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.

1 comment:

Greg said...

Hey Tim, just read your last entry - fantastic blogging fella! Congratulations on the successful completion of your expedition. Really enjoyed following the adventure! Glad you're all back safe n sound. You're a gifted writer, can't wait to read your first book! All the best! Greg

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