 miles ago, but will post the total score at the end of the trip. Will try and get Abby to get a pic or two of our future prizes. For now, just a few random driving pics from various places...

Nov
20
2012

Kansas and Oklahoma

We didn’t spend much time in Kansas, in fact we pretty much just drove straight through with just a one night stop in a place called Great Bend. From what we saw of Kansas, it’s a lot like Saskatchewan in Canada, completely flat with just farmland everywhere. Nice in its own way, but not really our thing.

Below are the main things we picked up while driving through…

- God and Jesus both live in this state
- Abortions are definitely not recommended
- It's a lot cheaper to buy high octane fuel than regular (the car got a right treat while here)
- We didn't see Dorothy

Everyone we met (which wasn’t many people) were all really friendly. In a petrol station I was served by a woman that looked the spit of Jo’s mum, Sue, but her name was Dotty! Below are a few random pics of the place.

Oklahoma again was a bit of a strange state but given its tiny size compared to some others we decided to spend a couple of days in Oklahoma City. Parts of the city are real cowboy country and we picked up some real quirky things for the house. I think I am going to be investing in a pair of cowboy boots (when we get to Texas), which WILL get worn round Oswestry but will probably fit in better when we go back to Alberta.

The city is segregated into different areas so much more clearly than any other city we have been to. Bricktown is the main touristy part with a nice little canal that runs through some purpose build pubs and eateries. There is a big pub/restaurant that brews a lot of their own beers right in the middle of the town which I think is the main reason behind the horrible smell that coated this part of the city.

We went for a walk around the Oklahoma City memorial that was built in memory of the men, women and children that died in the April 1995 bombings. Quite sad reading some of the history behind it. The chairs you can see in the picture represent a person that died in the bombings with the smaller chairs signifying those that were children. They are all laid out in a floor plan as to where they were killed.

The rest of the city was completely empty of cars and people. It was like something from 28 days later. Not sure if there was something going on, but for a Saturday you would expect there to be some people around. Also we didn’t see one shop in the city, which I am not complaining about given the amount of hours I’ve already had to shop. Just seems weird!

 

We are heading down to ‘proper’ cowboy country now were we’ll be spending a few days in Austin and Houston while trying to find some real smoke house BBQs. Oh and those cowboy boots!

Nov
15
2012

Colorado and the ski areas

So after Utah we headed up and across into Colorado where we had planned to do a spot of skiing in one of the many resorts that litter the I-70. The scenery change between Utah and Colorado was almost instantaneous as we crossed the state border. The temperature dropped down from 16/17C to around -6C as we started our climb over the Rockies.

Because of the extreme weather America has had this year, most of its ski resorts remain closed until around the first 2 weeks in December. The resorts in Colorado are normally among the first to open mid/early November compared to those in the other states and even though most had opened this week, they only had 1 lift and 1-2 runs open.  Because of this we decided to skip skiing for now and try to do some later on in some of the northern states.

Fact: Did you know you can Alpine ski in around 40 states in the USA? And most of those states have anywhere between 15-400 resorts / different ski areas. I’m sure you could probably do cross country skiing in most of the other states as well, with Florida and Texas being the exception.

As we were driving along I-70 we decided to pop into Aspen for a look around. This was one of the only resorts along the I-70 that wasn’t open at all but it didn’t stop me trying to find the bottom of the main chair lift. Aspen wasn’t how I expected it to be either, it lacked a certain something. Maybe it was just because it wasn’t feet deep in snow, bustling with people and Christmas lights. I’ll have to come back for a second look with the Jones brothers, but I still think I’ll favour the magical Val D’Isere. 

We decided to stop in a nice little ski hotel between Dillon and Silverthorne for a night and try and make a new plan now we weren’t skiing here. The place had a nice indoor pool, hot tub and sauna which we made the most of. After 30 seconds of swimming underwater, I realised that I’d never been in a pool with such a high concentration of chemicals. I emerged pink and clutching my eyes (with Abby looking over from the hot tub in dismay) and it took a good couple of clean bottles of water and 15 minutes before I could see anything again. I did think I was blind! Never felt pain like it! I think Abby was more concerned about having to drive if my eyesight didn’t return rather than my actual health!

Anyway, the reason I had gone for a swim in the first place was because another woman (Kay) had joined us in the hot tub and was one of those people that drives me nuts. You know the sort, she was banging on about how intelligent she was and how high up in her field she used to be (an economist), how many famous people she is friends with and how rich she was. She was slightly drunk as well which didn’t help and claimed she owned the hotel or was at least invested in it. I could tell Abby wasn’t loving the conversation and I would have gladly thrown here into the bath of chemicals just behind me if I could see her. She eventually finished telling Abby how she should go shopping tomorrow and see Fifi or someone in some expensive sounding shop because that’s where she got fitted out for her $1500 ski clothes she bought that day. Oh and also where she bought this bloody candle which was the best smelling candle in the world or some rubbish.

After this woman eventually buggered off for another drink, we decided to make a run for it back to our room. As we hadn’t eaten at all that day, we decided to order a pizza, so I let Abby handle the logistics of the online ordering while I went for a shower. This turned out to be a bad move as Abby forgot (somehow) which room number she had put down on the delivery form and it hadn’t sent her a confirmation email. So she had either put Kay’s room number 207 or ours, 209. As punishment I made her sit by the window waiting for the pizza man to show up so I could go and intercept him.

Well Pizzaman eventually arrived after 20 minutes and Abby had in fact put the right room number on the order. This didn’t matter though as Kay had already intercepted him as she was roaming the hallways looking for us (she didn’t know what room we were in). Well as I was paying Pizzaman, she decided to invite herself in (carrying her beloved candle) and proceeded to talk for 20 minutes about her divorce and other uninteresting things when your starving (I think she was just lonely. Lonely and drunk!)

Abby’s face was a picture as she doesn’t like talking to strangers at the best of times, let alone while sitting in her pyjamas on her bed. Also, Abby is like Joey from friends when it comes to sharing food, and if looks could kill… when Kay asked if she could have a slice of pizza!

Anyway Kay finally went after two slices of pizza (which had to be taken out of my half) and that was the last we saw of her. We did get up extra early the next morning though to make sure we were on the road before she had surfaced!

Nov
14
2012

Utah and Monument valley

When we left Flagstaff, we decided to head up north to Utah and drive through Monument valley on the way to Colorado and the ski areas. This is going to be a fairly short post as it was just 6 hours in the car looking at the scenery getting redder and redder and trying to avoid playing eye-spy with Abby!

The scenery really was what I imagine Mars to be like (ignoring the bits of vegetation) and the tarmacked road, obviously. The massive rocks just look like they have been randomly placed across the desert and some of the shaped of them are amazing. The pictures really don’t show how red everything is!

We stayed in a small town called Blanding when it got too dark as we didn’t want to miss any of the scenery. Also Abby’s eyes aren’t brilliant at night and she gets really jumpy when she can’t make out the bends and see how steep the drops are.

The next day we continued driving towards Collarado but before we left Utah we stopped at Wilson’s arch to have a little look.

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