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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
“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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.