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 =)