After a wet and windy weekend in Norfolk, including a cold day at the Newmarket races, we set off back down to Heathrow to embark on our farewell tour, this time with my grandparents in the back seat. The trip started in as inauspicious a way as possible with United ineptitude causing a delayed departure coupled with US immigration at Houston deciding to shut up shop due to their systems “being down”. Come on, surely there must be a contingency plan in place for when the fingerprint scanners fail? As a result we missed our connection to New Orleans and had to sit futilely on Standby for the remaining few flights before having a several hour conversation with United. First they refused to even give us a hotel room but in the end they managed to get Monika and my Grandmother on confirmed flights the next morning, with my Grandad and I on Standby again, and we got a complimentary hotel and some meal vouchers. Everyone we spoke to from United was rude, unhelpful and unfriendly in particular the guy at the gate of the final flight to New Orleans who was really a disgrace to the company. He couldn’t care less that my grandparents, both in their 80’s had been waiting in Houston airport for hours. It was not until we met Monica Jones who managed to actually serve us properly that we got anywhere with our situation. In the event we all got on the early flight the next day but our problems didn’t end there. At our hotel in New Orleans, the Holiday Inn French Quarter, they could not check us in as we were a day late. Again we had to wait for a manager to arrive and press about three buttons to make it work. In the meantime we had to watch the receptionist yawning behind his desk. Great.
The French Quarter of New Orleans is both famous and infamous. It is famous for its classic colonial buildings, boutique shops and art galleries and for being the home of Jazz. It is infamous these days for its pub crawls and dodgy bars selling sugary sweet icy drinks that pack enough punch to tranquilise a horse. Unfortunately Bourbon Street, the old centre of all that jazz veers more to the second category these days, the clubs blaring out dubstep during the day. At least in the evening the live music returns, a mix of Bluegrass, Dixie, Zydeco and Jazz. Take a stroll off of Bourbon Street however and the old image of New Orleans returns - quieter bars, cafes and shops take the place of the clubs and tacky souvenirs of Bourbon Street itself.
Of course the other highlight of New Orleans is the Mississippi river, with the age-old Natchez steamer plying the waters daily. Although we did not take a ride we were there to see it pull up and dock. Then there is the food – the mix of Creole and Cajun cuisines in dishes like the Po’boy sandwich, the spicy Shrimp Gumbo, rice n’ beans and tasty Jambalaya (spicy rice with sausage). Of course we tried all of these and more. A great example of the variety of American cuisines.
We left New Orleans and drove back to Houston, the highway passing for miles over swamps and crossing the Mississippi along the way. We passed through the plantation country that Trevor McDonald recently visited and stopped for lunch in the town of Baton Rouge. We were returning to Houston because two old housemates of mine from University live within five minutes of each other in the well-to-do northern suburb of The Woodlands. With my grandparents taking a well earned rest, Ross and Mike took us out for dinner to Rudy’s Bar-B-Q, a really cool little place where you order your meat by weight, grab a beer from the big barrels of ice and dig in. We finished off in a bar in the centre of the Woodlands, a modern development that looks like the result of someone dropping a Christmas tree on Canary Wharf. Still, it was Mug Night which means bring your own mug and pay the regular beer price. Being a veteran Ross had carried along three of his best litre stein glasses, as the designated driver Mike sat that one out!
The next day we continued on to Austin, the state capital of Texas. I have always wanted to visit due to its standing as one of the musical centres of America, with Sixth Street being the epicentre. On weekend evenings the street becomes pedestrianised due to the masses of people heading from one bar to the next to catch a glimpse of the next best thing. Unfortunately we were downtown a bit too early to fully appreciate it though. Every year Austin hosts the SXSW festival of music, which attracts acts and fans from all over the world.
Luckily we have some really cool relatives that live in Austin also so we spent a couple of days hanging out with Kelle, Rick, Jared and Zane and their dog Lambeau (they are all massive Green Bay Packers fans!). They took us to Home Slice pizza in Austin which, testament to its quality, has queues out of the door from 5:30pm. The pizzas lived up to the hype and even better we got a 10% discount for playing Truth or Dare. Jared and Zane had to stage a massive fight in the restaurant. They had the rest of the diners in awe.
Close to Austin is the town of San Antonio, a small town with a big history as home of the Alamo. We toured around what is left of the site alongside several groups of schoolkids. These days more people visit San Antonio to walk along the tacky tourist development known as the Riverwalk. It is a dirty, crowded collection of restaurants and bars in the same vain as perhaps the V+A Waterfront in Cape Town or Darling Harbour in Sydney, i.e. the places Monika and I love to hate! Far more impressive to me in San Antonio was the old plaza, with a courthouse on one side, a cathedral on another and a cool little cafe in the middle selling draft beer and icy drinks.
I drove across Texas from Austin to El Paso in one day. It is over 600 miles but the I-10 has an 80mph speed limit for the most part and it was so empty that I could virtually accelerate up to the limit, hit cruise control and sit back and relax. The scenery was surprisingly dull, but there were pockets of interesting hills and canyons. El Paso is in the Mountain Time zone, one hour behind the rest of Texas so we gained an hour during the drive.
Despite its reputation I found El Paso to be quite a nice town with its small Mexican style buildings and shops, people actually walking around instead of driving and no less of a friendly welcome than anywhere else. I did take a drive up along the border though, this side full of patrol cars, over the other side legions of people staring across to the promised land of the American Dream. As my step-sister Debbie had warned me though, the Rio Grande river is very narrow at this point, in some places you could hardly see it for all the barbed wire and concrete!
Driving north from El Paso we left the drab Texan scenery and entered the desert and mountains of New Mexico, the Enchanted State. About half way between El Paso and Albuquerque we stopped in the town of Truth or Consequence, a place I have always wanted to visit since seeing it on a map years ago. Apparently it got its quirky name from a popular local radio show. The town lives up to its weird name with a collection of funky artistic galleries and some cool little cafes, a great place to break a journey. The whole area is pretty weird to be honest – just to the east is the alien home of Roswell and Area 51 and further south is the site of Richard Branson’s spaceport, close to the White Sands military base and its airplane graveyard. Nature also showed its peculiar side to us with a freaky snow storm just 20 miles before we hit Albuquerque. All the cars ground to a halt and inched forward through the 6 inches of snow. It took us about half an hour to get out the other side of the storm where we were met once again by clear blue skies and blistering sunshine. Albuquerque had seen none of it.
We were heading to Albuquerque to visit my Grandmothers sister, Brenda, and her husband Tony. Tony was born in Albuquerque and the pair of them have lived there for years. It was great to see them again and Brenda told us many stories of what it was like to move from Norwich over to the U.S back in the 50’s. There were many groups of British women who made new lives for themselves over here following the Second World War.
Just a one hour drive around the Sandia mountain from Albuquerque is the state capital of Santa Fe. I remember visiting Santa Fe as a small kid and being totally blown away by the American Indian architecture and the Indians selling jewellery by the square. They are all still there today. My memories of my earlier visit also included a giant totem pole, but I couldn’t find that this time though so instead we visited a church with a ‘magic staircase’ that has become a tourist trap. We also stopped at the ‘First House in America’ and the first church, both in Santa Fe.
Albuquerque itself is a nice enough town nestled between the Sandia peaks and the Rio Grande river. The downtown area is not quite as ‘authentic’ as up in Santa Fe but is still worth a wander around. Feeling thirsty my Grandad and I ducked into a restaurant for a beer, only to be told that ‘we don’t serve liquor without food around here’, leaving us to edge out with our tails between our legs!
We bade goodbye to my Grandparents and Brenda and Tony and continued west. Heading for the Grand Canyon we stopped off for a taster at the Petrified Forest, just inside Arizona. Whilst impressive, of course it was nothing compared to the sight we were about to see in the afternoon. All I have as a reference point is Fish River Canyon in Namibia but the Grand Canyon is much more impressive simply due to the viewpoints offering far more of a panoramic view. We drove along the South Rim stopping at the various points to gain a different perspective on the whole spectacle. Along the way we were also amazed by the sheer size of the car parks at each stop, sometimes it took as long to walk across the car park as it took to walk along the viewing area on the rim!
First impressions of the U.S on this trip? Well apart from the strange attitude to customer service where you are constantly being asked if you are OK but that any problems you do have are not able to be solved the rest of the impressions are pretty positive. Everyone we have met has been unfailingly polite and welcoming, the drivers are relatively courteous (so far) and I am sure there is enough variety in the food to keep us interested for the duration of our trip. Regarding driving however I must say that the standard of road-signs and traffic signals is pretty poor, often there is no sign until right on top of the junction and some of the rules in certain places seem to be totally illogical, e.g. a sign indicating a ‘Scenic Turn-out’ on the other side of the road across double yellow lines.
We slept somewhere about half way between the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas and the next morning we made a stop at the very impressive Hoover Dam along the way. You would probably recognise the Hoover Dam from various films involving people like Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford jumping off it to evade the FBI who are chasing him for a crime he didn’t commit or something. It is also bang on the state line between Arizona and Nevada which meant by crossing it we gained ourselves another extra hour. We continued on to the madness of Las Vegas, driving the length of the Strip to the hostel Monika was staying at and I returned to the airport to meet Gregg, James, Anthony, Ed and Andrew who had flown out for Greggs stag do, known locally as a bachelor party. I did manage to take a night off to join Monika for a traditional Las Vegas dinner buffet. As for the rest, being a stag do most of it is best left unmentioned but needless to say the next four days involved baseball, burgers and beer, steaks and cocktails, guns and gambling, hot dogs and hot tubs. And a massive monster of a motorbike.