Friday, 29 October 2010

Barry Has Been SOLD


Monday, 25 October 2010

1990 HJ60 Toyota Landcruiser (4L Diesel) For Sale

Whilst we are ready to put our feet up for the foreseeable future, the Baroness is raring for more adventure and therefore requires a new crew. Yes, the White lady is for sale:

1990 HJ60 Toyota Landcruiser
(4L Diesel)
140000 miles
12 month MOT
6 month Tax
For Sale £6500 ono

mobile: 07916268123

The car has extensive improvements for expedition travel:

Uprated suspension | Snorkel | Expedition roof-rack | Howling Moon roof tent | Awning | Additional full-size fuel tank | Leisure battery powering auxiliary electrical circuit for fridge, 3-pin socket etc | Fridge | Camping catering set | 3 seat arrangement (original rear bench seat removed but can be refitted) | Drawer kit and storage setup in vehicle boot | Water pump and filter | Tirfor winch & recovery kit including sandboards | Two spare wheels | Various spares, fluids and tools | Highlift jack

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Final Push (ooh er missus)

Bonjour, tout le mond! Well, that's about as far as I can go with practicing my French. We leave Canada's capital city, Ottowa, today and make our way to frogsville and Montreal! Sorry about that, I just know the French wouldn't have expected anything less than a little dig from their 'rostboeuf' counterparts..!
If you've been following the blog for some time, you will have noticed that we have tended to meander our way through countries. Not stopping everywhere, but certainly not blitzing the trail like someone possessed. All that changed when we got to Canada. We've already talked about the mammoth drive up from Vancouver to Prudhoe Bay to complete the final leg of the Pan-Am, and our subsequent return back down the Dalton Highway to Fairbanks on the back of a truck. Well, not content with that, we decided to really go for it.
Closer inspection of the road atlas once again revealed the enormity of the North American continent, and with the clock ticking (flights have been booked and shipping agents primed in NYC) another epic drive was in order. So we decided to go non-stop from Fairbanks to Calgary. A total of 2,000 miles. We did it in 52 hours straight! Liz and Ross Lakin (friends of Tim and I from the town we grew up in) greeted us at their apartment. Frazzled is an understatement describing how we felt! But a few pints later things were back to normal, and after sleeping horizontally for 12 hours, by the following day we were fresh as daisies.
There is quite a fair bit to see as you travel across the States/Canada, most of it more towards the east. And so, once again, the call was made to eat up some serious road. After waving farewell to Liz and Ross (cheers, guys!) we began the 1,600-mile trip to Chicago, where some friends we had made all the way back in Buenos Aires awaited.

Ladies and gentlemen I am sorry to inform you that those may very well be the last words ever written by Captain Thomas Ollier (Ret’d). Admittedly that would be quite unlikely, as he is perfectly fine and well and enjoying his return to Blighty, but you never can be quite sure. However like Emmett Brown’s Delorien these last few paragraphs have taken you on a rip-roaring journey across the space time continuum, and I fully understand your confusion. To bring you up to speed (88mph to be exact), we left Fairbanks (southbound) on the 20th August and arrived, via Cow Town, now much more disappointingly known as Calgary, in Chicago on the 30th of August. Chicago is probably my favourite city of the trip. It apparently only has two seasons, a wonderful summer and an absolutely miserably cold winter, but as we were experiencing it during the former we had little complaint with the weather. It’s a cool, buzzing city with the financial centre encased by a rectangular skyrail that leads to the districts typically American name, the Loop. It also sits beside Lake Michigan, one of the 5 Great Lakes that contain about a quarter of the world’s fresh water supply. And actually for all intents and purposes it’s a sea, because it’s big, blue and wavey. Chicago is also famous for it’s Jazz bars, as frequented by the tax dodging, baseball wielding Al Capone, and after several hours paying homage to the anti-phohibitionist hero we got to witness some truly mesmerising Jazz musicians. One of Chicago’s other accolades is North America’s tallest building, the newly renamed Willis Tower, previously and famously known as the Sears Tower. While you queue for the lift at the bottom there is a huge amount of information detailing the tower’s construction and history and vital statistics, and personally I now concur that all buildings should be measured by how many Barack Obama’s tall they are.

Along our long and dusty road we’ve experienced the full spectrum of accommodation, from the lows of a metallic picnic table in Death Valley to the extraordinary highs of a $250 dollar a night apartment a short metro ride away from Chicago’s downtown. Equipped with 3 double bedrooms, lounge, kitchen and most importantly a shower that can only be described as an all purpose aqua experience, we had well and truly lucked out. Thank you so much to our Chicago friends, I am sure we’ll all be back.

Next up was our final cross-border forage back into Canada before finally heading onto the east coast of the US and home. The drive from Chicago to Toronto was a respectable 500 miles and we again journeyed through the night to save time. Although on this occasion it was truly heartbreaking as we still had the free apartment at our disposal. Boohoo. Anyway just south of Toronto, actually about a 100 miles south but understandably our notion of relativity has been somewhat stretched, is a fairly famous stretch of water that also doubles as the worlds capital for barrel encased suicide. Niagara Falls was definitely on our wish list to experience and despite a few disappointments it was surely worth a visit. It’s tourist-tastic, even at 8am in the morning, and as tacky as you can imagine, and the waterfall certainly has bigger and more exotic rivals, but the fact you can stand 2 to 3 meters from the corner where millions of tonnes (or some more accurate but equally impressive amount) of water cascades noisily past is magical. Niagara I think is also the poster boy of waterfalls, it’s perfectly curved fa├žade is everything you could wish for. After Niagara we had a quick stop in Toronto to catch up with an old housemate of mine, who was on a short training course before jetting off to Peru (There you go Katie not just a mention but a mini biography) and then we set off to Canada’s capital, Ottawa.

Ottawa hadn’t seemed to attract the greatest press from our Canadian friends on the west coast but that is probably due to the va va voom of party central Montreal on it’s doorstep. We really liked the city which was packed with interesting architecture, museums, cool British type bars and a happy mix of French and English speaking Canadians. Tom and I learned that Canada actually has a history, who knew, at the Museum of Civilisation while Phil pondered impressively at inexplicable artwork at another museum. We all toured the parliamentary building and, though interesting, couldn’t help but notice a suspicious amount of plagiarism from our own Houses of Parliament. They even have a replica of Big Ben that copycats the famous hourly chime and then breaks into their national anthem and then what I can only assume are a number of Canadian big hits. We listened out for Celine, Bryan and Avril but they must have had a later showing. When I get back to London I’m definitely going to suggest the idea to Boris though. The proper Big Ben ringing out the James Bond medley should no longer remain an idle pipe dream. Again we had free accommodation in the form of Phil’s university friend Simon who was another excellent host.

Our final stop in Canada was to be the very French and much celebrated city of Montreal, where the boys would be meeting up with the girl they eagerly replaced me with on the Bolivian salt flats while I was in New York. The night we arrived, Marie-Eve cooked us up a traditional French-Canadian storm and ploughed us with wine which needless to say was all very agreeable. The next day Phil made a quick break to visit his cousin in Vermont, leaving Tom and I to explore the city. And we did so in style completely thanks to Marie-Eve’s brilliant idea to use the cities rent-a-bike network. Apparently they are about to, or already may have, implemented a similar scheme in London but I’ve certainly tried to drunkenly borrow one in Paris so it’s probably a French initiative. Effectively you have a multitude of bike stations across the city, and for the tiny sale of a century fee of 5 Euros (okay, okay, Canadian dollars) you can hire one for the day as long as you park it at a new station every thirty minutes, which allows you to cruise in a typically nonchalant French fashion from tourist hotspot to hotspot. Montreal is also streaks ahead of London in terms of it’s bicycle friendly traffic system. They so vigorously defend the cyclists’ rights that we actually saw a line of cars parked seemingly in the middle of the road so as not to block the cycle path next to the curb. Montreal is also famed for it’s liberal attitudes and rocking nightlife and we weren’t disappointed, although I am slightly perplexed at how we managed to end up in an 80’s cheese disco on one of the nights. Probably Tom’s influence. I think, though can’t be sure, that that was also the night that we sampled Quebec’s most famous culinary dish. And for a province of French descent, it really is not what you expect. It’s called Poutine, and the post drinking crowd go mad for it. We queued with the other drunken hopefuls and were eventually led to a table in a very diner-esque restaurant, packed with red and glassy eyed locals in various states of inebriation. Poutine is clearly too classy to be smothered over and down yourself while stumbling back from a UK nightclub. The method of consumption is however the only classy thing about it as it is in fact a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown gravy. You mean it’s just chips and gravy, we said in a mock Yorkshire accent. No no, this is Poutine, a marvel of French Canadian cuisine. It has cheese…. I think I’ll stick to kebabs and curry.

One other event we were keen to tick off our what to do in North America list was their version of football. I would call it American Football but we were in Canada, French Canada to be exact. Canadian American Football is exactly the same as French Canadian American Football but they both differ slightly from American Football, and all of course fall woefully short of anything like proper English Football. I’ve watched a bit of American Football on the idiot box and it’s actually pretty exciting, particularly the college football where the mismatch of talent allows for much greater excitement as the incredibly athletic, destined for the big time, students race past the never going to make it professionally and will shortly wake up with no academics and no future no hopers. Which is unfortunately the dark underside of the of football scholarships. Anyway the professional league can be very slow paced as the teams are so well matched and so I actually thought if they reduced the number of plays available to each team, they have 5 tries to get only 10 meters which seems excessive, and maybe reduced the team size, the game would become more exciting. When I learned that this is exactly what Canadian American Football is all aboot I was tremendously excited. Again Anne-Marie had come through for Tom and I by procuring tickets for the mighty Montreal Thundercats verses the British Colombia Bulldogs. Okay these weren’t their real names but I neither know nor care. The game was rubbish. The Americans might have got the name wrong but their version of the game is infinitely more watchable. The only silver lining was that the one thing better than nubile cheerleaders is French nubile cheerleaders, dancing to Bon Jovi. Now we’re talking.

Montreal though was a fabulous city and Marie-Eve and friends really went well beyond the call of duty in looking after us, and so our final taste of Canada was a sweet one. We even powered over the border with little more than a cursory glance at the car and were quickly reunited with Phil at his cousins near Burlington in Vermont, whose adorable 15 month old baby girl Thomson had recently learned to point at herself when asked “Who’s the baby?!” Vermont is a beautiful state to drive through, it has an incredible outdoors feel with huge pine and maple forests and will be a beautiful winter skiing destination. The temperature was just starting to fall and we happily stacked a winter’s supply of wood for a couple of hours to earn our supper that night.

The next day found us hurtling towards the east coast and the Atlantic Ocean to sample the famous New England lobster dishes, however we still had a reasonable distance to cover over beautiful but windy roads and so either an overnight drive or camping stop was on the cards. Barry chose for us. It was to be fair her last in series of little hiccups, just to remind us that she was calling the shots. En route to Calgary her speedometer had ceased working but considering we couldn’t speed any way that was pretty much irrelevant. The loss of one headlight driving up to Montreal was also no major drama as we were travelling by day. However the loss of both headlights during the onset of dusk certainly got our attention and so we opted to camp. By lunchtime the next day however we were Lobstering on an inlet on the coast of Maine in the glorious sunshine and things couldn’t be better. We had a lovely stroll on a beautiful sandy beach and wondered how many people could say they have dipped their feet in virtually every sea and ocean from Buenos Aries to the American east coast in a single trip. Our Magellanic Penguin Jack in particular wondered whether any of his brethren, stuffed or natural, had journeyed as far as he. Seeing the ocean was a great way to appreciate the magnitude of the distance we had travelled, and somewhere far out in front of us, were English shores and home.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Fugly

The Good

There is a little town called Deadhorse that borders our final destination, Prudhoe Bay on the north coast of Alaska. In reality Deadhorse and Prudhoe are only really separated by the security cordon that partitions the public area from the privately owned oil fields that stretch to the bay itself. From the beginning of the trip's conception this final hurdle had provided a number of conflicting accounts of whether ocean access would be possible, but I'm sure you can understand that driving 25 thousand miles to fall barely 4 miles short would leave a slightly bitter taste in our mouths.

From Fairbanks we headed due north to complete the final 500 mile leg of our north bound journey, a little stupefied by the epic distances we had already covered and slightly bemused by the weather, which was absolutely blistering sunshine. The last section of road is the famous Dalston Highway, about 400 miles in length and completely unpaved. The sign that marks the highway entrance is covered in graffiti and stickers from all the other travelers who have passed through, and we stopped for a moment to read the messages and make our own contributions to what felt like the collective commemoration to the final push.

100 miles later we hit the latitude of 66° 33. This is the southern most point (in the Northern hemisphere) where you can experience 24 hour sunlight or darkness, on the summer and winter solstices respectively. It's common name, is the Arctic Circle. And everything north of it is the Arctic. We crossed the line wearing t-shirts and sandals, happy in the knowledge that if we were there but even a month later, it would be a whole different story!

By midnight we were still driving north and the sky still held enough light to make our headlights redundant. The sun had actually set, we were too late in the season for a true midnight sun, but it was not far enough below the horizon to darken the skies. We finally crawled into Prudhoe Bay around 2am and began to test the security perimeter for weaknesses. We'd arrived in the middle of the "night" with the hope that some of the roads would be unmanned, providing us with the opportunity to make an illegal dash to the sea to complete our trip. Unfortunately the roads were very much guarded and our night time cover was decidedly more sunny than we had envisaged. We tried to befriend and beguile a few of the guards but they, although perfectly friendly, all had clearly encountered the likes of us before and were stoic in their refusal to do anything but point us to the nearby hotel. Tired and defeated we retreated towards the hotel and our slightly anti-climatic plan B, a tourist bus at 7 am laid on by the hotel to take us to the Bay, for the extortionate sum of $40. Each. The tightened security was apparently laid on after 9 11, which is an understandable and fairly rational option to take, but the fee made it feel much more like a tourist tax. We crept into the hotel around 3.30 am and, finding the reception deserted, bunked down in the tour briefing room we were scheduled to arrive at less than 4 hours later. I say scheduled because this really was a plan B, we had booked ourselves onto this tour and sent our passport details 24 hours earlier, so we could be security cleared for the trip. At this point things starting to run in our favour. There are many good reasons to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, but the best of these must clearly be the smell of frying bacon and other fatty fried goodness. And of course everything tastes better when it is free. Not that this was our initial intention, but although we'll happily pay for food, we draw the line at letting it go cold while we actively have to seek out someone to take our money. Particular when we knew we were already being subjected to the unjustifiable high price of the bus ticket. Which we ending up not having to pay for either. Oops. I'm sure it's morally, ethically and socially wrong, and I'm sure this electronic confession will come back to haunt me, but still, it was free.

The bus trundled up to the shore and we all hopped out, slightly peturbed both by the threat of bitterly cold water and the roaming grizzly bears that share this seaside resort. Luckily the bears were clearly off picniking but the water was shockingly cold. No real surprises really, it's the Arctic Ocean after all. High fives and not at all funny splashing (Phil) were followed by frantic drying and dressing as that morning the weather had decided to turn a lot more Arcticy. We shivered back on to the bus and by 9am we were back stealing free coffee from the hotel we weren't staying in. And that was that really. 25000 miles, the tip of South America to the north coast of Alaska. Freezing ocean to ocean with glorious summer and the world's longest road in between. We'd done it, this road lay conquered. We were pretty spectacularly tired, we were stuck in a rapidly freezing, wind swept, barren oil field town 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, and we had really quite a long way to go to reach New York and then Blighty. "Well, best be off then". So we did.

The Bad

New York was admittedly a late addition to the trip. But we had discussed it in detail and decided that we wanted to reach the East coast. Barry, apparently, had missed the memo. Eighty miles south bound, as opposed to the 25000 miles we had very recently completed north bound, we noticed that our temperamental twenty year old was guzzling fuel at over twice the normal rate. And sure enough when we popped the hood we found a glistening, diesel covered engine. It looked very clean, and it was very very bad. We'd twice had problems with our fuel filter, which is why we now didn't have a spare, and we were still well inside the Arctic Circle.

We limped a mile back to the cheerily named Happy Valley, which was little more than a gravelly runway strip and collection of RV's, to take a look at the damage. I may very well be the least mechanically minded individual that the DVLA have ever recklessly issued a driving license to, so I filmed while Tom and Phil pushed, pulled, poked and pondered. In Layman's, or indeed my, terms, the fuel filter stops big chunks of chunky fuel being injected into your engine. It's under pressure, so if it is cracked or incorrectly sealed, fuel will leak out. The fan at the front of the engine (to cool rather than encourage) acts like a hairdryer or, well fan, and sprays the leaked fuel all over the engine. This is bad for fuel consumption, as the fuel is making the engine go shiny not faster. It is bad for the engine itself as the fuel is corrosive. And it presents a fairly significant fire risk as the engine is hot and the fuel is flammable. Luckily diesel is a lot less flammable then petrol so we weren't quiet yet at the "Human Torch" stage. The RV park come airport was home to a few hardy locals who offered plane rides into the wilderness for hunters and semi permanent accommodation for scientists, and several of them had kindly popped over to help. Initially we / an expertly filmed "they" tried to seal the fuel filter with some appropriately sounding sealant but the newly sealed filter continued to leak. Unfortunately this process did seal the fate of our fuel filter, which although still leaking, could no longer be removed from it's housing. (Curiously housing has nothing to do with real estate, but is in fact what the fuel filter is attached to.) So the fuel filter and it's housing were removed, presumably from the housing's housing or street, and the fuel filter and housing conglomerate was coated in liquid metal. The leak had leaked it's last.

The Fugly

The liquid metal needed to be left overnight to set so a few of the locals offered to both feed us and put us up for the night. Exceptionally kind and very welcome at the best of times, let alone in the remote tundra plains of the Alaskan Arctic. On top of food, shelter, beer, poker and even a morning hot shower, Kevin, Ed, Jake and Louanne were great company and we cannot be thankful enough. The next morning our reinforced filter system basked in the glory of it's leak free filtering and we were once again on our way. For about 40 miles. The fuel gage had by then already dropped too far. We popped the hood and stared unbelievingly at our newly leaking filter. Damn.

Our options at this point were limited. Driving while spraying diesel onto your engine is not safe, and if it had been been petrol would almost definitely have resulted in an all consuming fire. We had a length of pipe to bypass the filter altogether, but doing that on the roadside without proper equipment would have probably sent Barry into her death throws. We decided there was no real point in turning back, as we needed the mechanics garage 120 miles south. We also decided that though not recommended, our free spraying diesel was unlikely to ignite, so we could probably limp on. (Diesel is flammable when hot enough, but combusts normally only under pressure, rather than being ignited like petrol in a petrol engine) If however we lost fuel so rapidly that we couldn't reach the garage, road side surgery would be the only option.

We drove slowly, trying to make the engine work as little as possible, and taking every opportunity to coast when the incline allowed. Our luck held. We rolled into the truck loading and refuelling area called Coldfoot. Again there was little more there than a restaurant, motel, garage and camping ground but at least our options were better. Though still very far from good. The mechanics were busy and had no time to give us assistance, and certainly not for free. Attempting to bypass the filter ourselves had every chance of causing Barry's premature death, and limping another 250 miles to Fairbanks with a diesel soaked engine was not particularly promising either. Alaska is spectacularly remote, you can drive 150 miles without passing a building or another car. One advantage of this is that everybody at that station was either going back to Prudhoe or down to Fairbanks. We started to ask truckers if they had enough space to carry us and Barry and eventually we got a hit. The trucker, Jack, had a small but to our eyes Barry shaped space at the end of his rig, and, after double checking with his employer, he agreed to carry us the 250 miles for 250 dollars. If we'd driven it would have cost us $50 in fuel at best, in this state more like $100, so we decided to take the hit.

Barry was strapped into place and the 3 of us jumped into the cab at the front. Big trucks are awesome. They have as many dials as a light aircrafts cockpit, two chairs upfront and a horizontal bed behind that Phil and I sat on. We asked Jack if we could film. "No problem, I've just been filmed for three months filming Ice Road Truckers". How cool is that? It's one of America's many real life, real danger, day in the life of type programs and Jack Jessee was evidently one of the stars. We drove through the night, encountering three prowling wolves along the way, and eventually pulled in to Fairbanks at 4am. By my reckoning the 4th night in 7 without sleep. The local diner opened for breakfast at 5am, that was this morning, about 12 hours ago.

We have spent all of the day talking to every mechanic and dealership in town, who have all offered startlingly different opinions on what "fixes" we can effect. America does not have Toyota diesels. So the parts are well and truly unavailable. And any short term fixes are clearly not going to get us the 5 thousand miles to New York. We're still 2000 miles from Vancouver and there is not a lot in between.

As I wrote this story in my head while sleepily trundling around Fairbanks, things were looking pretty bleak. Skipping the east coast and just trying to get Barry to a port in Vancouver, Portland or Seattle seemed like the only real option left to us. However, there is now a glimmer of hope on our Arctic grey horizon. One recommendation led to another and we found ourselves at the door of the soul-warmingly exuberant, one man mechanic, Adam. His thick southern drawl and Woody Woodpecker laugh were enough in themselves to lift our moods but he attacked our seemingly insurmountable problem with gusto (not to mention a hacksaw) and we are now the proud owners of a completely bastardised fuel filtering system and significantly less piping. Still, it seemed to hold on the way back to our hostel and we will drive around tomorrow to see how we fair before, fingers, toes and eyes crossed, heading down to Vancouver. This Road is completed and we're on our way back home. In sincerely hope we make it. The other two are in bed, and I'm going to go and join then. Not literally, obviously.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Barry goes bananas

We really should paint some racing stripes and a big black "53" on the Baroness, because she just covered roughly 2200 miles in 66 hours. Canada is one seriously big country. We drove for 35 hours from Vancouver before we managed to leave the state of British Colombia and enter the Yukon. 35 hours, one state, surely that must be some kind of record.

We were back to our starting team having subbed out Steffi for our returning wedding crasher, and immediately we hit the road for the long push to the north coast of Alaska, a drive not far shy of 3000 miles. Having endured the British like weather of Oregon and Seattle, British Colombia's heat wave had been a welcome reminder of our trips "follow the summer" theme. Alaska, on the other hand, was going to get cold. We mentally braced ourselves for the rain and wind, icy roads, snow storms and freezing temperatures with good old British stoic indifference and gallow"s humour. So the fact that our journey north was twice interrupted by fire came as quite a surprise. No more than a few hours outside of Vancouver, on a snaking mountain road encased by tall, green pine trees, we came across a blackened car wrapped in 20ft high flames. There was a queue of 5 or 6 cars in front of us, and we had arrived no more than twenty minutes since the blaze had started. A fire crew had arrived, but were evidently waiting on reinforcements before tackling the inferno.

Luckily no one had been injured. We learned a Russian tourist had been driving his rented 2010 Chevy up the steep hill when a local Canadian frantically flagged him down with, what I can only imagine is slightly disconcerting, "Pull over, your car is on fire". He did and it was. And twenty minutes later it was more coal than car, with a tank, thankfully leaking, full of petrol to keep the flames and the firemen happy. I say thankfully leaking because otherwise there would have probably been an explosion big enough to severely ruin your lovely afternoon drive in the country. The fire fighting reinforcements arrived, huffing and puffing and hosing and posing, and spectacularly failing to put the fire out. British Colombia is on an extreme fire warning, so much so that smoking in parks has been banned, so a car shaped inferno a few feet from the edge of a huge pine forrest is probably on the "things to not to during an extreme fire warning" too. The firefighters, realising that their jet of water was not actually extinguishing the petrol fueled fire, but merely pushing the flames dangerously close to the forest edge, changed tactic and spent a few minutes soaking every tree and bush instead. Oh dear, we thought, we may be stuck here for sometime. Happily this was not to be as some bright spark (sorry) realised that they did in fact have a much bigger hose at their disposal. 20 nanoseconds later the fire hissed into submission and we were all on our way. Well, those of us with fully functioning cars anyway, the poor old Russian was at the mercy of the police, who seemed suspicious that a brand new car would burst into flames. The Canadians suspected the (American made) Chevy, the police clearly suspected vodka.

Phase two of fire fury was going to potentially be a much larger problem. Highway 37 runs north near BC's west coast, connecting us with the AlCan Highway. It's a spectacular drive and probably the shortest route to Alaska from Vancouver, it's also a 1500 mile detour if for any reason it's closed. "Highway 37 is closed" the flashing sign read "Due to a forest fire". We couldn't face a 1500 mile detour, so we decided to press on and see what happened, knowing at least that we were 4 hours from the 37 turnoff so potentially they could have "fixed" the forest fire problem by then. And our luck did hold, because Canada's so ridiculously, spectacularly big. At the turn off we realised that only the northern part of the highway was closed, and that was a further 5 hours away. Yes, we were boxing ourselves into a very tight corner, if we weren't able to get through the detour would be 1500 miles, but we already felt committed and it felt good to be putting, potentially counter-productive, miles on the clock. Also to reach this point we had driven straight through the previous night, and irritable tiredness is a happy bedfellow of irrational dogmatism.

By 8pm, a mere 33 hours since having departed Vancouver, we pulled into a rest area opposite the road blockade and collapsed into our tents, although we did manage time for an invigorating and energising dinner of breakfast cereal. By 8am we were sat in a queue of twenty cars, trucks and RV's, waiting to see if a pilot vehicle would turn us up to lead us through the smoke and flames. And again our luck held out, or in this case fortune favoured the bloody-minded. By 8.15am we were happily convoying along, knowing that both because we had pushed on till 8pm the night before to reach the blockade point to see if we could get through and because we'd been forced to get up early to queue, the forest fire had actually gained us time. Although we saw flames, and huge swathes of blackened pine trees, the visible damage was not that devastating. For large parts of the 60 mile trip, we were completely engulfed in smoke, but the flames had moved so quickly through, that the forest had not been reduced to barren, ash covered wasteland. What was truly impressive though, was the scale. 22000 hectares had been burnt through and the authorities, some 60 firefighters supported by diggers and helicopters, were utterly powerless to stop it. Thankfully the fire is really only a threat to humans, or more accurately their homes, and any such destruction had been avoided. The forest fires (this one caused by a lightning strike) naturally clear space for new grass shoots to sprout through, providing a happy banquet for the wondering moose, dear and caribou, and most of the animals inhabiting the effected area would have long since scarpered towards slightly more fur friendly surroundings.

And speaking of our furry little friends, Highway 37 had provided us with no less than 7 bear sightings. Who in retrospect were probably taking the quickest route away from the fire. We don't normally pick up hitchhikers, and this was certainly going to be no exception.

Since our fiery escapades we have driven continuously through the Yukon and into Alaska, to the central city of Fairbanks. We're pretty tired, but we're oh so very close. Prudhoe Bay is 500 miles north. We set off tomorrow morning. The road may be a little bumpy, and the final part is not even open to private vehicles, but we can almost taste the sea air.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Canadia - It's not even a real country anyway

That's country number 15 people. I know, I know. You're not angry, you're just impressed.

There is something kind of familiar about this beautiful country, and it's not just the fact that we're in "British" Columbia, or that it's raining, or that "our Queen's on your money" as one of my favourite anti-Australian rugby chants goes. (The other being, quite fairly I think, "Get your **** stars off our flag"). It's just that it really does feel like home. They have beer that is drinkable, they have pubs, as in real pubs, not just diners with a pub sign hanging outside. And in Vancouver, some of the streets actually set off at jaunty angles, some even curve. As easy as the grid system is to navigate, it is pretty sterile and you can't really lose yourself in aimless meandering.

All the American cars we've passed have state number plates, and each one proudly displays that state's nickname. Nevada is the Silver State, Oregon is the Beaver state (chortle, chortle), Texas is the Sorry about Bush State, and so on. British Colombia, on the other hand, is just Beautiful British Colombia. And it really is. But it's not just the countryside, the place just feels happy. I absolute love the American's enthusiastic attitude, and Canadians have something similar, but just a little more understated. Or basically, just a little bit more British.

The Canadian border crossing had been the easiest yet as a short car queue turned into a 2 minute conversation with a single border official, a quick flurry of passports and car docs, and away we went. I do always get a slight pang every time they ask "Do you have any guns or weapons". "No" we say, but sitting neatly on top of our camping equipment box is our "camping knife". You could also describe our "camping knife" as Phil's 2ft machete that his sister brought / smuggled back from her travels. It really only qualifies as a camping knife if you are attempting to cook a bear, that is still alive, and trying to eat you. Still we were on our way and, after a short interlude in Vancouver to allow Phil to ruin his brother's wedding with his best man speech and general attendance, would be pushing on to the official end of the Pan-American Highway, Prudhoe Bay on the north coast of Alaska.

Vancouver is internationally recognised as one of the best cities in the world to live, and it definitely is a beautiful city with an incredibly friendly atmosphere. It's difficult to not get into a conversation with a friendly stranger on the bus and even harder to stop all the other passengers from chipping in. Does everybody know each other here or are they just genuinely that friendly? The latter it would seem. Friendliness is a national stereotype but it does seem to fit. I'm not sure if it's true of all Canada, but Vancouver does unfortunately have the Yin to its Yang in the form of the Eastern Downtown sector. Tom's Vancouver based friend had emailed to say it was a real horror show of lives wasted by drugs and prostitution and that we should really avoid it. Cool, let's go take a look was our less than surprising response. However the reality is a long way from cool. Whereas the laid back attitude to drugs and the homeless hippie attitude of San Francisco, Portland and even Camden in London creates a degenerate but trendy, free-living vibe, this place was where societies outcasts eeked out whatever miserable living their mentally disturbed and drug addled brains could allow. And very few looked like they had more than weeks to go although I'm sure their purgatory will persist for months and years to come. They're almost definitely beyond help, but they're certainly not beyond care, and as limited as our exposure is you cannot help but wonder what the city is doing about it.

One hundred and thirty kilometers north of Vancouver, presumably we're using kilometers because of le french influence, sits the world famous Whistler Ski Resort. Unfortunately, for me at least, the winter season has long since passed, but for our lover of all things mountain bikey, Tom was in his element. Actually in all honesty I had an absolutely brilliant time watching Tom disappearing into the distance ahead of me while careering down Moab's mountains, and it was only cost-saving that stopped me indulging myself again. Anyway we headed up to Whistler last weekend with Steffi, a backpacking German from Munster, to check out the start of the Crankworks festival, for those in the know which I am definitely not, this is the number 1 downhill bike festival of the year, with a week of various race disciplines, stunts and aerials, and general mountain bike mayhem. Actually, I'll let Tom fill in the rest of the details as there's only so much alliteration around the word mountain I can use.

Our hostel in Whistler was a potentially inconvenient 8km from the main village. However on the three occasions I tried to hitch a lift I was picked up by the first car to come past every time, now that's friendly! Subsequently we rarely needed the car but on our first drive back from the village we very nearly ran over a large, dark brown creature emerging from the few trees that lined the central reservation. The creature was incredibly bearlike, perhaps because it was bear. Quick, grab the cooking knife we cried. Luckily the bear, after a ponderous glance towards it's impending Barry shaped death, scuttled across the road and away into the forest. As you can imagine, we were stunned. This was not the wilderness, this was about 100 meters from the biggest bike festival on earth, at the mountain bike Mecca of Whistler, absolutely inundated with tourists. One of which was probably about to get eaten. Either these animals are a lot less threatening than they keep telling us, or I'm going to go phone Jimmy.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Hoagies, Taxidermists and Tubing

There really cannot be anything more pleasant, than a day in the sunshine, wandering from vineyard to vineyard, quaffing wine and munching cheese.

We had arrived in the vineyard hot spot of Napa Valley, California, the night before, and, finding the campsite devoid of any staff, taken it upon ourselves to allocate our own camping spot. The next morning we were awoken to a very loud "Gee honey, come take a look at this here motor veheeecle. They've gone got themselves a tent right there on this here roof. Gosh darn it I sure do like Nascar" Or something to that effect. Our friendly camp attendant, who by the way was an unpaid volunteer who lived on the campsite and drove a golf buggy, informed us that we could stay but we would have to change spots. More importantly he also told us that we were in walking distance of 3 or 4 vineyards, some of which offered free wine tasting. Lovely. Before we could embark on our senseless boozeathon masquerading as a highbrow wine tasting exercise however, we needed to drive the nearby town to pick up our own body weight in cheese. Which, unfortunately, is evidently not the cheapest wine accompaniment on the menu and wine and cheese day was threatening to become ludicrously expensive. It was then that we noticed one of the other great American culinary delights, the hoagie. To quote Wikepedia... "A submarine sandwich, also known as a sub, grinder, hero, hoagie, Italian sandwich, po' boy, wedge, zep, torpedo, bocadillo or roll, is a sandwich that consists of an oblong roll, often of Italian, Spanish or French bread, split lengthwise either into two pieces or opened in a "V" on one side, and filled with various meats, cheeses, vegetables, seasonings, and sauces." We've all seen them on TV, and I'm pretty sure Homer Simpson's goal in life was to eat the world's largest one. The hoagie is, in essence, a very big sandwich. They were on offer for $5. We bought one, and it fed all 3 of us. If you've ever seen Tom and Phil eat, you'll understand how big it needed to be. Anyway both to save money and to americanise the event, Wine and Cheese day had become Wine and Hoagie day.

The wine part of the equation was also a little more expensive than we had hoped, by virtue of the fact that the wine tasting was not actually free. On the other hand it was really good, and also very interesting to have each bottle thoroughly explained to you, even if some of the language was a little flowery to say the least. The final vineyard we went to was the Castello de Amorosa (The castle of love) and it was pretty spectacular. The Italian owners had gone to great lengths to reconstruct it using traditional materials and building practices and it was, in every respect, a castle. Surrounded by a vineyard. Which is a welcome addition. Again our wine tasting wasn't free but the old Italian padrone serving us seemed happy to keep filling glasses, despite the fact that we had only paid to taste 5 different wines. And with cheeks already glowing from the previous samplings, we were happy to indulge his forgetfulness. Free wine is not to be sniffed at, even if we are clearly taking advantage of an old man's lack of faculties. The only problem was the old man was a little wilier than we had thought, and he was also on commission for every bottle he sold. $200 and 6 bottles later, we stumbled out of the castle with one collective thought. Well played sir.

We rose from our heavy slumber the next day and headed north to Oregon, the penultimate state before Canada. Since leaving Napa Valley and returning to the coast, the weather had turned decidedly misty. And it never looked back. The coastline became increasingly rocky and rugged, or Cornish according to Phil "Brody" Bazlinton, and we started to wonder whether England's reputation as a rainy island could possibly be justified by anyone living north of San Francisco.

The nights camping since Napa were curious to say the least. At one RV park we were greeted by Jimmy, aka James Randolph the III. The "What can I do you for" quickly followed by a suspicious "Hang on now, where are you guys from?" and then a resolute "Engerland, hell." followed by a slamming door. Tom and I looked at each other, is this lunatic coming back? Do we want him to? Do you think he has a gun? Yes, he did have a gun. Probably many guns. Luckily the door-slamming was just a bit of thigh-slappingly good humour, and he welcomed us in to his office which was little more than a quadrupeds graveyard. It was here that we learnt his full name, which was on the taxidermist certificate on the wall, displayed prominently between the heads of all the animals he had taxidermied, having previously shot them, with one of his many guns. "It's a shame you turned up when you did" he said, then turning to his wife / sister "we was just about to get nekkid". We laughed uncomfortably and eyed the wall for any sign of human remains. To be fair they were perfectly good hosts, and that neither of us ended up hanging from the office wall was definitely a bonus. The next morning Jimmy the III did notice Tom and I reading while we waited for Phil to return from the shower. "Well now look here, educated folk, reading and everything". I think there is a lesson here for every parent. If you don't give you're children books to read, they will go out and shoot things. And then stuff them.

After a second nights RV park camping on a plot of land that made the average inner city Londoner's backyard look like Wembley, we had an excellent stroke of luck on our third night since Napa. Tom had spied what he thought was a nice looking diner in the familiarly sounding Dundee and while investigating we met Wolfgang, who had been picking up the restaurant's food waste for his pigs. Wolfgang kindly offered to let us camp on his farm and also also informed us that the restaurant, Tina's, was locally owned and one of the best in Oregon. And we were not disappointed. Wild boar ribs all round coupled with Oregon's other speciality, micro-brewery beer.

Wolfgang and his American wife Susan had spent the last few years rebuilding and extending her parents former home, on a lovely plot of sloping land with a wonderful view of the valley below and adjacent vineyard. They shared the spot with a sheep, their chickens, several pigs, up to 3 cats, probably the most energetic dog in the canine kingdom, three young girls and a recently sheared llama, mostly hiding from embarrassed nakedness. Wolfgang offered us a choice between camping or utilising their spare guest house. Please press the red button on your remote to vote. {Short musical interlude while the votes are counted} Envelope torn open. And the winner is...... "The guest house please".

I'm going to have to retell one of Susan's stories about the girls because it really did make us laugh. We'd already been impressed about how the girls had reacted to their new rural way of life, accepting that the little piggies would grow up to be sausages and bacon and even collecting hen eggs and marketing and selling them to their neighbours (presumably while parents counted the profits and made retirements plans). However in addition to the many live farm animals, there was also a fairly gruesome, mummified cat, sitting to attention on a wall outside the house. Apparently it had been there before they moved in (although they claimed they had never heard of Jimmy the III). For the unsqueamish girls this was just another part of their new farm life but one of their more delicate female friends was terrified. Luckily Susan was able to coax the precious girl back to the house by showing her the cute little piggies in the backyard. The plan unfortunately backfired when the girl turned up one day to discover that all the piggies had been sent off to the big chopping house in the sky. When her mother finally arrived to whisk her away she burst into floods of tears and begged not to be returned to "the house of horrors". At which point the middle of the three sisters piped in, "Well if you don't like that you really wouldn't like what we have hanging in our basement" Mwah hah hah haah!

The major city in Oregon is Portland, the city of roses. We had a few fairly restful nights there and then headed up to Seattle in Washington state, where we deposited Tom for the weekend so he could catch up with a friend and yet another uncle. Phil and I headed east to the predictably named east Washington, which was a good kilometer higher than the coast and subsequently sunny again. And it was just in the nick of time really as ever since leaving Napa we had been threatened with an acute onset of hyperchondriacal hypothermia. The reason for our jaunt eastwards was to go "tubing", pronounced toobing, that an American friend of mine had kindly invited us to. Tubing is America's leisure time equivalent to the lunchtime hoagie, ie a frighteningly simple concept done spectacularly well. Take a large number of family and friends, a multitude of inflatable rafts, the "tubes", that range from single seater's to the 12 seater rings you see in public pools, strap them all together to form one giant flotilla, load up with beer, food, water pistols, wine, alcopops for the ladies and some more beer, add a generous helping of fast flowing river and away you go. It's sunbathing, rafting, session drinking, picnicking, pub crawling, friendly family fun. There are hundreds of people on the river, from students in inflated truck tire inner tubes to giant flotillas like ours. It's unashamedly awesome, and depending on where you pre-parked your cars at the other end, can last between 2 and eight hours. Phil and I had so much fun on the river that we decided to follow my friend back to his house on the lake near Olympia, a little south of Seattle, picking Tom up enroute, to continue our induction to American watersports. If you like river tubing, then lying flat on a single tube and being dragged round the lake by power boat will be as much fun as it sounds. My single biggest memory was the massive grins of Tom and Phil's (and I'm sure to them my) faces as we struggled not to be sent skipping across the warm lake water. Thanks again Andrew and Tiffany for your wonderful hospitality.

That then, was the final highlight of America before crossing into the last country on our list, although of course we are planning to cross back into America, then back into Canada, then America, then Canada, then America again. Maybe we should take another look at that map.