A Travellerspoint blog

West becomes North

And 95 becomes 55

all seasons in one day 36 °C

Though great to see the Isa's, my week continued to unravel. The fact they had 6 indoor cats and about 900 outdoor ones didn't mesh well with my cat-allergicness. The discovery that the only thing on my list remaining to do – go to Chicago – during my week's road-trip would not really be that viable also didn't help. For the second time in less than 2 weeks, Mr. Obama was in my way. This time, he was hosting a NATO summit in down town Chicago. 2 days of high level talks is good. Most of down town Chicago being a no-go area, the prime museum area being completely sealed off for security reasons, and hoards of protesters protesting virtually every conceivable complaint was not so good. For me, anyway.

I needed a new plan.

So I decided s*d it. I perused my map a bit, counted available days until I needed to be back in Buffalo, and decided to go North. Chicago, I figure, I can visit in future, and will be easier without having to find somewhere to leave a car anyway. Doing a grand loop around the great lakes is not so easy without transport.

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Little Germany or Little Switzerland or something. There were cows and Swiss chalets, but sadly no mountains

I drove through Switzerland, which confused me as I was in Wisconsin. Then I passed through Madison, whereupon I stumbled across the US Capitol Building, something I was not expecting 1000miles away from Washington DC. It was built that way for one of about 3 dozen different reasons depending upon who you ask, none of which really convince me as being the complete truth. Wisconsin was showing it's propensity to surprise me, despite essentially just being a large area of cheese. I drove onwards, past the wonderfully named Oshkosk and then Green Bay, home of the Packers football team, both the smallest and most obscure home for any professional American sports team.

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Late in the afternoon, on a straight road in the middle of the forest, I changed back from Central time to Eastern time. I had naively assumed that this would occur at the state border, but oh no. It appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. Though it is probably at a county border, I found it just a little odd, especially as it means that just a small corner of Michigan is in Central time whilst the rest is Eastern, but that the time zone border is not North-South as would be logical, but rather a jagged East-West line. Why? Good question, though not one so good that I have yet to get around to checking wikipedia or googling.

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I had booked a night in Escanaba, for no other reason than it was the only place which obviously had rooms available at a price I could afford and was not a Walmart parking lot. After a glorious day and lots of empty straight roads, pretty much as soon as I got to town and was starting to have to look at all the signs in the hunt for the correct one, the heavens opened. It was not unexpected, as the sky had rapidly gone a very evil shade of dark grey. The golf sized hailstones were not fun though, especially as I had found my hotel and a 10metre dash into the lobby to check in. I was drenched. When it stopped raining 10minutes later, the town was mostly flooded. I swam to a nearby supermarket, bought some cheap ramen noodles and bread for dinner, and went and hid in my second floor room for the evening, watching random items float past at ground level.

When I left the following morning, much of the water had gone and the skies were again clear. But it was over 40 degrees cooler - 94 having been replaced by 52 - and my shorts were rapidly replaced by longs and even my fleece got it's first usage since the day of my arrival.

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I'm still not sure if this is an advert or somebody just had the hots for the car's driver and had to improvise

The only specific thing that I had planned to do on this leg of the trip was take a ferry out to Mackinac Island, somewhere I remember reading about several years ago, and thought would be nice for a wander. However I arrived to discover that I had missed the ferry by 10 minutes, and because it was not summer season yet, the next one was not for a couple of hours. I pondered it, mooched town, then slightly sadly decided to press on. I still had a long way to go.

Posted by Gelli 17:16 Archived in USA Tagged roadtrip Comments (1)

It's only 768 miles to Walmart

It's a title best sung to the tune of 24hours to Tulsa. Or just sleep through the entire entry. You know it makes sense.

sunny 34 °C

It was a last minute decision. I had had a few easy days, and on the Wednesday afternoon after faffing for a while, I had decided to do something and promptly gone to sit on the toilet. That, apparently, was enough for me. But a little later, I had swung into action: after a brief comparison of likely costs and then pretty much on a whim doing something that hadn't even occurred to me until 10 minutes prior, I booked a car for a week. Barely 2hours later I had been dropped at Buffalo International Airport to collect it.

My conversation with the rental rep had gone (this is a very condensed version of a 15minute discussion) approximately as follows:

Him: (looking at my Swedish driving licence). So, where are you from? Singapore?
Me: Wales, but my licence is from Sweden
Him: Cool. I love Dr. Who, and it is filmed in Wales.
Me: Yes, I think it is. It's a pretty good show, but I don't watch it much as I don't have a TV
Him: (insert 5minute excited ramble about David Tennant here)
Me: [waits patiently, offering only an occasional grunt to the conversation]
Him: Ok, here you go. I have given you a triple-upgrade for free. I love Dr. Who.
Me: Erm. Ok. Great, Yes. Thanks. You should watch some of the older Doctors.
Him: You mean there has been more than one series? (insert another 5 minute ramble about David Tennant here)
Me: Erm. Yes. Thanks for the upgrade. It's getting late [it was 11pm], and I better be going
Him: Sure. Drive safely. I love Dr. Who. Do you know David Tennant?
Me: (runs for door)

And so it was that I ended up with a larger, comfier but inevitably less fuel efficient Ford Fusion.

The following morning, I headed West. Yes, it is becoming a theme, but there is allot of West out there. I had just a vague idea. A couple of friends to drop in on and surprise visit, a day or two in Chicago, and a short trip to St. Louis for work combined with a leisurely drive back through the countryside. The car would give me options, and a week was a decent amount of time. 6 hours or so in and it started unravelling. My friend in South Bend who had just finished her Thesis at Notre Dame had neglected to tell me that she was instantly flying off to New York City to party/celebrate. Her (drunk and horribly hungover) room-mate told me that I had missed her by about 2hours, but in a tone of voice that simultaneously left me in no doubts of her meaning and scared the living hell out of me, suggested that I stay with her instead so we could 'have some fun for the weekend'.

I wrote a note for my friend and left, rapidly.

2.5 hours and an extensive tour of Gary, Indiana, (a town of 100,000 of no real relevance, except that it is 25miles to Chicago and also the birthplace of Michael Jackson and most of his siblings) later, I finally tracked down their house to discover that my friends there had gone AWOL. A Finnish-Slovakian couple, I had figured that dropping by would be good to say hello and watch the hockey with the following morning (both Finland and Slovakia were playing in World Championship semi-finals), but the neighbours hadn't seen them for a couple of days and had no idea where they were. Neither phone was being answered. I assumed they were probably semi-comatose in some bar still celebrating the Quarter final victories.

So I left a note, and continued on my merry way.

I stopped at a roadside service area for a coffee and to ponder my next move. I logged onto the interweb-thingy, and discovered that there was no longer any point in my going to St. Louis - the guy I needed to see had to go to Anchorage on Monday morning. Ah. Ok. That pretty much decided me, and so I got back in the car and continued heading West.

When I got to the middle of nowhere Illinois, it was already well after 9pm and getting very dark. Despite the village i required not even appearing on my road atlas, I found Dakota reasonably easily. After driving every road in town and not finding a suitable one, I went to a gas station and asked. Six confused people and sets of opposing directions later, one pulled out an iphone and at the third attempt, found the address I wanted about 6miles out of town down a dirt track. He gave me directions, and off I set.

And thus it was that after a day long drive of 768miles, I discovered they were also out and I was stuck in the absolute middle of nowhere.

For the third time that day, I wrote and left a note. I was by now running out of usable paper.

I pondered my options none of which were overly appealing. It was late, and I was in the middle of nowhere. I pondered staying put and just falling asleep in the car, but I was not 100% sure I was at the correct address and didn't fancy waking up to an irate shotgun wielding farmer complaining that I was trespassing. I thought of finding an empty stretch of country road and parking there, or going back into the nearest town – Freeport – and finding a motel. Approximately, that is what I did, except when I arrived in Freeport it was 23:30, the few motels i saw looked uninviting and I decided that perhaps I should save money. And so I found the inevitable 24hour Walmart, with it's large empty car-park, chose a corner where the floodlights did not affect me too much, stretched out on the back seat and fell asleep there.

The following morning, I was eating breakfast when the phone rang, excitedly. My note had miraculously been found. I should go back. And so I did. To Dakota. Not Gary or Notre Damn. I haven't seen Isa & Beerman since Dublin, several years ago and it was great to catch up, notwithstanding the temperatures were already into the 90's at 8am and they have cats. Lots of cats. A friendly animal to which I am sadly allergic. But a happy relaxing day was spent, even more so when you understand that Beerman is chief brewmaster for a Wisconsin brewery. And thus there were tasters to hand.

Posted by Gelli 07:12 Archived in USA Tagged people driving roadtrip Comments (1)

Novelty value: Let's go West

sunny 28 °C

After a brief trip back to New York City to catch up with a visiting colleague (eg: prove I still exist, discover If I am still employed. That sort of thing), I headed West. Normally in the world, I head East. East is new, foreign, potentially exciting. I have never really been West before, anywhere. Except maybe Cornwall, and that doesn't really count. So I was looking forward to experiencing this West thing.

I took an Amtrak to Buffalo-Exchange, which turned out to be a small building with a heavily cracked and uneven pavement built underneath a concrete underpass. Yes, as miserable as it sounds. I had taken the train partly out of a wish for variety (not another bus), and partly because the tracks run right alongside the Hudson for the first hours and I had hoped for a scenic ride. It wasn't bad.

A friend of an old friend was picking me up, but all I had was a name 'Von'. I had no idea if it was male or female, black or white. Once I arrived and realised that it was a small station and only a dozen people got off, so I would let them disperse and Von would be the person left. Cunning. Except that everybody left. Hmmm. So I sat on the curb by the locked building in an empty parking lot and waited. I read a free paper about housing (prices are cheap here) and another on cars (which are more expensive than I would have guessed) and was just about to ring Von, when I received a message 'are you at the bus station yet?'. “Ah-ha!” I thought – though not in the Norwegian sense – that explains a great deal. We exchanged messages, whereupon I was asked where the station was. Hmmm. “you are the one who lives in this ******* city!” I thought. But soon we had worked it out, and I was sat in a flat in Elmwood, a nice suburb of Buffalo, where a nice, period, large 3 bedroom flat with porch and all costs significantly less to rent than a single room in a house-share in London.

The following morning, my friend having finished her night shift and slept, and my having wandered the neighbourhood, we caught up for the first time since the happy days of Christmas in Beijing, 7 years previously. Then off we headed, as you do, to Pittsburgh. I had been relaxed on what we did on her two days off, she wanted to visit to go to the Andy Warhol Museum (he is from Pittsburgh). That sounded good to me. I thus received a 2day crash course in 'real' American life, being introduced to assorted food emporiums, provincial American wonders, and asked lots of stupid questions. To many, I discovered, there simply are no answers.

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Yes, welcome to America. I'm not sure if i find this more depressing or disturbing!

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Pittsbugh skyline, or, at least, bits of it

The bits of the Museum we saw were great. We were, however, kicked out after 90minutes and only 2 (of 6) floors due to a “sewage issue”. Bummer. At least we got our money back. Some assorted wandering later and we headed back to Buffalo. An evening tour of city followed – several beautiful old buildings but a dead city centre area, plus some pretty areas in the suburbs, including several large museums, and a strange sense of loss that can only come from a city whose population has halved in the last 50years, and is still shrinking alarmingly today – before I was introduced to the “man-cave”, a strange and dangerous place owned by my friends landlord, and which seemed to distort the rules of time and could also potentially lead to some serious alcoholism.

I also almost bought a house. In fact, when I awoke, I thought I might have actually done so, but checking back through the paperwork, no, I hadn't. I think. But it was a serious idea. Whilst larger, better condition places in nicer areas were available for the sort of money that I still would be hoping to pay off a mortgage within 5 or 10 years, not 25+ it would take in much of Europe, I had plumped for a cheaper 2 bed flat. Sure, it needed work, but 8,000usd for a decent sized flat in an ok – if not great – area seemed insane to me. In London, you would spend more than that in a year simply by renting a (very) small room in a shared house. It's scary. Now all I need is a job and reason to move to Buffalo...

Posted by Gelli 16:11 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Let him roam free

sunny

The next few days were good. The weather was not always helpful, but never downright bad. I walked a bit. I did a couple of 30-40mile cycles, after the first of which I was suddenly grateful that I did indeed have a car. The terrain was hilly and it was raining on and off for a few days. Whilst neither was a big deal, having a car mean't it was easier to buy groceries (a 40 mile round trip for anything beyond extreme basics), and also see allot more; heck, in truth, see anything apart from the single road nearby, and a few rough local trails I could walk along. Though I found the bus stop, I never once saw a bus. I started taking the bike in the car, driving off to likely looking points on the small map I had, and then parking up whilst I went for a cycle along a forest trail or a hike up a mountain, or sometimes, both from the same stopping point. But not simultaneously, naturally. That would be quite silly. And awkward. Especially when the weather was wetter or greyer, I just drove, enjoying the scenery and periodically stopping to take in a view, or just be. I was happier driving the gentle curving lumpy roads than on the Interstate where all other drivers seemed to be uniformly moronic, and i soon mastered the real meaning behind most American road signs (eg: what the locals do, instead of what they are supposed to do).

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Stream in the back garden

The Adirondacks (no, i still can't pronounce it either) were a welcome sight and place to be, although they were also mostly closed. Winter and ski season is gone, and summer season does not begin until labour day in a few weeks time. So I basically had the whole place to myself. I would not say that they are stunningly beautiful or a must see, or even in many places very different to places that I know: Large tracts could easily be part of Sweden or Finland or Germany or Britain; other bits reminded me of corners of Russia or Japan. But they were definitely at least very pleasant, and also absolutely what I needed at that moment. Though occurring due to pure dumb luck, I had definitely made a good choice.

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I stopped off at a waterfall offering “long walks” which turned out to be a mile long, and an extra long walk (1.3miles), but they were also on semi-private land and seemingly the only attraction open in the park. Despite that, I was the only visitor, but baulked at the 22usd charge and moved on. I wandered around the perimeter of Fort Ticonderoga, a key battle ground in both the Seven Years and American Revolutionary Wars, and was disappointed that it, too, was shut. I took a detour into Vermont, driving through the Green Mountain National Forest and spending my first night in a traditional American motel.

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Fort Ticonderoga

One evening back home there was a huge crashing noise in the back garden and I carefully peaked out, half expecting to see a bear attacking a rubbish bin, or maybe aliens landing. Instead, I saw an old drunk guy, bottle of spirits in one hand staggering around. He waved in my direction and headed into the woods, not to be seen again. Who he was, or where he came from when the next dwelling was several miles away, I have no idea.

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I have always enjoyed listening to foreign radio, and after some experimenting with a handful of stations, found that 'the Wizard' proved to have the most robust signal, and interesting music choice. Mostly classic rock, it was the adverts that I loved more than anything. I could probably write several posts just on American adverts, but will restrict myself to just a few sentences here: Mother's Day was fast approaching, and adverts of suggested gifts presents for the day featured prominently. Two of the more memorable ones suggested “accessorize your mum” (erm. What?), whilst another asked “what more could your mum want; buy her some of our finest Moodoo or Mulch”.

If I gave my mum a bag of sh1t for mother's day, my suspicion is that she might not be that excited and I might be in for a hard few weeks of grovelling (quite probably, in said sh1t). Perhaps it is a cultural thing.

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On the last day the sun was out and temperatures up. It was a glorious day for scenery, and for climbing some hills for the view. I really could not have been happier. That night, my friends again came up, and a wonderful evening was had. The following day after a detour through Schenectady for no reason except that I love the name. i returned the car, and was stunned to discover that I had somehow managed to drive almost 800 miles in 4 days, as well as all the trekking and cycling. I would have guessed less than half that. It had cost me about $90 in fuel. In England it would have cost more than double. Filling up on the last day, I remarked how cheap it was to me, and the woman in the gas station told me that prices had been reduced by 11cents than morning. That is about 7pence. In my entire life, I have no recollection of petrol prices in Europe ever going down by more than the occasional 1-2cents. Here it sounded routine.

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I was happier than I have been in a good while and feeling refreshed, and though I could have stayed for many days, maybe weeks, I have limited time at the moment and it was time to move onwards, to see how I now coped with towns and people, or whether I needed more time. I'm off to Buffalo in a couple of days, but first it is a wildly illogical but typically me detour back to New York City.

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Posted by Gelli 11:47 Archived in USA Tagged mountains roadtrip Comments (0)

Simples-ish

sunny

It had looked simple on paper. All I had to do was meet a friend at Albany International Airport, near his work, and from there we would go to his cabin in the mountains where I was planning on hiding out for a few days. I had successfully taken the megabus of doom (TM Helene Roberts) to the New York state capital of Albany, but at that point the paper had started to unravel slightly. I was trying to transfer to a city bus at the greyhound station, about 500m away. Unfortunately the Hudson river was in the way, and the only way across was a huge concrete 6 lane road high on an overpass, followed immediately after by a complex 4way cloverleaf junction with another major road. Despite the fact that Albany is an old city (settled in 1614) and I was stood next to it's Amtrak station (where it has been since the 1960's) in the adjacent city of Rensselaer, walking was not an option. It might once have been once, though probably not for many years. If I had felt more alive, energetic, normal; if it had not been raining and if I was not on a time budget, I would have attempted to beat the system. I can walk, even if they don't want me to. But in this case, I gave in and tried to find a bus across, something which should also have been easier. Once on the bus over the bridge I noted there was a footpath on side, but trying to work out how to actually get on or off it amongst the mass of concrete flyover-and-unders would have taken some time, and that I would not have made my hoped for 4pm connection anyway unless I had taken a taxi.

The bus driver was incredibly friendly and helpful. The staff at the Greyhound bus station were not. Enquiring where the bus stop for the airport transfer was was met with such bewilderment and incomprehension, I wondered if I had mistakenly asked them in Swahili where I should get the pogo stick to Ust-Kut (admit it – how many of you actually looked that one up?). I asked a shop owner, several taxi drivers (“we can take you...”), and then random people waiting near every bus stop, all without success. I knew there was a bus and that it was due to depart at 5pm; heck I even had an official timetable, but there the trail went cold, except that I knew that the 5pm was the last bus of the day. So I guessed a stop, stood in the rain and waited. 5pm came and passed. As did 5.30. By 5.45, I was about to give up and take a taxi when a 737 magically appeared. I was the only person to board, although it filled up quite a bit in town. By the edge of town it had emptied again, and the bus driver outdid his colleagues in being helpful and friendly, apologising that the severe delays were due to somebody visiting the airport earlier who had blocked up all the roads. He sounded Irish; apparently it was a Mr O'Bama.

At the airport, I had a coffee and my friend turned up. A happy reunion followed, whereupon he excused himself to go and phone for the bus. Erm. Ok. 20 Minutes later it became obvious that there had been a slight confusion in our communication. When he had told me “you don't need to worry about a car, there is a bus stop near the cabin and a bicycle there for you to use” I had assumed that mean't that I didn't need a car, whereas it actually mean't that he had already arranged a rental for me using an account he had which would be free. As the transaction unfolded in front of me at the rental desk at lightning speed in the encroaching darkness, I pondered for a moment – I haven't driven this year, and had planned not to until fully fit again: strange meds, zero concentration and buggered vision are rarely conducive to driving or safety, I had concluded in January – and then thought “s0d it”. I wasn't feeling too bad now, hadn't drunk anything, and would be driving mostly simple rural roads accompanied by a local who could translate all the strange signs and rules that I would doubtless encounter whilst having no clue about.

Three mostly uneventful hours later and I was somewhere in the Adirondacks, being introduced to my friends lovely fiancee who had driven up several hours earlier, sat in front of a roaring log fire she had prepared, having been told dozens of things about the cabin and local area, and eating home made taco's. When I awoke at 7 the next morning, they had long since left to drive the 3 hours back to be at their respective jobs on time, and I was on my own. It was then that I looked out of the window and saw where I was. It had been dark on arrival, but now I could see trees all around, a stream running through the yard, and a hill-mountainside rising up in front of me. I could not see any other sign of human habitation, and even the road was a good 10minute walk back up the drive-track.

This was good. Really good.

Posted by Gelli 23:16 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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