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…