Back in the Bunks

Bogota to Cartagena

“Have you just got here?”

Five words that not only served as an ice breaker, but welcomed me back into the backpacking community.

They were from Gabriel, a tall German guy who had been travelling around South America since June after completing an engineering project.

I was sat on the top bunk of my dorm bed, contemplating how to interact with fellow travellers at the El Viajero hostel in Cartegena. I’d arrived a few hours before the conversation, but not heard many English-speakers staying at the place, so took myself for a quick walk around the block to get my bearings and found a nice pizza restaurant with some refreshing air conditioning for tea. It was upon my return that Gabriel took it upon himself to say hello, the moment he walked through the door and saw me sitting there.

What followed was the well-worn traveller conversation – where are you from, how long have you travelling, where have you been, where are you heading next, where’s your favourite place so far?

Back with the backpackers in a dorm

Back with the backpackers in a dorm

It’s a conversation you have hundreds of times on a big trip. It can become tiresome, but a necessary way of quickly getting to know someone. Before you know it, you’re friends and putting the world to rights.

I told Gab I was only on a two week trip, and that I’d done a big year-long round the world journey five years previous. We talked briefly about our lives back home, and how he was returning in just a couple of days.

“I’m going to the bar if you want to join me for a beer?” Gab said, reaching for the door.

Out with Gabriel just a few hours after arriving

Out with Gabriel just a few hours after arriving

I’d been welcomed back into the fold once again. Its part of why the backpacking community is so appealing. Within just a few minutes, you’re sharing a beer and travel tales with someone from another country who, a few minutes before, had been a complete stranger. It rarely happens back home in a normal setting, and suddenly I was being introduced to others at the hostel. I was quickly becoming a part of the crowd again.

El Viajero hostel

El Viajero hostel

It had come as a bit of a culture shock however. I had left the relative luxury of my four star hotel in Bogota, complete with complementary toiletries, fluffy dressing gowns and adjustable room temperature just a few hours earlier.

Home for a few days

Home for a few days

I had now checked into a 12-bed mixed sex dorm, and walked in to find the only bed remaining was a top bunk – the least favourite bed of choice. The room was a tip,

Shower...without a warm tap!

Shower…without a warm tap!

with half unpacked backpacks, shoes and bottles of water dotted around the floor.

One bed was occupied by someone sleeping, so I had to tiptoe around. The muggy, humid tropical weather didn’t help with the smell either. A combination of smelly feet and stale humans. It’s a smell you get used to when backpacking, but one that’s incredibly noticeable when you step back into that world after a four year absence. But then its just over £10 for a night, so I can’t complain!

img_0910I’d flown to Cartagena after deciding I didn’t have enough time to make a stop via Medellin, booking a domestic flight with Latam Airlines and arrived back at Bogota airport with plenty of time to spare. So the timing of a phonecall, just as I was about to board the flight, couldn’t have been any better.

“It’s about your fridge freezer – I left you a voicemail you didn’t get back to me. I can pick it up now”

It’s clear the man on the other end of the phone only has a basic grasp of English, but he seems angry that I’ve not returned his call. I tried apologising for being out of the country, but it fell on deaf ears. I’m in a line shuffling forward with bags, about to board a plane 6,000 miles away from home, and now having to quickly think on my feet to try and shift my old fridge freezer that’s been advertised on Gumtree for weeks without any interest.

img_0906Thankfully, with a quick bit of Whatsapping over the slow airport wifi, my housemate Joe was at home and able to help out the slightly impatient buyer. I boarded the flight and smiled at how modern technology really does mean you are never really far away from ‘real life’. Despite the distance and time difference, I’d managed to sell a fridge freezer on the other side of the world.

We touched down in Cartagena, and the heat hit me as soon as I stepped out of the aircraft door. Gone was the cool, fresh breeze of Bogota. The tropical heat and humidity made it feel like you could drink the air, there was that much moisture in it. But Cartagena is classed as a must see – a beautiful colonial city with a vibrant old town set within historic fortified walls. The taxi ride to the hostel gave me my first glimpse of the Caribbean Sea on this trip, and with the sun setting, children were helping the locals bring in fishing nets and boats.

Beautiful Cartagena

Colourful Cartagena

When the sun goes down, Cartagena comes alive. And it’s thanks to Gabriel I found myself wandering through the beautiful old buildings towards a rooftop bar and club called Eivissa. It offered a fantastic view of the city, its harbour and famous clock tower and square. img_0945It also offered many cold Coronas, pretty girls twirling balls of fire around their heads, and male dancers who knew how to pull far better moves than me on a dance floor. It was a great night, and our group stuck together throughout, laughing, joking and chatting about our individual adventures. Gab realised halfway through the evening he’d left his wallet in a supermarket. I bought him a beer and a hotdog. He was reluctant to take me up on the offer at first- all backpackers have an element of pride at stake when it comes to money, img_0947as so many are on a shoestring, or simply have very little left. But I insisted; I know I was in similar situations in the past and fellow travellers helped me out. What goes around comes around in this world. You look after each other, nomatter how long you’ve known each other.

On the way home, there was another reminder of why the backpacking community always sticks together. It was coming up to 3am, and our group was walking back to the hostel. We passed by two Colombian police officers who were talking to two men. Moments later, they drove past us on their motorbikes and stopped us all. Without any pleasantries, they cut to the chase. They wanted to see our identification.

Its law in Colombia to carry ID with you. Thankfully I had my driving licence in my wallet, and we were all lined up by the officers. It was very clear they were not in any mood for jokes or chat. The loaded pistol on the officer’s waist made me think again about taking any photographs to record the moment.

“You have coca?” came a question to all of us.

We were being stopped for a cocaine search. I’d been warned this might happen, but didn’t count on it on my first night out in the country. The drug is readily available on the streets, and while I’d never touch it, many backpackers try it. Some police officers are known to capitalise on this, by taking cash in return for not arresting those caught. Bribes, in other words.

More worryingly, some rogue police officers have been known to plant it on tourists in exactly these types of search. The advice I had read was to keep an eye on absolutely everything they do.

I was next up to be searched, my arms out and patted down by the officer. I’m told to empty all my pockets and show what I have. After revealing a bundle of change from three countries, a packet of chewing gum, my iPhone headphones and a load of fluff, he then asks for my wallet. I hand it over, and keep a close eye as he empties every compartment and inspects it, even having a good sniff inside. I knew there was nothing to be found, but you hear of horror stories of people being jailed who insist drugs were planted on them. The Coronas I’d enjoyed at the bar had quickly worn off as I made sure there was no slight of hand at play from the bad cop, bad cop routine being played out in the street.

Without exception, we all waited for each other to be searched. Nobody drifted off back to their dorms, or kept a distance. We were from countries including Britain, German, Brazil and America, and we’d only known each other for a few hours, but we were looking after each other and making sure we got back to the hostel safely, without falling foul of any corrupt policing.

It was clear the officers were frustrated as their search efforts drew a blank, but they let us go with a nod and a flick of an index finger to motion us off down the road.

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The rest of my time in Cartagena was less eventful – infact, a very pleasant few days of wandering around the pretty streets filled with colourful houses. Despite the police intervention on the first night, the city has a very relaxed, holiday feel about it. img_4489It was a contrast to the slightly edgy, gritty feel of Bogota. This is a city filled with Caribbean colour and the sound of salsa beats drifting through the hot humid air from bars and restaurants. Bright pink Bougainvillea flowers contrast with their rich green leaves, hanging from balconies of pink, green and orange homes, many of which have stood for hundreds of years.

img_4453It’s a place where you can walk for hours on end just taking in the explosion on the senses. The heat is stifling, but thankfully there are plenty of cafes and restaurants with parasols or air conditioning to shelter from the heat, catch your breath and enjoy a cooling drink or two.

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This is a city with some history too – it was founded in 1533 and was the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast. As a result, valuables and treasure acquired by the Spanish was stored here before being shipped across to Europe. This made it a target for pirates – and English pirates at that! The most famous siege here was in 1586 when Sir Francis Drake agreed not to level the town in return for a 10-million Peso ransom which he quickly sailed back to England with.

img_4386It’s because of those attacks that the magnificent fortified walls were built, taking some 200 years to build by the Spanish, yet completed just 25 years before they were expelled after Simon Bolivar’s troops liberated the country. Today, locals meet for a romantic rendezvous on the walls, while visitors walk around them for an elevated view of the historic city within.

In between taking in the Caribbean culture, I was also having to sort out the next stage of the journey. I booked myself onto the San Blas Adventures trip which leaves Cartagena in a couple of days, a combination of a speed boat journey and island hopping for four days, ending with a jeep ride to Panama City.

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The journey goes through some of the most remote places in south and central America, and we’ll go for four days without access to the outside world and cash machines. So I needed to change lots of cash into US dollars, the currency used in Panama, to pay the local transport and accommodation on the way.

Nine minute millionaire!

Nine minute millionaire!

With no exchanges letting me use a credit card and passport to make withdrawals, it came down to making numerous withdrawals in Colombian Pesos from cash machines. But with a 300,000 Peso (about £78) withdrawal limit in Colombia, a move to try to restrict money laundering, it required quite a few withdrawals to pay for the trip and the spending money. For a few minutes, I became a millionaire, before it was exchanged into a few hundred dollars.

Annoyingly, I also fell foul of the dreaded manflu – and we all know how serious that can be – probably picked up on a plane somewhere. Combined with the sweaty hot temperatures it was quite unpleasant at times. But the people in Cartagena are also so very friendly. A cheerful, happy place, it was hard to do anything but smile.

Street dancers holding up traffic in Cartagena

Street dancers holding up traffic in Cartagena

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After a few days soaking up the Cartagena vibe, tiptoeing in the dark around the hostel dorm, visiting late night bars and adjusting back to life as a backpacker, I felt I had definitely ticked the city off my list. It was time to focus on the next part of the journey, the perfect mix of practical ‘A to B’ travel along with adventure and fun with new people. As I laid in my top bunk bed contemplating the next step, my phone rang, with a vaguely familiar phone number. I answered it, as quietly as I could to avoid waking those sleeping around me.

“Its about that fridge. Its broken. Doesn’t go cold enough. I want money back,”

Wonderful. Get me to the beach.

Up high in Bogota

 

Up high in Bogota

Up high in Bogota

The Colombian capital has always raised a wry smile between my family and I. It all dates back to an afternoon spent at the old viewing area at Heathrow Airport when I was younger, watching a huge jet take off and checking where it was heading to. It was my pronunciation of Bo-GO-ta that amused the parents, and for some reason it became one of those memories that still get mentioned every time the city name comes up (its Bogo-TA, though I still say it wrong almost every time in my head!).

img_0787But I also remember my parents telling me it was in Colombia, and as a youngster I remember watching that plane take off, wondering about this far away land in South America that it was heading to, seemingly on the far side of the planet.

Well quite a few years on, I was landing at that very airport, looking down on the city that had given my family a few smiles over the years. For me, it was my first ever view of South America too.

First views of South America

First views of South America

You might be wondering why I chose to make a random trip to Colombia. The truth is, with my passport expiring in June next year – and having a stamp in it from every continent in the world apart from South America (ok, and the poles before the smart ones point it out!) I thought it was as good a reason as any to set foot on the continent and go exploring for the very first time.

I’d initially looked at Peru and Ecuador, but with those countries just coming out of winter, and quite mountainous in the areas I wanted to visit, the weather would have been much cooler than back home. Plus I wanted a mix of nice beaches and a city experience. I could see Colombia would fit the criteria, although I had concerns over its reputation. For years it was gripped by drug cartels under the influence of Pablo Escobar. The country was one of the most deadly on Earth with sky high murder rates and regular gun battles related to the control of cocaine. Then there was its own civil problems- particularly its conflict with FARC rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. All in all, I admit, I had almost discounted the idea of travelling there – until I had some specialist advice from a travel agent in London, who insisted it was much safer these days. Researching on the internet and the Foreign Office website confirmed that, while you’ve still got to be careful, large swathes of the country are indeed ok to visit.

Attentive taxi driver

Attentive taxi driver

So I planned my own itinerary, which began in Bogota before visiting the pretty colonial town of Cartagena on the northern Caribbean coast, from where I’d get a boat to Panama. A perfect combination of new cities to explore with relaxing beach time. But my first impressions of Bogota were a long way from the picture perfect coastline I was heading for.

Three across...ends in EZ?

Three across…ends in EZ?

It didn’t help that I was being driven around by a taxi driver who seemed more intent on completing a giant newspaper word puzzle than actually get me to my hotel in one piece. Every time we stopped, even if it was just slow moving traffic, out it would come. Even while he was driving he was thinking of answers, at one point clearly working out one particular solution in his head and celebrating by momentarily waving his finger in the air while trying to weave through three lanes of traffic.

It was all getting a bit worrying. If the puzzle hadn’t been in Spanish, I’d have tried to help him complete it quicker so he could focus on the road a bit more. But 40 minutes after pulling out of the airport, he got me to the hotel safely and I made use of my newly withdrawn Colombian Pesos to pay him.

After two days of travelling from Hull, I opted for a bit of comfort at the Bogota Plaza Summit Hotel, in the north of the city, and spent the first night relaxing. With most advice being to avoid going out onto the streets in the city after dark, it was also the safest option. Street crime and muggings are rife in parts of Bogota, especially around the main areas frequented by tourists – with some cases of foreigners being stabbed – so it was definitely the safest place to be, and an early night set me up well for seeing the city the following day.

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Bolivar Square, Bogota, Colombia

I took another taxi, thankfully minus the newspaper puzzle, to the La Candelaria part of the city, the main colonial old town and birthplace of Bogota. First stop was the main Bolivar square, named after the saviour of the city Simon Bolivar. He and his armies liberated the country by defeating the Spanish occupiers in 1819. He’s widely celebrated, and his statue takes centre stage in the square.

Dancing in the streets for all ages

Dancing in the streets for all ages

Nearby, what sounds like a concert is pounding out a mix of reggae and salsa beats, entertaining a crowd of a few hundred people at an event put on by the local council. I couldn’t quite work out what was happening, but it added to my first impressions that this was a city full of colour, sound and life. There was, however, certainly a bit of a nervous ‘edge’ about the place.

img_4234The layout of the old town lends itself to lots of quiet, secluded streets which you can quickly find yourself wandering around – and with few other tourists around, I hardly mingled in. I had taken usual precautions like keeping my camera in my rucksack and not taking my phone out to avoid displaying valuables. I even had a bundle of US and Colombian notes kept separate in an easy to reach pocket incase I encountered one of the thieves which are keeping Bogota’s crime figures so high – the advice from Lonely Planet is to hand them something quick and let them make an escape, rather than make them impatient and then stealing or snatching more from you. Or worse.

It’s quite sobering, but then this is still a very poor country despite the fact its on the economic rise. Like anywhere new, I had to keep my wits about me, as I wandered along through street stalls selling everything from corn on the cob to big huge vats of a creamy substance resembling strawberry Angel Delight, frequently being whipped around and stirred from side to side by two colourfully-dressed women near the main square.

Strawberry, Chocolate or Butterscotch, anyone?!

Strawberry, Chocolate or Butterscotch, anyone?!

I stopped to try a Colombian traditional dish ‘chocolate completo’ at Bogota’s most famous snack shop La Puerta Falsa. It’s a delightful little café, set over two tiny floors, slightly cramped and rustic but with a great mix of locals and tourists all squashing in together at the wooden benches and tables to sample the home made delights.

Chocolate completo

Chocolate completo

Mine was effectively a bread bun and some cheese, which you make into a cheese sandwich, some form of dried, floury, slightly hard cake, and a hot chocolate. Though this was a particularly special hot choc – it had to be coming from one of the finest chocolate producing areas in the world – a watery consistency, but with a rich, bitter chocolate taste, rather like plain chocolate. At 6,500 Pesos, it was just £1.50 for a quick pick me up and I was off into the streets again.

After all those calories, where better to visit than an art gallery which celebrates everything ‘plump’, shall we say. Colombia’s most famous artist Fernando Botero painted everything, from trees to landscapes, all with one peculiar quality. Everything was chubby.

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Yep, Museo Botero has some of his finest work, including paintings of chubby pears; chubby people; chubby horses; even a chubby Mona Lisa.

Does my famous face look big in this?!

Does my famous face look big in this?!

I still don’t quite know how or why his fascination with the chubby artform came about, but it was a very peculiar walk through. I’m not a big fan of art galleries at the best of times, but I could admire the quality of the painting and the methods he’s used to make them so colourful and pleasing to the eye. But they did all look a bit odd.

Back out on the streets, it was time for another of my favourite past times when I’m visiting new places. I needed to get high – and not the kind that gets you 10 years in a Colombian prison here.

Readers of my musings from my big trip five years ago may remember I have a particular fondness for getting to the tallest or highest point in a city, to enjoy the perspective from above. And Bogota has a trick up its sleeve – it sits in a plain, known as the Bogota savannah, a lofty 2,640 metres above sea level, surrounded by mountains. It’s the third highest capital city in South America, and there’s a chance to get even higher thanks to a neighbouring mountain. Monserrate peak is topped by a very famous church in the city, Cerro de Monserrate, visible from across the capital, and its classed as a ‘must not miss’ by all the research I made into the trip.

Cerro de Monserrate

Cerro de Monserrate

There are two ways up and down – three including an arduous walk up a pathway notorious for pickpockets and muggers – so I opted for the cable car and funicular railway. But it’s a bit of a mission even to reach those, and I was quickly finding out Bogota is a giant city. The lack of a metro or railway system means taxis are the only quick and reliable (and cheap, it has to be said) way of getting around – though even they come with a genuine tourist health warning of ‘try not to get abducted’.

Cable car to the top

Cable car to the top

I was in two minds whether to walk it, as once again my guide book told me to advance with caution, particularly near the university area the route to the cable car would take me through.

But I was also walking through some areas which were being regenerated, and there was some quite spectacular street art along the way, so I kept going on foot. Eventually, after keeping my head down as I marched up the quite steep foothills, I arrived safely at the cable car office, puffing and panting.

Street art in Bogota

Street art in Bogota

It cost about £4 for a return trip to the top of the 3,150m peak – as high as some of the tallest ski resort peaks in France- and for the first time, the true scale of Bogota stretched out for as far as the eye could see. It covers an incredible 1,700 square kilometres, spreading out far more than Greater London – so huge, that it was easy to see half of the city was currently being battered by a torrential thunderstorm. The other half, including the La Candelaria area I had just walked from, was basking in bright sunshine.

Bogota from above

Bogota from above

It really was one of the best cityscape vantage points I’ve been lucky enough to see. What made it different is that, unlike many other cities, Bogota has very few skyscrapers. The city appears flat. It’s easy to see the main highways where they wind their way through neighbourhoods. The airport in the distance is a hive of activity. 6.7 million people living their lives between where I’m standing and the horizon. The parks below are full of people enjoying the weekend sunshine, or further away, running away from the impending storm. Thankfully, though only a thin breeze, it was moving gently away from the mountain I was perched on top of.

Bolivar square, an alternative angle!

Bolivar square, an alternative angle!

Mountains behind Bogota

Mountains behind Bogota

As well as the church, there’s a random market and a few restaurants at the top. I stopped for a snack and a much needed drink, took in the views of the mountains as the stretched away from the city, and headed back down in the funicular railway, plunging through a steep tunnel carved out of the rock.

Funicular railway station

Funicular railway station

Going down!

Going down!

After a walk back through to the main La Candelaria area once again, I was thirsty, so went to the BBC – though not a distant outpost belonging to my employer. img_4366The main brewery in the Colombian capital turns out to be the Bogota Beer Company, which also happens to like plastering those three famous initials all over everything. Naturally, I found this quite amusing, and took a few photos. Getting a few puzzled looks from the bar staff, I explained that I worked for the BBC back home, and suddenly acquired a few friends!

I enjoyed a pint of their Monserrate ruby ale, to celebrate reaching the top of the peak safely and without encountering any of the local criminals, whilst chatting in my finest Spanglish to the bar staff about what I do, and why their beer is so good. I left a short time later with a BBC t-shirt, a bottle opener, a handful of BBC beer mats, and a slightly fuzzy head.

BBC beer

BBC beer

Darkness had fallen, and so it was time to retreat back to the safety of my hotel and plan the next step of the journey. Once notorious Medellin, former home to drugs boss Pablo Escobar and responsible for much of Colombia’s turmoil in recent history, or the colourful colonial port of Cartagena. A lot depended on time available. A busy night with a calendar and flight websites was in store.

 

A Miami Slice

Lifting off from Heathrow, Miami-bound

I’ve just watched a sunset on Miami beach, dined in the heart of one of the city’s hotspots, and spent the night with a bunch of cats – and all it cost me to get there was $5 on an airport bus.

Yep, five bucks. And I’ll have more on the cats later.

Its all down to a great little travel hack that I’ve put to the test – and if you play your cards right, and with a bit of luck, you get to tick off cities in far flung places around the world without paying any extra to stop off.

img_0713Its all down to connections and layovers between flights if you need to change planes. And after a week of searching for a good deal to Colombia, weighing up all the pros and cons of different airports and airlines, the untrained eye may pop out when you see on an itinerary ‘LONG WAIT AT AIRPORT – 16 HOURS’

But rather than avoid it like the plague, have a look at the flight times.

And then see it as a great opportunity.

Admittedly, I had to do some research, mainly to check whether you can actually leave an airport during transit. It turns out you can, and with my flight scheduled to land at 5pm in Miami, and with a few rough calculations, I worked out I had enough time for an evening in the city, maybe even catch the sun before it sets, and tick it off my ‘to visit’ list before an onward flight at 10am the following  morning. It all depended on flights being on time of course, to maximise the time in Miami, but it was doable.

Miami lends itself to this kind of stop – the airport is incredibly close to the city centre, and some websites even say you can go dip your toes in the sea with a little as five hours between flights. Enough time to catch the airport express bus or a cab, get yourself down to the famous South Beach, have a paddle, maybe even grab an ice cream, and then head back to the airport and rejoin your fellow passengers who are still trying to get comfortable on those awkward seats whilst reluctantly enjoying their fourth game of eye spy in the terminal.

A view that always raises a smile - transport to a new adventure

A view that always raises a smile – transport to a new adventure

I spent about a week agonising over flights – having finally decided I’d visit Colombia, I needed to get to Bogota. Question was, did I fly from Manchester with Virgin, which offered a good price and more local, with an airline that offers a ‘fun’ element, or for the same price, did I fly from ultra local Humberside with KLM, changing at Schipol but without an option to leave the airport and pay Amsterdam a visit.

Or did I go from Heathrow, with British Airways and American Airlines changing at various cities in the United States. I’m a fan of BA – they’re our national airline, I’ve got a frequent flyers account with them, and generally it’s a very pleasant experience. The down side for me was that most of the flights at reasonable prices required a journey with American Airlines…and that’s an airline I’ve never really liked after some bad experiences. When you’re stuck in a metal tube for hours on end, you at least want it to be enjoyable, with friendly staff on a modern aircraft. The few occasions I’ve flown American in the past have proved exactly the opposite – old, tired planes, ancient in flight entertainment (you know, those awful projectors showing one film that hark back to the 80s!) and staff who would clearly much rather be throwing daggers at passengers, rather than the tea and coffee. Or both.

It was enough to make me avoid the airline like the plague in recent years. But how things can change.

img_0680American has undergone something of an identity swap in recent years. Out go those shiny bare metal planes, in come brand new, crisp looking aircraft with the colours of their Star Spangled Banner proudly emblazoned on the tail. Having seen the adverts for the new onboard service, I thought it might be worth a try. Best of all, the cheapest option with the stop in Miami was onboard one of their brand new Boeing 777 aircraft, complete with their new entertainment and seating.

Well, I’ve got to admit, they’ve really upped their game. It helped that there were just 80 people in economy for my flight – which one of the stewards told me was highly uncommon, so we all effectively had an entire row of seats to ourselves.

Empty plane = cheapskate upgrade!

Empty plane = cheapskate upgrade!

Who needs to pay thousands of pounds for business class when you can line up the drinks, pile up all the pillows you can find, bulk it out with spare blankets and build yourself a bed for the nine hour flight!

Even if it was full, however, the new seating was comfortable, the entertainment choice on a large modern seat-back screen was first class, the food was great and the staff were cheerful and friendly.

Ooh, snazzy lighting. American colours, of course

Ooh, snazzy lighting. American colours, of course

Lovely mood lighting added a comfortable homely feel, and the aircraft was spotlessly clean. There was even wifi onboard so I could track our progress with an app on my phone! Overall, a huge contrast to my experiences with American of old, and definitely putting themselves back on my list of airlines I’d happily fly with.

img_0699Anyway, aircraft geekery aside, it did a fine job of getting me safely across the Atlantic Ocean and down the eastern seaboard of the United States, landing in a very hot and humid Miami half an hour early, at 4:30pm. The sun was still high in the sky, and so the race was on to clear immigration, find my way to South Beach, and locate another new experience for me. My first overnight accommodation booking through the Airbnb website and app.

For those unaware, it’s effectively a website where you can rent a room, or a full property, from a homeowner, and usually at a very good price. It markets itself on giving customers a ‘part of the community’ experience, living the lifestyle of a holiday destination, rather than heading straight to a clinical hotel with lots of other holidaymakers. A home away from home.

First glimpse of Miami and the famous beaches

First glimpse of Miami and the famous beaches

Knowing that I’d need to be near the beach to have any chance of getting there in time to watch the sunset, I priced up a few hotels beforehand – with most coming in at around £120 for the night. Well, it is one of the most famous beach neighbourhoods in the world, so it comes at a premium. Too much of a premium for me, even if I am getting there for free.

That’s where Airbnb came up trumps. I wasn’t too fussed about luxury. I just needed clean, comfortable, and somewhere to lay my jetlagged head for a few hours before the 10am flight to Bogota the next morning. Scanning through a range of rooms for rent, I came across one just a few blocks from the beach, easily accessed, and which looked tasteful and came with the added bonus of good reviews from past customers.

My Airbnb room in Miami

My Airbnb room in Miami

I sent ‘Miranda’ the renter a message, and a request to book the room, the day before my flight. We had a couple of messages back and forth, and with that the room was booked – just £50 including all fees for a prime spot in Miami. Result!

I did notice there was a caveat on the listing – ‘you must not mind cats’.

That’s ok I thought. I love any animals, and had just spent a weekend with friends Matt and Siobhan who have two cats, the lovely Dave and Ruby, so I can handle them.

Little did I know that Miami has more than 300,000 stray and wild cats roaming the beach and streets- with some estimates of up to half a million moggies on the loose. And Miranda is one of the people who helps care for them.

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Nearing the stop on the South Beach Express

I jumped onto the airport and South Beach express bus, followed my iPhone instructions for when to get off it, and a few minutes later I was at Miranda’s front door. I called her, and a tall, tattoed, smiling woman appeared, arm outstretched with a welcoming handshake and with a lovely welcome into her home.

Miranda had only just returned back to Miami after visiting her native Germany, and was struggling with jetlag.

“Are you sure you’re ok with cats,” she asked again. That’s when I noticed a rather large scratching post at the side of her living room, and a number of cats curiously looking at me, as if to ask why I was on their turf.

A cat refuge

A cat refuge

“Just remember to keep your room door closed. Even when you go to the bathroom – I don’t want them getting into the guest room. Its not fair on the guests,” she said. Its nice to know she’s so strict about it, and clearly takes her Airbnb role seriously.

Miranda and one of the cats shes helping

Miranda and one of the cats shes helping

She also takes her role with the cats seriously, offering her home as a refuge, helping to rehome them, and feeding colonies of cats in need that live near her apartment. She works with a number of other volunteers, all dedicated to helping the city with its feline frustrations.

“Its one of the biggest problems in Miami. It really needs looking into and highlighting,” she tells me, adding that she had fifteen cats in her care at her house at one point.

And having left her home for a mad dash to the beach, I can’t help but agree. There are an incredible number of cats roaming around, no doubt all looking for their own Miranda.

Rainbow over the lifeguard huts on Miami beach

Rainbow over the lifeguard huts on Miami beach

I made my way down to the beach, arriving just before 7pm to find a huge, almost vertical rainbow towering up into the sky off shore. The sky was black, with waves of rain falling in the distance, a far away storm putting on a colourful spectacle for the beach lovers to watch.

Dipping the toes in!

Dipping the toes in!

The beach is by no means soft – its one of those that feels like crushed up shells between your toes. And it wasn’t overly clean either, with an enormous amount of weed and quite a bit of litter on the waterline. A hurricane had blown through Florida a few days previously however, which no doubt churned up the sea, hence the unsavoury appearance of bottles, rope and bits of plastic which had washed up. I’m hoping they’ve just not got round to clearing it all up just yet.

I found a spot on the beach and watched as the sun set behind me, lighting up the stormy sky over the horizon a beautiful orange, which radiated down onto the blue-green sea as it lapped onto the shore. The sound of celebrating volleyball players in the distance was interspersed with the fake electronic clicks of shutters on iphones as selfies and panoramic photographs were being taken of nature’s spectacular side show which was unfolding in front of us. I joined them with the camera.

No idea who the girl is, but was taken in by the colours too

No idea who the girl is, but was taken in by the colours too

It was all over far too quickly, and I strolled through the warm waters for a few hundred metres towards the Lincoln Mall area, a recommendation from a friend who lives in the city. I ordered a steak, which was sadly very average, but the restaurant offered a good people watching spot which made up for it.

Lincoln Mall

Lincoln Mall

It wasn’t long before the extra five hours bolted onto my day thanks to the time difference began to catch up with me. I made my way back to Miranda’s, dodged the cats on the way in and fell into bed, listening to the commotion happening outside the room as two of the rescue cats did their finest Mo Farah impressions in circuits around the lounge.

I woke up at 6:15am. Miranda was already awake thanks to her jet lag, and apologised for any noise. She was pouring a huge tub full of cat food biscuits.

“I head out every morning at 7am. There’s a colony around the corner that needs help,” she said.

Miranda and one of the cats she looks after

Miranda and one of the cats she looks after

And with that, we both left her apartment and walked a couple of blocks together, before saying our goodbyes as she headed off to help her furry friends in need. There would be some, I’m sure, who question what the best way forward in dealing with the huge cat issue is. But you can’t fault people who feel so passionately about helping our fellow creatures, and it was admirable to see someone devoting her life to caring for them.

img_0731For me, it was back to the bus stop and to continue my journey, looking forward to stepping foot in South America for the first ever time. And I was making my way there with a smile on my face too – I had visited a travel agent in London a week before I left to price up how much extra an official overnight stop off in Miami would cost.

It turns out it would have set me back the not so small matter of £200 to make it an ‘official’ stop.

I think I’ll be looking for more extra long layovers in the future!

Hello Again!

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Well, it’s been a while – more than four years infact. So long, I’m struggling to remember how to even get this online. But a fish still has to get out of Grimsby from time to time – and after a bit of a turbulent year, there was no time like the present to set off into the big wide world on my own once more.

I’m currently on the East Coast main line, speeding along on one of Richard Branson’s bright red trains with its nose pointing towards London. Alongside me, a red and black backpack that almost mirrors the brightly coloured livery of the carriage it has been perched upright in.

img_0669It only seems like yesterday that I was making this exact same journey with it down towards Heathrow Airport. Except this time, it’s a little more worn and adorned with flags of Mongolia, Cambodia and Australia, to name but a few, that I hastily stitched on with an array of coloured threads in hostels around the world during the best year of my life. Reassuring proof that a trip I still find myself daydreaming about actually happened.

I find it hard to believe sometimes that I actually stuck it out for so long, living out of a bag, sleeping in 20-bed dorms with little privacy and heavy snorers, and barely having enough money for ‘luxuries’ like a coffee on the high street, a bus, or enjoy a meal out, all trying to save the travelling funds and make the experience go further.

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Backpack hasn’t been used since I returned home in 2012 – still got the luggage labels on!

It took a while for the bank balance to level out after a year of unpaid leave, but it didn’t take long to adjust back to life and start taking the home comforts for granted once again. Your own bathroom, a bubbly bath, clean clothes and your own pillow. Seeing your family, catching up with friends, realising how beautiful your home country is. Driving your car, listening to the radio, watching the shows from home you’ve missed for a year.

Then there’s the career. The long hair, which some people loved and others hated after vowing not to cut it for the duration of my trip, had to go! There’s not much calling for a surfer look on the BBC News outlets in Lincolnshire, so after a transition phase where I couldn’t bear to part with it, I went back to my usual short back and sides, albeit with a more grown up sweep to the side!

Once I’d tidied myself up, removed the traveller bracelets I’d picked up along the way, had a shave and prepared myself, it was a very strange feeling, after spending a year in shorts, t-shirts and Chang beer vests, to be getting all suited up for a day back in the office. Its one of my clearest memories of my return – sitting in my brothers old car I’d rented from him (didn’t have any money left to buy one of my own!) in my suit, just looking out of the windscreen for ten minutes and reflecting on what I was about to do. I was about to go back to work, return to normal life – the real world – and resume the rest of my life from where I’d left off eleven months previously.

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A few months after returning home, I was back in Australia and filming on helicopters

There had been a concern that I’d ‘stuff up’ my career with such a big trip, just when things were seemingly going in the right direction. I’m glad to say those fears were unfounded. If anything, its gone from strength to strength – and within months of returning, I was back in Australia working with a fantastic team of people filming the Helicopter Heroes programme. I landed (no pun) a dream job, flying around with the Yorkshire Air Ambulance in the UK, and New South Wales paramedics in Oz, as a camera director, a programme I p1000454was fortunate to be involved with on and off for 18 months. In addition, I’ve done quite well reporting nationally for the main BBC News, spending three months at Broadcasting House in London last year, reporting on everything from terrorist attacks to flying cats for a national and global audience. I’ve still got a hand in down there too, so pop up on the main news here and there away from the regular job being a newshound for

Serious face in the day job

Serious face in the day job

Look North and pounding the streets across East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Its the best of all worlds really – close to my family, reporting on my local patch, and enjoying a few snippets of London life here and there before being able to safely run away to the relative peace and quiet in Hull!

Oh, and there was one more thing that came about from that year-long trip.

I fell in love.

Yeah, that was probably my favourite bit about returning home. Having initially taken a career break after finding myself single, and with enough ‘everything happens for a reason’ words of comfort to last a lifetime, I really did think I’d hit the jackpot when I met a girl in Thailand on my trip who ticked all my boxes, and then some.

I wrote briefly about how I met Jen in a post here (link) and went on a random first date with her in Railay (link), after she shouted that ‘I’d been here ages’ in Koh Phangan, the Full Moon island in Thailand. Well we stayed in touch for the rest of my trip, and met up when I returned home, followed with a third date in Cyprus for a week together for a friend’s wedding…as you do!

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Jen and I in London, where we lived together for a few months in 2015

What followed was a bit of a whirlwind. Jen was in London, I was in Hull, but every weekend we’d travel the length of the country to be together. It was wonderful. I really did think the ‘everything happens for a reason’ cliché that everyone tells you at times of heartbreak had been proven right. It required leaving the country for a year, but I’d met someone who I believed I could happily spend the rest of my life with, on a journey to the other side of the world. I’d secretly hoped that after my final post ‘the end of a chapter’ the next thing I ever wrote on this blog was a bit of a ‘here’s what happened next’ fairytale ending of how I married the girl of my dreams that I met as part of the adventure.

Well, not quite, sadly.

Jen was amazing, and brought so much to my life, but we broke up in February. I wont go into too much detail – its not fair to do so – but in order to put this trip into context, lets just say its been a pretty rough year for me personally.

I’ve actually been itching to get away on some far flung trips over the past few years – and with Jen being a travel lover and blogger, I believed we were a perfect match who would go off and see the world together. It was one of my hopes when we began dating. But sadly, for one reason or another that I still struggle to understand, it didn’t quite work out that way. Jen would be seeing the world on free blog trips, I was at home with itchy feet. The fun and excitement of planning travel together disappeared as she focused on her independent trips – and it took its toll on our relationship.

That being said, recently we’ve been back in touch and are in the process of trying to smooth over some of the upset. We both know we mean a lot to each other, and have a special place in each others hearts. She’s doing really well for herself and has a lot to look forward to, and I’m really pleased for her. Who knows what the future holds, but we’re hopeful we can become friends again at the very least.

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With dad at the Coldplay concert in Glasgow, a fathers day treat

In recent months, my dad hasn’t been well either, so my family has been pulling together to support him and each other. Life can certainly be put into perspective very quickly sometimes, and a cold hard shock like we had in November last year makes you realise exactly what is important. Dad’s been amazing all the way through, a real fighter, and our family is closer and stronger as a result. The treatment has gone well, and we’re making lots of happy times and memories together, keeping positivity flowing and dad smiling. In many ways, its made us all appreciate each other so much more.

So while everything is settling a little on that front, and with demands to use some of my annual leave from work, you’ll have more of an idea now why I am setting off for another solo adventure.

It wasn’t quite how I’d planned it – I had always wanted to visit South America, my final continent in the world to set foot on, as a big trip with a special person in my life. But life is too short, as they say, so here I am, making my way to Colombia and Panama, via a brief stop in Miami, Florida…very little planned, just me, a guidebook and the bag on my back.

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Bags packed again!

Five years ago, I’d have never had the confidence to set off in this way. Indeed, I paid for an organised tour around South East Asia due to my fear of being unable to meet people or find my way around on my own. But one thing that year taught me, was that its fine to follow your nose. The internet, admittedly, makes things a million times easier. And even in the four years since I returned home, advances in technology and websites mean that travelling abroad just gets easier and easier. I have dug my trusty netbook out of retirement to type this, but I’m also equipped with an iPad and an iPhone for this journey, items which have evolved so much in the last few years with GPS and specialist apps that means its almost impossible to be lost these days.

I’ve had a few gasps from friends and colleagues, when just two days before departure, I’d still not booked flights. There have been a few eyebrows raised when I’ve explained I have just my first nights accommodation booked out of the whole two weeks.img_0648 I’ve not fully decided on an itinerary – I just know I’ve got to be in Panama City on September 24 for a flight home, or there will be a very unhappy editor in the office on the Monday morning.

Between now and then, I shall go wherever the wind takes me, and the flexibility and feeling of freedom that brings is immeasurable. If I hear of something interesting somewhere, I’ll go. But this is also a bit of a break, and I’m getting older these days, so I have pencilled in a few days to kick back on a beach or by a pool somewhere. Without the pressure of budgeting for a year, it will also be a little more ‘flashpacker’ than backpacker! I’ll still keep to the backpacker roots by staying in a hostel here and there, but when I’m longing for a private ensuite, I’ll be checking into the nearest hotel!

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Quick repair job!

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Finger blisters…painful!

Saying that, I have been strangely nervous – and I’ve had a typically chaotic day trying to get everything ready for the trip. Essentials such as toiletries, sun cream and a guide book all needed buying, errands needed running, a few things at home needed tidying, and the backpack needed repairing. Its main straps gradually came apart during that long trip previously, so armed with the strongest thread and sharpest needle I could find, I set about trying to re-attach them. I didn’t quite bank on how tough its internal weatherproofing was inside the fabric, and promptly acquired a huge blister on the end of my finger from trying to force the needle through, but I got there in the end and its as good as new again. Well, if you ignore my dodgy sewing.

I think it was getting my clothes and belongings ready for packing that brought back so many memories of 2011. It’s probably why I feel so nervous, as it feels just like how it did back then, the daunting feeling of heading into the unknown for a year. Its still the unknown I’m heading into, but for a much shorter time. My housemate Sarah did well at calming my nerves, and kindly took me to Hull station to see me off.

“You can always just come home again at any point,” she said with a smile. It’s the reassurance you need, the escape route you always know is open. But I won’t be taking it, hopefully!

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Five years between these waving pics…er, yeah, I’ve not aged at all:-/

So here I am. On my way again. I don’t know how many posts I’ll write over the next couple of weeks, maybe just a couple for old times sake – I’ll be honest, it was never really on my agenda to write anything. But what has been really nice is how many people in the past few days have asked me whether I would write something again as they enjoyed reading my posts so much last time around – and I don’t think everyone was saying it just to be polite either, so thankyou!

Who knows what people I will meet along the way, the stories they’ll tell, the places I’ll visit or the history I’ll discover. That’s part of the fun. There will probably be a few mishaps too – my infamous tea shop experience has been brought up by more than a few people recently when news of another trip was heard. But armed with my camera and a keyboard, I’ll try to bring it to all to life once more.

Almost five years on, the fish is back out of Grimsby. Back on the road and ready to make more memories, seeing a part of the world I’ve always wanted to experience. It might not be the way I’d hoped to visit, and I might not have someone to share it with in person by my side, but I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do something that I love once more.

After all, everything happens for a reason…

The end…of a chapter

Back home – reunited at Heathrow with Mum and Dad after nine months around the world

I don’t quite know how to start this. I might have had nine months in some of the most incredible parts of the world to give me inspiration, but this is probably the toughest post – if not one of the hardest pieces of writing – I’ll ever have to tap out on the screen in front of me.

Homeward bound

I’m sitting in a very comfortable World Traveller Plus seat, looking down as New York disappears below me. Even British Airways must have detected my sombre mood at check-in. Despite expecting to pay anything up to a £250 charge for missing my flight from LA to New York, to enable me to drive from coast to coast, I instead got a complimentary upgrade.

Perhaps our flag carrier sensed from my itinerary it had been something of an epic journey, and that it needed something special to soften the impending hammer blow of returning back to reality

Boarding for home

Yet even the extra legroom, wide, extra-padded seats, the three little buttons to control everything from lumber support to the extra recline, and the sumptuous upgraded menu is struggling to put me in a frame of mind where I can accurately put into words how I am feeling right now.

Going home was always going to be a difficult part of my journey, but the strange mixture of emotions flowing through me is different to what I had expected. One minute I am incredibly sad that the adventure I had looked forward to, a once-in-a-lifetime journey, that has brought so many positives, friends and fun to my life, is now over.

Nice comfy upgrade!

Yet there is also a sense that I am now looking ahead, a feeling that I am returning home to a fresh start, a new future, a clean slate to get my life at home back on track, concentrate on my career and plan more adventures in the future with the countless new friends and favourite places I have come across and discovered.

And of course, there is the excitement at seeing my family and friends again, who I left amid tears and beers in October, not knowing really how long it would be before I would be back. Sure, the intended return was May, but deep down I think I always knew it would be longer.

Amid all of this, somehow I need to write a post that sums up how I am feeling knowing I am just hours away from touching down at Heathrow and seeing my parents once again. After all, every good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. A jaunt across Russia on the trans-Siberian railway provided something extraordinary to write about back then, and in doing so became a perfect starting point for my ongoing journal.

The middle wrote itself, with the Chinese tea scam catching me out and resulting in a ride in a police car; falls off motorbikes and cycles leaving me with lasting scars and memories of this eventful trip; learning to dive, learning to make coffee and learning that Australia is a very, very expensive place to visit.

Flying over New York

It was helped along with a good dose of problems – Thailand trains being delayed by six hours, leaving me to sleep rough on a platform for the night; a pain in the backside lodger back home that did a runner on me, leaving

Breakdowns in the Outback

my finances in ruins and putting my whole trip in jeopardy, a couple of Germans who managed to alienate an entire tour group I was on, being kicked out of a hostel in Darwin thanks to a ridiculous stay extension system, and who could forget about the time when I laughed at the spirits of Uluru…resulting in a broken down car and a sky-high outback garage repair bill for a good friend of mine. Who would have thought a fuel pump could cause so many problems?

My trans-Siberian railway group I met

There have been plenty of highlights too that have given me plenty to write home about – bungy jumps, skydives and icy adventures in New Zealand, some of the best friends I could ever wish for in my ‘Ballarat family’ in Australia, learning to surf on the waves of the Pacific, managing to drive all the way along Route 66 in a week, New Year on Thailand’s beautiful islands, climbing the Great Wall of China, the magnificent insight into history at the Terracotta Warriors and travelling on the fastest public transport in the world in Shanghai. The bone shaking 433km/hr we reached on that Maglev will live long in the memory.

Starting out in Moscow – with very short hair!

As I look in the British Airways Highlife magazine, I flick through to the map of the world, complete with all the BA destinations, and think back to that dull day in October when I did a similar thing and marvelled at how far I was about to travel. I looked at the maps of Asia, Australia and America and thought about how far away everything seemed. Returning home at the end of it all seemed just a distant thought, yet now on this flight I look at that same map and spot all of the places I have been. Suddenly the world looks and seems very small.

It has certainly been an experience getting around this great planet of ours, and here are a few of the figures involved.

  • 304 days
  • 26,000 miles (and probably a bit more!)
  • 14 flights
  • 13 long distance trains
  • 7 tuk tuks
  • 6 motorbikes
  • 6 hired or borrowed cars
  • 4 cycles
  • 1 helicopter
  • 1 campervan (courtesy Matt and Siobhan)
  • 1 police car (Chinese tea scam)
  • 2 trips to hospital (to visit Dirk)
  • 2 crashes (one motorbike, one cycle)
  • 1 bout of serious food poisoning (Malaysia, Christmas, great!)
  • 300,000 words (and counting) on my blog
  • Around 35 packs of two minute noodles
  • 3 boxes of souvenirs sent home

So what have I learnt on this journey? After all, so many people were telling me how I will return as a changed person. Its difficult to say whether I am or not – that will perhaps be down to close friends and family to be the judge of that.

On the trans-Siberian in the Gobi Desert

What I can say is that I return to British soil a much happier, relaxed, enlightened and clear-thinking person than I was before. I return with a whole load of new mates, too. Whether they are living on the other side of the globe in Australia or New Zealand, or close to home in Nottingham or London, I know I am lucky to have met some fantastic people who I am proud to call friends. Be they Colin and Sarah, who I had so much fun and banter with in southeast Asia, Dan and Laura, who I got to know thanks to an unfortunate chicken-dropping incident in Adelaide, only to go on and spend the next two weeks travelling north together, Russ, Soap and the Magic Bus team in New Zealand, Santi and Galli, my Spanish friends I met on the trans-Siberian railway, Jen from London, but with links to Lincolnshire, who I met in Thailand after she shouted abuse at me for staying too long on Koh Phangan, or Liz, a fellow journalist I met in Chiang Mai who I stopped by to visit at her home in Newcastle, Australia.

With Santi and Galli who I met on the trans-Siberian railway, pictured shortly after arriving in Beijing

There are countless other people too, who nine months ago were complete strangers, yet fate and our paths of travel led us to meet at some of the most interesting parts of the world. As I celebrated my birthday just yesterday, I had one of those moments when I realised just how many new people have become part of my life in such a short space of time. Humbled by some 130+ thoughtful messages and birthday wishes on my Facebook wall, I looked through the list of names. Among them, around a third were from people around the world who, during the last few months, got to know me as I did them, shared memories, travelled together and became part of each others’ lives.

Tickling tigers in Thailand

When travelling, background, nationality, gender, sexuality and race do not matter. When you walk into a hostel, step onto a plane or spend four days and four nights on one train, you are simply a traveller, a backpacker, and part of a brilliant community of people all making their way in one direction or another around planet Earth.

Learning to dive in Koh Tao, Thailand

And then there are the scores of renewed friendships that this journey has allowed me to refresh. The time spent with Hannah in Thailand, another journalist I once met on a plane returning from New York, but strangely had never met back home. Yet we were both travelling at the same time, met up in Thailand, who introduced me to her friend Laura and who we went on to spend a few brilliant weeks laughing, travelling, learning to dive, drinking far too many beers and buckets together and inventing the whole new game of the 7-Eleven bar crawl.

There was Neil, my old friend from Pizza Hut in Grimsby who I had last seen some 13 years ago and who now lives in Alice Springs, slap bang in the centre of Australia. A great guy who took a leap of faith by lending me his car for a trip to the outback,

With Neil in Alice Springs

only for it to break down on me and land him with a bill for more than $1,000. Yet despite that, not once did he grumble about what had happened. Our conversations continued from where they left off in the Pizza Hut staffroom in the late Nineties, our friendship was renewed, and I know that after losing touch, once again we are good mates again despite the distance.

There is Katrina in Sydney, another close friend who has helped me with accommodation on more than one occasion in her beautiful city since we met in upstate New York while working on the summer camp in 2002.

And of course one of the best renewed friendships was that with Nat, another close friend from Camp Nashopa in 2002 who, without a thought, offered me a place to stay in Ballarat, where I could stay for free, sort out my finances, plan the next part of my trip, and in the process, meet more new friends. Jess and her daughter Liv, who also invited me into their home (along with their pet dog Cleo, whose hairs I am still finding in my luggage and between the keys of my notepad), along with friends James and Jane who welcomed me into their circle of family and friends for three brilliant months.

With Nat, left, and Koa on my arrival into Ballarat…as Batman!

My time in Ballarat was easily one of the highlights of my nine months away. For a few weeks, I had a bit of routine and a place I could call home. Helping out at the Lake View Hotel, days out on the coast, pizza nights in and so many laughs that my cheeks are still recovering from all the aches.

With my ‘Ballarat family’

The term ‘Ballarat family’ I have already mentioned in this post, but it’s a term that quite describes how we became. For those few weeks, those special people in that part of Victoria could not do enough for me, and for that I will forever be indebted. For a few weeks in particular, times grew very hard and difficult, when a lodger in my house back home ran away owing more than £1,000 in rent.

Yet, despite only knowing Jess and James for a few weeks, they were there for me throughout with endless help with internet supply, generous supplies of meals, far too many beers and coffees shouted for me and the brilliant ability to put a smile on my face and give me a much needed hug when things got on top of me.

Nat not only offered me a place to stay, but introduced me to a new band of friends that I am lucky to know, and who, thanks to their love and support, stopped me from returning home when times got particularly hard. With just a couple of hundred pounds in my account back home, and finding it so tempting to just fly back to sort the problems out with my house in person, it was Jess who gave me some all important advice.

“Things will work themselves out. They always do.”

And they did, through some of the most remarkable ways. Not only did I end up tracking my elusive housemate down, claiming some money back from her (and there will be more chased up through court on my return) but I began making contacts within the travel industry

When my friends Siobhan and Matt visited from home, at the Round the Twist Lighthouse, Great Ocean Road, Australia

Which brings me on to this very blog, my website, afishoutofgrimsby. I don’t quite know where to start with this, mainly because it snowballed from something that I thought would be a good personal record, and something to keep the parents and friends up to date with what I have been up to, into something that in the end, helped me out with my travels in a way I never thought possible.

Blogging on the Mekong, Laos

I bought the domain name through WordPress after having a laugh with colleagues about how I, one of the most accident prone and clumsy people in the Look North newsroom, would probably struggle to make it around the world on my own. I’d be like a fish out of water, came the call – a man out of his depth.

“It worries me how you’ll ever make it round the world,” said one producer to me after I’d once again lost my car and house keys in some obscure place in the office.

And that was my inspiration for the website name, what with Grimsby being famous for its fishing heritage and all that. My friends laughed and agreed when I came up with it, all promising that they would check in on it from time to time.

A familiar view during my travels!

It was a steep learning curve to begin with. I’ve never set up a website before, and it was tricky to get my head around the layout and photo placement tools at first. Gradually, however, I got the hang of it, devising my own style and layout that was the most time efficient to upload yet easy to read and follow. It was my personal diary, written in a news story form at times, but for what I thought would be a few dozen close friends.

Now, more than 18,000 hits later, and being picked up and running as a weekly column in the Grimsby Telegraph back home, afishoutofgrimsby became something I just had to keep up. Its been difficult at times – spending so much time on the road, action packed days, nights out and early starts, combined with the pressure to be as sociable as possible, meant that I often spent any spare time I had tapping on a keyboard to keep the blog posts flowing. But poor internet, especially in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, meant it was hard to keep up to date. Uploading the photos for one post alone would take up to three hours due to the file sizes, while the layout of each post easily takes another two hours, on top of the time it takes to write each one.

My birthday card for mum that I sent from Koh Lanta, Thailand!

Yet I knew that it would be worth it. I already look back at my posts from the first half of my travels and there are reminders of people and events that have already slipped my mind. And then, in Australia, with daily reader number growing, the website helped me down another avenue. I got in touch with Great Southern Rail, who enjoyed my website so much, they offered me travel on the famous Overland and Ghan trains from Melbourne to Darwin – the regular price of which would set me back some $2,500.

I had to put the work in, of course, but that was something I was already doing. In return, I found a way of subsidising my travel, and I know the posts were very well received by the railway company.

Freefalling in Queenstown, New Zealand

Following on from that success, Tourism New Zealand, which promotes the country, along with the Magic Bus, who tours the country, got me onboard with a hefty discount and free-of-charge media scheme when I arrived after my stay in Australia. It was a breakthrough that enabled me to experience New Zealand and all of the exciting activities in a way I never thought possible. My budget would never have stretched to even a quarter of the days out and adrenalin attractions that I actually experienced, yet this once little website that I hoped would prevent me from explaining the same stories over and over again back home had now started helping me with more exciting things to write about.

Bungy! Jumping the third highest bungy in the world, in Queenstown, New Zealand

To that extent, I’ll miss being attached to my netbook and its now polished-smooth keys from my fingertips. I’ll miss looking out for interesting little tit-bits that I come across to tell people about back home. When something goes wrong, it will once again just be something that goes wrong. There will be no more “ah well, its something for the blog” excuses. I’ll miss taking far more photographs than normal, just because the website might need it to explain a story. And I’ll miss all of the kind comments and support from those regular readers back home who have been with me for the ride.

Contrasts…snow and Skiing in New Zealand…

Because that is how it has felt at times. I may have been thousands of miles away from home, off the beaten track, sometimes fed up, hungry or tired in the middle of nowhere, yet it was always so comforting knowing that in some way, everyone was with me. I’d look forward to mum and dad talking to me about something I had written, or the odd email dropping into my inbox from a friend or work contact who I had made laugh, cry or smile with some of my writing. Or a note from a complete stranger, somewhere on Earth, who had somehow stumbled across my website and been inspired to get in touch after reading about my journey.

…paradise and sun in Fiji

Every day I would get a breakdown of where my website is being read, and the number of different countries and flags around the world that pop up still continues to stagger me. It was never part of my plan, yet I’m pleased it became part of my travelling experience. The knowledge that people were actually enjoying it – and still enjoying it nine months on, judging by the ever increasing views – was what kept me going, often until two or three o clock in the morning, to make sure that everything was kept up to date as possible.

Tubing fun in Laos

So where does afishoutofgrimsby go from here? To be honest, I still don’t know. My day to day job and career can limit my personal thoughts going out into the public domain somewhat, but perhaps there can be a way of continuing it through future travels or adventures. There is also a plan to turn it into a book, something mentioned to me by more than a few fellow travellers and friends along the way. Again, that is something I never imagined I would ever accomplish, yet I owe it to myself to at least explore the idea. And there will probably be a couple more updates as I make the transition back from a backpacking traveller into a clean-cut television reporter.

Ferry in Fiji

Yes, it will mean the longer hair will probably have to go, the travelling wristbands and cotton bracelets from tubing in Laos will have to be removed, and the shaver will definitely be brought back into daily action. But it has been great to throw myself into ‘traveller mode’ for a few months. It might have been a bit of a bet with a few friends from home not to get my hair cut for the entire duration of my trip, but now I’ve got used to it, I’m not sure it will be an easy day under the scissors. It might be providing Dad with plenty of ‘get your hair cut’ comments, but on the whole, the positive words of support for the longer locks far outweigh the negatives.

Even my closest friend Dan, who uttered ‘you and that horrible hair’ to me on the phone a few days before I arrived at his house in Connecticut, was forced to admit that he actually quite liked it. “I think it actually suits you,” he said. I’m still not too sure whether he meant it.

Laying on the International Date Line, Taveuni, Fiji

Aside from getting my barnet cut, there is also a family holiday to look forward to just a matter of hours after I step foot back in the country. Its dads 60th, and his wish is for us all to be together as a family for it, so we’re travelling to Cape Verde to be with my sister who is working out there. It will be the first time in two years that we have all spent quality time together, and its fair to say we’re all looking forward to it.

Getting closer to home

I’m now halfway over the Atlantic, cruising along at 613mph according to the little screen in front of me, and I’ve realised I have been rattling on for some time. Its probably time I get round to some thankyous.

I have been fortunate enough to meet so many incredible people on this journey, both friends and acquaintances who have made me laugh, shared a pint, offered a bed, cooked me a meal, given advice, lent a hand, loaned me a car, picked me up, taken photos, driven me around and generally been there for me when I have needed it. I have met countless others who have simply been part of the journey, on tours, day trips, on flights or on boats, or who I have just bumped into in a street and enjoyed a conversation with. There are far too many people to name, but for all those I have had the pleasure of meeting, chatting to, passing the time with, travelling with, sharing  and helping to make some wonderful memories with, I thank you with all my heart.

On the Great Wall of China

I must thank the companies and organisations in Australia and New Zealand, who, thanks to their free of charge offers and schemes, enabled me to do more than I ever dreamed of doing on this trip.

A huge thankyou to my managers and colleagues at the BBC, who have been fully behind my travels and gave my career break and website their full backing, including a lot of behind the scenes work with clearance regarding the Grimsby Telegraph newspaper column and some hastily rearranged return dates, knowing the knock-on effect it can have on contracts and extensions for other staff.

The biggest thankyou has to go to those of you who are reading this, who inspired me to keep going, to keep writing and to keep staying up until all hours, timing uploads and new posts to coincide with the working day in the UK, and who have encouraged me to share my experiences. I really have felt your support as I have made my way around the globe.

Saying goodbye to mum and dad in Hull, UK, October 2011

And finally, to my family, in particular my dad, Graham, and mum Lynda, who despite questioning my reasons for travelling in those early days when it was just an idea and queried whether I was putting my career at risk, got fully behind me and gave me their full support. When times got hard, it was my parents I turned to despite the miles, who have helped with visits to my house in Hull and subbed me a loan to help me finish my journey when I needed it.

I will miss watching my dad make his Treasure Hunt-esque visits to the huge map of the world they bought and placed behind them so I could see it in our Skype chats. He ran out of pins to stick in it the other day, after I clearly visited far more places than he originally thought. It was mums fault apparently. I’ll also miss watching how the postcards I sent from around the world would, one-by-one, appear on the frame of the map. An ongoing progress chart, but a gesture in itself that showed me how much my parents were behind me. At times, I’d like to think they got almost as much fun out of it all as me, plotting my journey, following my flights and reading my updates from the latest far-flung land.

Their support meant the world to me, and while it was hard missing Christmas and birthdays with them this year, I know I will treasure our family time from now on.

With Dan and Laura, Ayers Rock, Australia

You see, if there is one thing this trip has taught me, it is how I take everything in my life back home for granted. The best friends I could ever wish for, good health and a loving family. Sure, a nice house, car and a bit of disposable income are great, but in the grand scheme of things, and having lived on a tight budget for the last nine months, if there is one thing I have learnt it is indeed the old cliché that money isn’t everything.

I have travelled through some of the poorest areas in the world, where people live on just $1 a day, who just a generation ago lived in fear of their lives under brutal regimes, and who call a tin shed their home.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Yet, however poor, however destitute and however hungry or thirsty they may be, they would always have a smile. A welcoming hand, a thankyou, a look in their eyes that says ‘you’re welcome here’. And that was a huge lesson for me.

Dawn over London…and my first sight of home

And so I get back to my initial train of thought. While I may have had a beginning, and plenty of stories in the middle, this tale of a certain ‘fish out of Grimsby’ needs an end.

Even Hull got on the map approaching Heathrow. Nearly home

For that, I refer to some scribbled words on a hostel wall in my first few days of travelling in China. It was dark, I was on my own, and I was sipping a beer. My eyes wandered through the hutong lanes and upon the messages that had been scrawled by hundreds of travellers before me. My eyes became fixed on one of them, a message that seemed to resonate, and one that helped me sum up my reasons for making such an epic journey in the first place. I will never know the anonymous person who wrote it, but it was a few simple words that I hope inspire others thinking of putting their day to day life on hold for a while, taking a leap of faith from the rat race, and discovering the big beautiful world of ours that we are lucky enough to call home.

“Life is like a book – there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. The story that fills the pages in the middle is entirely down to you.

“But without travel, you can struggle to get past the first page.”

I realise I have been so fortunate to have this incredible opportunity, and its been a pleasure sharing part of my story with you. And who knows – maybe one day, there will be a second chapter.

My bag arrives at Heathrow. The end of an amazing adventure

Virtual Reality

Touching the Atlantic – coast-to-coast drive complete!

After almost nine months of continuous travelling, slowly making my way around the world, I felt incredibly close to home as I approached the east coast of the United States and the Atlantic Ocean.

Afterall, I’m now closer to my family and friends in Grimsby and the UK than I have been since around the end of October last year, when the trans-Siberian train took me to the far east. I could almost smell the Humber bank, almost see the HumberBridge – and I was about to see one of my closest friends.

But I didn’t need to get on a plane to see him. For Dan moved to Connecticut, a couple of hours north of New York City, almost two years ago now, spotted by the sports channel ESPN and given his own show at their American headquarters and studios.

I couldn’t think of a better place to end this epic journey than at his home in West Hartford with his wife Denise and son Nathaniel, my godson. For much of my adult life, Dan has been one of those who I have trusted, who has advised, encouraged, celebrated, listened to and supported me through many decisions I have made, including discussions when I was unsure about making this very trip. It felt right that I would end it with him and his family.

Heading towards New York City

But first there was another major milestone that Ian and I had to reach. We may have driven for thousands of miles, but for this to be a true coast-to-coast drive across America, we had to find a suitable place on the coast to touch the ocean. Afterall, I have a photograph of me touching the Pacific Ocean, I need another of me touching the Atlantic as proof of the achievement.

We left the Catskill Mountains behind and followed a familiar route towards New York – familiar as it was a drive we completed many times during our days as counselors at CampNashopa. The I87 took us around the northern outskirts of the Big Apple, the skyscrapers dominating the skyline out of the right hand side of the car, their peak being the unmistakable shape of the EmpireStateBuilding.

I looked at a map and decided that the town of Bridgeport would be the ideal place to mark the end of our coast to coast adventure. It was almost on the way to West Hartford from NYC, minus a short detour off the Interstate. It was a slightly rough looking town, but from the raised highway we could see the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

Beautiful, umm, Bridgeport!

I think that is when the sense of achievement took over – a little over a week ago, I was driving the car around California, dashing along Santa Monica Pier in LA for those all important shots of the Pacific side beach. And now, with a whole lot of America behind us, we’d reached as far as we could go, pulling up in a parking bay beside a white sandy beach full of local people playing volleyball. Ian and I grabbed our cameras and walked towards the blue ocean that was lapping onto the shore.

We made it!

We’d just reached the gentle waves when we heard a commotion behind us.

“Guys guys, guys,” everyone was shouting, looking in my direction. My eyes darted across from the volleyball players who were getting my attention, to a police officer who was giving our car some attention. He’d pulled up on a quad bike, and attempting to issue a ticket. I sprinted across the beach.

“Is there a problem officer?” I asked, wondering what I could possibly have done wrong.

“This is not a parking bay,” he told me, despite it looking very much like one. Apparently there was a sign telling me so, not that we’d managed to spot one.

Well, it looked like a parking bay officer!

Cue lots of “sorry I’m a tourist, just driven across from Los Angeles, only grabbing a quick photo” spiel, which thankfully did the trick.

“Park it across the road, but we’re closing the park soon so be quick,” he told me, before speeding off on his quad.

Re-parked…surely it’ll be fine here!

I parked up and rejoined Ian, and had just got the camera out while having a paddle in the Atlantic when there was yet another commotion from behind us. This time it was the policeman shouting, who was also waving his arms around and looking quite angry.

I made another sprint across the sand.

“Just WHAT the hell would they say to you if you parked like THAT in Hollywood sir,” he barked at me.

I looked at the car. Its wheels were in the bay, I’d parked it close to the fence, it wasn’t blocking any traffic and I thought it was a neat bit of parking. But something told me that it wasn’t a good time to say “nice parking?”

“You’re lucky I’m not issuing you a second ticket, let alone a first. Get it turned around.”

Ah. And suddenly it became clear. I’d momentarily forgotten that the UK is just about the only country in the world that allows you to park a car facing oncoming traffic. Here in the States, it’s a parking offence. I looked around at Ian, who seemed to be just as embarrassed by my second parking offence in as many minutes as I was.

Touching the Atlantic, just over a week since the Pacific…and no planes in between!

I turned the car around, locked up again and rejoined Ian on the beach, sheepishly walking past the locals who, by now, had stopped playing volleyball and turned their attention to the idiotic tourist who keeps getting shouted at by the neighbourhood cop.

“Ironic, isn’t it,” I said to Ian as the water lapped around my feet.

“You drive thousands of miles across America, one of the most famous routes in the world, stop off at some of the most famous sights in the world, and almost complete the journey with a parking ticket at the final stop.”

We laughed. Reality was definitely getting nearer.

With the photographs taken, and an angry quad-biking cop on patrol, it was time to take our bug-spattered, California-registered motor away from its Atlantic viewpoint and back inland towards West Hartford. Who knows if it will ever see this side of the States again – at least it had a few stories to tell!

You don’t see many of these plates in New York

By now the sun was setting, and after three previous visits to the town, I could turn the sat-nav off and made my own way to Dan’s house. It was a strange feeling, driving back into a town that feels so familiar. I had a sensation that I was going back to what I know – stepping back into my ‘real life’ if you like, having spent so long on the road in unfamiliar places and countries.

I turned into his street, looking out for the large tree that stands in his garden, and pulled up onto his driveway. Something I have done a few times before, but never at the end of a 20,000+ mile journey around the globe. I could see through the glass front door as Denise turned around and a huge smile lit up her face, and Dan rushed outside. They had followed my journey through my blog, and now it was very much ending on their doorstep.

A welcome from Dan

“Mate, so good to see you,” said Dan as he gave me a manly hug on the drive. I introduced him to Ian, before we were both invited inside. It had just been Nate’s first birthday, so there was plenty of cake to welcome us, along with a celebratory beer.

“You’ve done well to put up with his stories all that way,” joked Dan, referring to his long-held perception that my anecdotes have a tendency to bore people. Ian laughed it off. I don’t think I’d bored him too much along the way!

A lot of miles added to the clock for this trip!

We chatted for about half an hour before Ian had to leave – while my drive against a deadline was over, Ian had a motor race meeting to be at north of Boston for the weekend, and had to make further progress north. Ian and Dan had never met each other before – one being a friend from Camp America, the other being a long term friend and coursework buddy at university – but they got on really well, and after  few photographs together in the living room to mark the occasion, Ian had to get back on the road.

Introductions all round!

It had been a brilliant leg of my journey, and to share it with a great mate who I originally met 10 years ago through travelling, enabling us to share memories, costs and driving duties with, had made it all the more special. I was gutted to say goodbye, knowing its likely to be a couple of years before we meet up again, but we had made a dream become a reality. Something we’d talked about 10 years ago at Camp Nashopa, and then speculated on in Melbourne earlier in the year, had become a reality. For me, it was something I had not initially planned as part of my trip, but I’m so pleased we managed to make it happen – even if it does mean I could face up to a £250 penalty for missing my flight to New York from LA.

Bye mate

I shook Ian’s hand and patted him on the back as he got back into our Ford Fusion and backed it off the drive. It had been our trusty carriage across the States, clocking up 3,809 miles since I drove it off the parking lot at Los Angeles Airport. It had taken in the Las Vegas strip, the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon and the deserts. It had crossed the mighty Mississippi River, completed Route 66, seen the skyscrapers of New York and almost had a parking ticket beside the Atlantic Ocean, but its journey was far from over.

Ian’s journey continues

As the headlights disappeared into the distance, Ian and the car were only halfway through their journey – to save a staggering £1,000 one-way charge, Ian will be at the wheel all the way back across America to the very same car rental place in Los Angeles that I picked it up from. Now that will be a sight on the rental agents face when they notice the clock. And don’t worry – we double checked it was on an ‘unlimited mileage’ basis!

After a good sleep, I was woken early in the morning by Dan, and a gorgeous little man called Nate. He was clearly confused as to who this strange person was that had mysteriously appeared on the sofa overnight. When I last saw Nate, it was a last minute trip across to America a few weeks before my travels, a journey I made to see him as a tiny baby, knowing it would be another year before I had the opportunity to visit my godson again. As soon as I saw how much bigger he’s got, I was glad I made the trip – he’s grown up so much since I was last here, and he’s almost at the walking stage.

With my Godson Nate

There is so much of his cheeky, happy personality coming out in him now, and he was a pleasure to be around. Dan and Denise have been blessed with such a well behaved little boy, and despite a few tears when he was first placed in my arms while his dad prepared his breakfast, I soon found a few ways to make him smile. It mainly involved his little green cuddly snake, or by feeding him. But, as is often the case, the more childish I became in trying to make him smile and keep him entertained, the better the result tended to be. And, of course, there were a few godfather duties to undertake too – there was a nappy change (well, I was in the same room at least) helping out at bathtime and trips to the park.

Dinnertime!

Infact, my time in West Hartford also fell on my birthday, which had been slightly planned if I’m honest. With July 16 being my 31st, and having spent a fairly miserable Christmas away from family and friends with food poisoning in Malaysia, I wanted to be around someone I knew to celebrate getting another year older. My flight back home was booked for the 17th, and so there was a second celebration with my family a couple of days later to look forward to. I’d celebrate my birthday in the States, and then two days later I’d be back home. It really was becoming very real that this journey was all but over.

A birthday trip to the park…for me!

To celebrate my birthday, I played on diggers, slides and climbing frames in the local park. I did, of course, have Nate as a convenient excuse, but it was a great morning of relaxing in the sun, watching as Nate made his way around various park play equipment, and tried his best to steal another kids truck and bucket in the sandpit. And, with his help, I got to dig a really deep hole in the sand!

Sandpit fun

Slidey fun

But perhaps the best part of the day was trying to encourage Nate to walk. He was so close to taking his first few steps, but was still settling for his half crawl, half drag leg technique when it came to transporting himself around the house.

“He’s so close Phil, any day now and he’ll do it,” Denise laughed as she tried to persuade her son to take his own weight on his little legs for the first time.

And he was.

With Dan at work for a few hours, Denise was playing with Nate in the living room. I could sense he was trying to walk, and was playing with a roll of kitchen paper.

“Phil, take this,” Denise said, passing me the kitchen roll.

Nate followed it with his eyes as it was passed to me, arm outstretched and a huge smile on his face. I passed it back to Denise, who encouraged Nate to get hold of it. She then passed it back, and as I held it up for him to get, for a few short steps, he walked over to me.

Denise and I both jumped up and cheered, delighted with his achievement. Sadly, our excitement wasn’t quite understood by Nate, clearly frightened by the sudden loud celebration, and who promptly began to cry. There followed many hugs and cuddles, and he was soon smiling again, as was his mum.

“Dan’s going to be so annoyed he missed his first steps,” she laughed.

Cake from Denise!

There were even presents, too, that Nate helped me open – my favourite American Peanut Butter-filled M&Ms, some Buffalo wing sauce, a block of spicy cheese and even a cake.

A great birthday!

It was a perfect few days of fun, relaxation and catching up with my closest friends. It was also a great way to re-acquaint myself back with real life. For three days, although there was talk of my travels, there was also much talk of life back home across the pond – of my job, a return to my family, plans for my house, new housemates to meet and what I will do about a car. For the best part of a year, issues which have been far from my mind, but within hours will become my life again.

A birthday Skype with the parents back home!

In a way, staying with Dan was a good stopgap, a nice go-between from my care-free travelling life to the serious, everyday real life back home – bills, bank balances, career and all.

Unwrapping the pressies!

But first, there was another deadline to meet, and, incredibly, another friend. I had to make my way to Newark airport, which, as many will know, involves a jaunt through New York City and on across the Hudson River to New Jersey. It can be a bit of a hassle, but there was a plan- and it involved the world famous Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan. More on that in a minute.

Fun and laughter

As usual, Dan and I set off a little too late to make it a comfortable journey to the airport. There was a train from New Haven, but we were cutting it fine to make it, some 45 minutes away. There was a look of slight concern on Dan’s face.

“You know, in all of this trip, I’ve not missed a boat, train or plane that I was booked onto?!” I wryly said to Dan.

“And it wont happen on my watch,” he quickly quipped back, putting his foot down a little firmer on the accelerator.

Goodbye to Dan, Denise and Nate

He was right- we made it to New Haven station with time to spare. We said goodbye, although we both know it will only be a few weeks before we see each other again back in the UK, and besides, we’re pretty good at staying in touch these days thanks to the wonders of Skype and the internet. He waved me off, and I turned my attention to my cheap $20 US mobile phone I’d bought on Route 66. I was awaiting a text from my friend Nina, the public relations manager for the former Conoco, but now Phillips 66 Humber Refinery near Grimsby –and, it has to be said, someone who had been an avid reader of my blog during my time away.

During my stay with Dan, I had noticed Facebook updates from her indicating she was in New York. I dropped her a line, only to find out, coincidentally, that we would both be leaving the city on the same night – and from the same airport, just an hour apart.

At Grand Central Station in NYC: Anyone know where the Waldorf is?!

Sadly, my phone decided it wouldn’t work. Instead, it was the wonders of Twitter, and the occasional blast of free wifi that I would gain as we passed through stations on the train, that enabled us to coordinate a meet up.

Nina had treated her mum to a luxury visit to the Big Apple, informing me that I was to meet her at the famous Waldorf hotel. Now, this is beyond my standard of living even at the best of times, let alone at the end of a bank balance draining round the world trip. It was near to Grand Central Station, where I arrived, but I had no idea where.

Imagine, therefore, the looks I was getting as I made my way around some of the other well-to-do hotels around the central Manhattan area, with my long hair, traveller backpack, sweat pouring off me in the mid-summer heat and a general scruffy appearance, asking for directions to one of the most exclusive, luxurious and upmarket hotels in the world.

Exactly.

At one point, I swear I was pretty much laughed at, not even daring to look behind me as a tophat-wearing concierge of a nearby hotel scoffed at me. He did, however, point me in the direction.

I gingerly walked into the back entrance of the even more exclusive WaldorfTowers, to be met with an opulent gold and marble reception area, a place that exudes exclusivity. It’s the sort of place that you really wouldn’t expect a scruffy, smelly backpacker to suddenly rock up in.

Spot the one who doesnt quite fit in at the Waldorf!

“Hi Phil” said Nina, coming to meet me before my embarrassment at being in such a state at such a beautiful hotel got the better of me and I made excuses to walk back out.

With Nina at the Waldorf

We had a good laugh about the situation, and Nina introduced me to the bellboy and concierge, one of whom was from Thailand and immediately took interest in my stories of where I had been there and what I thought of his home country. They were incredibly friendly, and despite my appearance, had a lot of time for me.

“Would sir like to take a shower. We can arrange sir a room,” came an offer, meant in the politest terms.

Sadly, I was already holding up Nina and her mum from getting to the airport, so I had to turn down the chance of having a posh shower in the poshest facilities of my trip. I did, however, get a souvenir room card from the hotel thanks to Nina, and we shared a ride in a yellow taxi to Newark Airport.

Times Square from the yellow taxi… and on the way home

We passed through Times Square and the bustling streets that I have got to know so well over the years, telling Nina and her mum in the back about some of my traveller tales, and talking about how sometimes, the world can be a very small place.

While Nina was flying to Manchester, I was flying back to London where the adventure began nine months ago. I said goodbye to the pair of them as they were driven off to another terminal, and I prepared myself for a £250 charge for missing my flight from LA the moment I approached a check-in desk.

See you on the other side – of the Atlantic!

Reality was beginning to bite, meeting up with friends, preparing to see my family, little reminders of home coming thick and fast. But I’d just ended my shoestring trip around the world with a visit to the WaldorfTower hotel. Now that’s something I wouldn’t have written in the script when I left for Moscow in October last year.

For now though, it was time to go home.

Only at Nashopa

Back at Camp Nashopa – 10 years after meeting there

The sun was shining, the birds were singing and there was a distant sound of children playing. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves of the trees that tower above me, offering shade from the afternoon sun. Summer was in full flow in New York’s beautiful Catskill Mountains.

It was definitely a shorts and t-shirt day.

After six days of driving and sightseeing along America’s famous Route 66, the end of this mammoth road trip was in sight. My Australian mate Ian and I had driven more than 2,500 miles through 12 states, mostly until the early hours every night, stopping off and seeing some of the most magnificent scenery that the USA has to offer.

But there was one place we both had to visit, a place close to both of our hearts. Without this place, Ian and I would never have met, and indeed, much of my life, my circle of friends, and this particular trip, would have been shaped very differently.

Looking up ‘the hill’ at Camp Nashopa

This place is Camp Nashopa, a children’s summer camp in Upstate New York, two hours west of New York City, and where, back in 2002 at the end of my studies at university, I took a huge leap of faith and applied for something called Camp America.

For anyone unfamiliar with this, it’s a programme that enables young people to head across the Atlantic Ocean and work as staff members and counselors looking after and running activities for children at summer camps across America. It was something I had heard good things about during my studies, but with a long-term girlfriend at the time, it was a huge decision to make with the prospect of spending three months overseas.

But there was also a craving for travel and adventure bubbling away inside me. After all, my degree was complete, and a lifetime of work beckoned. With many of my friends making use of long summer and Christmas breaks to travel, while I worked at getting my foot in the door at the Grimsby Telegraph, there was a part of me that felt like I had missed out on some of the other opportunities that university can offer.

“It’s always best in life to regret the things you do, rather than the things you don’t do,” said Jack, one of my closest mates, and at the time, my housemate during the final year of my journalism degree in Southampton. They were words that rang true, words that made my mind up, and words that I continue to try and live by.

And so I headed off to a Camp America recruitment fair at Earls Court in London, armed with a CV and half expecting to walk away without any placement but with the thought that ‘at least I tried’.

“Do you know how to fix a lawnmower?” asked a silver-haired chap at one of the stands shortly after I made it into the large exhibition hall.

Thinking about dads electric mower at home, where the worst thing that can happen is the blade might catch a protruding rock and need adjusting, I said yes.

“Excellent, you can be our go-carts specialist,” came the reply.

And that was that. A couple of months later, I found myself on a jumbo jet and heading to New York for my first ever glimpse of the Big Apple, a whole load of new friends, and a summertime of fun and memories. The fact I had no idea how to maintain or repair a petrol driven go-cart played on my mind a little, but thankfully there would be a few others who knew what to do when it comes to stripping down an engine or two.

Ian and I at Camp Nashopa in 2002! Picture Copyright Glenn Kroll

Arriving early in June, it was my job initially just to teach the hundreds of kids how to control the steel-framed go carts and quad bikes, living, eating and breathing in the same space as up to 15 youngsters from 7am until 1am, six days a week. It was hard work, but a fantastic experience. Every morning there would be the sound of reveille, a bugle call that would echo around the camp, followed by a familiar call from Jerry, the boys head counselor.

“Counselors, get your kids up. Kids, get your counselors up. The sun is out, it’s a shorts and t-shirt day.”

It was a phrase that would live on, alongside the all-encompassing “only at Nashopa” catchphrase that would sum up some of the extraordinary events that would take place in the name of entertaining kids from across the New York area. They are phrases that, at many camp reunions since, get wheeled out amid memories and reminiscence about the summer of 2002.

Yep, thats me! Leading kids on the ATVs in 2002 (Copyright Glenn Kroll)

It was during a welcome meeting in the very first days of my time at camp that we were told “the Nashopa family will live with you” and that we would make friends for life, the bonds lasting forever. I admit that at first, I was among the many who thought it was a bit of the usual American cheesy, over-the-top but friendly welcome, being swept along with the initial happy-clappy feel of the place. But it was true, and 10 years on, that summer is still talked about regularly, people travel across countries, and even continents, to visit friends and keep up friendships that were built during June, July and August of that year.

As well as being a life experience, my time at Camp Nashopa allowed me to travel in the States and introduced me to scores of new people, many of whom became close friends who I am still very much in touch with. Among them are Nat and Katrina, whom I stayed with in Australia, and of course Ian, who was a counselor in the adjoining bunk to me. Back in 2002, Ian was among the friends who I had planned to travel across America with. But back home, towards the end of my stay in the States, my girlfriend at the time sent me an email informing me that she had met someone else. It prompted an early return home to try to save things, which ultimately were unsuccessful, and had the unfortunate downside of missing out on much of the travels and sightseeing I had planned.

For that reason, it felt like I was laying a ghost to rest by making this epic coast to coast journey across the States with Ian. It might have been 10 years on, and we’ve both aged and matured a little bit, but we were finally making the trip that we had both imagined and talked about during those days of teaching kids how to press stop and go on a go-cart. We might live on opposite sides of the world now, and we might only see each other every few years, but that ‘Nashopa bond’ has stayed with us, and so it was important that our route to the Atlantic Ocean passed by the town of Bloomingburg, enabling us to visit the place where our friendship began. A place that helped shape so many of our friends futures, and helped inspire so many of our future travels.

A familiar turn-off

Driving along the Interstate 84, we turned off at the town of Middletown, a place so familiar to us both with the Galleria Mall and Walmart being places where we spent so much spare time during camp buying supplies, relaxing and using the internet café to stay in touch with family and friends back home. We turned onto Highway 17 north, arriving at the Bloomingburg turn off a few minutes later. It was lunchtime, and we were both hungry. There was only one place we could stop. The Quickway Diner.

The Quickway Diner!

Quickway was famed among camp counselors, mainly because of its ability to supply artery-clogging – but tasty – food and drinks. When we’d tired of eggplant parmagiana for tea by the second week, we were in need of supplies to tantalise our tastebuds. And so Tanos pizza place – which, unbeknown to us at the time, was run by someone who would go on to get shot by the police during a bank robbery – supplied pizza, while Quickway supplied cheese, fries and gravy.

A familiar parking spot!

Now, when I have told friends back home of the delights of how chips, cheese and gravy go so well together, the usual reaction is to have a nose turned up and the outrageous idea of mixing the three foods together thrown out in disgust. Trust me, particularly at Quickway, it is a taste sensation!

Quickway’s famous Cheese Fries and Gravy!

And so we rolled into the car park of Quickway ready for lunch, and it immediately felt oh so familiar. The signage was the same, the general layout of the gas station and diner was the same, but Quickway has also had a bit of a makeover. It now looked much smarter from the outside, but thankfully retained its typical American diner interior. Infact, it was exactly how it was 10 years ago, reassuringly familiar, and thankfully, the famous cheese fries and gravy were still on the menu. And, they tasted just how we remembered.

Loving the Quickway experience once again!

Quickway was also the place where I first discovered Buffalo chicken, a spicy, tangy, bright orange coating that makes your lips zing. It was only right that I had the Buffalo chicken burger, a favourite of mine when I called these parts of the US home for the summer. Again, a tasty reminder of good times past.

Quickway Diner

We said farewell to Quickway and headed off to the town, swinging by the Last Chance Saloon, a pub where Ian and I spent so many nights in 2002, including the night of my 21st birthday. Drinking illegally for the first few weeks of my Camp America experience, thanks to the raised drinking age in the States, it was the place where I had the second ‘first legal drink’ of my life. It was closely followed by a second, a third, and many more, resulting in me having to ‘sign in’ at the main camp office at 1am with the help of three people holding me up, and collapsing on the soccer pitch.

The old Last Chance Saloon

Its not called the Last Chance anymore, but still has a familiar look about it, and we continued on the short distance to Camp Nashopa, pulling up outside the old Alderbrook girls bunk and parking up close to where the laundry once was. Straight away, 10 years melted away, a familiar place with so many fond memories that felt so normal to just park up by and wander to the main gate. Except, it’s no longer a regular summer camp. It was closed down a few years ago, and from what I understand is now used as a smaller Jewish camp. After a few photos by the main gate, Ian and I continued round to the main area where we have both spent a lot of time in the past – the go-cart track.

Nashopa Go-Cart track

Ian was a go-cart specialist counselor the year before me, so he too was keen to have a look around. It was only a short walk along the quiet rural road before a gap in the trees opens out onto the track. Its not used for go-carts anymore, and the surface is breaking up in parts, but the tyre walls that Ian once built were still in place. It was a surreal feeling to step onto the tarmac again after so long, but yet it only felt like yesterday that we were both last here. We could almost hear the sounds of the engines as the excited children would race around, us keeping an eye on them and ready to run the moment one of them would stick their front end into the tyres (it happened quite a lot!)

My old rules board!

We walked over to the main shed, where once I would spend hours at a time sat outside, watching over the track and talking to Nat, my go-cart companion who had equally as little knowledge about running the activity. Nevertheless, we ran it well, thanks to Mark and Igor who knew about the mechanical side of things, choosing to leave the educational side to ‘Go-Cart Phil’ and ‘Go-Cart Nat’ as we were nicknamed over the camp tannoy.

Perhaps the most moving part of the day was walking into the shed, that had been left open. The go-carts had been replaced by canoes, no doubt being used on the nearby lake, but there was a lasting reminder of those of us who once worked on the track.

We left our marks!

On the wooden walls of the shed, it was customary, as it was in bunks and rooms around the camp, to leave a dated signature behind, a potted history of all who had been before. And there they were, on the back wall – the spray painted signatures that Mark, Igor, Nat and I had left behind on our final day at the track.

That’s mine!

Still as clear as day, as if they had just been written, lasting the test of time and telling all who had been in the shed since about the special group of people who had once spent the summer manning the activity.

Mariners in the States!

I had even written a tribute to my football club, Grimsby Town, who back in 2002 were in a much better place than their non-league position these days. It brought back memories of how fellow counselor and good mate Steve Rose would tell me all about how Yeovil would rise from non-league obscurity and be playing the mighty Mariners one day. How little did I imagine that they would eventually rise through the leagues, occupying a league spot divisions above my beloved team 10 years later. And above, someone had declared me ‘sunbather of the year’ a title that I probably deserved thanks to the amount of time I skived away under the suns rays working on the tan.

Nat, from Ballarat – and her map of Oz that always reminded me of a cat!

As I looked around the shed, there were remnants left behind from the go-cart days, including the old sign board we used to have next to us with the rules for kids to follow.

Ian’s message

Even Ian’s old message from the year before my stay at Nashopa was still visible, something I remember reading back in 2002 – mainly because of the mangled steering wheel that was placed above it as a reminder of what can happen when things go badly wrong (it was one of the counselors who crashed!)

Stepping outside, I took a seat on one of the benches that I once asked children to sit on while waiting for their turn. I looked out on the track from the position I used to sit and watch from, picturing the go-carts and the excited faces that used to come hurtling around the final bend and down the straight before me. A time before I knew what I would be doing with my life, before any job offers at newspapers and the BBC, and before I knew for sure what direction any career would go once I was back home. At that point, I didn’t even know if I would be staying in the Southampton area where I studied, or returning back to my parents in Grimsby. Little did I know how exciting the 10 years between visits would prove to be.

Memories

Before long, a group of children appeared, walking down the hill opposite, and looked slightly concerned at the presence of Ian and I. We both decided not to outstay our welcome, or get into any trouble, so walked back out to the road and made our way towards the car. But before heading back to the Interstate, we decided to walk ‘up the hill’ to the main camp to see if anyone was around, just to see if there was a chance of having one last walk around Nashopa.

The front office

We couldn’t get far, thanks to a barrier being across the road, but we got up far enough to see the dining hall and kitchen area, as well as the main front office. We were hoping to see someone to let them know who we were, but there was nobody around, besides a few children playing. But we had seen what we wanted to see, and I think quietly we’d said the quiet ‘thankyou’ that we both wanted to say for the opportunities that this great little camp had opened up for us in the years to come.

It was a strangely emotional visit, a time to reflect on those good times in the past – our days in the sun, of barbecue cook-outs, carnival weekend, Tribal and Colour Wars, of drunken nights at the Last Chance and of nights being sat on a wooden porch until 2am waiting for the kids in your charge to go to sleep. They were days of sport, singing, dancing and laughter that not only enriched the lives of the children we were looking after, but of the young adults from around the world who travelled thousands of miles to help run the camp.

Time to go..again

With the wonders of social media these days, those 12 year old kids who Ian and I looked after have now grown into 21 and 22 year old adults that we ourselves were back then. Many have dropped us notes over the years to say how they’d always remembered the time we all spent together in this small corner of New York. And now we’d been back to keep our own memories alive, to keep our affinity with the camp burning, and to see it all for one last time.

Except, there’s something inside Ian and I that knows there will probably be another similar visit in years to come. There is something about it that pulls you back, to take you back to those fond memories and happy times. To remember the part we all played in so many people’s lives. And I guess that’s something you only find at Nashopa.

A special place – where every day is a shorts and t-shirt day.

A Giant Drive to the Windy City

Reflecting on a long drive in Chicago

Driving into Illinois, the final state for us on Route 66, it soon became clear that this was a part of America that is very proud of its links with the famous road. Much of the original route is still intact, providing the opportunity to drive along much of it while the masses of cars and lorries speed along the Interstate 55 which runs parallel just a few metres away.

Route 66 – and its replacement alongside

After lunch in yet another historic venue, the Ariston in Litchfield, believed to be the oldest café on Route 66, we were heading north on the final leg of this particular part of the journey, aiming for Chicago and the shores of Lake Michigan, the historic end of the road.

The Ariston, one of the oldest restaurants on Route 66

It was a drive that gave us many opportunities to stop and take in the some of the historic locations along what was, many years ago, the start of the route for people heading to better times in the west.

Stepping back in time

Its for that reason, perhaps, that the state of Illinois celebrates Route 66 with such vigour. All along the route, signposts, information boards and points of interest are clearly marked, a huge contrast to some areas we had passed through where at times it was difficult to even work out if we were on the right road due to a lack of signage.

We arrived in the town of Atlanta shortly before nightfall, the quiet streets bathed in the soft yellow and orange hues of the setting sun. A town of just over 1,600 people, the town is very much preserved as it was in the good times gone by, when thousands of people would pass through every year on the road.

Atlanta’s old Greyhound stop

As Ian and I wandered through the small gardens in the town, looking at the relics and paintings that adorn the walls, we were approached by a young woman who was also taking photographs.

Her name was Stacy, and she told us how she works for the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway organisation, dedicated to preserving, restoring and promoting the famous American road. The fact that there is such a group is perhaps why the journey was noticeably more enjoyable through the state. We chatted about where we had already been, the places where we had stopped, and Stacy gave us tips on where to stop off.

Big man and a big sausage

We said farewell, and Stacy continued taking photographs while the two of us went to see the giant. That’s right – a giant. Its known as Bunyon’s Statue, a 30ft tall man holding a giant hotdog. He once stood for 42 years in front of Bunyon’s Hot Dog stand in nearby Cicero, but moved to his current site a while back. He now stands tall, if you pardon the pun, in the middle of the town, close to the old Greyhound bus stop.

Bunyon’s Statue is one of the old ‘Muffler Men’, fibreglass statues designed to be used as advertising around the United States in the 60s. The original design was of a man holding an axe, but that got changed over the years so he could be appearing as anything from a Viking to a chef and holding anything from tyres and exhausts, to, well, hotdogs, depending on the business.

As we made our way back to the car, Stacy came back over to us. She could tell we were so genuinely interested in all that Route 66 had to offer, that she had been back to her car and brought us both a gift – a Route 66 registration plate. There was also a chance for a few photos with a genuine Rt 66 sign, before we said a final goodbye and headed back out onto the road, complete with our special mementos.

With Stacy, my gift and a famous sign!

By now, Chicago is firmly on all the roadsigns, the hundreds of miles slowly ticking down and the end of this long drive is in sight. We stopped for coffee at the Dixie Trucker’s Home in McLean,

Mixing it with the truckers in McLean

another famous stop along Route 66 which has featured in many guides, books and historic accounts. Its still very much a popular stop for trucks, with the colourful cabs all lined up perfectly as the long distance drivers took some refreshments onboard. They seemed to be a friendly bunch, peering out of their cabs and waving at me as I snapped away, clearly proud of their mammoth machines that they call home. Its one thing to be doing this journey for fun, but a whole new ball game to be doing it for a living. I could tell there was a great camaraderie between them.

Mean machines at Dixies

But we still had some serious distance to travel if we were to have a decent amount of time in Chicago the following day, and we drove on into the night. At Wilmington, just a couple of hours away from the end of the 66, there was one more sight to see – yet another giant. This one, another ‘Muffler Man’, is the famous Gemini Giant, named after the space programme and standing outside the Launching Pad restaurant. His space helmet may look more like a welding mask, but that is all part of the appeal.

Gemini Giant

After a stop at an old motel in Joliet for the night, it was just over an hour before we began hitting the outskirts of Chicago, and soon we spotted the famous SearsTower.

At the wheel into Chicago

Except, its not called the Sears Tower anymore – it was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009. For me, it was the most recognisable structure in the city, having seen it on so many films and television programmes over the years. We knew the Route 66 ended somewhere near it, so we used the towering structure as a point of reference to guide us into the city centre.

The Sears Tower guiding us in

It was strange pulling into the multi-storey car park we found, close to one of the city’s elevated railways with the noisy trains clattering by. We pulled into a space, and turned the engine off. For us, and the car, Route 66, bar finding the final sign, was over. A huge drive across the United States, from the southwest corner to the north east, had clocked up 2,789 miles on the car since I reset the trip computer as I pulled out of the hire car centre at LAX.

Some serious miles are clocking up!

We let the car have a well-earned rest as we set off to see the sights of the Windy City for the day, starting off with a search for the end of the 66. It was a walk that was to take us to the edge of Lake Michigan – as that’s where I had been told there would be some form of sign or plaque – but to get there we had to walk through the main gardens where there was a huge food festival taking place. Amid the smells and sounds of cultures from around the world, Ian and I set about trying to find both the official end to the road, but also to find the silver ‘bean’, a nickname given to Cloud Gate, a sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor.

We made it to Chicago!

Both were difficult to find, and we both found ourselves walking around for a while, asking police officers and marina officials for directions. There were conflicting views on where the official end to Route 66 was located, but firm directions to the ‘bean’ structure.

A dip (of the toe!) in Lake Michigan

After dipping our toes into Lake Michigan, marking the furthest point we could go from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the end of the road in Chicago, we followed the crowds to Millennium Park and easily spotted the shiny silver structure.

The Bean

It really is quite a spectacular structure. Its far bigger than I imagined, the backdrop of skyscrapers seeming to dwarf if, but up close it towers above the hundreds of tourists who gather below. Its impressive for more than just its size and appearance, which raises questions as to how such a shape could be built, seemingly without joins and construction marks, but also because of the unique views of the city reflected on the surface. As a result, from some angles the sculpture appears to blend in to the background, the edges blurred as the reflection blends into the horizon.

Weird reflections

Underneath, you can walk through and take in the way the polished surfaces distort the reflections, sometimes making it hard to actually work out where you are when it comes to spotting yourself on the structure. It also provides for some peculiar photographs.

Big bean

Said to have been inspired by liquid mercury, to me it resembled something that had landed in Chicago from outer space, something more fitting to a huge prop from a sci-fi movie blockbuster, but I loved it. It was welcomed by people in the city from the moment it was unveiled, and overall its loved by tourists. And that’s one of the reasons why it has to be cleaned down and polished twice a day – trying to find a nice spot for a fingerprint-less photo was easier said than done. But we’ll let Anish Kapoor off for that – he had other things to get on with, including a design for the huge red tower at the Olympic Park in London.

A storm brews over the Windy City

As we took the walkway towards the Art Institute of Chicago, we noticed the sky was rapidly turning a deep, dark shade of grey. A view down one of the long streets stretching into the distance revealed a bright haze at the end of it. It was a sheet of rain, accompanied by a loud clap of thunder. We knew it was time to move, and quick. We headed back to Grant Park and towards the huge water fountains, the wind picking up rapidly and ensuring Chicago lived up to its nickname. Suddenly, another loud succession of thunderclaps, flashes of lightning, and huge blobs of rain began to fall.

Thunderbolts and lightning…very, very frightning!

It was a storm that came from nowhere, but drenched anyone without cover. The busy park quickly emptied of food festival-goers, all of whom had no dived for cover under marquees and tents set up around the site. Ian and I joined them, watching as wave after wave of heavy rain lashed down, and forked lightning lit up the sky. It was a storm that seemed to hover over Chicago, swirling around the skyline for around half an hour before slowly drifting away.

Grub up, under a shelter!

It was time that Ian and I didn’t really have to waste, but we made the most of the predicament by buying a couple of burgers from one of the park stalls and doing the best we could to shelter out of the storm by cowering under the small shelter provided by the stall’s roof and guttering.

As the rain slowed, our search for the end of Route 66 continued, again with various people struggling to show us the right way. After crossing the busy Lake Shore Drive for a second time, and with no sign of the elusive sign, we gave up and decided to head back towards the Willis Tower. We walked back up the road where we’d walked along a couple of hours before after leaving the car, and we paused to use some free wifi outside a coffee shop to do one last search to see where the road officially ended. After all, we probably won’t be completing the drive again anytime soon.

“It says its down here, in this street,” I said to Ian, trying to juggle a laptop, a phone and bag in the middle of a path full of business people and tourists.

And then we saw it. Up on a lamppost, about 12ft above the path, and what we’d managed to walk underneath completely oblivious just a few hours before.

“END – Historic Route” it said, the familiar brown sign we have been following from the Pacific Ocean.

We’d done it, we’d completed one of the most famous drives in the world, and we marked it with a photograph below the famous roadsign as proof. Our destination was reached, and we celebrated with a trip to the top of the Willis Tower.

Officially at the other end of Route 66!

It was yet another tall building to add to my list of tall buildings visited during this trip around the world, but this one is among the most impressive. At 1,730ft tall, it’s the tallest building in the United States, and with it being just a bit taller than the World Financial Center in Shanghai, it’s the tallest building I will have the pleasure of visiting during this trip around the world.

View from the former Sears Tower

Particularly enjoyable as part of the visit is the history of the building, being fed to visitors from the moment you first walk through the doors. There are a number of incredibly high speed lifts that whiz you to the top, to an observation deck 103 floors above the city. The view is understandably spectacular, offering views across Illinois and Lake Michigan to Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin on a clear day. Amazingly, people at this height can even feel the building sway on a windy day, but thankfully the earlier storm had well passed by the time we reached to top of this iconic building.

Now, I’ve previously mentioned how the novelty of going to the top of tall buildings can wear off after a while. Well, the Willis Tower has done something to interest even the most hardened observation deck visitors – they’ve installed retractable glass cubicles that jut out over the ground some 412 metres below.

Sitting on top of the city!

And, even better, it costs no extra to step out onto the glass, watching as the edge of the building disappears below you, leaving just a thin surface of transparent molten sand between you and certain death. It is quite a feeling to actually step out, mainly as, with a fully transparent glass canopy around you, it genuinely feels like you are stepping out of the building and into thin air.

Vertigo, anyone?!

It provoked some humorous, staggered, nervous walks from others as they gingerly walked out over the drop. I looked down as the edge of this famous building stretched down to the ground below me. Ian managed to overcome his apprehensions about it too, and we got some great photos of us both in opposing pods. Stepping out of the side of the third tallest building in the world was certainly a memorable experience.

Ian on the Ledge

But we had to get back down to Earth. Our journey along the Route 66 was complete, but our roadtrip across America was far from complete. The Atlantic Ocean beckons – and there is plenty of driving to do if we are to make it on time.

We got back into the car and set out through the Chicago rush hour to meet the Interstate, and a long drive into the early hours across Indiana and Ohio. But on the way to the East Coast, there’s a special place that’s close to our hearts we need to visit…

Is This The Way To Amarillo? (and St Louis?)

Is this the way?!

I might be getting further from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood on Route 66, but I have just met my first movie star.

Well, I say movie star – she was actually the inspiration for a movie star, in the form of Sally, the blue motor from the film Cars.

Dawn – a movie star. All will be revealed!

Her name is Dawn, the owner of the Rock Café, about an hour north of Oklahoma City, but her story of determination and achievement rivals that of any great movie happy ending. So much so, that John Lasseter, the movie great behind Pixar, Toy Story and Monsters Inc, was so moved by her tale, that he based a complete character in his film Cars on her.

New Mexico-bound

It was one of many stops during two long days of driving that have taken Ian and I from the outer edge of the Grand Canyon in the west, through the Indian Navajo regions and deserts of Arizona, across New Mexico and now more than halfway along the famous route 66 towards Chicago.

It has been a journey of contrasting landscapes, mixing between wide expanses of nothingness, interspersed with a few hills, to mountainous regions of forests, rivers and greenery that glide by the windows of our Ford Fusion as we make our way east.

Navajo land

One of the interesting stops was at a Navajo village, set beside a rocky outcrop which was adorned with old paintings and advertisements from the glory years of Route 66. Around a giant tepee and set in wooden shops and stalls, Navajo Indian families tempt tourists in with typical headdress and moccasin souvenirs. For the next couple of hours, we would see many typical Navajo homes and ranches dotted alongside the road, taking us on to Albuquerque and a lunch stop for some typically Mexican food.

New Mexico was an interesting state to pass through, and very much a place where, for the first time, it no longer felt like I was in the United States.

Cacti and little houses – New Mexico

The typical American wood-clad houses and neighbourhoods had changed into much smaller and low-rise homes with a far from typical American appearance. They reminded me of the small terracotta-coloured homes you would find in Mediterranean or Morocco, and I’m presuming what you would find in Mexico, although I have never been there to back up that assumption.

Either way, travelling through the state at times felt like we had been transported to another country somewhere, but with Texas on the horizon, it is only a matter of time before the big, brash normality of the USA is restored.

The continental divide – where rain drains to Atlantic or Pacific either side of the line

Life on the road is becoming increasingly normal as we eat up the miles. Ian and I are sharing the driving, doing anything up to five or six hour stints behind the wheel. It is not uncommon for us to fill up the tank, sit behind the wheel and drive until the gas has all been burnt, only stopping again to fill up once more or grab a bite to eat – or to top up on the caffeine levels thanks to copious amounts of cheap coffee you can buy at the service stations.

Not only that, you get a wide range of different flavoured creams to pour into it. So far, the ‘chocolate, Irish Cream, hazelnut and French Vanilla’ concoction I produced during one particular coffee chemistry routine at the pumps has been my favourite – and you get a bucket-sized cup of the stuff for less than a pound. Take that, Starbucks!

Thumbs up on the road!

Much of the driving in the early part of the roadtrip was done along the Interstate system to save a bit of time and keep to our tight schedule, but thanks to some long drives into the night, we’re now dipping on and off the old Route 66 much more.

Woaah, we’re halfway there….

One of those drives took us through Texas in complete darkness, including a point where we crossed the halfway point on the route at Adrian. With 1,139 miles either side of us, the Pacific to the left, Chicago and the lakes to the right, we knew that we were making good progress.

There were lighter moments too, including our arrival into Amarillo. Sadly, with it being so late at night, we couldn’t stop properly to have a look around at the town made so famous by ‘that’ song. We did, however, find a copy of the single hidden in my iTunes library on my laptop, and thanks to a double-ended headphone jack, played it on repeat a few times as we cruised through the centre of the town. Well, it would have been rude not too.

We found it!

With no sign of sweet Marie waiting for me, or Ian for that matter, we continued on to Oklahoma, a state where we use much more of the original Route 66 thanks to the tolls introduced on its turnpike and highway system. Besides, it gave us many more chances to see the beautiful old towns and villages that this famous road passes through, many of which were founded purely to service the traffic that once made its way through in such large numbers.

An old Route 66 gas station being restored

Originally known as the Will Rogers Highway, Route 66 was built to serve as a major path for those who migrated west at times of great hardship, looking for a new future and money away from the populous cities in the east.

People doing business along the route became prosperous thanks to the growing popularity of the highway, and up sprang huge numbers of service stations, cafes, restaurants, truck stops and diners. But, with the rise of the Interstate Highway System, traffic was gradually taken away from the 66, and with it the livelihoods of thousands of people who made a living and depended on the through trade.

Some originals still survive

Many of those former businesses now stand empty, disused and dilapidated along the roadside. Once busy villages and towns full of neon signs and life have become empty shells, a ghostly reminder of how the boom and bust lifestyle of those times still have an impact even now. It is a sad sight to pass by former gas stations and diners where the signs have faded, the roof has caved in and windows have long been smashed. It is impossible to pass by and not think of how it all must have been during the Route 66’s heyday.

But there is a growing band of people now fighting to keep the highway alive, and indeed, in many villages, those sites of historic interest – the former gas stations and eateries that once fuelled a migrating nation – are being restored and repaired as a lasting attraction and reminder of the road’s importance.

The Rock Cafe…and Sally!

Which brings me on to The Rock Café, which was established in 1939 at the dawn of the motor age and a time when Americans were starting to move around their country. The venue is even built with rock excavated during the building of the road.

Dawn Welch bought the struggling café in 1993 as visitor numbers dwindled when traffic on the 66 began to dry up. But where other small towns and villages along the famous road were being deserted, Dawn went against the flow of businesses heading back to the big city. She turned around the café’s fortunes, serving good food, a big welcome and plenty of nostalgia and memories for people making the long trip.

Just one of Dawn’s messages and gifts from John Lasseter and Pixar

Indeed, it was her passion and commitment that inspired John Lasseter and his team when they stopped by while researching for the film Cars. So taken by her personality and dedication, they would go on to visit many times, basing the character Sally Carrera, the blue car, upon Dawn.

“When you watch the film, there are so many little things that they picked up on from me and included in the plot, even right through to problems with my neon sign,” she says, smiling at me from an opposite table.

And so all was going well – the walls were full of momentos and nik naks from the glory years of the 66, celebrities would have their photos on display, and for anyone who was travelling from west to east, the venue became a ‘must visit’ before or after hitting Oklahoma City’s busy streets.

Heartbreak

But disaster struck in 2008. Her entire livelihood burned to the ground in just a few hours. All that was left standing was the original stone walls, a few charred remains and the trusty original grill, affectionately known as Betsy, which defiantly remained in situ in the kitchen where it has prepared more than five million burgers since being put in place in 1939.

Firefighter tributes and thanks on the wall

For most people, the nightmare of that night would end the dream, but not Dawn. When most experts were telling her to bulldoze the remains and start again, Dawn was defiant.

“It was just a fire, not the end of Rock Café,” she told one reporter at the time.

Tasty lunches being served again

A year later, she proved good to her promise of rebuilding the café within the original walls. A broom, almost worn to a stump during the clean-up, frames photographs of the damage and helmets worn by firefighters as they tackled the blaze on the wall of the new café. Some of the charred Route 66 books sit on shelves as a reminder of the inferno which once took hold on the spot where they now stand. Betsy the grill is once again cooking some of the finest food around, to the delight of diners from across the world.

Betsy the grill still churns out the tasty food

“Which t-shirt do you think we should sell?” Dawn asks me soon after I have taken my seat at the dining table, pushing her laptop under my nose.

There are two designs – a red shirt with a white motif depicting the grill, Route 66 logo and ‘Betsy’ draped across a grill. I told her to go for the one including the grill – with the advice that it is a major selling point of the café that she should embrace and make much more of a feature of.

“You’re right,” she beamed. “That t-shirt it is,”

With Dawn at the Rock Cafe

And so somehow, I had now decided which t-shirt one of the most famous cafes on Route 66 will be selling from now on. Dawns enthusiasm for her business, her customers and the famous road that passes by the window is infectious. It is easy to see why one of Hollywood’s most famous film producers wanted to include her in a movie, and Lasseter’s personal messages around the restaurant are proof of their close friendship.

Messages in the bathroom

After a very good cheeseburger and fries, prepared on Betsy of course, it was time to move on. As is tradition, and indeed encouraged by Dawn and her team, I signed my name on the wall of the bathroom, a lasting mark of my journey that joined the countless others who had passed through before me.

Leaving my mark…

From Oklahoma City, Route 66 turns north and up into Kansas, although not for long. Infact, we took more time taking photographs to document our arrival in yet another state than we did actually on the move through it – just 30 miles or so meant we left almost as quickly as we arrived.

Kansas…briefly

It was about an hour in the state, full of farms and rural fields evoking memories of the Wizard of Oz. Thankfully, there were no tornados, but sadly no yellow brick road either – just another long leg of driving through Missouri and up to St Louis.

McDonalds logos are a bit different in St Louis…

The skyline is dominated by the Gateway Arch, which at 630ft, is the tallest man made monument in the United States. Built on the west bank of the Mississippi River, it commemorates Thomas Jefferson and St. Louis’ role in the westward expansion of the United States.

Top of the arch

With just a couple of hours in the city, we decided it was the main attraction to see and bought a ticket for perhaps one of the strangest forms of transport on my trip. Thanks to the narrow design of the arch, you are transported to the top inside a peculiar monorail-type machine, where groups of four are ushered into pods that somehow stack up on top of each other as they cleverly move around the structure to the top.

St Louis from above

Every few moments, the pods are all mechanically moved to keep them upright, jolting and rocking as the four minute journey inches everyone to the top for spectacular views across two states. Below, paddle steamers that once filled the Mississippi sail around with a few tourists onboard, taking in the views from the brown-coloured river.

Long way down

The windows at the top were small and narrow, affording just enough room to look straight down below for a strange feeling of suspension, with nothing directly below us thanks to the clever design. Headroom was limited at times, but it was definitely a great half an hour of taking in the vista.

Mud pie, anyone?!

Heading back to the car, we stopped to touch the Mississippi, only to be surprised at finding a number of dead fish on the banks of the river. It turns out the waterway can be particularly polluted in places, and it was sad to see so much wildlife suffering the effects. We turned around and headed back to the car, looking back at the arch. From the bottom, it can look like some kind of futuristic space vehicle, something from a science fiction movie that has landed in the centre of the city.

Back at the car, the final leg of this long road journey to Chicago was upon us. We could almost hear a groan from beneath the Ford badge as we approached to wake our transport from its brief slumber. Either that, or Ian’s getting hungry again.

Getting Our Kicks On Route 66

The start of the Grand Canyon

Five hundred miles into the world’s greatest road trip, and already the landscape that surrounds the western end of America’s Route 66 has provided plenty to smile about.

From the swaying palm trees of LA, the baron plains of the Nevada desert and the bright lights of Las Vegas, its been an exciting few days – and today gave us perhaps one of the most spectacular natural features on Earth to look at.

The Grand Canyon was a must-do for us, despite time being against us if we are to reach our goal of the East Coast within six days. Its one of the planet’s most powerful and inspiring landscapes, created completely by Mother Nature, and somewhere I have always wanted to visit. There was no way it was going to be missed off the trip for the sake of the extra five hours it would take to make the detour.

Lake Mead comes into view

But first there was a wonder of another kind to visit, and this time its one of a manmade variety. The Hoover Dam is just 30 miles south of Vegas, and is one of the world’s greatest engineering feats. It pauses the Colorado River in its tracks, provides irrigation, helps prevent flooding and enables a huge swathe of the western United States to draw power from the phenomenal power of water.

The magnificent Hoover Dam

Built between 1931 and 1936, 21,000 workers helped construct the huge dam. It came at a huge cost, both financially and in human life – more than 100 people died during the building phase. Its sweeping, arched wall rises 726.4 feet from the base, topped off with what was once the main road between Las Vegas and Phoenix. Now, a new bypass goes over a breathtaking bridge which links both sides of the deep canyon. Its known as the Colorado River Bridge, and takes traffic across with both sides blanked off to prevent motorists becoming distracted by the impressive dam that dominates the view from whichever angle you look at it.

Passing under the huge new bypass bridge

And as we passed underneath the mammoth bridge to our right, the huge dam came into view on the left. At first it didn’t seem as huge as I remember from looking at photos or watching it take a starring role in the Transformers movie, but then I could only see a tiny part of it from the passenger seat of our Ford Fusion.

First glimpse of the dam

After parking up the car and stepping into the searing desert heat, we walked down to the road and along the top of the dam. It was surprising how low the wall was which separates the walkway from the sheer drop down the entire side of the structure to the pumping and generator stations at the bottom. Around them, the water visibly swirls as millions of gallons of H2O makes its way through the pipes and turbines at up to 85mph, generating up to 2,080 megawatts in the process, before reforming into the Colorado River and ultimately making its way towards the coast. There are 17 huge turbines, providing an annual power output of around 4 billion Kilowatt-hours to cities as far away as Los Angeles.

A long way down

The dam is also where two states meet, with clocks on the main inlet towers showing the local time for both Nevada and the neighbouring Arizona. At the centre of the dam, a plaque marking how it is officially classed as a modern wonder of the United States. The point offers perhaps the best view of Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir created as a result of the dam being built. It was clear how the drought in the area had taken hold, with a white deposit on the rock faces, a bit like a bathtub mark left behind by minerals, showing the usual level of the water.

Lake Mead. Dam it.

It led me to think about what would happen if there was a sustained period of heavy rainfall, and the water level was to rise above the watermark to the height of the dam. Apparently, an overflow system, known as spillways, have been built into the design, a bit like the little overflow hole you find in sinks to stop you flooding the bathroom. Obviously, its on a slightly bigger scale, with millions of gallons of water being allowed to flow through special channels to bypass the dam. The system has only been used twice apparently, and that’s probably a good thing – the force of water gushing through the world’s biggest overflow pipe apparently wrecks the concrete and rock linings inside, leading to a fairly hefty patch up job afterwards.

It took five years to build the colossal structure, and when finished, the Hoover Dam stood as the largest electric-power generating site in the world, as well as the largest structure made out of concrete. Its an amazing thought when looking from above that what we were standing on contained enough concrete to build a road from San Francisco to New York, a fairly hefty six and a half million tonnes of the stuff.

Behind the dam

After an hour of wandering around the top of the dam, marvelling at the work that had clearly gone on many years ago to design and build it within the rock formations around it, it was time to move on. We left the car park and drove along the road across the top of the structure, thinking it would lead us out and away, only to come to a dead end.

The Colorado River continues on its way…as do we

“Oh well, I can say I drove across it as well as walked it,” joked Ian, looking for a place to turn around. We’d momentarily crossed into Arizona, but were soon saying hello to Nevada again as we searched for the road to take us across the new bridge and on towards the Grand Canyon.

To make up a bit of time, we cheated a little. Of course, the old Route 66 isn’t recognised anymore, with the road being declassified, but the giant Interstate system which took over does closely follow the old route. Infact, parts of it were built over the old 66, and for the hundreds of miles in the West until we reach Oklahoma, the Interstate 40 follows the old roadway, frequently crossing or going under the motorway of yesteryear. It means we can make up time by nipping on and off the Interstate to visit places of interest along the way, such as the countless small towns and villages that came into existence purely because of the through trade given to them by the 66.

Former Route 66 town

One of them was the town of Seligman, halfway between Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and so a great little place for us to break our journey, stretch our legs and take in a bit of nostalgia. It has the feel of a town whose heyday was a long time ago, yet is still dining out on its Route 66 past. There is an abnormally high number of shops and stores, still plying for the trade afforded to them by people like Ian and I, who have stopped off to have a look at what the R66 towns used to be like.

Its as if many of the store owners set out to have theirs as the quirkiest, most photographed outlet in the town, with anything from wacky signs to half an aircraft fastened to the wooden cladding and beams. On one building, a mileage chart showing how there was still 1,737 miles to go before we reach Chicago in a few days time. Right now, in the intense heat and dust of the Arizona desert, the Windy City seems a long way off.

Seligman

We stopped for a couple of drinks and snacks at one of the shops, opting to give them some of the trade they seem to so desperately need, as opposed to the countless multinational petrol stations dotted along the Interstates.

A quick breather!

It was another two hours of driving along endless straight roads through deserts and very flat scrubland before we reached the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, pulling up at a window with a very cheery park ranger and handing over the $25 admission fee. The road carried on to a car park, full of campervans and other motorists from across the States and as far afield as Argentina.

Heading to the Grand Canyon

We followed signs to Mather Point, which apparently gave a view of the canyon. I say apparently, because up to now there has been no sign at all that we were anywhere but a flat part of the Arizona countryside. With mountains, you get to see the land changing, gradually getting more and more mountainous. When you approach a major river, more often than not you’ll get a glimpse of it somewhere as you get nearby. A volcano usually has a conical appearance that you can see miles away – you get the picture. Here, there was nothing.

Breathtaking

Nothing, that is, until you reach a railing and some trees. That’s where the ground, terra firma, the rock I am standing on, just falls down to a mile below me. A huge expanse of the Earth’s crust appears to be missing, instead creating a strange, sub-ground level mountain range. As holes in the ground go, this one is certainly something to behold. I was in awe. Most people I had spoken to who have visited this huge crack in the ground had all told me the same, that is something hard to understand. It was certainly the case.

The Grand Canyon

My head was struggling to work out exactly what was going on in front of me. It was telling me I was at the top of some sort of mountain, looking out over a range below me, yet I had not climbed any mountains nor noticeably gained any altitude. Instead, far, far below and in the distance, the sun was glinting off the surface of a river, the Colorado River, and the creator of this incredible natural wonder.

Ian and I taking in the view

It’s the mind blowing scale of the Grand Canyon that has the effect on anyone who visits. Walking to a pinnacle that juts out just enough to enable you to look straight down into the bowels of the earth, I looked out ahead of me. Across the other side of the canyon, the north rim, some 10 miles away as the crow flies, but what would require a drive of more than 200 miles to reach by road.

The giant scale is pretty hard to show…

I couldn’t stop looking out, trying to comprehend the scale of what sprawled out in front of me. It was one of those moments when, as a mere human being and as a guest on the planet, you can feel very, very small and insignificant. A bit like when you try to get your head around how many stars and potential for other planets there are in the Universe, this was something that can almost mess with your mind.

Colorado River flows far, far below

Thankfully, there was plenty of information on hand to explain how a giant crack can seemingly appear in the surface of the earth the way it has. In a nutshell, its all down to the way the plates that form the Earth moved together, creating the layers of different rock, which were then cut away by the eroding force of the river over millions of years.

Shadowlands

But the information can just baffle your mind even more, like the fact that the rock you can see in the lower layers can be up to 1,840 million years old. Hard to get your head around the time involved.

Driving further along the south rim afforded us more spectacular views of the Grand Canyon, and as we progressed a few miles east, the valley widened slightly to give more expansive views of the river which over the millions of years before has cut its way through the rock.

A bit close to the edge!

With the sun beginning to get lower in the sky, we knew time was getting on and we still had the most substantial part of the drive ahead of us.

The sun begins to set over the Canyon

We thought we’d be on our way by the mid afternoon, but as we’re finding along the way, sometimes the journey can take a lot longer than planned. There was a growing concern we might struggle to make it across to the east coast in the timeframe we’d set, and so we knew we had some long stretches of driving ahead to make up time. But we said farewell to the Grand Canyon and watched through the window as the Arizona landscape showed us the start of the fantastic feature, with the canyon stretching out like veins across the surface. Memorable.

A good view of the Colorado River on the way out

We set off towards the Interstate, aiming to reach a point of interest marked on our map as ‘Meteor Crater’. Now, its not everyday you get to see a meteor crater, and with two blokes on a road trip, of course we had to go and see it. We were determined to get to see it before darkness fell completely, but by the time we reached Flagstaff, still some 40 miles away from said crater, the sun was rapidly disappearing over the horizon. But still we pressed on, arriving at the turn off with just about enough light to see over the surrounding fields. Unfortunately, it was also a quiet country road at about the right time of the evening for the local rabbits to be out and about looking for dinner.

Never tired of views like this

Sadly, one of them, a young looking little thing, went looking for food far too close to the front of my oncoming car. I could see there was a brief moment of confusion from the animal, a fleeting thought of ‘left or right’ before making the fatal mistake of trying to run back to where it had come from. Bad move.

With a thud, it disappeared underneath me. I immediately put my head in my hands on the steering wheel, trying to see in my wing mirror if by some miracle the rabbit had made it out of the back without being squashed by a wheel. I couldn’t see. I felt awful.

I know that from time to time, these things happen – after all, I never set out to be a rabbit killer. But I love animals, and its always hard knowing something has just met its end thanks to me. Unless it’s a wasp or a mosquito, because they don’t count.

We continued following the signs to the meteor crater, with Ian telling me not to worry about the rabbit. By now, its getting properly dark, and arriving at the gates to the crater, the place had closed an hour earlier anyway. We did, however, get to see the outline of the mound of earth created by the impact. Whether the view was worth the life of a poor baby rabbit was debateable. We turned around and headed back to the Interstate.

“Now just go careful, we don’t want any more casualties,” Ian joked as we set off back in the opposite direction along the single lane road, knowing we’d probably have to pass a horrible mess in the road that I had created.

“Knowing my luck, I’ll wipe out mum as she’s out investigating where her little Johnny has got himself to,” I joked.

It was a joke I was I hadn’t made. Approaching around the same point that I had wiped out baby bunny, suddenly a large grey figure jumped out of the bushes to the right of the road, about five metres in front of me. There was no time to react.

Thud.

“Woah, there goes another one,” laughed Laingy in his brilliant Aussie accent.

I have to admit, I laughed with him, mainly out of surprise at the chances of such a coincidence happening. I felt, and still feel, dreadful about what happened, but there was genuinely nothing I could have done. And now, according to Laingy, I’m a rabbit serial killer.

We stopped at a Dennys a few miles down the road, mainly to eat but to also inspect the car for any damage. Thankfully there wasn’t any, and we tucked into a huge meal. We’d originally planned to reach New Mexico by the end of the day, staying around Albuquerque, but progress was slow thanks to our sightseeing. Time was getting on, and we’d eaten far too much, yet again underestimating American portions. Ian came up with a great idea.

“Shall we just stay somewhere around here, have an early night and get away early in the morning?”

I agreed, and we found ourselves a motel in Winslow, Arizona. Tomorrow will be a very long day of driving.