Reflections From Mexico

This is a slightly belated post so apologies in advance. The margaritas, sand and surf have got the better of us. Who can blame us, we’re in Mexico. Anyway……. once upon a time, well, a week or so ago actually:

HotelWhile Liz cooks our supper on the camp stove in a basic but clean room, dust is swirling around in a choking fog on the streets outside. The dust is lifted by the rumbling trucks that constantly wind their way through this particular town in Mexico. I have no idea of the name of the place but it’s just like so many of the other towns we’ve passed through on our way South. It’s unclear where the sides of the road become the pedestrian areas, everyone fights for space on the road or roadside whether in a vehicle or not. It all feels a bit edgy to outsiders like us at first but even amongst the jostling and personal battles for a way through the melee, people smile at us, wave without inhibition and greet us with openness. This is the Mexico that dispels the myth that everyone is a murderous bastard caught up in the drugs war. Mexico is a book not to be judged by its cover. Millions of people live in places just like this, working hard, trying to make ends meet and looking after their families. There’s nothing here to speak of, just as there wasn’t in the previous town or any of the town before that. There’s little commerce, agriculture or money of any kind but somehow people seem to managing. Right now though, there is just dust, lots of dust.

It’s not a place we’d have chosen to stop given the choice. We were heading for a remote part of the Chihuahua desert that has a proliferation of deep blue fresh water springs, but a suspected broken CV joint has dictated that we stay here in this town for tonight at least and then work something out in the morning, hopefully, eventually. This evening is not a good evening, its been a stressful day ever since the knocking sound started coming from the front driver-side wheel but situations like this are what happens when your chasing the horizon everyday. Not every day is a good day. Such is life.

On the up side, we’re no longer freezing every night in the Rockies, we can now use our toothpaste as Colgate intended and we have exchanged endless mountains for endless desert. The Shadow of the Rockies Trail, which we had followed for over 1300 miles spat us out in the flat expanses of New Mexico. Now, at long last we can put our hot weather equipment to good use. New Mexico was a State we had always wanted to visit and then, upon reaching it we wondered what on earth possessed us ever to visit such a featureless place. That may be a little unfair on New Mexico, there was an interesting hillock or pattern of shadow once every few hundred miles or so as I recall. Only White Sands National Park really made the several hundred miles of very straight and very mundane dirt roads worth the effort. In amongst the flat expanse of a wide desert valley just left of Alamogordo the purest, whitest blinding gypsum dunes appear as an isolated sea of beauty surrounded by missile testing ranges and museums dedicated to the development of things used to kill people. It all seems a bit at odds but there is also every chance that the missile testing is the reason that the dunes are still around today. Despite the missile ranges though, the area is stunningly beautiful and more importantly, it was John’s first experience of great big fun-for-all-the-family dunes.

John, on the face of it is just like any other dog. Outgoing, happy, full of fun and loving. He is without any shadow of a doubt man’s best friend; certainly this man’s. However, when you consider that he’s still only 19 months old and in that time has had seven operations and lived for a long time on copious amounts of drugs, boxed into a metal cage he shouldn’t really be as fun loving and trusting as he is. He should be fearful, timid, even aggressive but no, he’s just an average crazy dog who when seeing sand dunes in the desert for the first time has crowds of people doubled up with laughter at his antics. He spent a good couple of hours running in every direction and often in no particular direction at all. He ate the sand, chased it, pounced on it and barked at it. He conquered the dunes in his own unique and stupidly over the top way. It was great to watch and unexpectedly emotional.
John in the dunes

Indias 1Beyond the dunes lay Texas and the splendor of Big Bend, the second and final National Park on our list of ‘must explore’ places since reaching Southern USA. A noisy rocker arm dictated another pit-stop for a swift oil change in the middle of nowhere and we reached Terlingua just as the sun was setting over the mountains of Big Bend. Covered in oil, harassed and hungry we checked into a motel under orange skies and slept like it was the first time in a week. Not feeling impressed with the buffet options of the hotel for breakfast the following morning we drove three hundred metres up the road to India’s Café. Little more than a shack with a lean-to porch it was nevertheless a popular little place and frequented by the locals too; always a good sign. In a thick London accent a guy of retirement age sporting chefs whites, nylon shorts, sandals and white socks asked us what we wanted and tried in vain to remember what the days specials were. We later discovered that after a life in the British Navy William had swapped a life on the ocean for a life in the desert thanks to his wife – India. They both shared a love of poetry and from opposite sides of the Atlantic swapped their own poems on an Internet poetry forum at a time when the Internet still used modems and telephone lines. India’s daughters said “Hell mom, if it don’t work out just send him back!” and on that note she invited him over and they’ve been together ever since. To watch them sharing a work area smaller than the average domestic kitchen and somehow being able to make fantastic food there’s little doubt that things worked out ok. The mischievous banter and little affectionate pats here and there confirmed it as well. India's bike

We had seemed to have been eating eggs with everything for an eternity so India made us up some beef tacos and a Bad-Boy Hotdog for me. The Bad-Boy consisted of a 12-inch hotdog wrapped in bacon, deep-fried and served in a bun with chili, onion rings and cheese. It was the most original breakfast I have ever had. It could only be called ‘inappropriately divine’. With full bellies we set off into a surprisingly heavy wind to explore the National Park. Threatening clouds hung over the mountains, the mountains we were heading for. Not put off we checked in at the Visitor Centre to get our wild camping permits, paid our $10.00 and excitedly drove on to see how close the Visitor Centre’s description was of our coming nights chosen spot. With the exception of a howling wind the description proved to be accurate. We could indeed see Mexico on the other side of the Rio Grande, we could even have thrown stones onto Mexican territory if we wanted to (and we did). However, now that the Rio Grande has been dammed it’s a shadow of its former self. It’s now more a case of Rio Trickle, silted up and full of invasive plants. Nevertheless we’d made it to the shores of one of the most historically influential rivers of the modern world. Aside from that, our campsite was nothing more than bare ground surrounded by a diverse range of cacti species. It was just what we wanted.

Not wishing to see our tent torn to shreds in the wind just yet we slammed the Niva into four-wheel-drive and set off into the remote corners of the Park on dirt roads of dry riverbeds, shingle and bedrock. We rocked and rolled our way across stunning landscapes of sandy cactus fields, sedimentary rock cliffs and expanses of shattered volcanic debris. As we climbed out of valleys and descended over rock-shelves we covered millions of years at a time. The area is impressive to say the least. Four hours later we emerged back onto the main paved highway, dusty, shaken, exhilarated and to the distinct hissing sound of a puncture. Evidently some of the sharp volcanic rock had bitten back and slashed a tire. Not to worry, we always kept a spare wheel on the roof where we could easily get to it without having to get everything out of the car first. Five minutes and we’d be rolling again.
tire change

 boxes on bonnetAn hour later just about everything had been removed from the back of the car and we’d attempted to jack the rear up seven times. We (I) hadn’t account for the fact that the weight in the boot (trunk) was behind the jacking point, as was the punctured rear tire. We were at first confused and then taken aback to notice that although we’d jacked up the rear of the car it was in fact the front wheel that was off the ground. So much for keeping the spare on the roof to make life easier. Systematically we lowered the jack again, removed some heavy stuff from the boot (yes, I know – trunk) and placed it on the bonnet (I mean – hood). As more stuff was piled on to the front with no discernable effect we then took it all off the bonnet for fear of denting it, opened up the bonnet and put everything directly on the engine instead. After an inordinate amount of time pissing about in the cold and ever increasing wind the spare wheel was finally fitted to the car.

We returned to our campsite finding it to be more of a dust bowl than ever and sat discussing our options as the wind rocked the car violently from side to side. Ninety minutes later and we were back at the motel feeling a little cheated. At least now back in Terlingua we could look at getting a replacement tire in the morning. Or so we intended. It transpires that the USA is very fond of its 15-inch wheels and it’s also very fond of its 17-inch wheels. Even 14-inch wheels can be come by. However, 16-inch wheels are more rare than rocking horse shit in the USA. They simply don’t exist. And of course we have 16-inch wheels as per the Russian standard. Maybe this is a new incarnation of the Cold War; it’s a theory anyway.

Morning came and it was back to India’s for breakfast and more Bad-Boy hotdogs. India, a proud and larger than life Texan woman through and through greeted every customer who came through her doors with a big hug and a playful thump on the arm. She used the excuse that it was for some past transgression during her long friendship with them. I asked how long she had to know a customer before she started to hit them and discovered it was just a couple of days, her order book hit the back of my head making me feel strangely at home. Just like so many of her other customers we were both also given hearty hugs from her as we left. William shook our hands and we parted for what we thought would be the final time.

We called in at the local store for water on our way back to the park to continue our sightseeing but found ourselves still there an hour later. Preparing to leave and checking my mirror to back out of the car park with our water safely tucked away a Ural motorcycle and sidecar pulled in alongside us. I nudged Liz, “Hey look at this!” I said looking towards her for a moment. I then immediately recognized the dog in the sidecar, complete with his crash helmet and goggles. I knew the rider had to be Ara, a man we had never met but whom we had known of for years via his Internet blog. Earlier this year we also became affiliated as both Ara & Spirit and Liz and I are supported by the Ted Simon Foundation. With mutual appreciation flowing freely between the five of us (including John and Spirit) an excited conversation soon sprung up and the cameras were out in a flash. It was a random and chance encounter that would later take us from respect on the Internet to a new and firm friendship. With India tutting at us as she found us still in the car park while she popped out for more supplies we pledged to stay with Ara & Spirit on the following Monday night. They don’t have an address as such, just directions off the highway into the desert, and with that we set off back into the park for a couple of days.
Moon over Big Bend
camp in Big Bend

AraMonday came and we found Ara & Spirit waiting for us just where they said they would be, living on their plot of land under a sky that goes on forever. John & Spirit did laps around the place like two mischievous kids without inhibitions. Anyone would have thought they had been friends all their lives. Spirit is a fine American Pit Bull who was abused as a young dog, rescued by Ara and now lives as his inseparable companion and is the perfect ambassador for American Pit Bulls the world over. They are undoubtedly lovely dogs. Visit Ara & Spirit’s blog (and it is ‘their’ blog) to read why. The Oasis of My Soul. We have followed Ara’s blog for several years, enjoying Ara’s insights, reflections and journeys, both spiritual and physical. I have admired his photography every bit as much too. He writes from the heart and for himself, it just so happens that what he writes is worth reading.Spirit

We pulled up a couple of chairs and an easy conversation went back and forth. Friends of Ara’s joined us too and we chatted late into the night under the huge stars of a Texas desert sky. It was a perfect afternoon and evening together. One of those rare occasions in life when everything feels right for a moment in time. The following morning was full of laughter and genuinely solid friendships as we put an inner tube into our punctured tubeless tire to give a round black thing a new lease of life. See the video here. A Second Chance For A Black Round Thing.
John and Spirit playing
Our evening with Ara was our last evening in the USA prior to driving to the town of Prosidio to cross the Mexican border the day after. We began our journey though the States with new friendships in New Jersey with our cousins-several-times-removed, Hannah & Paul and we left with new friendships in Texas. It sums the good old USofA up for us perfectly. Smiles all the way.

Next time:
• Its Mexico init,
• Something goes bang (repeatedly); and;
• No dogs allowed.

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The Dirty 1300

Our preparations for this part of our trip down to Belize by way of the States and Mexico saw us meticulously planning every aspect of the journey south, not least the equipment we’d be needing along the way. Sand ladders, mosquito nets, hot weather sleeping bags and a tent with high ventilation properties. Everything needed for scorching deserts and tropical sun. Unfortunately, (as per the last blog) we still find ourselves freezing our ‘proverbials’ off at 12000 feet. It’s not even like we’ve been forced to do this, we’re doing this through choice! My mum recently asked how on earth she gave birth to a son like me. She hates the cold, hates ‘roughing it’ and loves her creature comforts. Conversely, I’d go as far as a dose of frostbite in pursuit of travel if circumstances called for it, as would Liz (lucky for me). As I understand it, the being born bit was all quite natural and run of the mill, however, the travel bit is proving to be rather challenging right now. I do like to think that where there is challenge there is reward though, however optimistic that might be.

We’re now just about coming to the end of what we now affectionately call the Dirty 1300; 1300 miles of dirt roads linking together as the Shadow of the Rockies Trail, and while its been hard its also been breath taking. Sometimes as a result of the cold admittedly but more often because of the stunning views and variation of landscape. If you have nothing better planned for a few weeks, we’d highly recommend it. The maps aren’t always too clear but that’s a part of the fun.

Lost

Since our last blog our toothpaste has continued to be frozen for large portions of the day and we’ve discovered that it is still possible to breath while encased in two sleeping bags, two blankets, a thermal top, fleece, balaclava, hood and down jacket. We’ve also discovered what a pain in the backside it is to encase yourself in such regalia to then realise you forgot to put the wash bag in one of the bear bags up the tree a hundred metres away to ensure that no large and furry mammals with big teeth and claws visit us in the night. We love the bears and have seen a few from a distance, I’m pleased to say, but we don’t want them in our tent. It’s a shame they like our food and toothpaste so much as well. It really is rather inconvenient having to hang anything edible or smelly up a tree every night. Everything from soap to chilli and the cloths we cook in go in the bags. Sometimes there’s more stuff up the trees than there is in the tent or car. One evening we were forced to employ the 12 tonne winch to get it all off the ground. (How much food do two people and a dog really need I have to ask myself.)

Bags in tree

The 1300 miles of dirt we’ve trundled along, kicking up great plumes of dust in our wake have taken us through some of the most dramatic scenery we’ve ever seen on our travels. It’s also taken us through some of the most remote and forgotten corners of the USA. We’ve seen the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans living far away from the cities, people tending dusty valleys, herding beef cows on high mountainsides and entire villages abandoned in the wake of recent economic hardships. We’ve been stunned at the number of homes, stores and farms which have so obviously been abandoned in the last few years. To see it is to realise how hard the USA has been hit by this recession. One day, today may well become known as the second age of ghost towns. Whoever wins the next Presidency has one hell of a job on their hands. For us though, the hardships have been different. Tincup Pass, high in the Colorado Mountains, covered in snow for eight months of the year proved to be one such challenge. At 12,140 feet it was once a hellish route for miners to get to a hellish mine. Today it’s a recreational route for hardcore 4×4’s and the route that the Shadow of the Rockies Trail proposed to take us. Prior to tackling the rock-strewn, single track climb we stocked up on food and petrol in Gunnison, some fifty miles to the east and set off for the pass with nervous anticipation of what lay ahead. You Tube had once again proved its worth as a research tool, McDonald’s had also once again proved its worth as a free wifi spot and car park in which to watch people’s home movies of the pass so we had a good idea of what the route was like. Simply put, it’s tough, very tough. Axle breaking boulders lie embedded in the road (using the word ‘road’ loosely there,) the climb is steep, muddy, snow covered in parts and rough enough to rattle the fillings from your mouth.

Tincup Pass

The first fifty miles to the quaint wooden village of Tincup were paved most of the way, then giving way to good and fast dirt. Turning left and skyward out of the village the road immediately becomes rutted and strewn with sharp rocks all the way to Mirror Lake; the point where sight-seers turn back and the 4×4’s with their high-lift modifications and knobbly tires begin to earn their keep. We stretched our legs at the alpine-blue lake and enjoyed the views along the valley. The kind of snow capped mountains, fir-trees, glistening waters and blue skies that sell glossy brochures were all around us. However, time was getting on and if we were to clear the pass before dark we needed to get going. The narrow and rough road hugs the left hand shore twenty metres above the blue water. Setting off we put the Niva into the low gearbox which gave us half the speed and twice the power. We bounced nervously over every boulder in the road but before long we were past the lake and looking to the higher reaches of the pass. See the (easy) stretch along Mirror Lake here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjsXlZ91BM8

As the road began to climb away from the lake Liz was out of the car and checking the ground clearance for me as I edged forward over the larger boulders. The Russian build quality of the Niva will easily take a challenge like Tincup in its stride mechanically, but with three hundred plus kilos of gear and our bodies within, it sits low on the suspension and we had chosen not to raise the clearance with a high lift kit before we’d left the UK. We had a couple of inches to spare at most over some of the boulders and we had only just begun.

The first half mile to the end of the lake took half an hour in itself and the bridging ladders that had lived on the roof of the Niva until now had already been used twice. We were doing ok. With the use of the ladders we were clearing the bigger rocks safely without risk of hitting the sump or axle but it was taking too long. Far too long. We decided to keep going, see how the road ahead shaped up but another two miles on and we knew that we were never going to complete the eighteen mile pass with time to spare before dark. Without a mobile phone and without the equipment to last a night at 12000 feet the only sensible choice was to turn back and accept that some things are better left alone when you have three hundred kilos of gear and our bodies inside a little car. We gave it a good go, sulked a bit in the cold on the side of the road and then drove back to Gunnison to come up with an alternative route.

Road to Cottonwood Pass

The alternative was Cottonwood Pass, a hundred feet lower than Tincup Pass but reached via a good dirt road with countless hairpin bends and everyone of them with a view for the front of a Christmas card. We stopped at the top, gasping for breath in a howling wind and attempted to take a posed photograph with John. Unfortunately John loves snow and always becomes totally barmy at the mere sight of it. He eats it, pees himself in it, rolls in it and most of all, attacks us in it with his overflowing excitement. He is unquestionably still just a puppy. With poor photographic results Liz comforted herself with cold pizza while I struggled to put something warmer on. Watch the struggle here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6lduhmPoOU&feature=channel&list=UL

Cottonwood Pass

Pizza

Now, having crossed the continental divide between the watershed of the Atlantic and Pacific we are winding our way ever south into New Mexico, Texas and lower elevations where we may just be able to sleep in the same way that normal people do, without the risk of self-suffocation and looking like a Halloween onion.

Featured in our next blog:

  • Its too hot,
  • New Mexico,
  • Tex-Mex, and quite possibly
  • Mexico

In the Shadow of the Rockies

Everything is frozen. The zips on the tent are locked solid, even the toothpaste is just a white iced lump in the tube. It really is rather cold. This is the Shadow Of The Rockies Trail in October, in Colorado. However, its been seriously cold at night ever since we were in Casper, Wyoming.

Casper became an impromptu destination for us when we decided we needed to have some mail sent out to us. Its only merits (for us) were that it had a post office and was roughly a sedate weeks drive away from where we currently were in South Dakota. Our post consisted of a couple of exchange-rate-free credit cards that hadn’t reached us in the UK before we left and a tick removal kit courtesy of the wonderful Anna Tuk Tuk Rowlands (Thanks lovely!). We also had a stack of maps on their way to us, which collectively laid out the route known as The Shadow of the Rockies Trail. We debated having our post sent to us by UPS but when the estimate came in at £60.00 (±$90.00US) we thought again. We took the slower but far cheaper option of using good old Royal Mail. They estimated 7 days for delivery. That’d do us nicely at £9.80 thank you very much. We spent a slow and relaxing seven days driving across Wyoming and the remainder of South Dakota and it was very nice too. The days blended into one another with uneventful rest, camping here and there and taking the dog for a walk in pastures new.

Seven days ticked by and then became nine and our £9.80 post would be waiting for us. We planned to swing by the US Post Office, run in, pick up the maps, credit cards and tick kit and put the peddle to the metal for Colorado. The maps were there, the credit cards and tick kit wasn’t. It was mid afternoon and after a quick chat we decided we’d drive up Casper Mountain, which can be seen from space apparently, so Wiki says, and find somewhere to camp. The little Niva gasped its way up the mountain in second gear and after an hour of driving past No Trespassing signs we stepped out into the rarified and freezing air and snow at a potential camping spot. The dog hardly had time to pee by the time we were back in the Niva and considering Plan B. It was bloody freezing.

Car in snow

We found ourselves back down the mountain in no time at all and searching for official campsites around the city. Every one of them was shut and it was getting dark. For the first time in exactly a month to the day we ended up getting into a hotel. That night Casper itself was gripped by plummeting temperatures and a couple of inches of snow. Perhaps the hotel was a bit of a blessing after all. The shower certainly was. We packed the Niva again, raced around to the Post Office the next morning, ran in, asked for our mail and left disappointed. Still no mail from the UK. On to Plan C. With only summer sleeping bags, a summer tent and a few warm blankets we went in search of a campsite again. At 4:00p.m. we checked into a second hotel. Not good. Lets face it, we didn’t need a second shower already! We spent the evening grumbling, watching NCIS in a hotel that looked oddly like the inside of a swimming pool with floor to ceiling tiles on every wall, inside and out. The grumbling was added to when number three toe came into swift contact with a desk leg in the hotel room, unintentionally I hasten to add.

Toe

The second morning arrived and we once again packed up, raced around to the Post Office and were about to ask for our mail but were stopped in our tracks. “Ah, Christopher Smith!” said the postman.
“Um, yes.” I said wondering what I’d done to either be remembered or watched out for. I scanned the walls but there weren’t any Wanted Posters around. “Yes, that’s me, do you have some good news for me?”
“Nope, there’s no mail for you here.” My face dropped and I cursed the previous customer. I’d paid his $1.50 postage for him because he didn’t have any change and the card machines were out of order due to the bad weather. He thought I was doing him a good deed but there was a part of me that did it in the hope that there was some Devine power who’d see my good deed and change my fate. “Just kidding,” he said, “here ya go.”
I felt like a little kid. My £9.80 post (plus $160.00 hotel bill) was here. “Brilliant! Do you need some I.D.?” I asked.
“No, you’re ok, its all yours.”
I skipped from the Post Office waving the little packet at Liz and John in the car, grinning with the car keys hot in my hands. We sped out of Casper like we’d just robbed the bank. Next stop The Shadow of the Rockies Trail.

The idea of doing the Shadow of the Rockies Trail began with a quiet suggestion from Liz. “I was talking to Andy & Maya and Andy P. before we left the UK and they said we should do some of the Trans America Trail. We’re going North South but we could do the Shadow of the Rockies Trail instead. It’s kind of the same thing, what do you think?”
I thought back to her last idea, to buy a tuk tuk in Peru and try to get it over the Andes from the Amazon to Nazca. That idea nearly got us and others killed and was an utterly stupid undertaking. “Shadow of the Rockies Trail? Never heard of it but why not!” I’m now shivering in the morning frost at 8000 feet with frozen toothpaste every morning.

Liz map reading

map close up

Gold and cliffsThe days are full of glorious sunshine, which takes the chill off the cold air. Everywhere we look the colours of the Rockies are super saturated, golden leaves against grey cliffs, red earth against blue skies. However, the nights are star filled and the temperature plummets to well below freezing. The three of us sleep fitfully in the tent as the cold comes in to join us. Half the hours of the night are spent lying awake, too cold to sleep, wanting the morning to come that little bit quicker. When morning does come our water and milk is frozen, and there’s no chance of a reviving cup of coffee. (Not least because the stove is knackered anyway.) But it’s all worth it. The scenery and solitude of the areas we’re finding ourselves in is breathtaking. The tiniest of dirt roads wind through the mountains. The roads don’t seem to go anywhere and then a turn off will go to an isolated ranch somewhere. We carry on our way and camp wherever and whenever we like. Sometimes we think we’re in the middle of nowhere, in a quiet spot that hasn’t been visited for years. The place is empty.

Toilet panarama

And then we discover something as unexpected as this………

Toilet

Evidently the hunters of the pronghorn deer in these parts like their comforts. Pussies.

For the vast majority of the time however, we really are in the middle of nowhere. Rounding a bend on a road just wide enough for the little Niva we were greeted by an outstanding view of Rockies which demanded that we pulled off the road and camped at the spot for three nights. We even managed to find a patch of ground that was free of the tinder dry grass of Colorado which allowed us to have a warming fire in the evenings without risk of setting the world on fire.

Camp fire

Frosty windowAt 8000 feet everything froze over night as usual but all was not lost. Fortuitously we had purchased a six pack of alcopops which remained ice free. 10:30a.m. might be just a little early to break into the hard stuff but Mike’s Hard Limeade was a savior while the world thawed around us.

Alcopops

Coffee beansUnfortunately the stove situation didn’t improve. Not so much because of the stove itself, which leaked gas at an alarming rate but more because of the coffee. We have now made a note to check that the coffee we are buying has been ground as grinding it ourselves isn’t a great option since we don’t have a grinder. We’ve now given up on the coffee, the stove and the idea of being warm for a while but the scenery makes up for everything, whether it be mountain, forest or lake. We are in a stunning part of the world, that’s for sure.

Dawn lake

Pee & Pinnacles

Image

Why is it that when you find yourself confined to a small space with no possibility of escape do you immediately need to pee? In this case, confined to a tent by a couple of hundred buffalo. We’d been camping in a remote part of the Badlands National Park for a few days and seen the herds of buffalo grazing the plains with methodical progress around the park. They’re such beautiful creatures (kind of) from afar. Up close and personal they are, quite frankly, sodding intimidating.

Diffused sunlight began to warm the tent on this particular morning. I lazily opened one eye to see two big brown eyes staring back at me. John had been awake for a while it seemed. I lifted my head slightly to look over the top of him and saw Liz’s brown eyes also staring back at me. She too had been awake for a while. I heard a distinct low bellow, a kind of powerful audible rumble and looked at both Liz and John again but it didn’t seem to be their normal dawn chorus, if you know what I mean. Then I heard it again and realised it came from outside and I immediately knew it was the buffalo who had come to visit. In fact, they were right out side. A very large and distinct shadow moved over the tent and a guy rope went twang. Liz’s eyes widened. I needed to pee.

I once read somewhere that animals see things such as tents as solid objects, they don’t realise that there may be something inside. An optimist may, well have written that theory, but I chose to put some stock in it anyway. (I’ve also heard that pepper spray and bells are a good deterrent against bear attack. I hear bear shit always smells of pepper and is full of bells too.) Shadows continued to move across the skin of the tent, slowly, methodically. It was mesmerising and surreal, and as we got more used to watching them go this way and that it became enthralling. As long as we stayed put they would just do what they do and we could get the kettle on once they moved off, we just needed to play the waiting game. The psychological effect of having to sit it out was not doing my bladder any favours though. 

Two and a half hours later the shadows had moved away and the low bellows of huge male buffalos sounded more distant and, well, safe. I unzipped the tent door, did a quick recce of the area and sprinted for a toilet called the South Dakota prairie. The buffalo were a good hundred metres away. A few of them paused from their grazing to see what I was up to. I was past caring.

Image

They stayed within a reasonable distance of us for the rest of the morning and we spent and hour watching them over breakfast. We’d lost a couple of guy ropes off the tent and a rather inconsiderate buffalo had, unlike me, not waited to go to the toilet and left a very large, steaming ‘message’ six feet from the door.

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We’d been in the Badlands for a few days and had just moved from the Northern Park to the South Park. The majority of visitors only go to the Northern Park, and for good reason too. Its more accessible and the views are stunning. Pinnacles of cream, rust and sulphur yellow reach for the blue skies as an impenetrable wall of beauty. We had chosen the Badlands as our first goal in the USA. We hadn’t been before and the name alone suggested that it had to be seen. We weren’t disappointed. However, our National Parks Guide Book (thanks Mum) suggested that the South Park should not be missed too, although four-wheel-drive was recommended. The South is very different. Mile upon mile of shimmering, undulating prairie which then gives way to what looks like oceans of grey and cream ash interrupted by sharp fingers of rock which rise up as canyons and buttes. Deciding to leave the buffalo to their own devises and hoping that they’d respect our tent we went off in search of Sheep Table Mountain, the highest point in the park and an 18-mile drive away by dirt road. The road was good all the way aside from the usual corrugations that try to shake every bolt loose from every vehicle that passes by. We soon reached the bottom of the mountain and drove for another mile or so up a narrow canyon and out onto the flat top of the mountain itself. The views were as spectacular as anywhere in the park. Pinnacles, peaks, lakes of ash of every colour and pine trees clinging to precipitous ledges wherever there was a foothold, and there weren’t many footholds around. A geologist’s tour joined us at the lookout for a few minutes. Seven people jumped out looking a little tired but still with cameras in hand, ignored the view, photographed the dog and the car and drove off again back down the mountain the way they had come.

A sign beside the lookout said “Four-wheel-drive, high clearance vehicles only beyond this point.” It sounded like an invitation so off we set. Before flying ourselves and Niva out the USA I had spent a good deal of time learning all about serious off-road driving techniques by way of watching You Tube. Now the school of You Tube was going to be put to the test. Two wheel ruts reached out into the distance over a sand plain of sage bushes. The wind had eroded the loosened soil so that an impromptu channel had been cut into the skin of the mountain top. I locked the diffs and put the gearbox into low range, we drove into the channel with four-foot walls of sand on either side of us. The bed of the track was initially flat and steady but after four hundred metres the left rut began to get deeper and the right hand rut began to get higher. The tipping point of a Lada Niva is 43 degrees but I can’t remember if that is front to back or side to side. It was getting precarious either way. There was no possibility of turning around and the loose sand meant that reversing was next to impossible. I looked at Liz who was sitting a couple of feet height up than I was and she didn’t look happy. Her lack of happiness was confirmed when she uttered the words “I want to get out!” I thought about mentioning that she was acting as good ballast but didn’t feel that referring to her as ballast would be good for our long-term relationship so I pulled to a stop and she literally climbed out. John somehow remained asleep in the back and together we set off down the mini-gorge wandering how the over-sized four-wheel-drive American pick-ups could get down here. Given that there were no other tire tracks it was a safe assumption that they didn’t try it. Remembering my You Tube training I kept the Niva true and steady and another four hundred metres on John and I emerged as conquering heroes. Well, I did, John snored lightly in contented bliss. I waited for Liz to catch up and off we set again.

The road carried on for another two miles and Liz got out another three times, once even with the dog but with every obstacle my confidence in the Nava increased. Nothing that we faced seemed to be a great challenge for it. Many jokes have been made about Ladas over the years and most of them justified. For example:

 

  • A man goes into a service-station and asks 

“Can I have a windscreen-wiper for my Lada?”

    “Okay” replied the man in the garage, “it seems a fair swap“.

 

  • What’s the difference between a Jehovah’s Witness and a Lada?

    You can shut the door on a Jehovah’s Witness.

 

  • How do you avoid speeding tickets?

    Buy a Lada.

However, the challenge of Sheep Table Mountain left me in no doubt that while our little Niva might rattle, crawl up the hills in second gear and 70mph is an aspiration, increasingly as we take it off the black stuff and into the outback it comes into its own.

Sheep Table Mountain was a treasure of the park and we had most of it to ourselves. When John woke up we took him for a run well away from the cliffs and with not a sheep in sight he ran and ran and ran. At least until he froze to the spot some forty metres from us, he was looking at the ground intently, not sniffing it, just looking at it. He lifted one leg and then tried to lift two simultaneously, putting one down again gingerly when he’d loose his balance. He looked to us, looked to the ground and tried to stand on just two legs at opposite corners again. And then we realised the problem and I went trotting over to scoop him up into my arms. He’d run into a patch of ground covering thistle-like plants. The poor little chap looked utterly helpless and while our parental instincts came charging out to save him, we still had a good laugh at him anyway. 

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We left the Badlands with a sense of privilege at what we’d seen and a thought for the people who had tried to make this their home as America was being populated. They were always going to be doomed to starvation. Still, at least the view was nice. 

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From the Badlands we drove due west to the Black hills and persuaded Jerry to open up the Wolf Camp for us. He said that all the campsites were closed for the winter now and it was time to go trout fishing. We told him we knew, his was the fourth place we’d tried and I think that persuaded him to take pity on us. We needed a shower and an internet connection, (particularly the shower); otherwise we’d have just wild camped as usual. He lay down a strict list of does and don’ts but went about it nicely. “Don’t let the dog off the leash in the camp or my wolves’ll get a sniff of him and it’ll send’em wild in the pen.” “Don’t wander around too much tomorrow night, especially with the dog. I’ve got a guy coming to hunt deer and he’s paying good money.” 

Jerry was a nice guy and we spent the evening with him, his wife Cindy (or Killer Cindy as she was known from her internet password) and the staff at the camp who were all spending their last night together with an open bar barbeque before going their separate ways. We ate some humongous sausages and burgers while people argued about the pro’s and con’s of government handouts (with passion) and Jerry talked about stripping off and flailing himself with sage sprigs like the Lakota do. His spirit animal was the wolf, which is why he kept five of them locked up in a cage apparently. Go figure as the say. That said, he was a man with a big heart who opened his home up to us and we were grateful.

True to his word, the following day we returned to Wolf Camp to find a man up as tree fifteen metres from our tent with a large crossbow in his lap, just like the ones we’d seen in Wal Mart. He wore full camouflage and didn’t even twitch when we all looked in his direction and waved. WE spent the night wandering what or who would be dying tonight but woke to find him gone and no traces of blood in the area. Either he was very good or very bad. 

Spearfish and Devils Tower were our next stops. Having had a couple of showers and looking much better we found a secluded corner of a large forest and made it our own. We followed a forest track for several miles until it was blocked by a fallen tree and decided it was as good a place to camp as any, so we did. Three days of seclusion were enjoyed in the middle of nowhere once again. John particularly enjoyed foraging for body parts and bringing them to us for our inspection. A mule deer scull and antlers were a particularly pleasing addition to the hood of the Niva. Devils Tower was however viewed through a low freezing misted rain. We took a single photograph from over the top of the bins of the Devils Tower Trading Store and drove on for more adventure.

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Our next update will include such topics as:

  • You have mail.
  • This little piggy went to market.
  • The cold sets in, and;
  • In the Shadow of the Rockies.

The Road West

ImageThere’s an old cast iron hand pump behind the tent this evening, broken, weather bitten and forgotten. To our right are the foundations of an old wooden house; the timbers lie amongst the tall golden grass where deer now sleep every night instead of the people who used to live here. We’ve seen half a dozen mule deer looking for a quiet spot already, only to be disappointed at the sight of a great orange tent, a dog called John and a blue Russian four-by-four. Several miles distant from this abandoned and long derelict homestead we can see lights, between us and them is the great Missouri River. No one is going to disturb us tonight, it’s just us, the deer and the seven wild turkeys who run and collide with each other every time we move. This is South Dakota.

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New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and a slightly unplanned venture into Nebraska have finally led us to South Dakota, our first goal and the point where we will effectively turn left to head south. Just as well too, it’s getting cold at night. We added two more of Wal Mart’s finest cheap blankets to our collection of night-time insulation only yesterday as Iowa saw its fist frost of the year. Its been a long drive west, eating the miles up on anything but the Interstates and it has to be said, a Lada Niva is not the fastest vehicle on the road.

“I gotta ask you sir, what’s that you’re drivin’?” asked a thirty-something woman  serving behind the counter of a gas station in a place called Sheffield, population 152. “You look like your doin’ some travelling there.”

            “Oh, it’s a Lada Niva, its Russian. We’re going over to South Dakota and then heading south along the Rockies for a while.”

            “That’s some trip. That thing looks pretty old, how’s it runin’?”

            “Its going ok, its younger than it looks actually, its only three years old. Mind you, its like going back to the ‘70’s as soon as you’re behind the wheel though.” And it is too. There are few comforts in a Lada Niva and you feel more like you’re operating a piece of basic machinery than driving something. Just starting it is a three-stage process. “It really is like being back in the 70’s.” I reiterated just for emphasis.

            “Yer, but I bet that’s kinda the point ain’t it.” She said with a smile as I paid $23.00 for a full tank of regular gas.

            “That’s exactly the point.” I replied, thinking I like this girl. She gets it, she understands. The trip isn’t about comfort. It’s not about hardship either though. Its just about doing it in whatever we’ve got and we’ve got a Lada Niva. For better, for worse its getting us across the States and so far so good. The air conditioning works on the principle of the windows being up or down, the gear box springs vibrate against the gear housing at 3200 rpm in any gear and surprise surprise, 3200 rpm is exactly the point where the engine is most comfortable. We fitted a clock the other day as a clock doesn’t come as standard. It’s a nice little battery alarm clock with tinted green doors to the face which we bought in Argentina a good few years ago. With the aid of a bit for Velcro its sitting on the dash quite comfortably and most effectively. The only problem being we don’t know which time zone we’re in.

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The three of us have been spending long days in the Niva, doing a steady 55 miles per hour, not too fast, not too slow. New Jersey was behind us in a flash, Pennsylvania was a revelation of verdant hill covered forest, winding roads and abundant rivers. It was so beautiful it made our eyes hurt. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa became known to us as The Days of Corn. Mile upon mile of golden corn on the cob drying in the sun. The land was almost devoid of any interest, it was as though the character had been sucked out of the soil to make way for agricultural productivity. Fleets of combine harvesters trudged back and forth relentlessly. John Deere was to be seen everywhere. The only clues to the history of these states was the uniform distance between the farmsteads, it was a standard half-mile on all sides. Close enough for people to call each other neighbours, distant enough to be politely antisocial. We could almost picture lines of men on horseback waiting for the gun to go off and race out into the virgin prairie with their colours in hand to stake their claim when the mad land grabs were taking place. It seemed that those people had never moved since, only modernised their farming practices as the years ticked by.

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As we travelled further west the farms and homesteads have become sparser and of those, the abandoned farms have become more numerous. Every abandoned place has its own story no doubt, wells running dry, harsh winters and poor yields, sickness and starvation claims, and perhaps, sometimes success. Maybe not every abandoned farm ends in a sad story, some may simply have been outgrown and a newer, bigger, even more productive farm established nearby. Whatever the story they invariably become our home for the night. And they’re perfect. Remote, free, peaceful and all ours. Now in South Dakota where the skies and prairies go on forever we’ve almost dispensed with the farms too. Often we turn onto a minor dirt road, keep on driving until it becomes even more minor, more dirt than road infact, and then we keep on going still further until we’re driving across grassland. Unlike the previous states, South Dakota is full of character, undulations and folds in the landscape. The late summer grass shimmers in the sun bringing the gentle wind to visual life as waves of air sweep over the panorama in soft movement.  After a while we stop, turn off the engine, step out of the Niva and the three of us look at a world that feels like we’re the only people (and dog) in it. In these places we often dispense with the tent if its not too cold and just put the camp beds up along side the wheels and wait for the stars. Its what we came to South Dakota for. Seas of grass, heavens full of stars and a bit of piece.

 

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Stay tuned for our next update, including subjects such as…….

  • The Badlands,
  • Unexpected encounters with buffalo and their poo,
  • Men with crossbows, and,
  • Going in search of isolation.

The Niva Has Landed

The Niva has landed. Well, its made landfall is what I mean. I found it sitting at Newark Port looking slightly salt encrusted but non the worse for its two weeks at sea. It was certainly looking a hell of a lot better than the Land Rover nearby that had had a container dropped on it. As expected, it’d taken me a good few hours to find the Niva, not least because the taxi driver didn’t know where the port was, even though he’d picked me up from the airport rental car drop-off point which is only four-and-a-half miles away. He said he was from out of town which struck me as being a distinct disadvantage for a taxi driver. Still, he was ok once I’d entered the address into his sat-nav for him.
Niva at port
A burley port worker waited with me while I turned the key in the ignition, just to make sure it started ok. It turned over first time, which surprised the both of us. We then had a look around the Niva to check that everything was as it should be and nothing minor such as body panels were missing. The car was in tact and even the vast majority of the items we’d shipped with the car were still there. In the shipping world it’s a cardinal sin to ship a vehicle with anything in it other than the original tools, so of course we loaded it to the gunwales. We had camp beds in there, folding shovels, winch strops, Jerry cans and a host of crap that was too big or too heavy to send out with our luggage. Just to make sure it arrived in the US I’d been at pains to padlock everything to the chassis so that only the most determined thief or spiteful Customs official could run away with any of it. I was please I’d done so too, the only things missing were two yoga mats. They don’t lend themselves to being padlocked particularly well and the fool that I am, I thought ‘who’s gonna nick two yoga mats!’ Well, it seems that a seaman with a particular desire to be more flexible was away with them. (We had sent them to put under our camp beds so that the ground sheet of the tent didn’t get knackered by the way, nothing to do with yoga all.)

I turned out of the port onto Highway 95 South with the iPod playing in my ears and a smile as broad as the Atlantic itself. There is no feeling in the world quite like hopping into your own vehicle on the other side of the world and driving in the midday sun with the Empire State Building in the near distance. An hour later I turned into the driveway of my second cousin, twice removed (I think) to see Liz and the dog standing there with smiles as big as mine. It was a monumental moment. Liz came running over and literally hugged the car, patting it, caressing it with love and affection. This was the car that was going to take us across the States, through Mexico, into the 2012 Maya Rally and beyond if any of us made it. It wasn’t a car; it was a symbol of our shared future, the vehicle of tomorrow’s adventures.

Since arriving in the USA we had been enjoying the company and hospitality of Hannah and Paul in Princeton Junction, fourty-five minutes south of New York. Hannah is a relation on my mother’s side and has researched our family tree extensively. I was bringing the family tree to life for her and was under strict instructions from my mother not to let the side down. Having not met Hannah or Paul before it was left to chance how we’d all get along. Family relations are no guarantee of harmony. As it happened we got along as though we’d all known each other for years, they were lovely in every respect and made us feel so at home it was hard to leave when the time came. Hannah lectures Latin and Mythology three days a week while Paul is a scholar and a gentleman in every respect. The scholarly bit is even proven with a certificate. He is the Professor of Music and Composition at Princeton University. You’ll just have to take my word for it on the gentlemanly bit though. He has the humour of a comedian and the conversation of a chat show host. (A good chat show that is.) When questioned about being a professor he says “Professors are shmucks just like everyone else”. Well, I can tell you that if that is the case Paul is a far better class of shmuck by any standard; a shmuck to aspire to even. Hannah is also possessed of equal conversation and humour. She has to be to keep Paul in check. (Some of Paul’s compositions can be heard via www.paullansky.com or for Radio Head aficionado’s you’ll know his music already. It was a great pleasure to get to know them and they were happy to let us get on with the job of sorting ourselves out and taking little trips off into the Pine Barrons of New Jersey and beyond to allow our dog, John total freedom to run around in a new country and to see how the Niva was performing after the sea crossing. The close proximity to water for a couple of weeks had obviously paid off. Our first night wild camping in the Barrons on a US Air Force artillery range ended in torrential rain, the second night involved a number of river crossings , all of which were handled without issue. It was the first real test of the Niva since we had got it and it was surpassing expectations so far.Water crossing

All told it took us nine days of trips to Newark and waiting for excess baggage for us to finally get on the road and start heading West. With fond wishes from Hannah and Paul we turned the wrong way out of their drive to head West, we waited until they weren’t looking and turned around to go the right way out of Princeton. Within hours we’d left New Jersey and found ourselves in the unending forests of Pennsylvania looking for a place to camp under the stars. The trip had truly begun. We’d made it kicking and screaming all the way but we had made it, the three of us, me Liz and the recovering drug addict, John.
Camping in P

Hard Travels

Hard travels headerLiz is somewhere ahead of me, already at gate 300. I’m running through the cavernous departure lounge with a case of camera equipment in one hand, a rucksack over one shoulder which refuses to stay there and slips further down my arm with every running step that I’m taking. Having tried to get through Security at lightening speed I’m also running with the laces of my boots undone and conspiring to trip me up. I have my trouser belt in my mouth and said trousers are determined to fall around my ankles at any moment. My arse is already exposed to the international community of Manchester Airport and there’s every chance that my plane is going to take off without me but with my beloved dog on board. Oh, the adventure of travel.

We thought our departure from the UK had been meticulously planned. The final week of packing up the house, cancelling the utilities, having surplus home furnishings collected and the remaining sentimental items taken over to Mum’s was all supposed to be a smooth transition from sedentary life to a life on the road. Flights had been booked, John’s shipping organised, the car was already steaming across the Atlantic on a cargo ship and an excess baggage company had quoted for the shipping of our additional luggage to be sent from England to Newark, USA. We even had a couple a days to spare for any contingencies that raised their ugly little heads at the last minute. Little did we know that everything would conspire against us to make the next few days a hellish ordeal.

It began with the monumental failure of the house clearance company to actually clear the house. The agreement was that they’d take everything and anything for a sum and sell everything on afterwards. They neglected to mention that they intended to charge us for the removal of anything they felt they couldn’t sell. It’s not the first time we’ve used a clearance company and it’s the usual arrangement that the household items are sold to them for a reasonable sum but a sum which allows them to then sell everything on for a profit. Everyone wins. Well, normally. We had unfortunately commissioned a cowboy and ethically reprehensible character. He’d had the list of our household items for a fortnight and said he’d take everything and pay us for what he could sell. It was only now that we stood in our living room with time slipping away and no other options that he dropped the bombshell on us. His plan was to bide his time until we were backed into a corner and charge us for removing everything, only to then sell it at 100% profit.

Not being especially overjoyed at the prospect of being taken for a ride we told him to get stuffed. A three day frenzy of selling and Freecycle commenced. We did ok selling the more serviceable items and it felt strangely good to be giving away so many of our possessions to total strangers. People were turning up three at a time to take away treasured desks, canoe paddles, settees and a hoard of similar disparate items. Unfortunately it meant that we’d lost nearly three days of breathing space. The final car load of sentimental items went over to Mum’s a couple of hours before midnight. All that remained was to finish packing; a job that had been scheduled to be done just after the house clearance company were due to take everything, but cocked it all up.

We went to sleep on the empty floor or our living room at 02:10 in the early hours and rose again at 04:00am to leave our home for the very last time. There was a slight pang of sorrow as we locked ourselves out of the place we’d called home for the last five years but getting back on the road was the right thing for us. Our good friends Roger & Karen had offered to take us to the airport and we watched a weak sun rise over the slightly frosted fields either side of the M6 motorway as dawn limped in. We were making good time and arrived at the Continental Cargo offices ahead of time to process the paperwork for John’s passage on our flight and have him safely tucked up in his crate in the hold of UA21, due to depart at 09:25am. Rabies certificates were inspected, Fitness to Fly certificates were read and re-read, everything was in order. And then we were left waiting for ninety minutes while staff did nothing either side of the 07:00am shift change. John was left sitting on the land-side concrete in temperatures just a little above freezing and we paced about impatiently looking for someone to do something. Eventually an apologetic forklift truck driver scooped John up and he disappeared into the cargo shed looking at us with confused and worried eyes. We hoped to see him on the other side.

Roger raced us round to Terminal 2 and bid us a speedy farewell as we wheeled three trolleys of bags to check in. Four bags were to fly with us, another five had been arranged to fly with the Excess Baggage Company and join us in the States after the weekend. Our first surprise was that United Airlines had just revised their baggage allowance so we were greeted with a bill for £120.00. We took it on the chin and vowed not to let it spoil what was supposed to be an exciting time as we stood on the cusp of a new period in our lives. We were also aware that time was short if we were going to get our remaining bags to the Excess Baggage Company in the lobby down stairs. The lift was out of order so somewhat to the annoyance of other travellers we dispensed with the trolleys and Liz stood at the bottom of the escalator while I fed five bags onto it from the top before stepping on myself. I thought it was an ingenious solution to a minor problem but the looks from a number of people suggested otherwise. As though some poetic justice was being meted out from said travellers, the Excess Baggage Company doors were firmly shut. The sign on the door stated that it opened at 08:00am sharp and it was now ten-past. We paced up and down, I popped next door to WH Smiths and asked if it was still trading, I was told it was. A further ten minutes passed and there was still no sign of activity. Our plane was due to take off at 09:25am and final boarding closed at 08:45am. We still had to go through security, get across the airport and find our gate. We couldn’t just dump our remaining bags, not least were they full of our carefully selected items for the road ahead but PC Plod may also have something to say about the ensuing bomb threat if we just left them where they were. At the last minute a light flickered on in the shop and was followed by the appearance of a sweating staff member who upon seeing the expressions of displeasure and mild panic written across our faces came to the door and opened up rather rapidly.

“We need to get these bags to Newark, New Jersey please. Our plane goes at 09:25 so we need to be quick.” We almost hurled the bags at him as he explained that his train had been late. He went on to say that it’d take him about twenty minutes to process each bag as we needed to make a list of the contents, complete Customs declarations, liability waivers and measure, weigh and x-ray each bag.
We understood that it wasn’t his fault that the train was late but we were running out of time fast “We have to be on the plane by 08:45, we have a dog on the plane and we can’t miss it.” I went on, “We have a reference number for the quote we were given for sending the bags to Newark, its here,” I showed him.
“Oh, right.” He said, “I’ll still need to complete everything and give you a final price.” He went on to read out in painful details a list of seven terms of service. “You may be charged additional Customs fees, items may be confiscated, shipping may take up to three weeks…….”
“Let me just stop you there! It says on the website that it’ll take up to three ‘days’, not weeks.”
“Well, it could be three weeks if your bags go by sea freight.”
“This is an airport, I want them to go by air please. I don’t mean to be rude but can we just get the bags processed so that we can make our plane.”
“Of course. I’ll weigh and measure them if you could complete the forms. Do you want additional insurance?”
I passed him our bags ignoring the question. Twenty minutes of form filling, measuring, weighing and calculator work ensued as our blood pressure rose higher and higher while the clock ticked.

In short, even through the total weight of our five bags was less than the weight quoted for, the bill came to four times the original quote. It was more than it had cost us to ship our car. We argued, there was nothing we could do, we signed and we ran. It was now 08:40. God, how we ran. Our panicked expressions said it all when we reached the first security check and a sympathetic security officer ushered us to the front of the queue for the empty-your-pockets stage. Just one person was in front of us. As we removed belt, boots, wallets, laptops and bras (almost), we watched the x-ray machine grind to a halt as the operator scrutinised the bag of the lady in front of us. Even I could see that she’d secreted and entire hotel mini-bar in her hand luggage. Not good, not good at all. I wasn’t sure if the operator was trying to read the labels on the bottles or had suddenly fallen asleep but either way nothing was moving. I clutched my now beltless trousers in one hand and boots in the other, willing the machine to move. Finally it did and we pushed passed the lady to collect our paraphernalia as she was taken to one side. I told Liz to just run for it, I’d gather everything up and meet her at the gate. “Just make sure they don’t close the gate. If I’m not there just go. One of us needs to be there in Newark for John!”

Liz didn’t stop to think, she just ran, boots in hand. Gathering up our two bags, the laptop, slipping on my boots and carrying my belt I ran after her with all the grace of a teenager who’d just had the night of his life with several bottles of vodka. Only at times like these do you truly appreciate the role of a belt and the fact that laces should always be done up, no matter what. All gates were located on the other side of the duty free shop, a shop that went on for miles and consisted of narrow isles full of people with wide bags. Like a raging bull I flew through the shop almost screaming at people to move. Most did and those that didn’t were left with a bruise and a shouted apology from a madman on a mission.

Predictably Gate 300 was as far away as it was physically possible to be while still remaining in Manchester. It was miles away. I ran, my trousers were determined to go south, my laces flailed and I gasped for air between the clenched teeth holding my belt. Up on the left I saw the figure 300, I smashed through two closed doors, descended three flights of stairs ≥≤and emerged into a departure lounge shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people. “Is this the gate for Newark?” I asked someone.
“No, I think that’s it over there.” I looked to my right and there was Liz, standing beside an impassive United Airways member of staff. She mouthed to me “It’s ok, we made it.” I could have fallen to my knees there and then if it weren’t for the very real risk that I would never have got up again.

We made the flight, we eventually found John at the other end and we finally made it to Princeton to be greeted to warm friendship and hospitality by Hannah and Paul, my distant cousins who we had never previously met.

We still don’t have the excess baggage though.