Thursday, 29 October 2009

Kansas U turn..

In the Great Plains areas of Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas I was constantly reminded of all the old movies about the American West that aired on British TV in the 70s. Cowboy hats everywhere, thousands of cattle in huge flat fields, painted ponies, palominos, mustangs, Broken Arrow, Dodge City, Shawnee, Cherokee and Cheyenne.

The Great Plains states are where a lot of this history unfolded and it is still cattle country. It is also where many of the Indian reservations are which means you will occasionally see Vegas style casinos which are technically illegal in these states but legal inside the reservations.
You also see a lot of small oil pumps dotted along the road from Oklahoma and throughout the fields that dominate Kansas. Huge open spaces interspersed with tiny towns whose power stations loom out the distance like huge battery packs. The only other things that appear with any regularity are gas stations and truck stops and I still haven't been able to make a decision on the trucker's choice.

The drive from OK took us quite a long way into Kansas. As far as the town of Hutchinson to be exact. We then checked into a cosy and friendly motel where we did our huge pile of laundry for the absolute bargain price of $2. Down the road at the excellent Lone Star restaurant (with a great modern country music soundtrack) we had a steak and a beer. Suddenly we realised that in the tired haste of the previous day’s decision to head north we had completely forgotten the fact that we had both really wanted to go to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Looking at the map we realised that we couldn’t be in a better place to change our minds. Route 54 from Hutchinson took us almost directly to Albuquerque passing back through a sliver of Oklahoma and the North West corner of Texas. So the following morning we turned back and headed south west.

For the first time so far in this trip we hit a bad weather front but not the worst part of it. Also it was moving in the opposite direction to us so in the end we had just under 2 hours driving in heavy rain. On such flat ground there was an amazing 360 degree view of the whole weather system we were under and I will never look at clouds in quite the same way again. Being able to judge the speed, height and density of every layer of cloud so closely meant you could see everything that was coming from a great distance. When a thin but consistent, line of light finally appeared on the horizon we knew we would soon be driving out of it.

It was truly awesome and just this taste of it convinced me that I would possibly have become one of those mad storm and twister chaser people had I been born in Kansas. Talking of twisters we came out from under the cloud in the town of Liberal, Kansas where we found this….

.... and apparently the Land of Oz itself is just to the left of this sign. I may not have got to Oz but I was definitely in Kansas so why T-Mobile kept sending me text messages saying ‘Welcome to the Isle of Man’ I will never know….

Friday, 23 October 2009

Not even 24 hours in Tulsa...

The last part of the drive out of Missouri ended up being a bit like Groundhog Day (the movie that is...). We had already crossed the Oklahoma state line when I realised that I had left my wallet in the motel in Monette. Fortunately it was only 50 miles down the road so we drove back, retrieved the wallet and then started the drive out of Missouri again. The advantage is that I knew what was coming so in drive two I got a few pics I wouldn't otherwise have had like Granby - the oldest mining town in the south west.
For the second time we noticed how bad the roads got as we crossed into Oklahoma and this continued until the other side of Tulsa. I don’t know what OK State spends its money on but it certainly isn't highway upkeep. Ironic really given that a road - Route 66 - is at the heart of the Oklahoma tourist industry.

We ended up taking Route 66 out of Tulsa faster than expected because we couldn't actually find the things we wanted to see. None of the maps we got from the info office were detailed enough to get a sense of where things really were and in some cases they didn't even correspond. Useful signs around the city itself were notable by their absence and there didn't seem to be central downtown area like most US cities. The last straw was a wrong turn into a one way street after which we fled Tulsa. It didn't help that we'd had a crap night's sleep in a very big motel, with very small rooms, a very uncomfortable bed and very noisy plumbing.

We headed to Chandler and enjoyed the few old Route 66 signs along the way and had a great lunch at the Rock Cafe. Ended up staying in Chandler's old Motel Lincoln  but that wasn't a great night's sleep either and at this point of the trip it was decision time. Did we detour south to Austin, Texas which had been highly recommended by several people, or did we go up north through Kansas and get to the next friend stop in Denver with plenty of time to spare for the Rockies and National parks in Utah.
After a good look at the map we decided that Austin was just too far a detour south and so Kansas it was... but not before checking out the Route 66 Interpretive Centre where you can lay on beds and watch short videos on subjects relevant to the 'Mother Road'. 

The idea and design of the centre are great and there are some superb photographs but the videos seemed a bit limited. The centre is new and they have the technology but they just need more content. Hopefully as they get more organised (and get more funding) they can bring in more history of the time and the importance of the road to the internal migration west. It would be great if they could do a video about the changing styles of US cars over the years and maybe even get a few more rela ones like the police car in the is a museum dedicated to a road after all.

The final stop in Oklahoma was the uber modern 'Pops' which is surely the coolest gas station in the world. Dedicated to the fizzy drink it has hundreds of different flavours, types and colours of bottled soda and they also provide the internal decor....

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

MO trees.. rivers... lakes..

Our stopping off point in Missouri was the Mark Twain National Forest and the Ozarks but we didn't have much info about these. From the map it looked as if Route 60 went straight through the forest so we just stayed on that and hoped we would see signs for potential hiking areas. Eventually we saw a sign for Pinewoods Lake so we turned off and at the end of a tiny road found ourselves completely alone with a large lake. There was a rough trail around the lake so we walked the whole perimeter and didn't see or hear anything except wind through the trees and the occasional woodpecker.

Next stop was the tiny Ozarks town of Van Buren which hasn’t cleaned up since the election...

… but according to the delightful guy in the Hawthorne Motel......

... Van Buren becomes a party town in the summer when loads of tourists turn up to take boats out on the (very strong) Current River. It certainly couldn't be called a party town in October although there was a slight air of excitement in the deli and grocery store down the road which seems to be the focal point for the whole town. In fact they were even selling CDs by local bands so I bought a couple and it has to be said that Van Buren rocks. The variation on the Powdermill CD was definitely more engaging than Shund which sounded a lot like all the other bands doing that kind of angsty metal. Shame really because there were also two very short jams featuring a mandolin and jaw harp and if they threw that into the rock mix it could make it unique in its genre.

The river is absolutely central to tourist (and local) activities which explain why we couldn't find many forest trails to hike off Route 60. However, we then discovered an easily accessible part of the ancient Ozark trail which was a beautiful hike through tall autumnal trees and once again we had the whole place to ourselves.

We also went to see Big Spring which appears from nowhere, is amazingly green and provides the Current River with more than 80% of its water and Blue Spring which really is blue although that didn't come out in the photos.

We then drove west on 60 again through seemingly endless trees and ended up in Monnet for the night where we had a great evening at the Bayou restaurant. It was a Saturday night and I think the entire population of Monnet must have been in there.

Sticking to Route 60 all the way through Missouri did make it seem as if the state is one huge forest. It was a nice drive although it was a little sad seeing road kill armadillos. Driving anywhere outside of cities there are always dead animals along the roads and I can now identify road kill from 50 metres. It’s been mostly squirrels, raccoons and groundhogs but occasionally a falcon or a deer and we're now in armadillo territory. I guess this explains the constant presence of turkey vultures above the highways as well. They must have been particularly pleased by the invention of the internal combustion engine!

Friday, 16 October 2009

From Mammoth To Missouri

Having not had to think about where to go, eat, sleep or get online for a few days, getting back on the road was a bit of challenge. However, after the initial shock and a short period of mutual snarling we found ourselves heading into Mammoth Cave. This is the longest cave complex in the world at over 300 miles (and still counting) and it was awesome. I’d never actually seen stalactites and stalagmites before and it was fascinating to hear how they are formed and about the reactive properties of limestone in general. It was also fascinating to discover that the temperature of any large cave remains at a constant average for the area around it regardless of the season, so Mammoth Cave is always at the average temperature for Kentucky.

After a very nice drive out of the Mammoth Cave Park (with sightings of wild turkey, deer and what we think was a coyote) we got back on the road heading west eventually stopping at the Econolodge in Russellville. At $75 this seemed rather expensive compared to our usual choice of cheapskate, seedy motels but it provided a good breakfast (unusual in motels), a flat screen TV and free, if erratic, wireless access. The following morning there was light rain, the roads were empty and the clouds were hanging low over the autumnal trees, hills and fields of south western Kentucky. Accompanied by an excellent soundtrack of modern Americana donated by our friends in Frankfort, the drive out of Russellville was quite dreamy….

Our next stop was supposed to be Paducah and we did stop there… briefly. I’d been told about a programme that had actually paid artists to go and live in Paducah’s empty buildings to try and kick start creative regeneration in this rather depressed and unattractive town. It sounded like a great idea so I was interested in seeing how it had worked out. Unfortunately there wasn’t a sign off the main drag even indicating a downtown, let alone an art area or even its famous quilt museum! So all Paducah seemed to be was a huge, cheap, drive-thru strip mall and by the time we realised it was too late to go back and look for a turning that may, or may not, have taken us to a bunch of artists! However, we did end up accomplishing something. Part of the plan for this trip was to pack very little, buy clothes from charity stores as we went along and then return them to charity stores before we left. So we were delighted to spot a large Salvation Army store in Paducah where I bought a sartorially criminal but very warm coat for $5!

Nice drive from there too and ended the day in Charleston, Missouri after crossing the bridge over the mighty Missisippi....

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Frankfort, Kentucky

When we got to a friend’s house in the Kentucky state capital of Frankfort, they were still in Europe but due back in couple of days. They have a really nice house and it was great staying there and being able to walk into Frankfort and check things out. The first day we went for breakfast at the White Light Diner and it was definitely the best Eggs Benedict I have ever eaten.

The historic district is really nice and on the last day we went for a tour round the old capitol building which is full of fascinating architectural, arty and historical stuff including a bizarre and very rare harp piano. In the lobby there is a staircase which is beautiful as well as being an incredibly ingenious piece of engineering and you can visit the original senate and house of represenatatives complete with spittoons, ink pots, quills and copies of historical proceedings, letters and legislation from very politiclaly interetsing times! Round the corner the Kentucky Historical Society is also a fascinating trip and I finally discovered the meaning of the line in Sixteen Tons that says: ‘I owe my soul to the company store’!

However, the place where we probably spent most time in Frankfort was the truly wonderful ‘Poor Richard’ bookstore. The bookstore is arranged over two floors and there are lots of old prints and paintings filling almost all the available wall space. The second floor is crammed full of dusty old books, maps and magazines with old ceiling fans spinning delicately above.

We were in there for about three hours and could have stayed longer but it was closing so we had to adjourn the Coffee Tree cafĂ© next door. Discovering there was going to be live music we came back later and had a fantastic evening listening to an excellent piano, double bass and sax trio who played a very tight mix of jazz, blues and gospel. Owing to the fact that spouse and myself constituted about 50% of the audience we ended up chatting to the musicians quite a lot which was a lot fo fun. Only the bass player is a full time musician, the pianist tunes pianos for a living and the sax man is a sociology professor.

However, Kentucky is probably more famous for racehorses than anything else and it was inevitable that we would see some horses along the way so here they are….

.... apparently, it is not unusual to see rather large planes from the UAE parked up at Lexington’s rather small airport…

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia

Going south from the Skyline Drive, we crossed straight onto the Blue Ridge Parkway which was first set up as a scenic driveway in the 1930s. The first US national park was actually Yellowstone, set up way back in 1872 and there are now hundreds of national parks monuments and forest all over the US. Apparently, many of them were furiously contested by logging and other companies with business interests in the land and its resources. As a consequence individual Acts of Congress were used to create each park which made them untouchable. It’s a shame that such far sighted political will has become so compromised in more contemporary environmental debates.

The Blue Ridge side is less developed in terms of trails and lodging than Shenandoah Park but there are several roads leading off the parkway to small mountain towns so it’s pretty easy to find cheap motels. It’s also much more interesting because you get to see and meet some real places and people. The Buena Vista Motel was great and downtown was only a short walk so we were able to go out for dinner and then walk back watching a full moon rise above the mountains. We also found out exactly how many people live there.

Further down the parkway the Blue Ridge Motel in the Meadows of Dan was also a treat.

This tiny town was an absolute gem consisting of little more than a couple of stores, a farmers market, a restaurant, two gas stations and a church.... although there were probably more further up the road! I never cease to be amazed at just how many churches there are in this country, especially when you are out in the more rural areas. There seem to be hundreds of different denominations and a dedicated dictionary to work out exactly who they all are could be very useful. There are Baptists, Unitarians, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Apostolics, Charismatics, Nazarenes, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, all sorts of Bible Churches and Assemblies and a constantly expanding collection of Baptist splinter groups like the Primitive Baptists. Then there are the Fundamental Millenarians and the Foursquare Gospels… whoever they are. 

Most of the churches have signs along the roads sometimes humorously advertising their presence as in ‘Invest in Heaven, God’s stock is up’.  However, seeing ‘Prepare to Meet God’ on a huge billboard as you enter a four lane highway can be a bit disconcerting! How some of these small communities can sustain so many different churches is a complete mystery to me, as is the amount of money that seems to be generated through some disturbingly cynical TV evangelism.

Anyway …. back to the heaven sent and Act of Congress sanctioned, Blue Ridge Parkway. Much of the parkway goes through the Thomas Jefferson National Forest so you are surrounded by tall trees on both sides of the road for much of the route with mountain views stretching off into the blue distance at almost every twist and turn of the road.

I enjoyed this much, much more than the Skyline Drive and most of the hikes are short which means you get all the gain with none of the pain as in the Yankee Horse Trail. This was a rocky, waterfall very close to the road and it still had the old railway tracks from when it was a logging station. It also had an amazing chunky rock.

There were a couple of longer trails further on including the beautiful Otter Creek Trail which meanders along the bank of a rocky creek before going up into the forest, past huge volcanic rock formations and then back down to the creek. This was definitely another Virginia Trail highlight as was the Blue Ridge Music Centre where we got to see some excellent live music. There is a musical heritage trail through Virginia and the Centre explained a lot of the origin and development of Blue Grass and Mountain music. The centre will become a state of the art museum next year which is good news for ethno-musicologists and musical obsessives everywhere. The museum reminded me of another US trip we did in 2002 which took us on the jazz, blues and country music trails all the way up from New Orleans to Chicago through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. There were a lot of signs for churches down there too and the only other signs you saw were for prisons so I guess the only other option is the military!

Another musical diversion ended up being the town of Floyd where several resident master blue grass and mountain musicians are teaching (sometimes for free) in order that the traditions are continued. They are supplied by Floyd’s own instrument maker and on Friday nights the town’s central street is open to musicians. There are actually small performance bays built into the sidewalks! There are also numerous artists and craftspeople who live in the surrounding areas and they are slowly moving into The Station which is a new but small area of shops, galleries and studios.

We finally turned off the Parkway at Galax, heading West again towards our next friend stop in Frankfort, Kentucky. We didn’t have a rattlesnake moment on the Blue Ridge parkway but we did have a few anxious visibility moments. If you are above or below the clouds you’re fine but at that elevation in between….

Saturday, 10 October 2009

These boots are made for hiking...

My last serious hiking boots disintegrated in Algonquin Park in Canada in 2006 and apart from the mega hike in Fujairah earlier this year (which I managed with a new pair of trainers) I haven’t needed new ones…. until now. So it was great to find a store selling all sorts of cool stuff related to being in mountains just outside Waynesboro.

Five minutes up the road from the store was the entrance to the Shenandoah National Park which is a huge area in the Appalachian Mountains filled with forests, waterfalls, peaks, vistas and over 700 miles of hiking trails. The Skyline Drive cuts through the whole area and has lots of places to stop and look at views across the Shenandoah Valley and other mountain groups within the Appalachian range.

The only disadavantage is that getting out of the park to cheap motels involves serious driving so we decided to stay in cabins inside the park for three nights instead. This is much easier to acces the Trails and the new boots were well and truly tested, up and down rocky paths, through leafy forests and across stony creeks. The views at the top were awesome and at times we were really up in the clouds.

The fall colours were just starting to turn which meant that we got to see the variation without the crowds that descend in a week or so when the colours are fully out. It’s great being there midweek too as there’s no problem finding somewhere to stay and you almost always get the trails to yourself, especially the hard ones.

The Cedar Falls Trail was by far the hardest – very steep and very rocky – but there hasn’t been much rain this year so the water levels in the falls were pretty low. In general the more rain there has been the more spectacular the falls are. However, a very close encounter with a rattlesnake made the Cedar Falls rather more exciting than we’d anticipated. The snake fell down a rock and landed next to spouse’s foot. It was so sleepy that spouse assumed it was dead so didn’t panic. The snake then made a move towards the falls, rattled half-heartedly and slid into the water. It curled up and floated round for a while then made a spectacular if bizarre dive, straight down into the fall.

There were a lot of other wildlife encounters when we were out on other trails especially deer.....

...  chipmunks, squirrels, butterflies, very hairy caterpillars and we also caught a glimpse of a young black bear which was a real treat. In the end we only managed about 6 or 7 of the trails but a couple of them were pretty long and 6 hours hiking feels like a hell of a lot when you haven’t done it for while but this is always worth the pain....

Monday, 5 October 2009

In and out of New York ...

From Newark we took the short train ride to Penn station New York where we got the smallest and most overpriced hotel room in the world. The closet was too small to fit either of our bags in so they stayed in the room where they took up about 50% of the floor space. But hey… it’s New York, we hadn’t reserved and the UN happened to be in town so we blamed them.

The last time I was in NYC was about 10 years ago and it’s very interesting seeing how the city has changed (and how I’ve changed!) but one thing that still shocks is the sheer number of homeless. There are some serious and vocal mental health issues on the NY streets and seeing homeless people in wheelchairs or with walking frames or other obvious physical difficulties seems much more common than I’ve seen elsewhere.

After the tiny hotel room we spent a couple of nights at a friend’s place in Brooklyn Heights and he can just see the statue of liberty between two huge cranes from his back window. This is not as bad as it sounds.

We went out for a several walks around his neighbourhood and it was weird looking over the water to where the twin towers used to be.

Just under Brooklyn Bridge we happened across the local ‘Art under the Bridge’ festival which is an Art Trail that takes over this area and includes work in some of the huge old dilapidated warehouses there.

It was great to see some of this and we also came across the car we wish were hiring.

We didn’t hang around in New York for long but while we were there we asked everyone we met where they would go if they had two months and were heading to the west coast. From a mix of their suggestions, our own ideas and the places we have friends we began to put a route together. Then we headed out to Hamilton, New Jersey to pick up the car (much, much cheaper than hiring it in New York) and hit the road proper.

First destination was a friend in Fredericksburg, Virginia but before arrival there we spent one night in a classic gas, food, lodging strip off Interstate 95 just outside of Elkton, Maryland. I LOVE motels and the cheaper the better. They have everything you need – a bed, a fridge, a TV and complete privacy unlike hotels.

You can sit there mindlessly flicking zillions of TV channels and get a good overview of political views in the US. I also find the commercials fascinating and very revealing about the culture. The ones for medication are particularly educational. In the US it seems there is a pill for everything. You don’t have to change your diet or your lifestyle or inconvenience yourself in any way..… just take the pill! However, they are legally obliged to also list all possible side effects including death but these are raced through at such incredibly high speed they are barely understandable. It was a lot of fun flicking between these commercials and the live health care debate.

Fredericksburg, Virginia is famous for being a huge Civil War battlefield. In fact this whole area is littered with Civil War history and battlefields. It’s a very pretty town on the banks of the Rappahannock River but is such a tourist spot it’s hard to see beyond that or find a normal shop! The place is full of antiques and historical memorabilia, old plantation houses and George Washington’s mother’s house. Mary Washington also gives her name to Fredericksberg’s university.

 Another old university town, Charlottesville, was our next scheduled stop. We were intending to spend a couple of nights there especially because Charlottesville’s art centre and galleries always have open evenings on the first Friday of every month. However, this was not to be. We arrived and found that every single hotel, motel and inn was booked solid. There was a U2 concert so thanks to bloody Bono we ended up a 30 minute drive away in Waynesboro . Because that was actually nearer to where we were heading we didn’t go back. Instead we just went directly from there to the most beautiful and wonderful Shenandoah Valley……