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

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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

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Pee & Pinnacles

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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.

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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.

The Story of Winnie the Winch

She was a big girl, as strong as an ox but a bit cheap. She was never going to win any prizes for her looks or performance when you were getting down and dirty, but the fact of the matter was that she’d get you out of the shit when the time called. However, this winch didn’t come into my life without a bit of a fight. (And yes, that’s ‘winch’ not ‘wench’.)

On the 31st of August 2012 our journey across the United States and down into Mexico will begin. We fully intend to seek out the more remote corners of these countries, searching for the desert sands, muddy jungles and the tranquillity of isolation. We crave remote locations and adventurous travel but we also know that when you’re in such places you have to be able to get yourself out of the shit, literally. Our previous travels have included three years on a motorbike and a bike can simply be kicked over to prise it from the sucking mud. We travelled by canoe, which can simply be dragged over the mud when it becomes stuck and we travelled by three-wheeled tuk-tuk, which can simply be rolled over (several times) when it becomes stuck. Unfortunately its not quite so easy with two tonnes of loaded Niva and a dog in the back called John. A winch is what you need at times such as these.

Our trip is being undertaken on a bit of a tight budget so eBay has come to the rescue with a Chinese knock-off winch, now christened Winnie. To be fair, for the money it’s a hell of a winch. Not the fastest but it’ll pull eight-thousand pounds quite happily with twenty metres of steel cable. That’ll do me I thought. The downside is that twenty metres of eight-thousand pound steel cable wrapped around a winch weighs a hell of a lot; about seventy pounds. A winch-bumper was needed!

Ebay once again came to the rescue. Well, sort of. The original bumper on a Lada Niva is made of pretty solid steel, solid enough to support some pretty hefty bull bars that Winnie could be bolted to. A set of second-hand bull-bars were procured for the princely sum of £15.00 from a young farmer near Telford. They were from a 1989 Niva and ours is a 2009 but hell, Nivas haven’t changed that much over the years. Well, as it happens they have. The bull bars-bolt on to the chassis from underneath with the addition of a third bracket in the middle that bolts onto something clearly found on a 1989 Niva but not found on a 2009 Niva. Luke was called.

Luke is a good friend. Personable, good for a laugh, good for putting the world to rights and also the doting husband to the lovely Laura. However, more importantly, Luke has an angle grinder. I bribed Luke with a hearty meal in a nearby pub (which I later complained to the landlord about and got my money back) and Luke lent me his angle grinder for as long as I needed it. Gleefully I set about the bull-bars with it the next day. It was a marvellous thing, it did indeed grind from all angles and several angles were ground off. First to go was the useless middle bracket. It was gone in seconds and with the aid of Liz’s muscles we attempted to fit the bull-bars to the Niva. Unfortunately, it transpired that the tow points wouldn’t align with the two brackets through which the primary bolts went to secure the bars to the chassis. With the obvious solution in hand I whipped them off and ground off the lips to both tow points. More muscles from Liz and by gum the bars fitted. They wobbled on top of the bumper a bit but if I bolted the winch all the way through the bull-bars and through the bumper as well the whole lot would be held together in one solid lump of winching nirvana.

There is nothing in this world manlier than a winch, every man should have one and no man is truly complete until he has one. I was pleased to find that I could still lift 70 pounds of winch, just about, and I strained to carry Winnie from the garage to the Niva, stopping just short of a hernia. I was disappointed to find that the winch was a couple of centimetres too fat to squeeze between the bars and sit over the bumper to which she’d be bolted. Fortunately the bull-bars have three horizontal bars and I reckoned it could afford to loose the middle one. I was certainly getting my money’s worth from Luke’s angle grinder. Yet more steel was ground away and having now been messing about for a couple of hours while also dodging rain showers, Winnie would now fit, sort of. It hung off the front of the car looking like a National Grid sub-station and I suspected that the merest suggestion of winching from it would end up with the front portion of the vehicle some distance from where the sound of bending metal had emanated from just before the front of the Niva fell off. It did not inspire confidence. In steps Simon.

Finally realising that my manly efforts were not going to do the job, especially not on the cheap, it was back to the drawing board. I contacted the one and only Lada Niva importer in the British Isles only to be left reeling at the price of the factory winch bumper. A visit to the Lada Owners Forum was much more promising. A quick message was sent to the moderator and an equally quick reply was received which read words to the effect of, “You need Simon mate!” Simon was duly contacted and it just so happens that he lived down the road in Telford too. Result!

Now, Luke is unquestionably manly and has a lovely angle grinder. However, Simon is the very personification of manliness. He was possibly the father of the concept. Not one, but three Lada Nivas sat on his drive, all with winches and custom paint jobs too boot. What’s more, Simon has a whopper of an angle grinder. By far the biggest I have ever seen being waved about. He boasted that it was a full nine inches. We talked Nivas and winches over tea and biscuits for a while and reeling in his presence I crossed his palm with silver at the promise of a custom-made winch bumper. He assured me that I could literally hang the Niva from a tree by it if I so wished. He talked about how he would ‘sculpt’ the front of my Niva to ensure that the winch would sit further back and thereby allow for steeper approach angles. By ‘sculpt’ he meant he’d cut away the metalwork and grill of the Niva with a plasma-cutter, (yes, he had a plasma-cutter aswell!) and put the winch where the radiator used to be. I don’t know what ‘approach angles’ are but I think it has something to do with hills. Simon oozed confidence. What he didn’t know about welding and Nivas wasn’t worth knowing and I left feeling that although the work would be drastic it would be exactly what was needed.

Simon works full time and does this kind of work as a bit of a sideline so we arranged to meet up again in a couple of weeks, by which time he’d have the bumper all welded up and we’d spend an afternoon ‘sculpting’ the Niva and fitting the winch. Unfortunately, through no fault of his own, Simon had a bit of an altercation with a forklift truck and spent the next five weeks laid up recovering from being run over. This was a rather big deal as he’s already registered disabled having nearly been cut in half as a nineteen year old petrol-head when he had another altercation with a tree at some considerable speed. However, alls well that ends well. The forklift truck didn’t finish him off and true to his word, after a little delay he made some irreversible modifications to the front of the Niva and fitted a lovely new custom-made winch bumper which is now the envy of many a manly man. As well as practical it is also a head turner. Only the other day I spent quite some time chatting to three Eastern Europeans and a reminiscent older chap at Helfords about the manliness of the entire machine. Four burley men at the local builders merchants were almost giddy when I popped in for some gravel for my mother the other day. They couldn’t do enough for me a clearly counted me as one of their own. This winch/Niva/bumper set-up opens doors!

Socks & Boots

When one is going off on an intrepid adventure one needs socks and boots (unless you’re swimming). The last pair of boots I purchased for an adventure was a pair of £15.00 US army jungle boots. The deal was done behind 40 tonnes of broccoli bound for Dudley and they served me well for four months in the Amazon. However, they are now rather knackered and new boots were needed.

This time I opted for British army desert boots procured via eBay for the reasonable sum of £30.00. Desert boots tend to be a bit softer than jungle boots and a bit more comfortable, hence the choice. The only drawback being that they look a bit, well, erm, pansyish. The King’s Royal Hussars may beg to differ but lets face it, a light-sand boot looks a bit girly with a pair of jeans.

With plans afoot (sorry), I set about dyeing my boots a more manly ‘rugged brown’ and I believe they’ve come up very well all things considered. For £30.00 and a few extra for the dye from Timpson’s I’m now all set to commence my adventure. It’s unfortunate that Liz opted to spend £160.00 on a pair of lovely spanking new boots but I have the moral and economic high ground – recycling and saving the pennies.

And the socks…….. I have never before bought socks for a car but I have now. I don’t mean for ‘in the car’, I mean quite literally ‘for the car’. You see, on occasion John (the dog) may need to sleep in the car at night if we’re not using the tent. In the deserts there are sometimes too many scorpions around to sleep on the ground so we wanted to tuck our doggy up safe and sound in the back of the Niva. However, in those hot sticky nights the windows will need to be open so that he gets a good amount of ventilation. We don’t want him cooking after all, but if we leave the windows open he’ll be out like a shot and tucking up on our camp beds. This is where ‘vehicle socks’ come in. They’re mosquito netting-like socks that fit over the door frames so that the windows can be wound down but keep me-laddo entombed safely.

Vehicle Socks don’t make a sock specifically for the Niva (because no one has them in the UK since about 1989) but after a good chat with the lovely Natalie who in turn chatted to her supplier in South Africa, we came up with a pair intended for an Isuzu Frontier and by gum they work a treat. John will now be able to snore all night long unmolested by both scorpion and mosquito alike and we can sleep soundly without him farting at our feet (which he is prone to do a lot).