The Road Trip


 Home Up Bahamas Bound

 

 

Of course we didn't buy a car just to go to the shopping mall - though being able to do that was fantastic - we bought the car to travel around the US or at least as much of it as we could in the time we had available.  We didn't really have a grand plan except that we'd head up the East coast and at some point arrive to spend some time with our friends Chris and Jackie in North Carolina.  We'd first met them aboard their yacht Shibumi in Spain, back in 2003 and then again in Sardinia and when we were both on land trips in South America in 2008 and we'd been promising/threatening to come an visit them for years now.  Our only other plan was just to head off up the coast staying in cheap B&Bs, hotels etc and if we could find self-catering places with kitchens, etc so much the better.  The operative word was cheap.  We loaded the car with everything we even thought we might need, including the makings of several midnight feasts and even more breakfast.  We locked up the boat and headed for Interstate 95. 
Next stop Savannah just 80 miles up the road, we'd spend the day there then cross the border into South Carolina, overnight at Beaufort, then on to Charleston.  Just a quick look at these places we reasoned that as we'd probably pass through them on our way back we could spend more time then if we wanted.

There's a similarity to these east coast, southern cities. They were some of the first established in the US, so are older than many places further west.  They all have recognisable town centres close to the sea - because the port was their reason for existence.  This was typically where the wealthiest families lived and the town centres for the most part exhibit the grand Antebellum architecture which characterises the old south.

Charleston though is clearly the star.  We were lucky enough to be there on the 2nd Sunday, when each month they close the main high street to vehicles and open it to pedestrians, street performers, etc.  We were also lucky enough to stay with Wenche & Wyatt.  This was our first B&B and though we didn't realise it at the time it was to be one of the very best and also one of few which fitted the UK/European definition of B&B.  Many US B&Bs don't for example provide breakfast (I have no idea what they think the second B stands for)  and in many you never even get to meet the owner - everything is done by email/sms and there's a coded key safe at the door.  None of this is necessarily bad, just different.  The other thing that's different is that whereas in the UK B&B is generally a cheaper alternative to staying in a hotel, here in the US it's often a significantly more expensive option.  And so, it was just a few days into the trip, when we realised that burn rate was going to be significantly higher than planned and we began investigating House Sitting.

 

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  Our next stop was Chris and Jackie's beautiful new home in Beaufort, North Carolina.  Not to be confused with Beaufort South Carolina and of course you can't possibly confuse them because they're pronounced differently.  On one of the tourist bus rides we took we did listen to a long explanation of why they're pronounced differently, something to do with French v. English pronunciation, but I think I must have nodded off at some point and now I struggle to remember which way we pronounce it in the UK.

We spend about a week in Beaufort  and us being there was a good excuse to take their boat out for the weekend.  Almost inevitably, it being a boat and us having disturbed its rest, it doesn't plan to make life easy for us, so batteries are flat and the engine won't start.  Somehow it's quite liberating to be working with Chris in his engine room because in this case the responsibility is ultimately his.   Finally the good old Gardner springs into its accustomed low reving life and we're off to spend a couple of days at Cape Lookout.  We have a lovely weekend enjoying their company and Jackie's cooking, as always.

 

Back to Beaufort before relocating to C&Js main home in Chapel Hill where we house/cat sit for them whilst they're off in Washington - it's kind of practice for our first "proper" housesit.  It's during this time that we start investigating house sitting seriously and we sign up with House Carers, one of the many agencies in the house sitting world.  We find one that looks perfect - 3weeks just outside DC in Virginia.  We fire off an email - it's our first attempt at this and it's a success (though it turns out to be our only success of the season).  It feels like it's meant to be as Bev & Lynn (B&L just like us) are Brits who've been in the US for 30years.  This is their first ever experiment with house sitting as well.  After a long telephone conversation we agree to arrive with them a few days before they depart to get to know each other and learn the ropes.  Also I suspect to give them a chance to bail out if we turn out to be leaders of a satanist cult with our coven in tow.

With that set it's time to say good bye and thank you to Chris and Jackie and continue north - Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Richmond, Annapolis then Philadelphia which is to be the most northerly point on our trip.  It's also where we cross the border from The South to The North and the difference is palpable, if difficult to define.

After Philly we're off to Clifton VA to meet up with Bev & Lynn.  They've lived in the US for most of their working lives and have brought up their family there.  Bev is recently retired from the World Bank, though still consulting and Lynn, also ex World Bank has for many years been the US face of the RSA.   They live in the woods just outside the small town of Clifton, but only an hour from DC.  DC truly has a fully functioning public transport system.  We are introduced to their two cats, two chickens and Lucy the labrador, who will be our charges for two weeks and over the next few days we'll also meet Neil and Alex, two of their sons who will be around for the first week or so of our stewardship.  It's actually all very comfortable, just like staying with old friends.
 Then, the day before they're ready to depart, Lucy decides to investigate a wasp nest and gets herself royally stung.  Predictably her head swells until she resembles a canine version of Quasimodo so she's laced with antihistamines, not much more to be done.  All should be OK, but we'll take her to the vet if the swelling doesn't go down.  You can guess the next bit.  It doesn't go down.  A few days later Lucy has graduated to the elephant man and her right eye is nearly closed.  We make an appointment with the vet for the next day and I take her out for a walk, during which she walks into a tree branch as she can't see through her closed eye.  She lets out a howl and on getting home starts dripping a steady stream of blood and fluid, all very messy, but she does seem to have fixed the swelling!  We manage to cajole the vet into bringing her appointment forward, and Lindy spends the next 4 hours sitting outside with Lucy to prevent her licking/scratching the wound or spraying important items of furniture. 

The vet diagnoses an abscess, now self-lanced and self-drained - there's a clever dog.  There's not much more to be done other than antibiotics, but they do provide a large plastic cone for Lucy to wear to prevent scratching, licking, etc and also to seriously reduce the opportunity for sniffing and snuffling pleasure.  She wasn't too happy about having her face bathed with hot water twice a day either.

 

The dog on the mend we can turn our minds to spending some time in DC.  It's a great city and we try to cram in as much as we can.  We bus and walk and then bus and walk some more over a few days.  Smithsonians, Congress, Washington Monument, Lincoln Monument, George Town.  We even manage a river trip from George Town - just can't keep away from those boats! 

 

The finale to all of this is going to be a Sunday visit to the Cirque du Soleil, which we've been trying to catch, in various places for years, but always missed.  We leave early so as to have time to visit Alexandria and to have a decent lunch before the circus - we're guessing that hot dogs and popcorn will be the mainstay there.  All going to plan.  We draw up to some traffic lights............. and Crash!!!!   We're stunned, we look at each other.  What's happened?  We haven't hit anything.  It takes what seems like an age to realise that someone has driven into the back of us. 

Of course we have absolutely no idea what the procedure is here in the US in this situation.  The young guy in the car that's hit us is staring into the middle distance in a stunned way and doesn't look like he's going to be much help.  "I knew he was going to hit somebody" says a lady who pulls up alongside us, "he was weaving all over the road."  "What do I do now?" I ask.  "Call the police, call 911" she tells me.  So I do.  I tell the lady on the phone our location (thanks to the GPS) and that nobody is hurt.  She asks for details of the vehicles.  "Ours a dark grey Honda Accord.  Just a minute."  I walk to the back of the other car.  "Wow, that's a dark grey Honda Accord as well."  The lady on the phone doesn't seem quite as struck by the irony as I am.

The police arrive, details are exchanged, the cars are both (thankfully) driveable though have missing body parts.  The other driver it turns out is a military veteran (even though he doesn't look old enough) and was rushing to get to the military hospital.  He just can't stop apologising, but finally we're on our way again, though minus a few tail lights and lots of dented panels.  Now there's not enough time to do anything other than go straight to Cirque du Soleil, though we will be one of the first to arrive.  Lunch will in fact end up being a hot dog and popcorn after all.

The show is truly spectacular and lives up to expectations - or at least the first half does.  The second half suddenly stops half-way through.  The music stops, trapeze artists descend to the floor looking bemused, the audience look around expectantly.  An announcement tells us to wait.  After 15 minutes we're told the show will resume.  That is not true!  What happens is that the entire cast comes out and takes a bow.  That's it, the show is over, no explanation, no apology, nothing.  We are not having a good day - but at least we'll get the car home before we need the rear lights!

In fact we're home in time to start booking accommodation for the next leg of our trip.  Bev & Lynn will be back tomorrow.  We'll stay a few more days after that, but then it'll be time to get back on the road.  We're heading for Nashville with a couple of stops along the way.  Find a reasonable hotel in Roanoke, try to book online, but my (Saga UK) credit card has been compromised.  Damn!  Speak to the bank.  Someone has been on a shopping spree in Atlanta with a clone of my card.  No liability for me, the problem will be physically getting my hands on the new one 'cos it'll be sent to our UK address.  We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, in the meantime I book using Lindy's card.  Today has not been our best day!

The following day we're due to pick up Bev & Lynn from the airport in the afternoon, so I'm off first thing to the auto store to try and find bits to effect some sort of repair on the lights .  I find the bulbs I need to get the rear light working and with those and some duct tape it's not looking too bad.  I've even found red duct tape to repair the light lenses.  Flushed with success I slam the boot and walk to the drivers door - uh oh!  The keys are in the boot!  Now a number of different dynamics come into play:  We don't have a spare key.  We are due to pick up Bev & Lynn in a couple of hours.  My phone is in the car so I can't call Lindy or the house and I don't know the numbers - they're in the phone.  Otherwise she could use one of their cars to collect them and/or collect me.   Back into the auto store and one of the guys looks up a local locksmith - "Cars opened from $25" says the advert.  He'll be around half an hour.  He's actually closer to an hour, by which time I've just about memorised the entire stock list of the auto store.

He arrives - "It'll be $160" he tells me. "But your ad says $25"???? "Depends how complicated it is" he replies. "It's just a door, like any other door and you're going to jack it open." I say.  "It's up to you." he shrugs "I've got a list of other appointments."  Of course I really don't have a choice do I.  He's been through this a million times before and he won't even look at my door until he's swiped my credit card - and yes I do still have one that works.   Today isn't shaping up too well either.

Airport pickup etc goes without a hitch and with everyone safely back home I have the opportunity to get somewhere booked for a few days in Nashville.  But now Lindy's credit card has been hacked as well.  At this rate we'll run out of credit cards sometime next week.  It's the same "team" shopping in the same stores in Atlanta.  We trace back through our transactions and the only place we have both used our cards is at the station machine to top up our Washington Metro cards - must have been there.

We say our goodbyes and head off, destination Nashville, but by way of Roanoke and Knoxville.  Roanoke is a pleasant enough small town with an old market square surrounded by small shops, but not really on the tourist trail.  A young business guy who stops to offer directions when he sees us pouring over the map on our phone is mildly surprised to find anyone is visiting Roanoke just for the sake of it.  "Why Roanoke???"  He does though recommend to us the River & Rail Restaurant, which proves to be a very good place to eat, where we will have an early dinner.  It has to be early, because by mid afternoon we've run out of anything else to do in Roanoke. 

Just to spin things out we decide to drive out to see the Roanoke Star which is, as I'm sure you all know, the world's largest freestanding illuminated man-made star.  That may well be true, but it still managed to defeat all our efforts to find it, but by the time we gave up the restaurant was (nearly) open so it had served its purpose.  If you do ever happen to be passing through Roanoke at any time the River and Rail Restaurant is well worth a visit.

Next night Knoxville, which is a bit similar to Roanoke, but grittier and without even a star.   On the road the following day we spot a poster announcing "The 33rd Annual Mount Juliet Pow Wow".  It promises a cornucopia of Native American music & culture.   In Nashville there'd be plenty of cowboys and their music so it seemed only right that we divert on the way to get a taste of what the Indians had to offer. 

Well I expect everyone has seen western movies with large groups of Indians shuffling around wailing and drumming, often with the film's hero or heroine tied to a stake to provide a focal point.  You always hope that maybe the real thing will be better, but in this case unfortunately not.  It will be a while before we add any Native American music to our record collection.

The costumes though were something else and the amount of time and effort that must have gone into producing them is unimaginable.  Interestingly the tribes appeared to have been infiltrated by quite a number of Pale Faces (Is that a politically correct expression nowadays?) and even a few Black Faces (I'm pretty sure that isn't).  As for the other cultural stuff, a quick survey of the Indian food stalls reveals that traditional Native American food is actually burger and fries.  That's an eye opener, I always thought the Europeans brought those with them.

And then Nashville.  Well, not actually in Nashville.  The place we'll be staying in is outside the city.  It's described as only 15 minutes from Downtown Nashville, which may be true if you happen to have access to a Harrier jump jet.  It's actually pretty much out in the boonies!  It's also one of those places where we don't meet the owner, but we do phone her to find out where the nearest local shop is located as there is no salt in the kitchen.  It's about ten miles away, actually part of a gas station and carries less stock than we generally have aboard Samarang.  But there's nowhere else, as is evidenced by the fact that a couple of guys who look as if they've stepped straight off the cover of a ZZ Top album have clearly made this their social hub and are sitting outside in rocking chairs sipping beers. 

Nashville is, of course, all about music and most of all country music and that's what you get.  Neither of us can claim to be great fans of country music, but somehow it's different when you're there.  Yeeha!  And no trip to Nashville would be complete without a visit to The Grand Ole Opry, which houses 4,500 paying customers.  It's the Cathedral of country music and a unique format: eight different acts 3 times a week, from newcomers to stars of the C&W firmament, each act does two or three numbers and it is broadcast on 650Khz AM - the longest running live radio show in the world.

We did go with some trepidation, there was a very good chance it would be tackily awful and indeed the early signs didn't reassure us.    The warm-up man was doing a predictable job of getting people up on stage to embarrass themselves.  But once all that stopped and the music started it was fantastic.  We're converts.  Yeeha again!  Off to buy some cowboy boots in the morning.  Buy two get one free the sign reads above the boot store - what does anyone do with 3 boots we wonder??

And after Nashville, Memphis - also all about music, and this time we don't need convincing or converting.  In Memphis it's Blues and Soul - time to hang up those recently acquired cowboy boots .  We go to Beale street naturally and it's predictably seedy.  You get the feeling that nothing really gets going here until after dark, but we're old farts so we do it in daylight.  We select the restaurant that seems to have the best music emanating from it.  We sit on the patio in the sun, eat gumbo and listen to the music.  Just two old blues musicians.  They can just do it.  Any blues, soul, rock standard you can think of, any request they just reel it off.  They're pros, you get the impression they've been just doing it like this for 40 plus years.  Oh, and there's also the tower that houses the famous Irish Diving Goat - it does just what it says on the tin!

Memphis also has some pretty decent restaurants though they all seem to exist in small clusters in otherwise non-descript areas, so as a visitor you'd be hard pushed to find them.  But this time we were staying somewhere where did meet the owner and it's thanks to her that we found them.  Another unexpected highlight was Mud River Park, which contains a scale model of the Mississippi.  This isn't one of those scale models in a glass case that you can look at for a few minutes, this is a two mile long scale model  that you can wade in, jump across and ultimately - when you reach the Gulf of Mexico - take a boat on.  The infrastructure that surrounds it is sadly neglected, but Mud Island is definitely worth a visit.  It also houses an unexpectedly good museum, which shows just what can be achieved with a limited budget if you have imagination and creativity.  An awful lot of much bigger and wealthier museums we visited could do a lot worse than take a visit to Mud Island.

Last, but not least - Graceland.  More trepidation on our part - you've got to go haven't you, but................  And again, first impressions didn't disappoint.  The gift/souvenir shops, of which there are many, are full of the most unimaginable tasteless tat.  The house itself and the tour though is actually much better than expected and a really interesting glimpse into the life of the Man.  Every visitor is provided with an iPad which guides you through the whole thing and works extremely well.  I couldn't help thinking that the Apple account manager who closed that deal must have had a very, very good year!  On a final note, one thing that struck both of us was that the house was a lot smaller than we expected.  OK, of course it is bigger than our house, but not as big as we expected and not tacky either.

Memphis was a turning point or perhaps an end point, we would now slowly be heading back in the direction of Brunswick.  The trouble was, no matter how hard we studied the map, we were struggling to find places we even vaguely wanted to visit.  We'd stop in Atlanta of course, but where to break the journey on the way.  Tupelo (Elvis's birthplace) offered the opportunity to see a car which was "very similar" to one Elvis's father had once owned - doesn't draw you in does it?  Tuscumbia boasted the largest coon hound cemetery in the USA - Hmmm, we didn't even know that there were cemeteries specifically for coon hounds and what sort of person would want to visit one?  Definitely not for us.  We settled for Huntsville, which didn't claim to be home to anything much, but was on the way.  We also made a brief daylight stop in Scottsboro and the largest airline lost property in the world.  It's like a giant charity shop and smells slightly of old clothes - like a church hall jumble sale.

 

Atlanta was another city where we weren't expecting to meet the landlord, but unfortunately since he made two unexpected, unannounced and unwelcome visits, we did.  Charles's place wasn't our first choice, but we struggled to find anything else so plumped for it.  Eclectic was his description, a jumbled mess would be ours.  Too knackered to go out to eat on the night of our arrival, and unable to bear the thought of trying to cook in the sparsely equipped and tatty kitchen, we resorted to microwaving a few things from the supermarket.  Up to that point though we hadn't quite registered the lack of any sort of dining table/chairs and found ourselves eating our luxury meal off the air hockey table in the bedroom!  That's right he had an air hockey table.  I was almost able to forgive everything else for that.  Lindy was less convinced. 

Atlanta itself is a big American city, which doesn't really feature on the tourist trail, though it does have some very good restaurants close to where we were staying.   It  also has museums and galleries, but we had already seen the best.  We opted for the Botanical garden instead.  What a find.  It had the most amazing collection of scarecrows and plant-based sculptures you could imagine.  Just take a look at the pictures!  And at sunset there was jazz, wine & eats all in the garden - very civilised.

 

 

We abandon the interstate for a while and start taking back roads, passing through towns who's names blur into one.  Some pleasant and leafy backwaters, and some just a high street and nothing much else.  As close to being nowhere as it's possible to be. 

We've booked three nights in Augusta.  This sounds like the sort of B&B we'd expect back in the UK.  Not just Bed & Breakfast, but all food included says the advert.  I send a mail to confirm what this means.   "I love to cook so I provide a hot breakfast, free run of the fridge and pantry for lunch and snacks. Then dinner." says Jeffrey.  And it's not expensive, sounds almost too good to be true.  True to his word, when we arrive Jeffrey has cooked a pound cake, has coffee in the pot and is busy cutting up steaks for the BBQ.  Then he's off to the supermarket to supplement beer supplies.  Jo, his partner arrives - she's a nurse, followed by  Nina - Canadian medical student and long term guest, both charming.  Jeffrey busies himself in the kitchen, the BBQ sizzles and the rest of us migrate to the dining table.  Nothing much happens for a while, coordination does not seem to be Jeffrey's strong point, but after a while food, now somewhat tepid, does start making it's way to the table.  Jeffery though does not.  Jeffery remains in the kitchen nursing a beer or several, before deciding (much against Jo's better judgement) that another foray for more beer is required.  We retire with instructions that our hot grits would be ready at 0830.

Tomorrow's promised breakfast did not materialise and neither did Jeffery.  The only evidence of his continued existence was the occasional moan of pain and muttered obscenity from some distant quarter of the house.  We help ourselves to more pound cake and coffee and depart.

The previous evening Jo had told us that today was the annual Callaway Plantation Mule Day and we'd all agreed to make the trip together.  That clearly wasn't going to happen, but there not being an extensive list of alternatives, we headed off there anyway.   Callaway is a cotton plantation and many of the original buildings have been preserved so an interesting trip.  Not only were there quite a lot of mules - it being mule day and all - but also quite a lot of people who's accents were completely undecipherable.

Back at Jeffery's there is still no sign of life.  We break into our stores and dine on bread, cheese and pate in our room whilst watching Netflix.  Sunday, still no Jeffery, in fact we are never to see him again, though Jo and Nina do surface for breakfast.  We head off to do Sunday in Augusta, which has both Greek and Spanish festivals running on the same day.  At the latter we're given free toothpaste/toothbrush - that never happened when we were in Spain!  In the evening we didn't even consider the possibility of dinner at Jeffery's, and drove instead to a Thai restaurant we'd found on the net which was squashed into a virtually unlit corner of a shopping mall.  It had a 1960's transport cafe ambience, snail crawlingly slow (but very cheerful) service - and absolutely amazingly good food!  Needless to say it was packed.  The following morning there was no-one to be seen ... the pound cake was still in the kitchen.

Next stop Savannah.  We'd finally crossed our outbound route.  Off to an excellent Italian restaurant, a half-hour walk in a deluge of biblical proportions - squelched all the way through dinner.  The following day back on the road to Brunswick and Samarang.

We were home, after 10 weeks of travel and 5,000 miles, but not for long.  It is now mid-October, we have 6 weeks to run on our US visas and must leave the country.  We have 2 weeks to prepare Samarang and ourselves to leave Brunswick and sail/motorsail far enough South to be able to cross the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, weather permitting!


 

 Home Up Bahamas Bound

 

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Last updated 5th June 2017