Sunday, 3 November 2019

1 Year Later

We've been back in the UK for a year and thought it was time to do one final blog post about life since MERTA before closing down this blog and starting the next adventure. 

Our feelings were mixed at the end of the trip. We were looking forward to seeing friends, family and our cat Mitzy, interested to see what had changed during the 6 months we had been away but also very sad that our adventure was coming to an end and that a way of life we were now used to, would be a distant memory within a couple of days.

Our friend Jay picked us up from the airport and it was nice to hear all the news on our way back home. We arrived at our house to find that our fabulous house sitters had left it in better condition than when we left.

Mitzy was unsure of us to start with but after a couple of hours, she was soon snuggling with us in bed demanding cuddles and strokes. It seemed like she had missed us as it took two weeks for the attention levels to drop back down to normal, she was even waking us up in the night with head bonks and purrs.

Image may contain: cat and indoor

It didn't take long to fall back into life pre-MERTA. We both went back to our jobs and it soon felt like we had never been away; it's amazing how little changes in 6 months!

Whilst we were on the trip, we were cramming so much into a day to get the most out of the time we had. Yet when we returned home, time just seems to disappear. We were back into the routine of getting up, going to work, coming home, having dinner and then going to be bed. Weeks turned into months and then before we knew it, a year had passed by.

A lot of people have asked us whether the trip has changed us. I don't think there has been any radical changes (although maybe those that know us have noticed something we haven't) but there are little things we now think about differently. For example, spending 6 months with each other day in day out has made us closer as a couple. We were close anyway but to get through all those months without a single argument or disagreement showed us just how much pressure stress from work puts on relationships. I now try to leave work at work and not bring it home (although this is not always successful) and if I am grumpy about work, I try not to snap at Lee about it.

We also realised just how poor our work/life balance was before the trip. We were both often working 12+ hours a day, leaving work late and logging back in during the evenings or over the weekends. Whilst its not possible to completely work to rule with our jobs, we are more aware of it now and try to keep those extra hours to a minimum. Lee has even dropped down to a 4-day week, allowing those pesky jobs to be completed on a Friday so that we have more free time at the weekends.

We loved our hire car so much that we decided to by a Fin in the UK! It was difficult to find a Ford Edge in the UK as they are not a very popular car but I managed to find a dealership in Wales who was selling an ex-demo. It is the same colour as Fin and surprisingly, the same size (despite the smaller roads!) but with a few more extras. Our new car is called Guy and he has been perfect for getting out over the weekends for country walks and camping trips. The only challenge has been trying to park him as the spaces in the UK are tiny compared to what we were used to in the US!

Image may contain: Samantha Hollingdale, smiling, car and outdoor

Another question we are often asked is would be do it again. It's a simple answer.... Hell Yeah!

If we had the money, time off work and someone to look after Mitzy, we would be off again in an instant! We would both love to do MERTA again, maybe visiting those places we didn't get time to visit or spending longer in the places we loved. Although we both agreed that if we were to do the trip again, we either need to start earlier in the year or do the trip in reverse to avoid the cold wet weather in the North East.

I would really like to visit Canada, Alaska and Hawaii as we didn't have time to cover these areas during MERTA. We are also looking into doing a 3 week motor home tour of Japan in 2021 or 2022. More details of this will be in our new travel blog!

The most important thing we're left with after MERTA are all the memories we share. We talk about the trip everyday, remembering things we did, places we went, people we met and the amazing experience we had.

This blog was set up to capture our memories of the trip. It was a lot of hard work to maintain, especially when we had no wifi and no power and even more so once we had returned to the UK and were updating the entries retrospectively. But it was worth the effort. We regularly look back at the blog entries and videos, remembering those things we had forgotten and smiling at the amazing time we had.

The most important thing we have both learnt from this whole experience is get up and do it. We all have dreams and aspirations of things we would like to do but unless you make them happen, they will remain dreams forever and you'll never get around to seeing them happen. Sometimes life throws a big spanner in the works and without warning your situation or health takes a turn for the worse, and you'll forever regret not taking that chance when you had the opportunity.

If there is something you want to do, somewhere you want to go or something you want to change, only you can make it happen. So what's stopping you?!

Saturday, 2 November 2019

The Revised Itinerary

Date LocationStateDayTypeWhere We Stayed
Mon 7 MayMiami AirportFL1MotelRegency Hotel Miami
Tue 8 MayMiami AirportFL2Motel
Wed 9 MayMiami AirportFL3Motel
Thu 10 MayHomesteadFL4MotelTravelodge Florida City
Fri 11 MayBahia Honda State ParkFL5CampingBahia Honda State Park Campsite
Sat 12 MayKey West FL6MotelEden House
Sun 13 MayKey West FL7Motel
Mon 14 MayEverglades CityFL8MotelIvey House
Tue 15 MaySanibelFL9CampingPeriwinkle Campground
Wed 16 MayChassahowitzka River FL10CampingChassahowitzka River Campground
Thu 17 MayIchetucknee Springs State Park FL11CampingIchetucknee Springs Campground
Fri 18 MaySt. Joseph Peninsula State ParkFL12CampingGulf Breeze
Sat 19 MayFort PickensFL13CampingFort Pickens Campground
Sun 20 MayNew OrleansLA14MotelMaison Dupuy
Mon 21 MayNew OrleansLA15Motel
Tue 22 MayNew OrleansLA16Motel
Wed 23 MayMemphisTN17MotelThe Peabody Hotel
Thu 24 MayMemphisTN18Motel
Fri 25 MayLake Guntersville State ParkAL19CampingLake Guntersville State Park Camping
Sat 26 MayChattanoogaTN20CampingLookout Mountain Chattanooga West KOA
Sun 27 MayAtlantaGA21MotelHyatt Place Atlanta Downtown
Mon 28 MayAtlantaGA22Motel
Tue 29 MayTallulah GorgeGA23CampingTallulah Gorge State Park Campsite
Wed 30 MaySmoky Mountains National ParkTN24CampingSmokemont Campground
Thu 31 MayNashvilleTN25MotelFairfield Inn & Suites Nashville Downtown/The Gulch
Fri 1 JunNashvilleTN26Motel
Sat 2 JunLand Between the LakesKY27CampingRedd Hollow Campground
Sun 3 JunPounds Hollow Recreation AreaIL28CampingPine Ridge Campground
Mon 4 JunSt LouisMO29MotelHilton St. Louis at the Ballpark
Tue 5 JunKansas CityMO30Motel816 Hotel
Wed 6 JunKanopolis State ParkKS31CampingRockin' K Campground
Thu 7 JunWichitaKS32MotelHotel at Old Town
Fri 8 JunOklahoma City OK33MotelHoliday Inn Express & Suites Oklahoma City Downtown
Sat 9 JunOklahoma CityOK34Motel
Sun 10 JunTulsaOK35MotelDesert Hills Motel
Mon 11 JunFayettevilleAR36MotelThe Chancellor Hotel
Tue 12 JunEureka SpringsAR37MotelRed Bud Manor
Wed 13 JunMountain ViewAR38CampingBlanchard Springs Campground
Thu 14 JunLittle RockAR39MotelComfort Inn & Suites Presidential
Fri 15 JunLittle RockAR40Motel
Sat 16 JunHot SpringsAR41CampingGulpha Gorge Campground
Sun 17 JunCrater of DiamondsAR42CampingCrater of Diamonds State Park Camping
Mon 18 JunDallasTX43MotelHyatt House Dallas/Uptown
Tue 19 JunFort WorthTX44MotelThe Ashton
Wed 20 JunFort WorthTX45Motel
Thu 21 JunAustinTX46MotelJW Marriott Austin
Fri 22 JunAustinTX47Motel
Sat 23 JunSan AntonioTX48MotelHyatt Regency San Antonio Riverwalk
Sun 24 JunSan AntonioTX49Motel
Mon 25 JunJunction TX50CampingNorth Llano River RV Park
Tue 26 JunBig Bend National ParkTX51CampingChisos Basin Campground
Wed 27 JunBig Bend National ParkTX52Camping
Thu 28 JunMarfa TX53CampingEl Cosmico
Fri 29 JunGuadalupe MountainsTX54CampingPine Springs Campground
Sat 30 JunGuadalupe MountainsTX55Camping
Sun 1 JulWhite Sands National Monument NM56CampingBackcountry Camping
Mon 2 JulAlbuquerqueNM57MotelEconolodge Old Town
Tue 3 JulAlbuquerqueNM58Motel
Wed 4 JulAlbuquerqueNM59Motel
Thu 5 JulNavajo LakeNM60CampingPine Juniper Loop
Fri 6 JulMesa VerdeCO61CampingMorefield Campground
Sat 7 JulBlack CanyonCO62CampingSouth Rim Campground
Sun 8 JulBlack CanyonCO63Camping
Mon 9 JulEleven Mile State ParkCO64CampingNorth Shore Campground
Tue 10 JulEstes ParkCO65CampingEstes Park Campground at Mary's Lake
Wed 11 JulGrand Lake CO66CampingElk Creek Campground
Thu 12 JulRimrock Drive CO67CampingSaddlehorn Campground
Fri 13 JulMoabUT68MotelMoab Rustic Inn
Sat 14 JulMoabUT69Motel
Sun 15 Jul
Calf Creek Falls Capitol Reef National Park
UT70CampingCalf Creek Campground Fruita Campground
Mon 16 JulBullfrogUT71CampingBullfrog RV and Campground
Tue 17 JulMonument ValleyUT72CampingThe View Campground
Wed 18 JulLake PowellAZ73CampingWahweap RV & Campground
Thu 19 JulLake PowellAZ74Camping
Fri 20 JulGrand Canyon North Rim AZ75CampingNorth Rim Campground
Sat 21 JulBryce CayonUT76CampingRuby's Inn RV Park and Campground
Sun 22 JulValley of Fire State Park NV77CampingArch Rock or Atlatl Campgrounds
Mon 23 JulDeath Valley CA78MotelThe Ranch at Death Valley
Tue 24 JulNeedlesCA79CampingNeedles KOA
Wed 25 JulFlagstaffAZ80MotelEmbassy Suites
Thu 26 JulFlagstaffAZ81Motel
Fri 27 JulSedonaAZ82CampingCamp Avalon
Sat 28 JulPhoenixAZ83MotelHyatt Place Old Town Scottsdale
Sun 29 JulPhoenixAZ84Motel
Mon 30 JulSan DiegoCA85MotelStaypineapple at Hotel Z
Tue 31 JulSan DiegoCA86Motel
Wed 1 AugEl Capitan State BeachCA87CampingEl Capitan State Beach Campsite
Thu 2 AugPinnacles National ParkCA88CampingPinnacles Campground
Fri 3 AugPinnacles National ParkCA89Camping
Sat 4 AugSequoia National ParkCA90CampingStony Creek Campground
Sun 5 Aug
Yosemite (Wawona) Sequoia National Park
CA91CampingWawona Campground Stony Creek Campground
Mon 6 AugYosemite CalistogaCA92MotelNorth Pines Campground
Craftsman Inn
Tue 7 AugYosemite CalistogaCA93Motel
Wed 8 AugLake Tahoe CA94CampingCamp Richardson
Thu 9 AugLake Tahoe CA95Camping
Fri 10 AugLassen Volcanic NPCA96CampingSummit Lake South Campground
Sat 11 AugRedwood National ParkCA97CampingElk Prairie Campground
Sun 12 AugRedwood National ParkCA98Camping
Mon 13 Aug
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
OR99CampingEel Creek Campground
Tue 14 AugNewportOR100MotelHallmark Resort
Wed 15 AugPortlandOR101MotelJupiter Hotel
Thu 16 AugKalalochWA102CampingKalaloch Campground
Fri 17 AugOlympic National ParkWA103CampingHeart O' The Hills Campground
Sat 18 AugSeattleWA104MotelGaslight Inn B&B
Sun 19 AugSeattleWA105Motel
Mon 20 AugSeattleWA106Motel
Tue 21 AugLeavenworth WA107CampingAlpine View RV & Campground
Wed 22 AugCoeur d'AleneID108CampingCamp Coeur D'Alene
Thu 23 AugGeorgetown Lake MT109CampingPhilipsburg Bay Campground
Fri 24 AugSalmon ID110CampingCentury 2 Campground
Sat 25 AugSunbeamID111CampingCasino Creek Campground
Sun 26 AugCraters of the MoonID112CampingLava Flow Campground
Mon 27 AugPocatello Lava Hot SpringsID113MotelThunderbird Motel
Tue 28 AugGrand Teton National ParkWY114CampingJenny Lake Campground
Wed 29 AugYellowstoneWY115CampingCanyon Campground
Thu 30 AugYellowstoneWY116Camping
Fri 31 AugYellowstoneWY117Camping
Sat 1 SepHardinMT118MotelLariat Motel
Sun 2 SepTheodore Roosevelt National ParkND119CampingCottonwood CG (South Unit) or Juniper CG (North Unit) Medora Campground
Mon 3 SepDevils Tower National Monument WY120CampingBelle Fourche River Campground
Tue 4 SepCuster State Park SD121CampingBlue Bell Campground
Wed 5 SepBadlands National Park SD122CampingCedar Pass Campground
Thu 6 Sep
Victoria Springs State Recreation Area
NE123CampingVictoria Springs SRA
Fri 7 SepSioux CityIA124MotelHampton Inn & Suites Sioux City South
Sat 8 SepMinneapolisMN125MotelEmbassy Suites Downtown
Sun 9 SepMinneapolisMN126Motel
Mon 10 SepDevils' Lake State ParkWI127CampingQuartzite Campground
Tue 11 SepChicagoIL128MotelAC Hotel by Marriott Chicago Downtown
Wed 12 SepChicagoIL129Motel
Thu 13 SepDearbornMI130MotelHampton Inn by Hilton
Fri 14 SepDearbornMI131Motel
Sat 15 SepNiagara FallsNY132MotelComfort Inn The Pointe
Sun 16 SepNiagara FallsNY133Motel
Mon 17 SepWatkins GlenNY134CampingWatkins Glen State Park (ReserveAmerica)
Tue 18 SepLake PlacidNY135MotelGolden Arrow Lake Resort
Wed 19 SepLake PlacidNY136Motel
Thu 20 SepLake George NY137CampingLake George Battleground State Campground
Fri 21 SepWoodstockVT138MotelThe Charleston House B&B
Sat 22 SepNorth WoodstockNH139MotelInn 32
Sun 23 SepGrafton Notch ME140CampingGrafton Notch Campground
Mon 24 SepAcadia ME141CampingBlackwoods Campground
Tue 25 SepAcadia ME142Camping
Wed 26 SepPortlandME143MotelThe Press Hotel, Autograph Collection
Thu 27 SepPortlandME144Motel
Fri 28 SepPortsmouth NH145MotelAirBnB, Vernon's House
Sat 29 SepBostonMA146MotelAirBnB, Back Bay, Boston
Sun 30 SepBostonMA147Motel
Mon 1 OctBostonMA148Motel
Tue 2 OctProvincetownMA149CampingCoastal Acres Campground
Wed 3 OctProvincetownMA150Camping
Thu 4 OctMartha’s VineyardMA151MotelThe Oak Bluffs Inn
Fri 5 OctMartha’s VineyardMA152Motel
Sat 6 OctNewportRI153MotelAirBnB (the boat)
Sun 7 OctNew Haven CT154MotelOmni New Haven Hotel at Yale
Mon 8 OctHigh Point State ParkNJ155CampingSawmill Pond Campsite
Tue 9 OctAtlantic City NJ156MotelCaesars Atlantic City
Wed 10 OctAtlantic City NJ157Motel
Thu 11 OctWashingtonDC158MotelHotel Hive
Fri 12 OctWashingtonDC159Motel
Sat 13 OctBaltimoreMD160MotelBrookshire Suites Inner Harbor
Sun 14 OctHersheyPA161MotelFairfield Inn & Suites Hershey Chocolate Ave
Mon 15 OctHersheyPA162Motel
Tue 16 OctHersheyPA163Motel
Wed 17 OctShenandoah ValleyVA164CampingBig Meadows Campground
Thu 18 OctBlue Ridge Parkway VA165CampingLynchburg NW BRP KOA
Fri 19 OctGreen Bank Observatory SnowshoeWV166MotelChestnut Ridge Country Inn Corduroy Inn
Sat 20 OctGreen Bank Observatory SnowshoeWV167Motel
Sun 21 OctLansing RoanokeWV168MotelChestnut Creek Campground Hampton Inn, Roanoke
Mon 22 OctRaleighNC169MotelResidence Inn by Marriott Raleigh Downtown
Tue 23 OctMyrtle BeachSC170CampingMyrtle Beach KOA
Wed 24 OctSavannahGA171MotelOlde Harbour Inn - River Street Suites
Thu 25 OctSavannahGA172Motel
Fri 26 OctSt AugustineFL173MotelHemingway House B&B
Sat 27 OctSt AugustineFL174Motel
Sun 28 OctSouth BeachFL175MotelRoom Mate Lord Balfour
Mon 29 OctSouth BeachFL176Motel
Tue 30 OctSouth BeachFL177Motel
Wed 31 OctFlight home :(178

Friday, 1 November 2019

Lee Special - Camping Tips

Lee here, and I've got another Hints & Tips article for you, this time on the subject of camping.

Tent Camping
I've touched on this previously, but it's worth saying again. When Americans talk about camping, don't assume a tent is involved. In the UK camping always implies sleeping under canvas, but in the US this could mean any kind of outdoors accommodation, including staying in a camper or RV. In the UK, we'd call this caravanning.

We soon found ourselves using the term "tent camping" to make it clear to people what we were doing.

While it may not suit those taking a more laissez faire attitude to their trip, we'd recommend booking your pitch well in advance. A lot of the National Parks open up their booking windows 6 months in advance, but timings do vary, so make sure you check. For some popular campsites - for example, Yosemite - there is so much competition for campsites that they will typically sell out seconds after going on sale. Yep, hundreds of sites gone in a matter of seconds, literally. 

I think a lot of these sites still have a problem with bots - automated software that books up sites as soon as they go on sale, many for subsequent resale at massively-inflated prices. I don't understand why the Parks Service doesn't put some simple protection like a Captcha in place to stop this.

However quick you think the campsite is going to sell out, I'd recommend doing a bit of research as to which area of the campsite you'd prefer to stay in. I used a combination of the campsite maps, satellite imagery and online reviews to choose a pitch that we'd like. There are lots of things to consider, some more important than others for you. My criteria were as follows:

  • somewhere close to the toilets but not right next to them; I don't want to walk miles for my 2:00am wee, but I also didn't want to be kept up all night by flushing toilets and hand dryers
  • likewise for water spigots (stand-pipes), close but not too close; these can often get waterlogged and people tend to do their dishes in them, which is often prohibited as it can attract wildlife
  • whilst we were in the South and South-West in the height of summer, a pitch with shade gave you a lot of relief from the heat; tree cover also gave you a little protection from high winds and heavy rain
  • that pitch right by the water may look lovely, but be aware that you might get inundated with mosquitoes or sand flies
  • if there is segregation of tents and RVs, you might want to position yourself away from the RV section, otherwise you could be disturbed by the constant chug of generators (yes, even outside of designated "quiet hours")

For booking Yosemite, I actually took a day off work and had multiple browser windows up ready to book one of our preferred pitches. Five seconds after they were released, I only managed to get my 4th choice! This was all wasted effort in the end, as our plans for Yosemite were ultimately thwarted by nature.

Some campsites don't take reservations, which means you have to plan slightly different for these:

  • plan to arrive early
  • have contingency plans

The US is far more set up for camping than we are in the UK. Not without the odd exception, your tent pitch typically contains at least a fire pit complete with removable grill for cooking, and a large picnic bench. You will have seen this setup in lots of our videos, and makes the whole preparing, cooking, eating and packing away process a doddle.

Having said that, it was obvious that RVing is much more popular than tent camping in the US. Campsites typically had a lot more large and hard-standing pitches for RVs than for tents, and the latter tended to be a little on the small side. 

An essential purchase we made fairly early on - after seeing many of our neighbours' setup - was a cheap plastic tablecloth from Walmart. Throw this over your picnic bench and you've protected your food and utensils from the bird poo and forest effluent underneath. A quick spray and wipe at the end of the meal and you leave the table all clean (or at least as clean as it was) for the next visitor. 

In terms of other facilities, there was a large degree of variation. With only one exception, there were always toilets - although these could range from smart, warm, clean toilet blocks with flush toilets, soft loo roll, hot water and soap, to unlit, smelly, fly-ridden vault (hole-in-the-ground) toilets. But when you gotta go, you go!

Drinking water was always available too, via spigots dotted around the campsite.

A few campsites had showers which you typically needed a handful of quarters for. These were few and far between, though, so if you're a two-showers-a-day OCD kinda person, maybe camping isn't for you. 

If you're planning on building a fire - and if you aren't, you should stop and take a good, long, hard look at yourself and ask yourself where your life is heading - then make sure you know the rules. Some campsites allow you to collect and burn downed wood, but most don't. Even then, unless you're in very dry conditions, downed wood will be either green or damp and won't be great for a fire. 

Often you will be forced to buy wood from either the camp store or somewhere in the vicinity. Despite this looking like a money-making scheme, it is often down to state jurisdiction that doesn't allow transfer of wood across state lines to prevent the distribution of invasive species such as wood beetles. So, even if you do head to the grocery store to get some cheaper bundles of wood, make sure you burn it in-state.

Finally, don't expect the existence of a fire pit means you can have a fire. On a couple of occasions, I was excited to leave the city and head to a campsite where I could do my man-make-fire act, only to find that there was a fire ban in effect due to the risk of wildfires. Sad times indeed, but I wasn't going to breach the rules and be the next idiot responsible for the next catastrophe. 

Camp Hosts
Many campsites didn't have a camp store to buy wood or an office to check in at. Even if they did, campsites often had a Camp Host. These were typically seasonaires living in an RV on site for an extended period of time. They had a variety of roles, including checking guests in and out, selling firewood, doing patrols of the campsite, restocking toilets and so on.

I'd recommend always searching for your host (their pitch number is often advertised at the entrance) and going to say hello. They are invariably friendly, full of useful information, and appreciative of you visiting their campsite of which they are very proud.

Note that although they often sell firewood, don't expect them to provide the facilities of a camp store. Do your research in advance and plan for getting supplies en route if need be. 

Neighbourly Interaction? Not so much!
This is a strange one... One of the things we were most looking forward to was meeting and socialising with our camping neighbours. You know, taking our camp chairs and tinnies over to the pitch next door and chewing the fat around the fire late into the evening.

We had loved chatting to people at bars in the towns and cities, but it seems that outdoorsy types in the US keep to themselves. There were a few notable exceptions which we are grateful for, but people tended to just go about their business on their own pitch and not really interact. This was especially true with RVers, who often locked themselves up in their motor homes watching satellite TV. This whole situation was totally perplexing to us, and made us feel a little sad.

Washing Up
I mentioned people washing dishes in the water spigot earlier. Although you shouldn't resort to this, you shouldn't expect hot running water, or facilities for washing up. Right from the outset, we found ourselves boiling water on the propane hob and washing up in a small plastic washing up bowl we had bought on Day 1.

For campsites with toilet blocks, there is often a dump station for waste water. Failing this, we flushed washing up water down the toilet. Don't be tempted to just dump it - not only is it ecologically irresponsible, you may inadvertently attract wildlife to your campsite. You definitely don't want the likes of Phil and Grant ransacking your campsite - and even less so a bear.

All trash should be disposed of properly. If you're in bear country, there will be bear-proof dumpsters to use.

Bear Lockers
Whilst on the subject of bears, you'll have seen in quite a few of our pictures and videos, bear lockers. These should be used to store anything that has an odour - not only your food, but also toiletries. Bears will be attracted to any unusual smell and leaving your toothpaste in the tent could end up in disaster. I won't go into the details of what we were told about ladies on their monthlies...

Even locking stuff in your car was not permitted in some places. Apparently the bears know how to get into cars, and would even be attracted by the look of things even if they didn't have a smell. That innocuous cylindrical object on your back seat shouts "PRINGLES!" to a bear.

We only had one (alleged) bear/campsite interaction but weren't prepared to take the risk and so, if there was a bear locker, we used it. 

Tent camping doesn't mean you have to have an uncomfortable night's sleep. What you sleep on generally depends on two things:

  • the ground
  • the temperature

We bought good-quality but reasonably-priced folding campbeds (which they call "cots") at the start of the trip, and made extensive use of these on hard or stony ground. They were very comfortable and, Sam's snoring aside, I always got a good night's sleep on them.

On soft ground or sand, we tended to sleep directly on the floor of the tent, on top of a thin blanket and in (or on)  our sleeping bags. Creepy crawlies stayed out of the tent - as far as we know - so sleeping on the floor also resulted in a good night's sleep.

The final scenario was when the temperature dropped. Anything below 5C (59F) and we started to feel really cold at night. In these situations, irrespective of how comfortable the ground was, we dispensed with the camping cots and opted for the floor. The reason being is that we could zip our sleeping bags together (at some times, double-layering them) and snuggle up close to each other in an attempt to pool body heat. It was romantic, sure, but let's make no bones about it, self-preservation was the main objective!

Since returning to the UK, we have invested in some roll-up foam beds. These compress to small rolls but when opened up, the foam sucks in air and results in a mattress a couple of centimetres thick. We have tried them once so far and they were very comfortable, so will definitely be an option for our next epic road trip.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Hairy Bikers Route 66

We're really enjoying watching the Hairy Bikers Route 66 series. It is bringing back memories of our own American adventure as well as giving us fresh ideas for the next one!

One of our favourite campsite meals was cowboy beans and sausages. We didn't have the campsite but we did manage to replicate the meal with one of the Hair Bikers recipes: 

We also tired to Cornbread which was very authentic too and actually really easy to make: 

Friday, 25 October 2019

Lee Special - American Food

Food was a big part of our Road Trip - as you will have seen from the blog - and 99% of the time the food was outstanding. Over the course of the 6 months, we've compiled a small list of US Food Lessons Learnt, which we now present to you in no particular order. Of course there are exceptions to the observations below, but these are the general themes that set the US apart from, say, the UK.

In and out
Nope, not a reference to the burger joint, rather the rate at which customers are turned around at eating establishments. If you're thinking of a leisurely dinner lasting a couple of hours, think again. Food comes really quickly (although often hot piping hot, paradoxically) and the check (bill) is presented as soon as you've taken your last bite without any option to order any extras.

For an evening meal, make sure you have post-meal activities planned, otherwise it could be a very early night!

Don't ask for more thinking time
The exception to the above rule is that you need to think quick as soon as you sit down. If you spend time chatting, looking around, searching stuff on your phone, you could be caught out. Many, many times, if we didn't know what we wanted when the server first came over and asked for a couple more minutes, we would be forgotten about and would have to arm-wave frantically to get someone to come over and take your order. It seems you have one shot at ordering, so look lively.

Be prepared for option overload
The 'be ready' mantra is somewhat complicated by the excessive level of choice you typically have. Let's take eggs as an example.

In the UK you typically have two options, or three if you're in a posh place and they have the means to poach an egg. In the US, you will be asked how you want them. "Erm... fried?" Not so fast, my English simpleton. Sunny side up, over easy, over medium, over hard, poached, baked, shirred, soft boiled, hard boiled, basted, Spanish, soft scrambled, hard scrambled... "Erm... fried?"

Ordering a sandwich is equally perilous. Ham sandwich? Is that regular or country ham, or Canadian bacon? On white, wheat, rye, sourdough, pumpernickel? Cheese? Sure! Cheddar, Jack, Swiss, American, cream, cottage, feta, Muenster, blue... The same palava continues with sauces, accompaniments, fries or chips (crips). By the time you've placed your order, you're both exhausted and unsure about what you've actually ordered! 

A final sting in the tail is that, if you make the mistake of not knowing all the options up-front and ask for them, they will typically be delivered at a pace that most speed-talkers would be proud of, served with a side of mild annoyance.

Be fussy
The upside of option overload is that you can customise your food almost indefinitely. In the UK you'll see "no substitution" on meals, but in the US it is almost expected. Don't fancy beef links (sausages)? No problem - be brave and sub them out for turkey links. 

Soft drinks
In the UK, soft drinks can sometimes cost you almost as much as an alcoholic drink. This is particularly infuriating when you realise the syrup and soda water that makes up a pint of coke at the bar costs less than 10% of what it costs. Which is great for promoting cutting back on getting hammered all the time, obviously. 

In the US, bars treat soft drinks like water. Not only are they incredibly cheap, you'd be unlucky to find one that didn't give you free refills. If you have a round including alcoholic drinks, soft drinks might be free to start with.

As a side-note, if you're ordering an iced tea make sure you know what you're ordering. It could be the sickly-sweet Southern staple of sweet (sweetened) tea, or the unsweetened type, which you can sweeten yourself if you wish.

Dressing on the side
A small one this. If you're planning on a nice healthy salad to balance out all those burgers and fried cheese, make sure you ask for the dressing on the side. Otherwise you'll get your salad drenched in the stuff, and the burger your naughty side had its eye on might just have been the low-calorie option after all. 

Use the bar
One of my pet hates in UK bars is when people sit at the bar, leaving you and twenty other thirsty punters a small gap to squeeze into to place your order. I totally reverse this in the US and would always prefer to sit at the bar, for a number of reasons.

The top reason is interaction. So many times we met interesting people who, as soon as they heard the accent, were genuinely interested in our life and our epic travels. Whether it was the bar staff or fellow drinkers, we never came across someone who didn't want to chew the fat with us. (Okay, so Boston was a bit snooty, granted). Sitting at the bar also gives you a good chance to leisurely peruse the various beers they have on offer (see Beer below).

Secondly, you can nearly always get food at the bar. If the restaurant looks a bit busy, just ask to sit at the bar. You'll get the same service as at a table. Wings, beer and banter? Yes please!

Thirdly, the bars are often huge, meaning plenty of space for sitters and orderers alike. Many places have table service which means that the bars are rarely used for ordering drinks anyway. 

Sandwich for lunch
Fancy a light bite? Beware ordering a sandwich, as these can often come out the size of a burger complete with a whole host of sides which will keep you full late into the day.

A variation on the sandwich item above, appetisers or starters are rarely anything like their UK counterparts. Chips (nachos) and salsa was a particular killer for us. We were quite peckish and ordered these to tide us over until the mains arrive. What a mistake-a to make-a! They were HUGE. 

The same went for most starters - either have them as a main, or share them as a main!

Can I box this?
Sorry, another addendum to portion sizes. Clich├ęd as it may sound, the truth is that most US portions will be too big for UK visitors. Sam and I absolutely hate food waste, so we did like the locals do and asked for a takeout box for the remains of our meals. Don't be timid, no-one will bat an eyelid.

This worked really well when we were leaving a city and heading to a campsite, as it often provided us with a tasty, quick lunch en route, or breakfast the next day. Cold pizza and wings for breakfast - what's not to like?!

With increasing regularity during the trip, we found a drink called Kombucha being offered at bars alongside their craft beer offerings. Thinking this might be another translation anomaly akin to scallions (spring onions), curiosity took the better of us and we asked. It's a magical tea, we were told. Really?!

After some Googling, we discovered that Kombucha is a sweetened tea that has been fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria. It is not dissimilar to a 'wild' beer, and is not without some level of divisive debate as to whether it is good for you or not. Needless to say, we (Sam) had to try some. "Odd" was the feedback. Something she'd try again, but not in a hurry.

If you're on the road, then - unless you're a real coffee snob - always buy your coffee from a gas station. The quality is somewhat variable, but is generally above average and more than anything, it is cheap! Taking your own refillable cups in is the way to go, as you can usually get a fill-up for 99c or less, irrespective of the size. This never failed to kick-start us into action after a poor night's sleep in a damp tent with a long drive ahead of us.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the road trip's biggest effect on me as a person is the US beer scene. I could - and since returning, have - endlessly waffled on about the American craft beer scene. So I'll try to keep this succinct.

Like most people, I imagine, I thought American beer was all about horrible, watery lagers like Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Light and so on. And indeed, up until fairly recently it was. But pretty early on in the road trip, I noticed a lot of the more highly-rated bars we tried to head for also offered a selection of their own beers, often brewed on site. I was, of course, tempted to try these.

Holy cow! I was asking myself how the hell had I made it to my mid 40s before seeing the light. At home I was exclusively - and I mean, exclusively - a Stella drinker. A few beers in on the trip and I knew I wouldn't go back. There were just so many different, interesting flavours to try. Not every one hit the mark, but the fun was trying.

The choice is bewildering. Part of this is due to the US licensing laws that make it expensive to ship out of state. So each state - hell, county - has its own beer ecosystem. This seems to result in every bar having or being associated with a microbrewery. Which is great for the punter. The US beer scene is absolutely outstanding and, dare I say it, the best in the world.

I think part of my sheltered beer upbringing was due to the fact that, in the UK when I was a lad, you had a choice of lager or real ale. The latter was warm and bitter, so I naturally tended towards the cold, fizzy lagers. I was born at the wrong time, as it is really only of late that the UK craft beer scene has started to resonate with the drinker.

You will now not find a single can of Stella in the house. Tonight a Stella-drinking friend popped in and I had to make a special trip to the petrol station to grab a 4-pack. He drank one, and upon leaving I gave him the other three. Such is the scale of my epiphany.

I just wish I had downloaded the untappd app before the road trip, and not after.

Blog readers will have noted my obsession with (no, not chicken wings) a good, open camp fire. There are few things better in this life than pitching a tent in one of the amazing US National Parks, building a roaring fire in the fire pit, and sinking back into the chair next to your wife with a cold (craft) beer in your hand.

As much as my mild pyromania simply liked setting fire to wood, there was nearly always a purposeful side to this activity. Cooking! I am a keen BBQ'er at home, and we're talking real BBQ'ing with charcoal rather than gas, which is essentially just an outside hob. Cooking on an open fire was not only a quintessentially outdoorsy thing to do, it was often a necessity. Many campsites didn't have any kind of bar or restaurant nearby, and the propane hob was very limited in what you could cook on it.

That suited me down to the ground. I started with a massive fire which soon burnt down to a glowing red inferno. Turning the grill over onto the fire, it was soon both sanitised and ready for cooking. Corn and potatoes were double-wrapped in foil and placed in the pit, around the edges. Potatoes were somewhat hit-and-miss, but the corn was always a hit. We embraced the potential banana skin of chicken right from the word go, along with sausages ("brats"), pork, beef and salmon. Even veggies such as snow peas (mangetout) and onion were done on the fire by making a little frying pan out of tin foil and throwing in a knob of butter stolen from a hotel the night before.

Sitting down in the fading light eating the food you had just cooked on the fire was at times quite an emotional experience. There were far too many good meals to mention, but Sam's videos and blog posts do a good job at capturing a lot of them. I think my crowning glory had to be the rack of ribs I did at Lake Tahoe. Slow-cooked ribs on an open fire? Easy. So good, even a bear (allegedly) came to see what was on offer.

Only once did I nearly poison us with undercooked chicken, but I blame that on the poor firewood and failing light. And, anyway, we survived.

On the rare occasions that we had to resort to the propane hob for our evening meal - due to lack of firewood or firepit, time constraints, or fire restrictions - even though the results were lovely, we couldn't help feeling that it would have tasted better on the fire.

I couldn't end this section without mentioning Sam. It is a running joke, here in the UK at least, that the man gets all the credit for "the wonderful BBQ he cooked" when in fact all he did was make a fire and flip and turn the food his other half had spent half the day preparing. I'm not saying my cooking wasn't skilful, but without Sam doing all the prep whilst I marvelled, bare-chested at the huge flames I had created, we would have undoubtedly starved to death.

All this talk of food and drink has led me to close out on the topic of weight. Not once throughout the trip did we consciously think about what we were eating - we just ate and drank what we wanted, when we wanted. Not necessarily something to shout about, but of the 6 months in the US, I only had 4 days where I didn't drink beer.

I mention this because, upon my return to the UK, I found that I had actually lost 6 lbs in weight. This was initially unfathomable, but in hindsight, the fact that 50% of the time we were out in the great outdoors - hiking, chopping wood, erecting our tent, making and cooking good food on open fires - it kind of makes sense. No-one - least of all me - expected that I would go to the US for 6 months and lose weight.

It is possible, y'all. Eat and drink what you want, but make sure you get your walking boots on and take plenty of time to experience the natural wonders of the wonderful US of A.