Closing thoughts

It’s been nine days since I landed back in England, and a lot has happened in that time. I’ve reconnected with loved ones, celebrated and commiserated at the England football team, learned that my Nan is in hospital, traveled to Nottingham and back, started looking at flats to rent, played with my sister’s new kitten, and even had a marriage proposal.

The whole point of leaving a few weeks between getting home and starting work again was to have a rest, to recuperate from my long, tiring experience abroad, and give myself a decent platform from which to build the rest of my life. The problem is, life never seems to slow down enough to allow you to catch up with it.

The word “whirlwind” has been used a lot by and to me recently, and that pretty much sums up what life is, so we may as well just immerse ourselves in it and enjoy it while we can.

Despite all of this, I have had a few tuniopporties to sit back and reflect on what’s happened over the past four months. And, to put it briefly, what’s happened has been a lot of very enjoyable things that I mostly won’t forget until I’m old enough to fall asleep during the Queen’s Christmas speech.

(Close family members will inform you at this juncture that I have fallen asleep at this very point in the recent past, but we’ll gloss over that.)

I didn’t go into this trip with much in the way of expectations. That was a deliberate ploy to avoid the ever-so-simple trap of comparing the experience with what you thought it would be, rather than simply enjoying it for what it was. This approach allowed every destination, every experience, every encounter to be a surprise. Every day was a new adventure, and besides knowing where I should end up by the time I need to refresh my zeds, the journey was always into the relative unknown, and this was a good approach to have.

Finding the right balance between organisation and impulse has been the key to the success of this journey. Well, the amazing New Zealand countryside and mind-blowing new relationship have helped, but being able to enjoy those things – as well as everything else – to the degree that I have has only been possible because of this balance. Too organised and you end up sacrificing incredible experiences for ones you thought you’d like just as much. Too impulsive and you end up with no money and nowhere to sleep. Fortunately, neither of those things happened to me, and I feel like getting this approach right has helped me evolve and mature as a person in some ways (not all of them though, don’t panic).

People often ask me what my favourite thing about traveling is, and the answer is being able to enjoy the little things just as much as the big ones. Yes, snow-capped mountains and neon-swathed boulevards are memorable feasts for the eyes, but then I remember having a joke with a Belgian train conductor because I’d ballsed up my ticket, seeing the hand-written welcome note on my bed in my motel in Ohio, or falling asleep to the sound of waves rolling over the beach just yards away in New Zealand, and I realise that not all of the pieces of this puzzle are the same size, but they’re all just as important and beautiful as each other.

So what happens now? I spoke before this leg started that it probably wouldn’t be the last one, that I had plans to finish off Europe and then make my way to the Far East next year, and so we come to my greatest conflict.

On the one side, I’ve loved travelling the world. I’ve seen so many amazing places and people, done so many amazing things, and there is still so much more that I haven’t explored. Japan, for example, has been #1 on my travelling wishlist since before those blokes sang a song about football coming home, and the thought of visiting it still gives me tingles down to the bottom of my feet.

But on the other side lies stability, structure and responsibility, and I find myself craving those for the first time in a long time. I’ve been incredibly lucky these last couple of years or so to be in a position to be able to do this traveling malarkey. I don’t have a wife, or kids, or a mortgage, my partners were all incredibly supportive, and I work in a career that I have the skill set and availability to dip in and out of. Now, however, I feel a desire to change a couple of those things. No, I don’t mean kids (eww), I mean progressing my career to a level that my typically very high ambitions aspire to, and buying my own property so I can feel like, for the first time in several years, I have somewhere I can truly call home. Doing these things would make taking several months off at a time to gallivant across the world significantly more challenging.

Right now, I’m leaning more towards the side of the coin that provides me the opportunity for stability and progress. Maybe in a few years’ time I’ll be in a position again to take some time off and go on new adventures, but for the time being I feel like it would be (uncharacteristically) more sensible to focus on the bigger picture of my life, and doing what I need to do to get it looking how I want it to look like in five or ten years-ish.

I’ve had my mid-life crisis, and now it’s time to move on and embrace old age with open arms, constantly reminding young people how young they are, and emphatically declaring that there hasn’t been a single decent piece of popular music released in the last ten years. (There hasn’t, by the way)

Oh, and one final thing, I didn’t accept the marriage proposal. Yet.

47. New York, USA

End of the tunnel

Today marks day 112 of this leg of my worldly adventures, and whilst that may not be the roundest of numbers, it is a significant one, because today is day 112, of 112. Tonight, I fly home.

To help celebrate the occasion, I’m doing something I’ve spectacularly failed to do in every one of the previous 111 days – and most of last year as well – I’m writing a blog post on time.

Right now, I’m sitting in the food court of JFK Airport, near-ish to New York, opting to chill out here for the next 9 hours instead of sweating my two-day-old (I’m going home tonight, don’t need to worry about paying for washing any more) pants off in 34C, very humid heat in the city. And what better way to kill time than to write about how miserable you are?

The last few days have been the worst few days. There are a number of reasons for this: I’m ready to go home now, to see my family, friends and partners; I’ve spent the last three days either stuck in road traffic or pedestrian traffic; it’s hotter here than Kelly Brook eating a casserole in a sauna, which would normally be manageable were it not for the 240% humidity; my hostel was nowhere near anything remotely culinary, meaning an uncomfortable, sweaty expedition whenever I caught a twinge of hunger.

Then there’s Morgan, who both my fans will remember as being the girl I met in Austin and dragged along with me to Chicago. I miss her terribly, I miss the time we had together, and the ease of the connection and chemistry we enjoyed. I don’t know when I’m going to see her again, and were it not for the fact that I’m incapable of emotions, I’d probably be shedding a tear right about now.

Don’t get me wrong, New York is a fabulous city. I love the skyline, I love Central Park, I love the food, and I love its constant buzz and atmosphere that changes from street to street. But all of that stems from memories of when I was here back in 2007, and I simply haven’t been able to enjoy these traits this time around.

But hey, let’s not put a downer on things, because at the end of this very long, very windy tunnel is a good time to look back and reflect on what has been yet another amazing journey through foreign lands that I’ve never seen before, and will probably never see again. I’ll write a proper blog post looking back on the trip, but right now I’m using those memories, and the realisation that in less than 24 hours I’ll be tucked up in bed with Jaz, who is officially the softest cat in the world, to help me get over this last, uncomfortable hurdle.

Anyway, got to go, there’s a mine that needs crafting and a Morgan waiting to help me craft it. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be back in Blighty.

I’ll be home.

46. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, USA

Mecca

On Christmas Day, 1993, a seven-year-old me thought I’d finished opening all of my presents, and was preparing myself for a delicious Christmas dinner. Then, Uncle Fred came walking through the front door carrying an enormous, box-shaped present, and told me this was for me. I opened it, and inside was a computer, my first ever computer.

It came with a handful of games, but once my Uncle and cousin had set it up in my bedroom, there was only one I wanted to play – Indianapolis 500: The Simulation. I can still remember doing those first few (ahem, 64) practice laps around the most famous oval in the world. It was amazing, I ignored Mum telling me to come downstairs because dinner was ready, and my love for the track was born.

Now, 25 years later, I can finally say that I’ve been there in person.

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One of my favourite aspects of travelling the world is that it gives me the opportunity to go to places I’ve seen on the telly or on the internet many times over, and wanted for years to see in the flesh. As a motorsport fan, there is no better example than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and my day trip there will go down as one of the highlights of my entire travels.

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Built in and raced on since 1909, the IMS is the most famous, most historic track in the world. It’s oval may be short on right hand corners, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a simple track to get right, because when you’re doing an average speed of nearly 230mph, keeping your foot flat on the floor the entire lap (if you dare), one tiny mishap is all that stands between being a motorsport legend, and being in the wall.

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In motor racing, when it comes to historic moments, there is no track that can light a candle to Indy. Brilliance, heartache, and tragedy have made plenty of appearances during its 109 year history, as drivers compete at higher speeds than anywhere else in the world, with mere inches between each other, and the unforgiving walls.

The whole day felt like a surreal dream, from the moment I laid eyes on the entrance gate, to joining one of the guided tours through the garages and into the famous pagoda, to rubbing shoulders with NASCAR champion and Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch – who was there on a testing/promotional day – to wandering around the museum containing dozens of Indy 500 winning cars.

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As a whole, Indianapolis was a miserable experience. My hotel room was awful, the roads were so bad that I’m pretty sure I’m actually a cat, and it absolutely hooned it down with rain pretty much the entire time.

But, I didn’t care about any of those things, because now I can say I’ve kissed the bricks at Indy.

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45. Las Vegas, Gallup, Amarillo, Austin, Texarkana, St Louis & Chicago, USA

Nobody expects the Texan Expedition

Right, let’s get one thing out of the way straight off the bat, I haven’t blogged in ages and have fallen several locations behind where I actually am. There’s a very good reason for that, which I will get onto later, but the result is that I’m consolidating all these experiences into one mega-post. So make yourself comfortable and fill up a glass (or mug) of your chosen beverage, because this might take a while.

Let’s start with Vegas, which regular readers will know as the place I’ve been looking forward to visiting more than any other on this trip. When I came here in 2007 I was immediately filled with awe, wonder, and an intense frustration that my youthful age prevented me from immersing myself in the full experience. Now, eleven years later, and much older (if not much wiser), I’m finally able to return and do my best to cling desperately onto whatever’s left of my wallet at the end of the week.

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There are few, if any, places in this world quite like Las Vegas. The glitz and glamour of the neon lights and scantily-clad everythings enticing you into its absurdly expensive bosom, and testing your budgeting discipline to its very fringes. But everyone knows that already about this unique town, so let’s talk about its other traits.

For starters, pretty much everything takes forever to achieve. Want to walk from one casino to the next? Make sure you’re wearing comfy shoes. Fancy a drive up The Strip? Make the most of the 17,493 traffic lights by staring wistfully at your surroundings. Want a snap of you and your beloved standing underneath the Welcome to Vegas sign? Join the queue. Indeed, the only things that don’t take an ice age are giving your money to the dealers, and giving your money to the waitresses.

It’s an odd juxtaposition, in a city where everything is bright and brash and constantly alive, that you’re forced to exercise more than a modicum of patience at every corner, but in a way, it works in your favour by allowing you to appreciate your surroundings, and not get caught up and carried away too much by the never-ending buzz and hulabaloo.

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That is, unless you’re at the tables. Yes, I tried my best to win a million dollars, and as you can probably tell by the fact that this post is two weeks late and not written entirely in capital letters, I did not succeed. I did get one card away from a $4,000 payout in a card game I’d never played before (Pai Gow Poker), but as far as financially-related success stories go, that’s about it for me and this make you/break you town.

Whilst my wallet may be significantly (if not uncontrollably) lighter than it was before I turned up at my Airbnb on the West side of town, I have no regrets, and walk (drive?) away from Vegas happy for the experiences I’ve had. In an ideal world I would take my seven years of dealer/inspector experience in casinos and bring them here, following in the footsteps of the stickman at the craps table at the Main Street Station – who was from Swindon – but sadly in today’s world, being allowed to settle down in the land of the free is a lot more difficult than it used to be, unless I get married.

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(If you do happen to be American, and unmarried, and can put up with my terrible puns, please get in touch)

Succeeding my stint in Las Vegas was a three-day drive to a suburb of Austin, Texas, where I would have an unexpected, life-changing experience.

First, however, came the rather impressive Hoover Damn, the rather historic Route 66, the rather deep Meteor Crater, and the rather frightening storm I hid from in my hotel room in Amarillo (yes, I found the way).

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But perhaps the biggest thing I will take from my drive from Vegas to Austin, via Gallup and Amarillo, is the sheer size of the country. The best example of the enormity of the USA came on the third day, driving from Amarillo to Austin. Eight hours of driving, stopping only to fill up the car and myself, and all I covered was around half of one of the fifty States. Granted, it’s the second biggest one (behind Alaska, although don’t mention that to a Texan), but if you have a look at a map of the country, and see how close together the two towns appear to be, you can get an idea of just how big America is – and I wasn’t even held in traffic for any of the journey.

Texas, like the wind farms inside it, just keeps going, and going, and going, and going, and eventually I got to the Southwestern suburb of Austin where I was due to meet Morgan, a friend I’ve met in London a few times over the past few years.

I say friend, because that’s what she was when I drove my Camaro up the Camaro+1inch-wide driveway. Now, however, things are a little different.

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Check out my Wonder Woman baseball cap.

I wasn’t expecting to find another partner whilst on my travels – indeed I have my hands quite full with the ones I already have – and that’s certainly not why I decided to take the Southern route through New Mexico, Texas and Missouri instead of heading up North and driving through Canada. But Morgan and I got on like a mansion on fire. In fact, we got on so well, that my few days in Austin turned into an entire week, a round of golf with her and her father (during which I was mostly shit, barring a brace of par 3’s and a chip in off the green for a birdie on a par 4), and, most tellingly, dragging her along with me for the three-day journey from Austin, through Texarkana (on the Texas/Arkansas border, geddit?), St Louis, and then a few days in Chicago.

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These newfound feelings we have for each other have taken us both completely by surprise, but suffice to say that the last twelve days have been nothing short of wonderful. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the future – she’s talking about moving back to England but that’s not a certainty, and things might change between us given the time apart we’re about to endure – but what we had for that period of time was the kind of magic that made me forget all about the rest of my journey, or even how much I was looking forward to heading home soon.

Oh, there was also Chicago, I suppose I should talk about that since we stayed there for four days.

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Chicago was my second favourite city the last time I was here (behind Vegas). The lake, the skyline, my cousins Angie and Alan, an English pub, all of these things helped create another memorable experience in a city I highly recommend everyone visits. Plus there was the small contribution from a girl that I’d fallen for at the kind of pace I didn’t think I was capable of any more.

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So there we have it, now you know where I’ve been and why I’ve been quiet this past couple of weeks. I’ve had so many different types of fun in that time that my head still feels like it’s spinning, and now I can add the excitement of being only a few days away from seeing my friends, partners, and family back home for the first time in nearly four months.

All that’s left to do is gawp at a really big circle, and stand inside a rather large apple. I’ll try and write those blog posts a tad more punctually…

44. Yosemite & Death Valley, USA

Hot Buzz

Normally, a $35 entrance fee and three hour detour isn’t your idea of enjoyment when you already have a six-hour drive to get to your evening lodgings, but that’s exactly what I was treated to at Yosemite National Park, and in this case, it was more than worth it.

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If you’re going to embark on a several thousand mile journey across one of the largest nations on this planet, then stunning rock formations, incredibly tall waterfalls, and beautiful landscapes aren’t a bad way to kick things off. Yosemite has all of these things in abundance, and if you enjoy long walks, jam-packed car parks, and children shouting “Bumble Bee!” at your car*, then you’re in for a treat.

*you’ll probably need a car similar to mine to receive the full benefit of the last thing. Yes, I’m showing off, yes I’m a child, no I don’t care.

Now I’m not one for having regrets, but not staying here for more than a few short hours is definitely going to be one of them. There are dozens of options for rambling amongst the diverse wildlife, including walks so long you’ll need a tent, at least two packets of wotsits, and a serious pair of shoes. Whilst lying in a very warm tent hoping to not be eaten by bears isn’t my idea of a jolly good time, I would have parked up and had a meander for a few hours if I had more time (and could find a damn parking space).

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What’s that I hear you say? You’re not interested in lush green scenery? You’d rather traverse large, open spaces of nothing but sand, rocks, and heat that will melt your private areas? Well have no fear, because just to the East of Yosemite is the rather aptly named Death Valley.

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Aptly named because nothing lives here, and it’s a valley, Death Valley has been one of those curiosities I’ve always wanted to say “I’ve been there”. There’s not much to say about it, other than the scenery can get surprisingly spectacular despite the complete absence of anything living other than like-minded tourists.

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Also, if you go in the summer time, it’s rather hot. According to my car’s computer screen, the temperature peaked at 115F, which for those of us living in the 21st century is a mind-melting 46C. That’s quite uncomfortably the hottest temperature I’ve ever been exposed to (not counting sitting in a sauna or telling Mrs Brown I hadn’t finished my English summer project on time), and required a careful balancing act whenever I foolishly chose to get out of my air-conditioned car to take a snap or three. Walk too slow and you’re exposed to the heat long enough that your sunglasses hurt, walk too fast, and by the time you get back to the car, you’re producing enough sweat to drown a cactus.

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As you know, travelling for me (and most people) is all about new experiences, and saying “I’ve been there/done that”, and now I can say I’ve been to Furnace Creek, the appropriately-named section of Death Valley that boasts the hottest temperature ever recorded. But half a day is enough, and on the other side of the valley lies a fairly well known town that has sat completely uncontested at the top of my to-do list since my travel plans began.

Vegas.

 

 

43. San Francisco, USA

Wood, balls and helmets.

I’ve already made it clear that I’m starting to become disillusioned by big cities. Unless it has something special about it that entices me, there is very little appeal for me to stay for more than a fleeting visit, and would much rather be out and about exploring a big tree, or a nice hill.

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The good thing about San Francisco is that not only does it have more than enough about it to keep me entertained, but it also provides both the aforementioned desirable outer-city features.

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Now, normally I wouldn’t be a fan of a city that has more ups and downs than Donald Trump’s toupee in a light breeze. However, the Chevvy I’m hiring allowed me to enjoy these undulations without having to concern my calves with exercise, and I had plenty of opportunities to be childish between traffic lights, which was nice.

(Obviously I obeyed all traffic laws at all times, Mum.)

My Airbnb in San Francisco wasn’t actually in San Francisco, but the across-the-bay town of Vallejo. On the down side that meant subjecting myself to traffic jams and toll booths whenever I wanted to cruise in or out of the city.

The upside, however, was my ability to explore the surrounding countryside, which provided some interesting memories.

One such memory saw me completely accidentally stumble across one of America’s most famous racing circuits – Sonoma. As a NASCAR fan I was able to finally say I’ve been to one of the tracks they race on (it even has right hand turns!), and as a fan of motorsports in general, the historic cars weekend that was being held during my visit helped whet my appetite for being completely deafened by cars older than I am.

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Then, after a very brief foray onto Stinson “Bugger This It’s Far Too Windy” Beach, I found myself face-to-trunk with the most enormous trees you’ve ever seen. Everyone knows Redwoods are tall, but I promise you, until you actually stand at the bottom of one and look up, you simply cannot fathom just how high they go.

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Having successfully avoided making an inappropriate pun or three in the last paragraph, my mettle is tested even further by my next activity.

It’s always been a dream of mine to watch an American sports game, preferably one of each major sport, and in SF I was lucky enough to fulfill one-quarter of that dream with a trip to the AT&T Stadium to watch the San Francisco Giants compete with the Philadelphia Phillies to see who can run round the most diamonds in nine innings.

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It was a thoroughly entertaining affair, boosted by a 6-1 victory, and a seal with arms and legs (don’t ask), and capped off a very pleasant few days that was made exponentially more so by the presence of one of my minions, who had flown over to meet one of her other partners (and me, obviously).

But perhaps the most important attribute of San Francisco is none of the above, but that it marks the start point of my West-to-East journey across this great/not great (delete as per your opnion) nation.

So it’s goodbye Pacific Ocean, hello flight home over the Atlantic.

Eventually.

42. The Pacific Coast Highway, USA

Inside No. 9

Allow me, for a moment, to indulge in a spot of hypocrisy.

Within my last rambling, I explained how I disliked the attitude of people spending money on themselves, and completely overlooking the epidemic of homeless people that litter the streets of LA.

My subsequent action was to head to a car rental garage and spend more money than is sensible on a make of car I didn’t really need, to drive across America towards the finish line for this entire world trip in New York.

Do I have an excuse for this blatant double standard? Not really, and I will admit to more than a smidgen of guilt at doing what I have done. The problem is, there are simply too many people that need help, and trying to help them all would put me in a position similar to theirs in a frighteningly short space of time.

However, that aside, let’s get down to the crux of the matter here. Ever since I was yay high I’ve dreamt of hiring a convertible and driving right through the middle of the USA, from one side to the other. The vast, open roads, punctuated by desirable cities and landmarks have always held a great appeal to me. Now, thanks to my complete disregard towards the health of my wallet, and the determination I possess to fulfill an ambition once it gets into my head, I have the opportunity to live that dream.

And we’re not talking any ol’ rustbucket convertible here. As followers of my social feed have already been shown on several occasions, the car I have is, well, this one.

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When you ask anyone what the happiest moments of their life are, you’ll typically get the same predictable marriage/kids/first house responses. Having not done any of those (don’t get any ideas, ladies), my list is somewhat different, and the moment I pulled out of the car rental garage and started cruising the streets of LA with the top down in this beast is easily an addition to it.

That lasted for about 10 minutes, before I got stuck in one of LA’s legendary traffic jams, and realised that it’s far too warm and sunny, and I have far too few baseball caps and bottles of suncream to be able to survive much of this, so up went the roof, and on went a very frustrating hour or so trying to work out what resembles lane discipline in this country.

My target was San Francisco, using the world famous Pacific Coast Highway as the main method of transportation. It took me two days to get there (don’t worry, that included sleep), but suffice to say the drive was able to live up to the expectation. The problem is, the level of enjoyment of the drive was influenced by several factors that were nothing to do with the drive itself.

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Part of the road included driving through, and over, clouds. Clouds!

For an easy starter, there’s the car. I’ve already explained how excited I was to rent it, so the first couple of days were going to be awesome whether I was driving through beautiful Californian countryside, or on the A34 just outside Stoke. On the flip side to this, is the fact that I’ve just spent several weeks on what is officially the most beautiful country in the world – New Zealand – and so whatever came next had such big shoes to fill it was always destined to fall short.

Then there’s the road itself, which I didn’t actually drive all the way up. Partly because some of it was closed, and partly because I get all distracted by enticing looking signposts and end up completely lost in a place nowhere near where I’m supposed to be.

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The Corkscrew at Laguna Seca

Despite all of that, I saw some amazing views and drove (part of) an immensely enjoyable, windy coastal road for two days, before ending up in one of my favourite cities in the world. So I can wholeheartedly recommend coming here.

Did I mention travelling was awesome?