The time on this trip is really flying in, Canada Day marked the end of my third week on the road and also the start of my final week away. Its an odd sort of feeling as Canada has proved so far to be the same only different. What I mean is that there are a lot of familiar things yet they can all be done differently. Yet again I find out that companies I thought were Belfast/NI only are global – my first incarnation of this was when I was a kid and was surprised to see England had Woolworth shops!
The trip has taken a lot out of me, the rest days are becoming more frequent and we are back in the land of the mosquito bites!
Trying to learn from my experiences in Argentina I went down to the Saskatoon Jazz Festival with enough chemicals to mark me out as a target for WMD inspectors. Saskatoon is a great place but Ive only seen it in the summer and trust me I probably wouldnt want to see it in winter. Its like the place hibernates for 6 months of the year then explodes into colour, sound, taste and everything else that has been hidden away. The whole town seems to want to experience all life has to offer before the Winter sets in again. It makes it an interesting and lively place. Its where my official residence is during my stay in Canada (in case the border officials are reading) but the place Ive probably spent the least time in.
All too soon we would have to leave again for the Winnipeg folk festival for the guts of a week although we did get to see Canada Day out in the park and afterwards with friends and family.
Having worked for a Canadian company in a previous life I did know about Canada Day so was interested to see how people celebrated it. I had a hog in a bap and an elephants ear. All quite traditional so Im told.
As was the barbecue in a bag. It looked revolting, you open a packet of doritos (silver foil bag naturally – other nacho chips may be available) and pour in some meat and cheese and add a spoon. You then add in some hot sauce which apparently goes with everything and then just shovel it into your gub as you walk around. Im sure somebody somewhere will have a proper description of how to serve and eat but thats it in a nutshell.
I had once spent Independence Day in the USA, I went to Disneyworld where a hurricane hit. It was almost empty apart from a few kids who had bought bodyboard type things and were then surfing down main street. I then made the mistake of going to watch the film Independence Day on Independence Day, in America. A lot less laughing during the film than when I saw it again back home but definitely more whooping and hollering. A hell of a lot more calls of ‘Go Marines’ and ‘USA, USA, USA’ etc. To be honest after the film I wanted to get the hell away from there before they got out into the car park and started shooting up into the sky.
We had briefly considered packing up the gear from the Diefenbacker park stage and just hitting the road for the 9 hour drive to Winnipeg but saw sense and planned to get up early in the morning and head East. We had difficulty with the early in the morning bit as well.
I once turned down a trip to Canada as the way work schedule worked out I would have to drive pretty much across country from Calgary to Toronto and figured that would take 2 weeks and I only had 10 days. The way we have been driving, it would have been about 2 days! The roads here have to be driven to be believed. Long, straight, flat and bugger all people here. The danger would be falling asleep so it was 9 hours of almost arse numbing tedium to Winnipeg interspersed with splash and dash stops, sometimes petrol as well and of course, food.
The air around Winnipeg was full of the most beautiful dragonflies I had ever seen. These were the full size, real deal. Clouds of them shimmering blue in the lovely warm evening light.
Pity we were going through said clouds at about 80mph.
Winnipeg has the reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in Canada. Although thats all relative and there are dangerous spots. One thing I would say though is that if Id only seen Toronto and Winnipeg on this trip Id probably have classified Canada as been there and done that. I now see why a lot of the city dwellers aspire to a prairie life and call it the real Canada. Im very lucky to have experienced this and hope to do so again and maybe travel up North and or into the Rockies on the next trip.
Back to Winnipeg, we got in at a late hour and as I hadnt booked the accommodation I didnt know what I was in for. We were all put in a student house belonging to the University of Winnipeg. Not too bad as accommodation goes if you ignore the smoke alarms sitting on the chair, the mousetraps in the corner of the room, the no air conditioning, 40 odd degree heat and the one working shower between 10 rooms carry on. OK on the second day we had two working showers.
So important wee travelling tip, if staying in a hostel/campsite whatever get your shower at night. Another caveat to that, dont do what I did in a Geneva campsite by paying for a shower token, turning the shower on, getting the temperature just right, turning the shower off, getting bollock naked then jumping in and turning what can only be described as skin stripping ice old water. Sometimes the dont waste water environmental message has to be overlooked!
One other issue with the festival was that no photos during the workshops so I was again free to wander about the place during the day.
The pancake house down in the Forks area was highly recommended so we went down for breakfast on the Sunday morning. Id highly recommend it if you are there
At this point I was left on my own and would like to apologise profusely to the city and people of Belfast Northern Ireland. I ranted earlier about how nothing is open in Belfast on a sunday but Winnipeg this sunday morning made Belfast look like Metropolis. To be fair though it was the sunday of the Canada Day weekend and there was no-one here. And when I say no-one I really mean no-one, I felt like I was Will Smith in I Am Legend at times, wandering around with nobody else here. Canada is closed, come back tomorrow.
As usual when we arrived the sun was shining and not a cloud in the sky, now its dull and overcast and useless for tourist type photos. Thats been the problem this whole trip, what I had planned to do and what I actually have done have never overlapped. I thought climate change was only an issue with Northern Ireland ‘summers’, I see its now a reality everywhere.
So wandering round with only dull skies to photograph I just happened to walk past the Winnipeg Goldeneyes baseball ground so thought Id take a look in. Id always wanted to see a live baseball game but never had the opportunity. Similarly with NBA (the previous lockout was on when I had the chance) and the NFL (teams playing away). This time I was 20 mins late but because of the rain which hadnt started falling yet, the game was delayed. Its funny you laugh when you hear that nobody plays here in the rain, thats because in Ireland we get lovely light soft rain most of the time, today in July there were thunderstorms with hailstones the size of marbles. Ok maybe the rain is slightly different here.
Which was much in evidence due to the flooding mentioned earlier in the trip and even here where the two rivers meet the steps just went down into brown muddy fast flowing rivers and some 10 feet above the riverside walkway.
I paid my 10 bucks and rushed up to my seat to get the hot dog that seems to go with ballgames.
Then the rain came down, and my God did it rain. An hour later we were ready to start. An hour after that I realised we had started. An hour after that when the blue skies returned I thought my legs would never work again.
Dont get me wrong, for 10 bucks you can sit all day in the sun, drink cold beer, eat hot dogs and fill in stat sheets that look like world cup wall planners but its definitely up there with cricket in the arse numbingly tedious sports category.
2 hours in and we were a third the way through. I love to get a bargain and on an hourly rate this would be hard to beat but only 4 runs had been scored. I decided Id seen enough baseball when I yearned for the 9 hour driving tedium! Afterwards in the next 3 hours between the two teams they managed to score another run. This wasnt Major League Baseball and perhaps Im being a little unfair as with a few mates and a few beers or the kids and a picnic it wouldnt be a bad day out but I think I’ve been there and done that for baseball.
The weather had cleared up so I wandered back to the house taking a few tourism type photos on the way back. With the soaking I got from sitting down on the ball park seats, it was easy to hide the sweat stains in the arse of my shorts in 35C heat. Pity it took me 3 hours and 2 coffee shops to get back to the house and they had dry seats. Note to self to ditch the light grey shorts which have dark grey patches looking like Id pissed myself every time the temperature goes above 25C.
I was a bit of a sorry state the next day, Id obviously been bitten by mosquitos the day before at some point and my leg had taken a bad reaction to a couple of the bites. One in particular had grown to a blister about an inch in diameter and definitely needed treatment. I decided it would be another rest day so a bit of shopping in and around the house and some tidying up some loose ends from home on the net. It was back to my good mate Tim Hortons place for breakfast and I thought Id call into the local drug store for some cotton wool etc to dress the blister once Id burst it.
As usual I picked the line with the person who couldnt understand what the 3 for 2 offer meant, the person with the stuff with no barcodes on it, the person who couldnt remember their debit card pin and the old lady with 14 tins of catfood and a huge bag of margarita mix. No seriously you couldnt make this shit up.
All I had was a 99 cent bag of cotton wool balls FFS. My mood wasnt lightened when the girl on the till asked if I was part of the over 55 discount scheme. I suppose I should have said yes and got my discount but it took all my strength to just say the word ‘No’ and not try to beat her to death with my cotton wool balls.
At least the nuclear alert status had been removed and the people had returned to the streets, as had the heat and the thunderstorms so I spent the rest of the day wondering if I could move rooms and just put me and my stuff in the massive fridges in the kitchen. They were only filled with beer and pizza anyway!
If Im totally honest I dont do mornings. Well I’ll rephrase that, I dont do mornings without a strong coffee. Ive sort of detoxed on this trip slightly as most of the coffee on this trip could only be classified as a cup of hot brown. So being back in Canada and with Tim Hortons so close I thought Id go out and get breakfast there. We were staying across the road from the University of Winnipeg and as the storms had cleared and the old building was beautifully lit this morning I thought I’d go take a pic of it and then cross the road to my mate Tims for breakfast.
So took the photos, looked right, no traffic, took half a step forward and the wind from the bus wing mirror racing past blew my sunglasses down my nose. Id made it almost a month being careful to look both ways to be almost wiped out a couple of days before coming home. It really was a wake up call in all senses of the phrase. Go and sit down, have a coffee and just wait until you are more alert (which could really take a while).
If you havent travelled with this intensity before its one of the signs that you either rest up for a week or go home. Ive well documented my issues with my bad leg and at times you just have to sit down or take time out as you can be a danger to yourself. Even when I was fit and healthy – I would add good looking but thats a lie, I only had surgery on my leg, not my face there were times you had to just rest up. Ive done the being operated on away from home thing and its not pleasant, it wasnt pleasant for me and it wasnt fair on the people with me. So scrap the plans for spending the day and night taking photos and just see where the day takes me.
Well first of all it took me to Tim Hortons…
Not far away from the University is the Manitoba Legislature building, its a nice enough building with nice grounds from the outside but last night Id stayed up with a couple of the local musicians who were of French Canadian origin who filled me in on a bit of the history of the area and told me to go check it out and the grounds.
I wandered into the building and was met by two huge security guards armed to the teeth and wearing flak jackets. First thought was ‘well thats the end of the trip’ but like everyone else Ive met in Canada they were very pleasant and got me to sign in to the visitors book as I was from somewhere that had to be spelt out Just in time for the guided tour as well, plus it was cool inside and by now baking outside.
After the previous nights conversation I headed over to the French quarter and in parts it was just like walking into France. The streetnames, some of the businesses had only french names, the hotel de ville and a lot of other stuff. Canada so far had been a mix of home, england, scotland, north america and to some extent indigenous people. Here was a whole lot of French thrown into the mix. Im beginning to like this place more and more, maybe in the French quarter I can get some great bread and nice coffee!
The guys last night had said to me to check out the grounds of the Cathedral as one of them had ancestors who were the original white settlers in Canada, French ‘Voyageurs’ who transported the furs and eventually settled here. Their graves are still marked in the graveyard
Then it was back to work taking some photos at the Folk Festival meetings. Again the people here were falling over themselves to help out, something I wish a lot of people back in Ireland and the UK would take note of.
Not a lot else happened later on, apart from a final night party and session back at the house after the show. The folk there asked if we had the like of this in Ireland – food, drink, singing, musicians.. I said we did but theres usually a casket in the middle of the room!
A great nights craic was had by all oh and I happened to sing (despite my best protestations – they were the the musicians and singers – I just had a couple) in front of a multiple JUNO winner…
…I felt her pain.
At least the following morning all the showers were fixed and so it was a 9 hour road trip back home.
Id say nothing much happened but we did make a 90 km detour just for a milkshake – not quite real rock and roll but one day we’ll do the whole entourage thing and make a point of this sort of extravagance
We had one of those ‘oh shit, cops’ moments that makes you hit the brakes even though you arent speeding…. maybe I should say, maybe if you werent just doing a bit over the speed limit because you took a 90km detour just to have a milkshake. We did say 8pm for dinner didnt we? It wasnt as big a bowel relaxing moment as the off ramp in North Dakota. Nothing in my mirrors for miles then all of a sudden the rear and side view mirrors filled with white mustang flashing its lights at me. I was about to utter ‘will you look at this wa……’ when the blues and twos came on. I’ll not say my heart stopped but it wasnt far off. In the end he just wanted me out of the way, his donuts were probably on order or something to be going that speed.
Oh and a life ambition, hanging out of the window of the car, sorry if law enforcement officers are reading, I didnt really undo my seatbelt and hang out of the passenger window to take a photo of a Canadian Pacific train… What was I saying earlier about being careful when travelling?
Theres something about the 8 year old boy in you that when a train almost a mile long blows its horn and rings its bell when it sees you being a buck eejit hanging out of a window that makes it all worthwhile.
Sure where would you get it?
Firstly a couple of my usual bug bears with travelling in the US or more specifically, spending money in the US. You walk into a shop and it might say 2.99 for a large coffee so you hand over 3 dollars to be told it actually costs 3.27.
That price doesnt include tax sir.
It just doesnt.
FFS sort it out, get with the rest of the real world, if its in electronic format or stick on prices then add the sodding sales tax. If you are a hotel and quote 91 dollars then charge me 114 on my credit card then I will bloody well complain to my credit card provider in the UK. Ok I wont but its the principle of the thing.
Bloody stupid idea.
Oh and dont get me started on tipping. That 2.99 coffee now costs me 4 dollars as we tip here. Just pay your staff decent wages and include it in the price of the coffee! Its not rocket science.
How much to license this photo – 50 dollars – ok can you invoice us? Yes that will be 325 dollars total then. What? Well tax and sales and admin and issuing a paper invoice oh and we request a 500% tip at all times.
Bloody hell, travelling through the US is just a series of Ryanair purchases.
Right, got that off my chest.
Facebook is a marvellous thing, it enables me to turn my phone off and avoid all those Indian call centres, wedding price list requests, photography students looking summer jobs and the odd strange request to see if I can help photographing bull semen. (yes that is real – you really couldnt make that one up – 2 calls – each time I was travelling and in the middle of the night where I was).
Just turn on wifi and use facebook on the phone for updates.
Well thats when it does update of course, which explains why Im sitting in my boxers with a cup of coffee in my hotel room when the leaving time has been bumped forward to 9:30 and the rest of the team are in the hotel lobby.
Still they went and got me a cracker barrel breakfast – took them a bloody hour and a half but if Id got my arse out of gear quicker it wouldnt have been a problem.
Today it was all about Memphis, getting to Graceland. Its hard to meet someone who isnt an Elvis fan of some description so being this close and not going would be a waste of an opportunity. Yes its about a 4 hour detour but we may not be this way again so didnt want any regrets. The original plan was to stay in Memphis and spend the evening on Beale Street after Graceland but with the change of route home due to the flooding (including a nuclear power station – safe my arse!) and the apparently horrific crime rate in Memphis, it was wise to get on the road as soon as we can.
I had expected that Graceland would be a bit OTT but I cant really say it was that out of place. Elvis invented bling long before the word bling ever came along and certainly if I had his money, fame, good looks and status Id be a hell of a lot more tacky than he was. Again you have to remember this was in the 50s/60s/70s so totally beyond the normal for then but compared to some of the tat thats shown on MTV its quite tame.
It was a great insight into Elvis life, I was only a kid when he died and remember seeing TV pictures of people with candles outside Graceland and here am I standing in the house itself. The upstairs is still closed to visitors, the sceptics saying that when the visitors start to dwindle they will open that as well but I prefer the conspiracy theory that hes sitting up there in his rocking chair having a laugh at the rest of us.
Hes not really dead at all but working on a duet album with Michael Jackson and going out for a morning ride each day on Shergar.
Just in case he was at home we pressed the old original gate intercom to see if we could catch anyone out.
Another must see was the Lorraine Hotel, on this spot Martin Luther King was shot as he walked out of his hotel room on the second floor. Its now the National Civil Rights Museum and has a wreath where he fell and the car is still parked outside. Judging by the coach loads of people arriving and leaving this too is an important spot.
As Beale street was close we headed for a walk down it and a quick drink in one of the bars. There is a bar there just serving slush cocktails but unfortunately as we were all going to be driving at some point it was the one and only non-alcoholic one in the bar. We probably looked like aliens all asking for the non-alcoholic varieties.
The downtown area has a bad reputation and the place was swarming with cops, I suppose it is reassuring there are that many squad cars around but inevitably lead to the ‘lets get the f*ck out of dodge’. I wonder if Dodge City is nice
Doing such a momentous trip really gives you an appreciation of what the life of the interstate truckers is like, hours and hours of open highway driving, not knowing where you are sleeping and all that. Each day we drove a larger distance than is possible in Ireland in a straight line. Sooner or later you are going to end up in the water!
A few years ago I did a tour of the west coast of the USA and tried to keep off the interstates and visit some of the non-chained restaurants, hotels etc on the way. It made for a more interesting trip and ave Gorman did an ‘unchained’ trip where he did just that but with a lot of hassle.
Of course the problem with doing this is that there are few roadsigns and driving off the interstate seems to be meant for locals, not tourists. Of course if we had turned the voice on, on the sat nav we might have got by better but with the huge amount of flooding and roads closed it was inevitable that we would get caught up in it.
The other issue with this sort of travelling is that sometimes when you give yourself a cut off time for driving and just pick the nearest hotel/motel then you can end up staying somewhere where you have absolutely no clue where you are. Our first stop after Memphis was somewhere near St Louis but to this day I still have no idea where.
It does have its plus point though as you find wee places like Mount Pleasant, the town square looking like the set out of back to the future and lovely local diner where the local poetry group was meeting and doing some readings etc.
Oh and they served food as well.
For me this is pretty much the real USA, people here are very welcoming and want to hear strangers stories and have the time to sit and chat with them. I like others often judge the book by its cover and often only get to see major cities, airports etc which are impersonal in most nations but get out into the sticks and meet some real people and the attitude changes. Without doubt in every small town we were welcomed and genuinely felt guilty that we didnt have more time to spend in those communities than just sitting in some nice but bland hotel waiting for the next tour bus.
It gets to the stage you do just live out of your luggage and it was time for me to buy some new luggage. The wheels had literally come off my previous bag (bought in Chicago funnily enough) and I got a set of new ones which will probably kill my baggage allowance on the flight home. How come when you leave home with 5kg left in your allowance, and you buy nothing (ok a bottle of Jack Daniels, oh and some ice wine, oh and new socks and boxers and and) your bag is overweight on the way home.
Saying that though I did used to regularly fly with one airline which would not penalise people for being overweight leaving Belfast but would sting them severely on the way home.
As we decided to give the area involving the flooded Nuclear power station (which was safe apparently) a miss we headed North via Iowa then Minneapolis (which I still cant pronounce). This gave us the opportunity to visit the Mall of America.
Now it is argued that this can be seen from space but someone should tell the highways agency it might be worth while sticking a few signs up. The only signs we saw were within one interstate turn and by then it was too late, that was after the sat nav took us 10 miles out of the way. Even in the hotel across the road where you could see the Mall itself, people were asking for directions.
We arrived at the Mall just after closing so had something to eat – sorry no photos – I was too hungry – buffalo burger I believe, just in case you are wondering. Got a hotel across the road and then would hit the mall in the morning.
The mall was amazing, not just for the size of the place.
Oh and wee tip, if you are busting for a pee, run into the mall of america with one of your travelling companions, head straight for the row of urinals where he decides to make comment on the vastness of the mall with the immortal words ‘can you believe the size of this thing’ whilst relieving himself, you tend to find the people around you zip up quickly and head out of the bog with wet fingers.
Have to say I nearly peed all over my shoes at that comment I laughed so much…
The Mall has a funfair which would rival one of the disney resorts but we couldnt stay and only saw about 1/10th of the shops before hitting the road. We needed to get to the border for 9pm to make sure all the road crossings were open…
We raced through the flat lands of North Dakota, which has to be seen to be believed. I know people tell you its flat but you have no comprehension of the term. Even when Im out on my boat on the sea in a flat calm day you can still see coastline and mountains in the distance, this is just flat. So flat we could see the crop duster dusting the fields in the distance. They would dust, fly up and round then fly under the power lines, over the interstate and start dusting again. When he made his turn when we approached he probably thought he would time it just right to pass behind us. Of course with me hanging out the back with the camera giving the driver instructions to hold up just enough let him pass in front of us, well lets just say it was very close and I can still almost taste whatever they were spraying.
We reached the border about 10pm and Canada was closed. Sorry folks, closed for the night, try again later.
Like seriously? WTF? So we drove back the 12 miles to the nearest town and scared the shit out of the local cop by walkin up to the car in the dark and asking directions to a 24hr border post.
He did wish me well on my journey and Im sure the guy was genuine and meant well but when hes sitting in his car with his hand on his gun, its not very reassuring.
On the way to the 24hr post this stupid wee bird decided he wanted to hover over something on the road just in front of us as we were doing 70mph. We didnt get to see the aftermath, probably just disintegrated, like pigeons perhaps.
We got to the border post and it was a less arduous experience than entering the states.
Do you guys have any alcohol?
I have a bottle of Jack Daniels Single Cask I bought at the factory.
Do you guys have any livestock on board?
Are you sure?
Ok then, on you go.
Pulling out of the border post it did feel like a weight removed but we couldnt get too complacent as not more than 100 yards on a deer ran out across the road in the darkness and behind it a whole field of deer looked on.
It was all about putting the miles in then, up to Brandon and do the drive around looking for hotel at 1am in the morning. Found a lovely hotel – Victoria hotel or something like that – beautifully cooked hot breakfast – again no pics, sorry I was starving but it was eggs benedict.
Packing the car in the morning the front of the car was covered in dead mosquitos, oh and a small black bird headfirst into the headlight assembly, cartoon style with feet sticking straight out. Straight to the scene of the accident! The border guard must have seen it, he couldnt have missed it!
Finally we managed to make it back to Saskatoon.
The stats are 11 US states, 2 Canadian provinces, 2 time zones, 4642 miles driven in 11 days, one dead raccoon, one smuggled illegal immigrant dead bird, back in time to put the kettle on before band rehearsals.
Would I do it again? Standard answer is not in a million years, then ask me a week later and its a maybe and a month later I’ll be planning the next one.
Thing is though, after 3 full days in Saskatoon we are on the road again to Winnipeg for another 9 hour each way drive and a couple of days at the Winnipeg folk festival.
Ah this rock and roll lifestyle, you could get used to it…
I think my headstone should say something along the lines of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ but more likely to say ‘watch this’ or ‘I know I shouldnt be doing this but whats the worst that can happen?’
Ive been here (whereever here is) too long already as I wanted to add ‘Eh?’ at the end of that sentence.
Its hard to tell where I am or when I am or what bloody year it is. I know Im sitting in the hotel foyer in Nashville, that bit is easy, it says it on the leaflets in front of me. I havent slept in the same bed twice in almost two weeks. Now normally that would be one hell of a boast but by now it just means a pile of washing and not believing what the gps says.
It was a simple concept this trip, Saskatoon to Nashville 2-3 days of easy driving, sightseeing, looking around us, 5 days in Nashville and the same on the way back. Put into that few a words and saying it not too loud and not mentioning it to anyone with any sense in their head and it really did seem like a good idea at the time.
We started well enough, we left Saskatoon early on Friday night (I think it was Friday, I had to look it up) and hit Regina and stay at Nathans house (promised Nathan a mention in the blog, so there you go Nathan, youve got a mention and thanks again for letting us stay at your house). So Nathan had been away himself for a while so looked a bit shell shocked when we arrived just before midnight. Nathan was off up himself in the early hours of the morning, before we’d managed to prise our eyelids open. I had heard a lot about him, his trips to the world cup in South Africa and various other football games. At another time we’d probably have spent a lot of time swapping football stories over a few beers but it wasnt to be – maybe in Brazil
We had great intentions of getting up and on the road early but it was absolutely chucking it down. Id been introduced to the concept of basements in Canada, where we tend to convert attics to add extra rooms, all the houses here seem to have basements to do the same job, Nathans was superb with the TV room underground. Also its common practice here to take your shoes off going into the house, probably why all the carpets and floors look really good years on.
But you dont want to hear about that, you want to hear about the Wicklow Cafe which was about as irish as well something that isnt really irish. I misread the menu and ordered their 8 oz burger, but what I had ordered was a double 8 oz burger. It was big enough to choke a horse or as a mate of mine once remarked, thats probably the whole arse of a cow…
Now I take pride in being able to inhale food rather than just bite, chew and digest like normal people but even I had to take one of the burgers out so I could get the rest in my gub.
Im pretty much setting the scene for this trip, its all really about the food to be honest.
That and the ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘No, but I could eat something’.
As we drove south the fields on both sides of the road were flooded, and I mean really flooded, at one point the protective banks had burst on the road and we were sent out the way by a cop, it will be worse probably by the time we get back. The train line was flooded and the trains stopped, some of the wee villages had their fire crews out pumping water from the centre of town. It really did look like something out of a disaster movie…. ….it would turn out to be small change.
The next big hurdle was the US border, last year I went to Argentina and the stupid idea of having to clear US immigration even though I wasnt leaving the airport for a transfer meant that one of my exit visa cards wasnt collected by the air crew. So at some point I thought I was going to be scooped. I didnt fancy sitting on a case for 11 days in the arse hole of nowhere waiting on my friends coming back to me. It would also be difficult trying to justify my photo selection for the tour book. ‘But these look like all the same pictures of the same place with feck all but horizon’, ‘Ah you dont understand art’, ‘get the f**k out of my office and dont come back’. Maybe I could get them to buy postcards and stick them in the album.
Even though Id a new passport I thought something would sting me so I got called into the office and there on the wall was my mate Barack of the Moneygall Obamas. I thought it might not be wise to mention this at this time. It was bad enough we crossed the border in an SUV with totally blacked out windows. Now my car at home has the rear windows tinted, the guy tinting them said not to get the limo tint would look like I was in a hearse…
…so even the border official couldnt see me, but of course the xray they were taking of the car probably did. What do you mean they dont x-ray the cars….
I suppose it could have been worse, I could have been chained up with a gimp mask in the back seat, I nearly bought one of those once, for a photo prop you understand but I did think that if the plane went down and my family went to identify my belongings, even though I was dead, it would be a hard one to explain. Still…
Oh and the old Jedi mind trick of ‘you dont need to bring me into the office’ didnt work either.
Anyway to exaggerate a really nothing happening, I got through and passed from the arse hole of nowhere Canada to the arse hole of nowhere USA. I dont mean that to be derogatory because they were definitely the best arse holes of nowhere Id ever been. Nothing but flat boring land for miles. It is weird and interesting but after 1000km it all gets a bit, well, ‘samey’.
As the sat nav had said we dutifully turned left at North Dakota and kept driving into the night.
Time to find somewhere to stay and being behind schedule we were never going to make it to Sioux Falls so we settled on Jamestown and spent a while driving round to find a hotel room and ended up in the Holiday Inn for the night.
Jamestown is famous for having the worlds largest buffalo statue. We saw it at speed from the road and it was a massive bloody buffalo statue. To be fair though I dont know what competition they have and if someone told me the worlds largest buffalo statue was 3 feet tall I would believe them.
Time to hit the road again and now whizzing through South Dakota, trying to keep within the speed limits. Whilst we did have the technical wizardry of a sat nav, my co-pilots had their trusty map with the route in yellow highlighter. Long thought out in advance but not the route I would take but hey looked more interesting. Of course the map was a one off, bought for the purpose, treated with care as it was the blueprint for the journey, carefully looked after, folded up properly and stowed in the same place.
Then of course some shit for brains photographer decided that a photo of the map with on the car bonnet (sorry hood) with a couple of coffee cups on it would add to the journey. I should have of course used empty coffee cups….
…it will dry out…
…besides its more lived in, needs some tomato ketchup, blood and maybe a bit of vomit and wee stains to make it a true road trip map but maybe thats just going too far.
Time for lunch, well its always time for lunch or should I say breakfast, even in Dennys at 10pm I asked what was good there and the manager read out the entire menu but highlighted the breakfasts!
It was a nice wee local restaurant with a staff of about four thousand, with more staff than customers but the people welcomed us in and asked where we were from and what we were doing etc. Really nice to see and the food was good too. This is a half skillet apparently. Id hate to see the size of a full one.
We were a bit unlucky as we hit about 50 miles of roadworks on the trip down to Sioux Falls and Sioux City. The plan was to see if we could get down to Kansas City or St Louis for the evening. Although I might make a detour along the way to visit someone I know from the internet. Now normally every person I have met on the internet or converse with is nice and a good person – I have to bloody say that, most of you are reading this and know where I live. But occassionally you just come across someone who one day would benefit from two fairly well built Belfast boys turning up on their doorstep in Hicksville USA, saying nothing and just smacking them in the mouth. ‘Thats for nothing, wait until you do something’. Wont be such a smart arse in forums then would we? Oh and we could still do it on the way home
All joking aside, the journey from Sioux Falls to Kansas City was a bit of a nightmare but nothing compared to what the people living there have went through. We had all vaguely heard something about floods last year and this but hadnt even thought it would impact on us, after all it was a while ago, wasnt it.
We were all dozing off through the afternoon as the heat creeped up but one ‘holy f*ck’ from me had everyone looking out of the window. Long diversions into the countryside as the main road just went straight under the Missouri River. The levees had been breached and there was devastation everywhere. Roads closed, houses covered, streetsigns just sticking out of the water and fields just looking like a big lake with trees sticking out of it.
Its one of the issues with travel in the US, all the roads seem to be a grid system, odd numbers north/south, even numbers east/west but when a road is closed you have to go across and then down and this added maybe a hundred miles to our journey. It did make it more interesting… …interesting in a Top Gear visits Alabama sort of way. Or put in the Belfast vernacular, a couple of dicks in a pickup truck and an ex cop car ‘acting the ballix’. Racing each other and us stuck in the middle, unarmed, in hicksville usa…
We managed to gt rid and get back on the highway again, just in time to ignore the roadsigns for the last 1000 miles or so that advertise which turns off the motorway turn into gas stations, food establishments and hotels. No we decided to take the turn off that took us into downtown St Joseph. Now buildings that are boarded up, people sitting on their porches eyeing up the fresh meat, sorry visitors. 20 mins of driving around produced the sort of physical reaction that meant it would be difficult to put a playing card between our arse cheeks…
Im not exaggerating how bad this place looked, earlier on the trip there was the floods devastation and we had driven through an area that had been hit recently by a tornado with the odd building wrecked but this was on a different scale. Maybe getting a few rifles as soon as we crossed the border might not have been a bad idea.
We decided to push on down the road to catch up time and go halfway between Kansas City and St Louis in a place called Columbia and try and find a hotel. It was my turn to drive and although I dont think Id ever driven in the US at night, nevermind in pishing rain, in a thunderstorm that there were weather warnings about, I thought Id give it a go. After all whats the worst that could happen. Besides which it would be a dry run for the return trip in case we were running late and had to drive through the night to get back to safety, sorry Canada.
One thing I discovered early on is that the US could fecking do with cateyes and luminous lane markers on the interstates and highways. Driving in heavy rain at night it really was a case of keep it between the hedges. The whole driving experience was interesting. A few friends work for a company that makes the see sensors that measure tyre pressure and other things to do with the wheels. These seemed to be widely used in the US and is it any wonder. There are so many different road noises, all of which would have me normally pulling in to check for a flat tyre, wonky wheel or part of the car falling off! But the sensors would tell us if there was any problem with the tyres. Good idea. Now tell us where the road is and we are laughing.
I managed to make it through the main part of the thunderstorm without shitting myself, well mostly.
As the roads cleared I just saw on the side of the road some sort of animal, now it was like a racoon or badger. It ran right across the road in front of me to the central reservation. Id slowed down but driving this big boat of an american car at night, in the rain on the wet road I wasnt going to break too hard.
Unlucky for the Racoon who was on a suicide mission and having made it to safety decided to retrace his steps.
This led to the inevitable ‘thump’ ‘thump’ and the inevitable ‘f*ck’ ‘f*ck’ from me. Silence from the rest of the car and then this big broad Belfast accent ‘Joe, weve had this car for three years and havent hit nathing! You bloody hit a raccoon on your first attempt’.
What could I say? I must have been in slight shock as what I thought I would say and what I actually said are two different things.
Firstly, ‘God I hope that was a raccoon and not a man in a fancy dress suit or davy crockett hat’
closely followed by
‘have you ever hit a pigeon? They just explode in a hail of feathers you know!’
Hard to drive through the night when you are fighting back tears of laughter..
We reached Columbia without further incident except to find out there was almost literally no room at the inn at 1am. So we would all have to share a room.
It had been a traumatic experience and eventually something has to give. Now if you consider Id been eating enough food to keep a small nation going for a week you can see where this is going.
When you make that sort of bathroom deposit, generally speaking a formal written apology might be more appropriate than the old ‘you might want to give that a minute before going in to clean your teeth’.
Id like to formally apologise to my travelling companions for any inconvenience or stinging eyes, runny nose or general feeling of illness caused as a result of my actions.
No more cracker barrell platters for me. Well not for a few days anyway.
Its late now and Im in a half decent hotel in Nashville and its time to get on with the rest of the trip so thats it for now. Just to say we took a quick run into the Gaylord Opryland hotel. And yes for all the Norn Iron people reading this who have just spat out their coffee, yes indeedy theres a huge hotel run by the Gaylord corporation. Now its childish immature and just plain wrong to laugh at the mention of the word Gaylord but you have to admit when you see a big butch guy who would beat seven shades of shit out of you wearing a t-shirt and cap with the words ‘Gaylord Security’ all over it, its hard not to laugh.
The place seemed quite dead and it wasnt until we went on the boat tour (yes they have an indoor river with fish and ducks and everything) that we realised that this time last year the whole building was under 20-30 feet of water. The mall across the parking lot still hasnt re-opened – probably a total loss. The cinema still has advertising posters from May 2010 on the walls. Brings it all home with a bump.
Ive been travelling this week and as Id booked the ferry to Liverpool I didnt think Id be affected by the biblical cloud of volcanic ash that has brought chaos and pestilence (well maybe not pestilence) to the whole of europe.
To be honest the only thing Id noticed was that it got quieter at home at night as there were no evening or tourism night flights flying lower than they should be over my house on the way to the international airport.
Id never seen the amount of foot passengers on that ferry before in my life. I dont think the ferry companies had either, loads of bags with air baggage tickets on them indicating a lot of one way journeys.
Now if Id have been one of those people stranded this would be a more interesting blog but lets be honest, for the vast majority of us the only hassle would have been not getting fresh strawberries from Spain.
After an evening based in Liverpool it was across to the peak district, an area Id never visited before despite driving past many a time. Id planned two days there, a couple of days back at Liverpool and if the weather was right a few days back up in the lake district (again somewhere I’d never been).
Driving across northern England it reminded me a lot of Jeremy Clarksons rants. Every couple of miles was a speed camera, speed bumps and all sorts of warning signs. Now this leads me to two conclusions, people in England cant drive properly or there truly is a nanny state. Funny thing is theres an election on and there are very few election posters. Areas of Northern Ireland are plastered in them, maybe we have less TVs so people dont know theres an election on or as a people we enjoy the false smiling faces of people we never see for 4 years at a time. Maybe in England the posters may just end up as visual clutter in amongst the speed warning signs and the slow down and the signs for housing estates (like what?).
The other odd thing is that driving through North Manchester you then hit country, then 20 miles or so of country then Sheffield. Theres no real suburbs, its city then country then city again. Its odd, as I said to one of the tourists in last nights B+B, in Ireland you drive through wilderness for an hour to get to the wilderness. Its like someone in the UK decided they were going to have countryside here and here and here and then just build like mad around it.
Its also the first time Ive been through England on St Georges Day. At first I thought theyd just got the flags out early for the World Cup so then started asking around for events. Well, err, umm, errr, thats about it really.
I also find the reaction of tourism places quite mixed here. I turned up at one castle entrance run by english heritage a half an hour before the opening times (10am) and was told to come back by the staff. Hmmm. Not impressed. Ive never come across this at home or most other places, usually people have a bit of leeway and after all I could have just climbed over the wall and got in without paying.
Id to queue for about 20 mins in the tourist office in Buxton to get information on B+Bs. I wasnt interested in paying them 3 quid to get them to ring on my behalf, after all I do have a phone and do speak English (of sorts). I just wanted a brochure with details of B+Bs in it, which of course wasnt on display. Very odd. I did feel like not bothering to spend my hard earned crisp bank of england notes in their coffee shop but did need to sit down and plan out the route.
I spent the night in a wee town called Castleton and again the reactions were mixed. I rang round a few B+Bs who although they had vacancies at 6pm on a thursday night, they wanted me to pay for a full double room for two people instead of single occupancy. Im sorry but 55 quid for a b+b is tearing the hole out of it. 30 mins drive was a hotel chain with rooms for 29 quid a night and I wanted to go to local businesses. One did say that 50 quid for a B+B for the night with no parking spaces did include a great british breakfast so I enquired if it was cooked by Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver. They didnt see the sarcasm.
I eventually found a great B+B the causeway house in Castleton where the owner Janet couldnt have been more helpful. She sorted me out with a driving route the following day (which the tourist office wouldnt recommend because they wanted to promote walking and cycling which is fair enough until you point out you have a damaged leg and cant walk or cycle), advised me on where in town had the best food (the rabbit pie in The George was excellent) and generally made my stay very comfortable indeed. Comfortable room, reasonable price, great filling breakfast and hosts who couldnt do enough for you. Big thumbs up.
The tourist office in Castleton was equally helpful, tracing out details on maps, telling me where to skip if I didnt have time and advising the best times for certain points given the light if I was interested in photography.
Which brings me to the title of the blog. One of the tourist attractions near Castleton is a cave called the Devils Arsehole. No honestly! After a pint or two of the local guest ale in The George with my dinner I did try to avoid being 16 again by asking everyone I met if they could give me directions to the Devils Arsehole.
‘Can you tell me where the Arsehole is?’
‘Is there a good route up the Arsehole?’
‘I hear the Devils Arsehole attraction is a bit shitty, what do you think?’
Id love to say I tried all this but it was thursday night in the peak district in April and I was the only sinner walking the streets. Bummer.
So I went back to the B+B to try and find either the Liverpool game on the TV or the prime ministerial debates. Because of the valley theres no Sky TV or channel 5, radio reception is poor and theres no 3G. So for the first time in a long time I was left with a choice of only 4 channels.
I got back just in time to watch Have I Got News for You and Jeremy Clarkson was presenting and ranting about speed cameras. I feel your pain mate, I really do.
More England photos here