Saturday, 21 December 2013

It's a small world...

So our last update was a little while ago now and that was actually posted a fair while after it all happened too. We have been a bit rubbish with the blog updates since Texas and that is for a pretty good reason – we’ve been far too busy enjoying ourselves! As I’m actually writing this, the trip is very nearly at an end and we’re 8 days away from getting ourselves to Vegas and jetting back to the UK. There have been some unexpected twists in the plot but unfortunately you’re probably going to have to wait to read about those because we have some serious catching up to do. So with this update, I’m actually going to go back around 3 weeks ago, which will be interesting to try and remember what we were doing but I’ll give it my best shot!

Ben’s last blog post, as you might have noticed, was very much rodeo themed and this is where I pick up. We left the rodeo that night and headed to a Walmart on the outskirts of Fort Worth where we had two intentions – firstly to buy ourselves some grub as we were absolutely Hank Marvin (starving!) and secondly so we could use it as a cheeky place to crash. Now I think this was actually our first time crashing out in a Walmart car park and we were a little nervous because they had a fairly strong security presence with a car patrolling the parking lot and some sort of observation tower with ‘Fort Worth Police’ or something similar written on the side. Our friend Jon had told us that Walmart didn’t mind people staying in their car parks in RVs and the like so we were about to put it to the test. We found a couple of quiet spaces away from the store and started to convert the ‘burb into a camper while Matt had the luxury of not having too much gear and his mattress would always remain laid out. I should explain here, in case anyone else is confused that Matt is my brother who’s out here in America for a cheeky little four week roadtrip of his own and he was convoying with us across this stretch before we split off to go to California. A little nervous, we bedded down for the night and slept reasonably well before getting up relatively early and hitting the western shops yet again. I had to return a shirt I’d bought because the sleeve was damaged and Ben and Matt wanted to buy more cowboy accessories... (ha). Matt also wanted to get a US sim card for his phone so we stopped by T-Mobile too along with Ben trying to see if it were possible to get his laptop fixed. Unfortunately that ended up taking up quite a chunk of our day so it was mid afternoon by the time we heading north with the next goal to hit the next state of Oklahoma. We didn’t have a huge reason to go there and in fact probably the main one was that we wanted to colour in that state on the map because it was literally the only one we hadn’t done in the southern US. With that, we checked out the map and spotted a wildlife preserve next to a lake somewhere near Wichita Falls and thought it would be an ideal opportunity to see some more beautiful countryside. We ploughed on a good few hours and it was rather dark when we arrived so finding where we were supposed to go proved interesting! The main campsite was closed so we took off in search of a picnic area we knew to be nearby but got lost again. Eventually Ben lead us up into a trailhead parking area slap bang on the shores of a big lake. We couldn’t see much of it that night but we had a good feeling that it would be a good view in the morning. The trusty (and rusty) Colman grille was brought out once again and Matt and I cooked up some grub for the three of us, making use of the larger pots we got at the beginning of the trip so we could feed 3 hungry mouths this time! Meanwhile, Ben prepared the ‘burb and after we’d eaten we all got in the back and killed some time chatting, mostly about farming in the case of Ben and Matt so I didn’t have too much to contribute on that front.

The next day was another where we were trying to get the miles in and headed back into Texas, aiming to get trucking west on the I40 but as some of you might know, this runs along the infamous ‘Route 66’ also known as the ‘main street of America’. This road was crucial to the massive expansion of the west coast and mass migration in the 20s and 30s. Now much of it doesn’t exist anymore  as it’s either fallen into disrepair or been replaced by the I40 but there’s a good few stretches where the I40 actually bypasses some of the old towns that grew up by the side of the ’66 and you can turn off the interstate and drive parts of this historic road. So that’s exactly what we were doing, we trundled along the interstate and followed the signs off the road every so often to check out what was there. Some of the places were sad little towns with dried up gas stations long abandoned after the interstate cut off their blood supply of passing motorists. A few people still lived in these places and you do have to wonder why sometimes, they all seem like little towns down on their luck and it’s actually kind of tragic. After a day exploring Route 66 and not seeing too much, the sun was setting and we needed a place to sleep so a browse of the shredded scraps of map we had been handed down showed there was a rest area nearby, we took a chance and headed on. It paid off and we came across what I could only describe as the nicest rest area I’ve ever seen in my life, for good reason – it actually doubled as tornado shelter so was absolutely solidly built and easily able to cope with the storm that had just started rolling in. We got there just in time to witness yet another beautiful sunset over the Texas panhandle. Whilst we were taking pictures a minivan pulled into the rest area car park a couple of spaces over from us on Quebec plates with wheels strapped to the roof sporting some worn out tyres. We could tell when they got out they were like us, young and broke and rocking that minivan around America, I thought about trying to strike up conversation with them but we weren’t sure if they were French speakers and whether they would even want to talk to us so we carried on setting up and started on the food. By this time it was dark and the wind was starting to get up a little, we tucked the grille in behind a wall, got cooking and had a cheeky beer with our food. We got ourselves off to bed nice and early but unfortunately I can’t say any of us really slept that well – the storm I mentioned drew in and it got very cold that night, not to mention the high winds that started battering the ‘burb and we actually getting pitched around as the wind got underneath the car and rocked it on the suspension. It was certainly an interesting night but by morning things had cleared up again but it was still freezing!

That morning myself and Matt headed off to find a motel in Amarillo while Ben wanted some alone time and went off to explore a bit more along Route 66. That afternoon we checked in and enjoyed some hot showers to warm us up before getting on with the important task of catching up with back home through the medium of Facebook and the like. We ordered in another pizza in true motel tradition and watched a bit of TV. Exciting times. The next morning Ben went off to go return the broken keyboard he bought and get some xmas presents sorted so Matt and I headed to Cavender’s western store once more so he could do some more shopping. Any of you who know my brother know that he despises clothes shopping more than anything in the world so I was slightly taken aback at the number of times he was up for heading to these kind of establishments and actually buying himself clothes – mum would be proud! A fairly uneventful day involving sorting things out and shopping was once more drawing to a close so we decided to get back onto Route 66 through Amarillo and head just out of it to a little spot Ben had found just off the freeway. It was a large loose dirt area and I wasted no time in borrowing Matt’s rental car to attempt some J-turns, lots of fun. We got sensible and used Matt’s new procured Colman grille to cook us up some sausage, mash n beans and chowed down.

Doing naughty little skids out of the dirt layby, we found ourselves getting back on interstate 40 going west again with the aim of getting ourselves somewhere near Santa Fe in New Mexico. We’d picked ourselves a point on the map beforehand and were aiming towards Villanueva state park which was conveniently located somewhere along the way to Santa Fe. Apart from visiting an awesome car museum along the way there was not much to report along the interstate and by now we felt like we’d seen enough of the historic Route 66 so we just ploughed on some 200 miles before turning off to head north on a 2 lane road known only as the 3. Quickly, it began to get very twisty and I was still riding shotgun with Matt so I used the opportunity to grab some photos of the burb winding its way through some mountainous terrain once more and dipping up and down huge hills along the way. It was early evening by this point and we found our way to the park entrance after turning off inside a very small collection of houses. We paid for our camping and drove our way into the campsite, picking a beautiful little spot next to the river and gave ourselves some time to relax, chill out and enjoy the view. Since it was still relatively early, we decided to try and collect some firewood from nearby but with very little success. Now some guy came driving by the campsite and noticed our pathetic collection of wood and told us his brother sold some to campers from his place not far from where we were. Before we knew it, his brother had rocked up with a friend in their pickup with a decent sized load of wood. After some cheeky haggling we found ourselves a little better stocked and began starting the fire. By this point, darkness had started to creep in and I had to crack on and get some food made up, the menu for that night was once again some pasta and Ragu that had become a staple coupled with some turkey in there. Meantime, the fire was going but not getting particularly hot as although we had a lot of wood, we discovered that this stuff wasn’t too great for fires – preferring to generate smoke than heat so we opted for the patented Lee Treherne method of ‘More Fuel!’ and loaded a fair amount on there. That seemed to work and we got some heat out of it at last, feeling quite glad we’d bought what we assumed was far too much wood. That night, Ben had an early one while Matt and I stayed up shooting the breeze and making toast over the open fire before turning in to crash out.

That morning we woke early and it was pretty cold out so we got the fire going again and generating a decent amount of heat by throwing copious amounts of wood at it. The sun was just starting to make a proper appearance over the mountains so we began the switch from wood to solar heating and making plans to go walk a trail or two up in the mountains. We ate breakfast by the campfire then walked to short distance over to the foot of the El Cerro trail and began clambering our way up. Now this trail wasn’t like the ones we had come across before in Zion, the Grand Canyon etc and was only just visible, you had to make your way over rocks that had been stacked up into some form of stairs and then wind your way along through the trees. When we got nearer the top, Ben split off in search of an elusive snake that he had been itching to photograph the whole time we were there. Unfortunately, he had absolutely zero luck once more and joined us at the cliff edge admiring a spectacular view. We took a bunch of photos and wandered round off piste on the top, looking down over the valleys and unsuccessfully seeing if we could spot any snakes before heading back via the second half of the loop to bring us back into the campsite. Then without further ado, it was time to head along to the state capital – Santa Fe. We wound our way back along the 3 until we hit Interstate 25 where Ben and I needed to find ourselves some more delicious petrol. Unfortunately, Matt decided to get alongside us at exactly the wrong moment once again and ploughed straight past us as we turned off to a small petrol station located exactly in the middle of nowhere. We brimmed the tank once more and made it to Santa Fe by ourselves, pulling into a hotel car park to work out where Matt had run off to. He’d randomly made it to the north of the city somehow so we waited for him to join us before heading to a Motel 6 after discovering the hotel was a bit too pricey for us bums. We shacked up in the motel and started working our way through the mountain of laundry we’d accumulated by means of Motel 6’s laundry room. While the last load was on dry we braved the sudden downpour of rain and nipped round the corner to get money out and head to Olive Garden, an Italian restaurant pretty much next to the motel. Our waitress there immediately picked up on our British accents and told us that she will be studying abroad there next year, when we asked her where and she said Wolverhampton Uni we laughed – that’s exactly where Matt had gone to. Small world! We chatted at various points in the night about fun things to do in the UK, not that we could really think of anything to suggest except seeing castles.

The following day had been set aside for exploring Santa Fe so we set off that morning into the historic centre of the town. Piloting the ‘burb round the tight little one way streets looking for a parking garage was certainly interesting but we got there eventually and made our way on foot into the centre. Back when we were in Missouri, we had chatted to one of the camp hosts, Tabitha, at a campsite we stayed. Being from New Mexico she had highly recommended going to see Santa Fe and we were glad we took her advice because we found ourselves in a really cool place. Despite being the state capital, it’s not a very big place – in fact it’s roughly the 4th largest city in New Mexico but it more than makes up for it in appearance. All of the buildings there are in the same earth coloured render and even new ones such as Walmarts and Motel 6s are required to fit in. Overall it creates a really interesting appearance to the place, despite seeming a little forced at times. We wandered round the central plaza at first and then checked out the cathedral before picking random streets to walk up and down, taking in a cross section of everything. All the while I was on the look-out for a Mexican blanket, something I’d wanted to get at some point in the trip and this struck me as the ideal place. After struggling for a while, we ended up going into a ladies’ clothes store which we mistook for a suitable candidate but they were more than happy to point me to a corner market a few blocks away. As soon as we turned up I spotted the exact one I wanted and exchanged some money for it. The guy noticed our English accents though and asked us whereabouts in England we were from, we humoured him with our usual response, fully expecting that he would never have heard of it like everybody else. We were a little taken aback when he asked where in Herefordshire, so I responded myself and my brother were actually from Ludlow and even more surprised when his reply was “ah, I’ve been there – I have some friends there that I stayed with”. It’s a very small world it appears so my authentic Mexican blanket was actually bought from someone who’s actually been to Ludlow, Prestiegne and the surrounding area. By then it was mission complete and we had explored a good chunk of Santa Fe so we headed to a Walmart to buy some supplies and decided to crash out there that night and head into Arizona the next day.

Chris =)

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Ride 'em cowboy

So you may have heard everything is bigger in Texas, well it looks like our blog is too. Get yourselves comfy and enjoy another of our most excellent adventures.

So we pick up where we left off once more, trucking into the night with our new companion. We rolled out through the never ending tungsten glow of Houston. Sat Nav guided us first down some back streets, despite my better judgement of taking a much larger route but in fear of unexpected tolls I listened for once. It was late and our busy day of shooting the breeze and occasionally tinkering had drained us all a little so the next hundred miles is but a blur in my memory. It was about an hour and a half before we made our turn into Huntsville State Park, to give Matt a gentle introduction to the road life. We made our beds grabbed a few snacks and sat down under the dark canopy of trees and tucked into a few celebratory beers and went over footage and photographs of the off-road excursion before turning in for the night.

The next day started slowly as per usual, a brief wander around our surroundings and a re-shuffle of the ‘Burb saw us closing in on mid-day. We headed out to Wal-Mart in the nearby city limits to not only restock ourselves after a week off from the monotonous task of walking the aisles, but to set up Matt with a few bits and pieces he’d need as and when he goes his separate way. From there we packed up ate and put the hammer down in the direction of Fort-Worth, one of the few places I had heard of and was looking forward to visiting, with the promise of the ‘real’ western experience. I was now out in front and running alone as Chris rode shotgun in the GMC making for an eerily quiet drive, although not without a slight bit of drama to keep us on our toes. Matt’s new Sat-nav despite being barely a day out of its box was a little wayward with its directions meaning he failed to enter the I-40 before getting stuck headed into town. I knew where I was headed so had already joined the 40 expecting to be joined at the next slip road by Matt and Chris. They sailed straight past it. I reduced my speed and sat in with the heavily laden trucks and old folks for mile after mile waiting to see the distinctive GMC L.E.D headlight surrounds in my rear view. Upon having no luck and a little fed up of waiting I pulled out the map from under the seat and spotted a rest area a few clicks north of my 20. It would give me a chance to try and either wait to spot the other two or they would pass me sometime while I took a break and I would catch them now as the ‘burb was fully capable and tested to 94.9 MPH (under safe conditions). I took my rest, had a bite to eat and hopped back in the cab of my little rig, I grabbed my phone to see what time it was and there was a text from Chris who had had to turn on his phone in hope of reconnecting the convoy. Turns out they had just passed my rest area, so with a co-ordinated speed check 5/6 junctions later I had picked up my tail and we put pedal to the metal and headed onwards before quickly stopping again as the extra turn of speed had cost us a lot of MPG’s.

A rather cheap refill of less than $100 for 34gallons at an exceptional rate of $2.80 per gallon (it doesn't quite add up I know, we don't get it either) made my day and with the trucks both brimmed and a more exact plan hatched we rolled back out onto the interstate and hit Fort Worth a few hours later.

We turned into a motel again, as we do for all our city tours and began planning the next day’s adventures. There was a sort of show at 1130am in the stockyard stations where a small herd of Longhorns would be driven through the streets by ‘cowboys’ and a few other odds and ends during the day capped by a rodeo at 8pm. So we got ourselves a bite to eat and got a reasonably early night. We woke up with a bit of toilet drama but after a bit of an educated guess we had it all working and prepared ourselves to leave. Chris and Matt dragged up the rear once more and we were now a few minutes behind schedule but not so much to get in a rush over. We popped next door to a quaint little Waffle House and ordered some grub and a cup o’ Joe. From the breakfast joint we hopped into Matt’s rental and made our way to the stockyards, unfortunately Matt had not quite adjusted to road signs or the Sat-nav and despite a few prompts took a few wrong turns. These wrong turns added up to just missing the herd moving through the streets, so we had a quick nose along the old western streets, and I mean just like the movies, although not situated in a cactus patch, it was by far the most stylish place we’d been so far if not a little touristy. We stumbled across a bit of an old western styled gun-fight which was enough to amuse us for about 10 minutes before we decided to head back out and sort our other tasks and return for the rodeo, we shot back to the motel and swapped out for the Suburban as I needed my laptop to take it in for repairs.

First on our port of call was Cavender’s boot city. I wanted to find a pair of smart cowboy boots and a few other bits and pieces while Chris wanted a flannel shirt and a trucker cap and it seemed an ideal place to start as it was just a few miles away. Conveniently for me it was also next to best buy which I needed to visit after cleverly getting my laptop soaked and after a frantic field strip to save the hard-drive the keyboard was now inactive rendering the whole machine useless so I popped in to see what could be done and a few minutes later I exited with a plug and play keyboard, which later I would find out was completely useless. I had no luck in Cavender’s while Chris exited sporting a Cavenders logo’d trucker hat. It was then on to T-Mobile, so Matt could get himself an American sim so that he could be in contact if anything goes wrong when we part company. It took a bit of time waiting in line and then even longer when they had technical difficulties with their computer. So an hour had passed and we hadn’t really got very far. Time was pressing on and we were a fair way through the afternoon, so we pressed on to Sheplers western wear for another browse. Matt bought himself some boots and a few bits and pieces while I spent a lot of time trying things on to check sizes before ordering the whole lot offline to make it easier for shipping. Before I knew it I had spent the best part of 2 hours going through various hats, boots and shirts before only leaving with a few pairs of jeans. I felt disgusted with myself and how this store had temporarily turned me into a woman. I got outside, pulled myself together and planned with Chris and Matt what we should do as the rodeo was only 30 minutes away and we still had to drive there. We opted to head back to the motel again to pick up Matts car and then run in convoy.

We made our first successful convoy and arrived in good time for the rodeo. We bought our tickets and sat down just as the show started. Just like in boxing although with a western twist a girl would come out at the start of each event on horseback waving a banner first of the USA flag, and then for each event after one bearing the name of various sponsors. The bull riding was the first event as you may well have expected. This for those who don’t know is an event where one rather un-friendly bull is ridden by one rider. They start off in a coral or bucking chute, which is essentially a bull sized pen where the bull is held until the rider attaches their grip, which is a long braided piece of rope, and gets into onto the colossal beast. Each rider selects a bull randomly to keep it an even competition as each bull like rider has different attributes. Once the rider is happy the gate to the coral is pulled open and the bull jumps around trying to dislodge the rider. The rider may only use one hand and must stay on the bull for 8 seconds. Should a rider succeed there are two judges, one who scores the bull and the other the rider, they both score on a scale of 0-50 and the two scores go together. The highest score for the night, and well the only score was 79points. Everyone else was thrown from the bull in an array of spectacular tumbles. They don’t call it the most dangerous 8 seconds of sport for nothing.

Once the riders are unseated the three rodeo clowns spring into action to distract the bull long enough for the rider to get clear, they themselves have an exceptionally risky job as they narrowly avoided a good mauling by just inches at times. It all added up to be a thrilling and very enjoyable first event.

The second event was calf roping also known as tie-down roping. The calves are lined up in a row and moved through a narrow handling system which leads to a chute with spring-loaded doors. When a calf enters the chute, a door is closed behind it and a calf rope, attached to a trip lever, is fastened around the calf's neck. The lever holds a taut cord that runs across the pen or "box" at one side of the calf chute, where the horse and rider wait. The barrier is used to ensure that the calf gets a head start. When the roper is ready, they must call for the calf, and the chute operator pulls a lever opening the chute doors and releasing the calf. The calf runs out in a straight line. When the calf reaches the end of the rope it trips the lever, causing the rope to fall off the calf. This then releases the barrier for the horse and roper, at this point the clock is started. Timing is critical. From a standstill, a rider will put his horse into a gallop from the box shortly after the calf leaves the chute, so that the horse saves valuable seconds by being at near-full speed the moment the barrier releases. However, if the rider mistimes his cue to the horse and the horse breaks the barrier before it releases, a 10-second penalty will be added to his time. This was referred to as a "Cowboy Speeding Ticket.” Once the rider is away they must lasso the calf from horseback by throwing a loop of the lariat (lasso) around the calf's neck. Once the rope is around the calf's neck, the roper signals the horse to stop quickly while he dismounts and runs to the calf. The calf must be stopped by the rope but cannot be thrown to the ground by the rope. If the calf falls, the roper loses seconds because he must allow the calf to get back on its feet. When the roper reaches the calf, he picks it up and flips it onto its side. Once the calf is on the ground, the roper ties three of the calf's legs together with a short rope known as a tie-down rope or "pigging' string" which the roper carries between their teeth. The horse is trained to assist the roper by slowly backing away from the calf to maintain a steady tension on the rope. When the tie is complete, the roper throws his hands in the air to signal "time" and stop the clock. The roper then returns to his horse, mounts, and moves the horse forward to relax the tension on the rope. The timer waits for six seconds, during which the calf must stay tied before an official time is recorded. Top professional calf ropers will rope and tie a calf in 7 seconds. The world record is just over 6 seconds. The best we saw on the night was 7:43. A 6:39 was recorded but a speeding ticket had to be applied.

I have to say it was a bit different from how we handle the calves back home on the farm but I still found myself intrigued by the speed and different techniques used by each roper.

It was now time for event number 3, saddled Bronco Riding. The rules were similar to that of the bull riding but this time with a horse in place of a bull. It looked a lot more dramatic and from the grimaces of nearly every rider it was quite a painful event. Although faster paced and with bigger spills I didn’t quite find it as exciting as once the rider was off there was no threat after. Still it made for good entertainment as each rider flipped off in spectacular fashion. I completely forgot to keep track of the scoring so I have no Idea who won but it was now time for a short break and we were given a brief half time display from a group of cowgirls who rode in tight formation. I guess it was a cowboy form of the red arrows. It was quite amazing to watch.

Event 4 was more calf roping this time for the cowgirls. It’s identical to the men’s event apart from they are only required to get a rope around the calves neck and then let the calf pull the rope out of there hand to stop the clock. It was a lot less exciting than the other events as in most cases it was over in 3 seconds. Then there would be a few minutes to the next rider.

The fifth event brought in more roping this time an event known as “Team roping”. It starts a lot like the calf roping only now they were roping steers. Not only were they now attempting to rope a larger animal but also work as a team. The first rider like in calf roping aims to get the lariat around the steers’ neck. Once he has done so it is up to his team mate to rope the hind legs. Some ropers were so skilled they were able to rope head and tail of the steer almost simultaneously. All in all it was another exciting event, but once more I lost track of the times so I can only say it was around 6-7 seconds for the winning pair.

Round 6 brought back the cowgirls this time in an event known as barrel racing. 3 barrels are placed in a triangle about 25 feet apart. The riders and their horse come in to the arena at full tilt then proceed to round each barrel before heading back out of the arena to stop the timer. They were mostly hitting 13-14 seconds although some did pick up 5 second penalties for each barrel they knocked down. It was fast paced and ridiculous to watch as the riders were barely in contact with the saddle at any point.

Quickly enough it was over and time for the 7th and final event or at least the 2nd round of the bull riding. Several riders were riding again as they were not happy with the flank strap, the strap around the back of the bull designed to force the bull to buck, no one made the 8 second mark so it was just another chance to get more photos. I quickly found out though that I had now filled nearly all of the 700 slots available on my SD card, so it was quite good news that it ended not long after.

We sat around to let the crowd disperse and then made our way back out to the parking lot and hopped into our trusty steeds grinning and talking about our nights thrilling entertainment, and once more headed out into the night and onto our next great adventure.

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

So we've reached a point where we've almost come full circle and find ourselves back in Arizona, with only one state left to properly do we'll be heading back to Vegas before we know it to sell up the 'burb and we'll be coming back home in less than a month. No doubt we'll add to this after but up until now, here's a list of the things that we love about America, the things we hate and things that are just plain ugly. Enjoy! 

Utah is amazing.

The Good...

  • Leisure – everyone here goes off huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ or wheelin’ at the weekends and there’s plenty of places to do all of the above. People know how to relax here.
  • State Parks / National Forests – there’s loads of them, always beautiful and always places to camp.
  • Coors
  • The prices – everything here is pretty cheap for us, especially electronics and clothes. Oh and car parts.
  • People are really friendly – and it’s not always fake. So much for American stereotypes
  • Motels – they may not be the nicest but they can be bloody cheap compared with what we get ripped off for a Travel Lodge in the UK
  • V8s – obviously.
  • Doughnuts (proper spelling) – nobody does doughnuts like the Americans, we can see why the cops are all over them
  • The sheer scale of the place – doesn’t matter if you’re here 3 months or 3 years, you’ll always be finding new places
  • Utah – literally everything there is beautiful. Go there.
  • The road life – it’s hard at times but it’s so cool waking up somewhere new and interesting every single day and being able to go explore it.
  • The western life – rodeos, pickup trucks, ranching, country music etc. We think it’s pretty badass. Plus Ben has got carried away with the dress code. When in rome?
  • Wheelin’ – getting a 4x4 was one of the best decisions we made, it is seriously so much fun! We’ve taken this standard Suburban through hell and back and it just keeps asking for more.
  • The ‘burb – it’s been our home, our transport, our storage.... it’s like me and Ben bought our first house together. I hope the next owner doesn’t want to put anything in it, because it’s filled to the brim with memories.
  • The stories – it never fails to amuse us the random stuff we get ourselves into, these are ones we’ll be annoying the grandchildren with for years. Until then, you lot.
  • Walmart – if you can think of it, they sell it. Genuinely this is a one stop shop for everything.
  • Jack Daniels – despite the huge volumes they sell, it’s still made here properly. This isn’t any factory produced crap, not a single drop leaves the premises until it’s tasted and deemed ready.
  • Sunsets – we’ve seen so many beautiful ones we’ve stopped taking photos of them, but wow!
  • The weather – I think we’ve been lucky at times but it was definitely good when we first got here. We’ve had two summers this year!
  • Country music stations – they play the same stuff over and over like back home, but at least it’s good! “In my country, we like to watch what we eat. Right up until we pull the trigger!”
  • Custard – because it’s always good.

Tree damage sucks.

The Bad...

  • Taxes not included – every state has a different rate of tax and it’s never added onto prices, so you have to do it in your head. I don’t like doing sums in my head.
  • Florida – it’s so hot and humid, makes it impossible to sleep at night outdoors
  • Terrible road signs – they’re either too late, too small or just non-existent. We advise the use of a sat-nav for getting anywhere important.
  • Light beers – seriously. No.
  • Florida – everything is trying to kill you.
  • Mosquitoes - mostly found in Florida.
  • Florida – toll roads everywhere with no warning that you’re about to go on one.
  • The sheer scale of the place – every intersection where you take one road, you’re missing out on three others. There’s so much more out there we wish we had time to see.
  • Proper meals – they just don’t exist here. Whatever happened to a good ole meat and two veg?
  • Salt and sugar – they put copious amounts of these in EVERYTHING. Literally you can’t avoid them.
  • Never spending long in one place – weirdly, it’s actually nice when we get to spend a few days somewhere and explore our surroundings a little. Just as we get to know a place we’re leaving again.
  • Bacon – it sucks here.
  • The price of beer – it’s generally pretty expensive unless you’re buying it from a local off licence.

Sup e'rybody.

And the Ugly...

  • Pot bellies. And love handles. American food has not done us well.
  • Epic farmer’s tans – we have no time for this proper sunbathing business
  • Road hygiene – good job the only thing we can smell is ourselves. Showers can be a bit hard to come by so you have to take them at every available opportunity.
  • Crashed cars – literally almost every car here bares a scar from some sort of battle at an intersection. It makes us nervous.
  • Homeless people – there’s a lot of them out here, when people go down they stay down and there’s no easy way back up.
  • Smoking inside – we banned it in the UK for good reasons, it’s not nice. Sort it out America.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Houston, we have a problem...

Post has been edited! Offroading videos and more pictures

Right, this is going to be a bit of a long one, so I strongly suggest you go get yourself one of the following: tea / coffee / beer depending on the time of day and inclination. At risk of telling you what to do you may quite like some biscuits / cake / crisps depending on preference and your previous choice. Excellent, I’m assuming you’ve returned now with at least a beverage, so let us begin.

Now some of you may be familiar with the excellent piece of cinematography that goes by the title ‘Smokey & The Bandit’ – a film from the 1970s starring Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, Sally Fields and Jerry Reed. If you haven’t then the next bit might be a bit lost on you because we hatched a little plan to do exactly what they do in the film: drive from Atlanta to Texarkana and ‘bootleg’ some Coors beer all the way back to Atlanta. The last blog saw us just crossing the border into Texas and those of you familiar with your American geography will know that Atlanta is actually a large city in the state of Georgia, which is near as damnit on the east coast. That night in the rest area we were killing a bit of time while waiting for it to go dark by browsing the map and I happened to notice a small little town in Texas which, as luck would have it, was called Atlanta! Now this place is only about 20 miles south of Texarkana so we made a plan to go buy some beer and actually ‘bootleg’ it over the state line. Once again, the geographically educated may know that Texarkana is a city which neatly spreads itself over the border of Texas and Arkansas (pronounced Arkansaw strangely!) and so all we had to do is go to the far side of the city which is Arkansas territory and drive back. So that’s exactly what we did, and thanks to the states having different tax rates, it’s actually a little bit naughty to do too! We drove to Walmart which was only just over the border - the side of the street it was on was Arkansas and the opposite side was Texas, perfect. We nipped round and grabbed a case of Coors out of the fridge (and some bread, we needed some) and then took it to the checkout. We were actually trying for a speed beer run as in the film but two things conspired against that. Firstly, there was a little old lady in front of us in the queue who was having problems using some coupons, and then rather interestingly decided she would pay by cheque. When it was our turn we hit problem number two. Up until now, we’d never had a problem using our UK driving licences to buy alcohol but this one time, when we were trying to be fast, the cashier decided to run off with my licence to her supervisor to check whether she could accept such a foreign thing as proof of age. An eternity later, she came back and sold us the beer (and bread) and we left to head back to Atlanta, happy in the knowledge that we had bootlegged some beer over state lines.

The next morning, there was little else to do except head for our main destination in Texas – Houston. Now Texas, as you are probably aware, is a pretty huge state. It’s actually a fair bit larger than the UK combined so we’d pretty much dedicated the day to making it back down to the Gulf of Mexico and Houston. There was very little to report as we got ourselves back onto Route 59 and ate up the miles, both of us still quite chuffed that we’d actually still managed to do our Atlanta to Texarkana run made famous in Smokey and the Bandit. We trucked along, listening to country music stations on the radio instead of our iPods for a bit of a change. Although we found that the charts haven’t really changed all that much in the last month or so and quickly found ourselves listening to the same songs again. It didn’t matter, they’re good songs and we know all the words by now! Plus it beats listening to UK radio stations where all you get is pop music rammed down your throat all day. Either way, we eventually found ourselves nearing the outskirts of Houston, in a place called Humble to be precise. We later found out that Texans actually pronounce it ‘umble, with a silent H, which generated a lot of amusement for us because we kept wanting to say it in a Yorkshire accent: “You’ll be eatin’ ‘umble pie by end of day, our kid!”. Anyway, we navigated ourselves to a Super 7 motel and went inside to see if they had any rooms. They did, however they wanted rather too much and we took our business to the Motel 6 across the road. We settled in and got ourselves some takeaway chicken in the form of a ‘Po-boy’ from Popeye’s and noted the western wear store opposite as a place to return to the next morning.

Having had a look round the western store, Ben had no luck trying to find himself a fancy pair of cowboy boots and so we headed off to what is probably Houston’s most famous attraction – NASA’s Johnson Space Centre. We arrived at lunch time and after making some food, we headed inside. Ben was a little taken aback by being asked by security at the gates if he was carrying any weapons on him, as it’s kind of a given in the UK that you wouldn’t be. Even if you were, it’s not something you would admit to anyway! We started out in the main plaza and were a little confused as to where we should be going at first – there were a lot of kid’s rides and attractions and I thought for a moment we’d made a bad choice. We eventually found our way into the space travel museum section though, which was actually really good. They have real-sized sections of the International Space Station which you can actually walk through which I personally loved  and what really struck me was that, in space, there is no real up or down so everything was arranged more in a tube with computers, showers and storage coming out of all walls! Then we moved out into the moon rock section where they had laid out the testing labs like they would have been when they first received the precious cargo of the first moon landings. The final section of the museum was an astronauts ‘hall of fame’ so to speak, which showed famous astronauts and the missions they were part of from the early days of NASA. Alongside they had a moon-lander from the famous Apollo 11 mission as well as an exhibit showing the moon buggies set out to look like the first moon landing. I don’t think either of us had realised just how many missions to space there were back in those early days leading up to the moon landing, not only on the part of the Americans, but also the Russians and countless astronauts daring to go where no man had before! From there we exited the museum and went out on a tour of the actual NASA site, which is still used today to house all of the engineers and their various projects along with the famous mission control. We cruised around a little on the tour tram-bus-thingies before ending up at ‘Building 9’ – the vehicle mock-up facility. In here they have replicas of sections of the International Space Station, robotic arms, prototype vehicles and many other ongoing projects that they use to not only train astronauts but they are also used for development and testing. From there on, we were taken to the ‘rocket park’ where they had a combination of old rockets and engines just parked outside. Inside the huge building was the genuine restored Saturn V rocket, which was absolutely colossal! We both laughed at how such massive tanks of just pure fuel are used just to propel the tiny little capsule at the front upwards. It seems so wasteful on one hand but that is the price for the quest of exploring out from our home planet. What really amazed me is how they managed to achieve so much with very little technology – it just goes to show that you don’t need computers to do everything! With the tour done, we went back into the plaza and had a wander around the rest of the exhibits and then made our way back out to the car. We had neatly used the rest of our day up and it was now getting dark so there was nothing left to but head back to our motel in a different part of Houston, this time a cheaper one. We ordered some Chinese food which took an age to turn up but when it did we found we had a pretty decent meal on our hands.

The next day we headed out to the ‘Trader’s Village’ on the outskirts of Houston, which is a massive flea market. Some traders were there to sell unwanted items, like a car boot sale, while others had permanent stands housed in lockups and traded from there every weekend. There was a huge amount of stalls and goods on offer and we spent a good few hours wandering round, making sure we saw everything. There were stands selling everything from hot dogs to car parts and from puppies to clothing. Ben bought himself a new belt to add to his cowboy outfit, complete with western pattern and Texas state belt buckle from a trader selling nothing but belts and buckles but having an absolute insane selection of both. I wandered round in vague hope we could find a cheap BMX for some messing about in California but unfortunately they were all little more than kid’s toys. Overall we had a good day scouting about the huge variety, looking for bargains and souvenirs alike. We headed back to the motel where we spent some time relaxing and got a few more cans of Coors in and went to bed.

Monday came around and it was time to meet up with a Mr Jonathan Smith, also known as ‘trw’. Back in our younger days we used to play a video game called 1nsane, which an offroad driving game and used to basically go offroad in cyberspace. Fast forward a few years and real life took over for both of us and neither of us had the time to play anymore but we stayed in contact because both of us shared a love of offroading and cars in general. Back in the early stages of planning for this road trip we both conjured up the idea that it would be awesome to meet up and go offroading for real, originally we had planned to meet up in Moab but Jon’s commitments had said otherwise. However, we were now in his home town and we had a four wheel drive, it would be rude not to at least go say hello. So myself and Ben killed some time that morning by going to Denny’s and getting ourselves fuelled up on breakfasts while Jon had a job interview. When he was home, we drove the short distance of just over a mile to his house, which was very convenient as our choice of motel was literally based on the cheapest one we could find and we all found it a rather weird co-incidence that in the huge city of Houston we were staying only a few blocks from him. Meeting Jon for the first time was really cool, having ‘known’ each other online for around 7 or 8 years it was quite surreal actually putting a voice and a face to name. The three of us spent the next 3 hours or so just shooting the breeze about everything that we had seen on our trip to cars, offroading etc and before we knew it, darkness had long crept in and it was getting cold. We made some vague plans to go wheelin’ the next day after Jon had finished his second interview at Best Buy while we ate and had a beer at a local bar with his friend Josh. By now it was getting late and it was time to head to our hostel which was all the way in downtown – not as conveniently located as the motel we’d been staying in for the past 2 days. We got there late and there was a note on the door telling us to ring a mobile number but there was no answer, so we sat down and waited outside for our host to return. Thankfully she did and gave us a warm welcome, first checking us in and then telling us about all the areas to visit in downtown Houston. Leah showed us into our dorm (which we’d actually had the keycode for all along without realising) and we very quickly crashed out in our beds for the night.

We had up until about 3pm to kill the next day so we decided to head out and explore a bit of downtown. Taking Leah’s advice we took a footbridge over the freeway and after walking through an area which combined massive overpasses with nice parkland, seemingly a jogger’s paradise, we found our way into what we assumed was Houston’s financial district. We wandered though the forest of gigantic skyscrapers, which was a bit of contrast from the trees that we had become much more used to by now. Most of them belonged to large banks which made Ben angry that they’d built these massively expensive buildings and then got themselves into huge amounts of debt and got the government to bail them out to protect people’s money. From there we followed Main Street and the metro tracks for what seemed like an age into the museum district, passing through some rather dodgy looking areas in between with plenty of homeless people coming up to us asking for money. Eventually we found ourselves in the more cultured part of town with plenty of museums and art galleries that we didn’t really want to visit, but the option was nice. We paused for a few minutes before heading into the huge Hermann park and wandering round the fountains and water features. By now it was time to head back, I suggested taking the metro most of the way but Ben wanted to walk, he had a point - we were both getting pretty unhealthy at this stage in the trip having lived off American food for nearly 2 months and sitting in a car for days at a time. I have developed something of a pot belly and Ben is sporting some excellent love handles. Anyway, I caved in and we started the long, long walk back. At this point in the day we’d already walked about 4 or 5 miles and my legs were getting a bit tired, after making it back to the hostel we actually walked around 8 miles total so we were pretty exhausted by then. Unfortunately, I can’t really say it was 8 miles of interesting stuff to look at – Houston is very large and spread out and even downtown doesn’t really have much to see at all, the most interesting bits were walking few the parks in the city and the skyscrapers at the start and that was it! Now as you may remember we’d arranged with Jon to hopefully do some offroading that evening, however I was not particularly keen on the idea for several reasons: we were tired, it would be dark by the time we got there and we would have limited time to enjoy ourselves. Plus the candles on the ‘burb wouldn’t exactly be ideal for night adventures through the mud and water. Ben had looked at the next day’s forecast that morning and was suitably pessimistic about my idea of putting it off until the next day – the weatherman said heavy rain and thunderstorms were coming and it would mean getting stuck. A lot. Ben eventually caved in though after I reminded him about the accuracy of these things back home and the night factor so I rang Jon and arranged to meet up in the morning to try and make the best of it. We went back into the hostel, cooked ourselves up some pasta and started socialising with our hostel-mates for the first time. We went outside at one point to get stuff out of the burb and Mike noticed the ‘trucking Coors across state lines since 31/10/13’ written on the side window, now he was a huge Smokey & The Bandit fan too and actually saw it when he came out at only 7 years old or so. We spent a good while just quoting funny parts at each other until Ben noticed something under the wiper, we assumed it was a parking ticket! It was too big to be one though and inside was an envelope containing some pieces of art and a card from a local artist, he’d also taken a picture and put it up on Instagram. Now we were absolutely chuffed with our new souvenirs from Houston and I highly recommend you check out this guys incredible work:

The next day we dragged ourselves out of bed at 7:45 in the morning which was sort of difficult for us at this point in the trip and got ourselves showered and ready to get back over to Jon’s again. Both of us were anxiously checking out the sky, looking for signs of the imminent rain storms that had been predicted. At that point it looked clear and we got to Jon’s with no trouble. Quickly, we packed all that we needed for the day’s offroad and convoyed with Jon’s modified Jeep Wrangler out to Creekside Edge Offroad Park, in Splendora which is about 40 minutes north of Houston. We got there and cautiously approached the wooden hut next to the entrance and Jon knocked on the door, a guy came out and told us that the park was normally closed but we paid him $20 (which is actually what it’s supposed to be per vehicle) and everyone was happy! First of all Jon pulled up on the side to disconnect his anti-roll bars (or sway bars as they say here) which didn’t take long thanks to his Teraflex quick releases. Ben then followed Jon down the first few muddy tracks, fording the occasional water holes after watching Jon go through to check the depths! He had a snorkel and a nicely designed Jeep whereas the ‘burb is completely stock and we needed to be careful. We carried on and then the forecast rain started hammering down and we knew if it carried on like this we’d start having trouble. Eventually we came across a huge expanse of water and we thought it best to sit somewhere in the middle while Jon went off to frolic in the massive lake size puddle, coming up to his headlights in places! We watched on enviously for a few minutes before Jon decided to air down his tyres a little and Ben decided to do a cheeky few doughnuts of the slidey variety. Unfortunately, Jon had his boot open at that point and it got a bit muddy as the ‘burb slid round kicking up mud everywhere, causing Ben’s first apology of the day. I took the wheel then and delicately picked my way back across the big area of water, sticking to the more shallow spots before leading us into what I can only describe as a huge play area. Jon went off to play on some of the harder stuff while we scouted round the outside and then met back near the start. In fairness, it’s sort of pointless describing what we actually did, I may as well stick a whole ton of pictures in – which you’ll see in a minute. Anyway, from there Jon suggested something slightly harder so we went into what myself and Ben like to refer to as ‘the jungle’. These were basically trails which were entirely underwater and wound their way through a thick forest of trees, broken only by the river that we were effectively driving down. Some of the turns in the woods were tight and the Suburban was pretty disadvantaged by its massive length so Ben jumped out to act as spotter, with some of the turns requiring more than one stab at them to get the massive leviathan round them.

The day went on and we started to hit some harder stuff to push the ‘burb a bit further, culminating in a mud pit where it almost got stuck. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it out of there without incident and this is where I come to why the blog post is named. Ben was taking a few runs at the bank at the other side and on his final push gave it a bit of welly, it eventually clambered and clawed its way out of the mud hole and after struggling for grip it suddenly found it and lurched forwards. The problem was the ‘burb’s old brakes aren’t up to much cop and while Ben pressed the pedal all the way down, nothing could stop it from sliding into Jon’s Jeep with a sickening crunch. The videos probably tell the story a little better, look out for Jon’s face on the onboard shot – it’s worth it.

Thankfully, damage was fairly minimal – the worst of it was it broke the spare wheel carrier on the Wrangler, cracking the cast aluminium part and causing the spare to sit at a jaunty angle. A few slats were broken in the Suburban’s grille and the bonnet was bent upwards at the one edge, we all stood around inspecting the damage on both vehicles for a few minutes, figuring out what was bent and where. The weird thing was that all of us had sort of seen it coming and thought the Jeep might be a little close but no one actually said anything, Jon had taken it well though and we all laughed it off while Ben made his second apology of the day. We carried on and Jon decided to try something a little more adventurous by first dropping down a steep bank, coming out the other side and then attempting to cross a deep section of the creek as it came back round. The problem was the creek was pretty deep there (well above my knees anyway) and he soon found himself in what I like to describe as a ‘Jeep sized hole’. With a bit of shunting backwards and forwards, it was soon clear there was no way out for the Jeep and a recovery would be needed. Jon gingerly stepped out into the nice cold water and hooked the remote up to the winch while I put the strap around a nearby tree and helped him attached the hook. Soon enough the winch was working its magic and quickly pulled the Jeep clear after some dicing with nearby branches!

After some playing around on some more trails we found another long stretch of water, which we only opted to do a certain amount of after Jon nearly found himself up to his armpits. It always pays to walk it first it seems because it very quickly dropped away! We moved on in the depths of the woods, this time without wading through so much water and squeezing through a few narrow ATV type trails. Finally we had a quick play in some of the sandy bits once more before deciding to call it a day after many hours of excellent fun. The burb had made it in one piece and hadn’t got stuck once! To be honest, I think we were as surprised as Jon was to see it make it through some of the sections and we were both pleased as punch. With that, there was nothing left to do but wash the vehicles down and head back to Houston for some grub. Jon took us to a nice restaurant not far away and we ate our fill – a perfect end to an almost perfect day! We headed back to the hostel in time to catch up with our fellow hostel-mates and told them all about our day. Before long it was time to head to bed in preparation for our last day in Houston.

We’d arranged with Jon the night before to come over that very next morning to take him on his very generous offer of fixing a few things on the Suburban using his tool and supplies, the original plan was to come over at around 10am and spend all day ironing out some of the little niggles while tackling some of the damage from the previous day’s offroad adventure. Now my brother Matt had actually flown into Houston the afternoon before and had spent the night in a motel resting up, the plan was to leave town with him that evening and get back on the road again. We actually ended up getting up a little later than planned and Matt was without a sat-nav so we couldn’t really get him to meet us at Jon’s place. So we headed north out of Houston again to meet him outside his motel and take a look at the whip he’d hired himself – a GMC Acadia. Once we’d had a nose round each other’s vehicles we head south again, stopping off at a Best Buy to get Matt a sat-nav before making the longer journey back into Houston to Jon’s house one last time. With the introductions done, myself and Ben started attacking some of the cosmetic damage the front of the burb had sustained, he was fixing the bonnet from his accident and I was making a better job of attaching the front reflector after my tree incident. After that, Ben moved on to having a go at fixing one of the rear doors so we could actually open it from the inside, for the record, he failed and now it won’t open from the outside either.... Never mind, Jon and I took to trying to adjust the tracking on the passenger’s side front wheel as Ben and I had noticed some time ago it was toeing out, causing the burb to not only pull to the right but also some telltale tyre wear. We took a stab at 2 full turns and put it back together, unfortunately a short drive round the block revealed that it was toeing in too much now and so we made another 2 trial and error attempts before Ben deemed it ‘about right’. By this time we had spent the better part of the afternoon laughing and joking around, occasionally turning a spanner or two on the Chevy and just generally having a good time. It was now getting dark though and we had to get ourselves out of Houston that night to a place we could crash, otherwise we would end up slipping behind on day and miles. We said our goodbyes and thankyous to Jon and convoyed down the road to a nearby burger joint to eat our second fast food meal of the day and then, under the cover of darkness, it was time to leave Houston behind.

Hover 'burb!

Chris =)