USA Part 6: You say Vacation, I say Holiday (Chicago, New England & New York 12/08/17-28/08/17)

After a month on the road with Lea it was time for a little holiday. Our dad & brother would be visiting our aunt in New England and we wanted to get involved on a little US ‘vacation’. I left my bike in St Louis but we boxed up Lea’s and hopped onto the morning bus.

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Chicago centre

Travel in this country is not cheap at all. The only affordable way we could get from St Louis to Boston was to catch a Greyhound bus up to Chicago and then fly to the East Coast. That way we could get the journey down to about $80.
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The drive up to Chicago was one of the most boring bus rides of my life. I thought the ride from Brisbane 200 miles west to where I lived in rural Australia was dull but at least there we’d had to cross the Great Dividing Range before the empty miles across the plains. Here it was pancake flat fields for ever. It looked just like what we’d cycled across in Kansas. I made a mental note not to cycle north from St Louis when I returned to my bike…

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Lea outside the Chicago Board of Trade building

We had a couple of hours to kill in Chicago before our flight. What a cool city! I was very impressed as we strolled through the downtown.
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I’ve seen pictures of Chicago’s skyline but never of the waterfront. Despite how ginormous those Great Lakes look on the map I’d still convinced myself that the water would be a big pond with Canada in sight at the other end. It looked like the ocean!
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That evening we flew to Boston and had a luxurious (not) sleep in the airport. We managed to see a little of the town as we dropped off Lea’s bike at Cambridge Used Bicycles (thanks to those guys for looking after it). Boston had charm but it was no where near as exciting as Chicago.

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Our camp in the airport
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Boston centre

We met up with our Dad, Chris and our 14 year old brother Yannik. Yannik was about my shoulder height when I left home in January 2015. Now he is a good inch taller than me and takes great pleasure in calling me ‘midget’ whilst leaning his elbow on my shoulder. I’ll take it as a sign of affection…

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From left to right: my dad Chris, brother Yannik, aunt Jenny, cousin Eleanor and sister Lea

We drove north along the coast to see my Aunt. New England is just one big forest. No one is farming, it seems, they just fish all day long or go logging. I don’t think they eat anything other than lobster, either. Everywhere we went along the coast was selling lobster and lobster only. It must be the good life up here!
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We stayed for a couple of days with Jenny and her Eleanor at the cute little cottage they rent in Southport, Maine. The rest of my family disagreed with me, but I reckon it looks just like the coast in Devon where my Dad and his sisters grew up. The bays were full of sailing boats and houses peeped out through the trees with view across the water. It certainly looked more like England that anywhere else I’ve seen in this country!

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Camping outside my aunt’s cottage in Southport

We went out sailing on a sunny afternoon in my Jenny’s boat Elaine. The temperature was glorious – far cooler than the Mid-West and a fresh breeze came in from the ocean. I love sailing. It’s a pity I’m so awful at it. I enjoy the wind in my hair and the flapping of those sails but I haven’t got a clue what is going on or what anyone is shouting at me. If I still haven’t worked out which side is starboard by now I figure it is too late for my sailing career to kick off in grand fashion.
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“OK, time to tack!” my Aunt shouted.

“Time to what?

“Quick, pull the jib in!” said my 9 year old cousin, who is already a sailing wizard herself.

“Pull the what in?” I asked and she gave me a look of despair, lent over and pulled the rope herself.
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We continued our drive north and headed to Acadia National Park where we stayed in a huge campsite surrounded by monster RV camper-vans. I’ve finally understood the RV obsession in this country. You see, Americans simply love being in their cars. This is the nation where people have drive-throughs so that they can eat in their car. These are the people that invented drive-through cinemas so they could watch movies in their cars. These are the guys who drive to the shop two blocks away because that is too far to walk. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why they love RVs. They can go on road trip holiday and never leave the car!
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To be fair, I know that many people who own RVs don’t actually own a house anymore. They’re like the ‘grey nomads’ in Australia who just drive around the country in endless circles until they kick the bucket. And what better a place to live like that than in North America? I have already seen such different landscapes in this country and Acadia looked nothing like anywhere else I’ve been in the US…
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I haven’t seen such miserable weather in the US either. Grey clouds came in just as we reached the National Park and didn’t leave until we did. Being hardy Brits, we still got our stomp on in the rain but it was a struggle to enjoy the peninsula while the views were non-existent.

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The fashion icon that is my father…

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It rained and rained. We all know how shit camping is in the rain and now we were suddenly all very jealous of the RVs around us. We had nowhere to hide from the rain. Despite the fact that he’s English, my dad felt the first five drops of water in the evening and declared the holiday ruined while we struggled to light a fire.

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Ascending the ‘ladders trail’ into the clouds…

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We were wonderfully ill-prepared for the weather. My aunt had kindly lent us a tent but unfortunately it was about as waterproof as a sponge. I told my brother to grab the last towel and re-enforce the side of the tent. The plonker put it outside the tent and by the time I’d realised what he’d done it was also soaked through.
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We dropped Lea off in Bangor on the way out of Acadia. She needed to get the bus back to Boston, pick up her bike and fly back to the UK because she was going to Croatia in a few days. (It’s an alright life for some). The three of us continued to the small town Bingham, where we discovered that my Dad had driven us 2 hours in completely wrong direction. We were actually supposed to be in Baxtar State Park, two hours north.
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We eventually got to the right place and the following morning went white-water rafting down the Penobscot river. It could not have been more different than where I went down the rapids in the Colorado River in Utah. It was beautiful here. Dense forest lined the river and Mt Katahdin’s peak at 5,300 ft loomed in the distance.
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It was all going great until we reached the appropriately named grade-5 rapids ‘The Exterminator’ towards the end of the day. It all happened very quickly. One minute we were paddling hard into the rapids and the next we hit a huge drop into what looked like whirlpool of un-beatable waves. When my head was back out of the water I saw that Yannik had been thrown overboard by the impact and was now bobbing about in the biggest of the rapids. People were yelling and managed to catch hold of him and drag him back on the raft. We came into calmer water and I said “you alright Dad?” I heard a whimper of a “no” from behind me and turned around to see his face covered in blood. Uh oh.

We had to navigate a few more rapids before I could turn around again and get a proper look. My dad insists that the handle of my paddle smacked him in the face but I reckon he just hit himself in The Exterminator’s impact. His nose had split open at the bridge but it wasn’t too bad. A bloke from Massachusetts sitting two seats behind my dad had come out looking far worse. He’d bashed his head against the women in front’s helmets and had a long gash under his eye. Now I know why we signed our lives away on a piece of paper before we got on board in the morning…

(Fast forward to 14 mins of this video to see The Exterminator in full power.)

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Picnic stop on the drive back to NH

All alive and – just about – in one piece we drove back to New Hampshire. It was a long day in the car and we were all tired when we reached Jenny’s house. I think my Dad was especially exhausted, having spent the entire day shouting at the Americans for driving too slow and complaining about having to drive an automatic. When we reached the New Hampshire coast he drove straight past his sister’s house.

“Dad, you just drove past Jenny’s house”

“Oh, damn!” He turned around but forgot that he was supposed to be driving on the right in the US…

“Erm, you’re supposed to be on that side” I said, pointing at the right side of the road.

“Yes, I know!” he grunted back, thinking I was pointing to the house again.

“No – you’re driving on the left!”

“Crap!” and he swerved back onto the correct side of the road before we drove headfirst into the oncoming car.

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The crowded ferry to Ellis Island

Chicago is a more manageable place than NYC. I think I’d rather live there if I had to choose between the two cities but I’m not sure it would be so seductive in the heart of winter…

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Interior of the Chicago Cultural Centre

We wrapped up our holiday together in New York. Dad had booked an Air B&B place in Harlem. Last I’d heard Harlem was ‘the hood’ but apparently not anymore. I liked the area. It was still rough around the edges, conveniently just north of Central Park, mostly black and very lively.
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We spent 3 days squeezing in as many of the tourists sights as we possibly could. I’d forgotten how tiring holidays can be. I was exhausted by the time I left the Big Apple…
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New York was a lot of fun. I felt like I’d stumbled into a movie set and everything looked familiar despite the fact that I’ve never been there before. I guess that’s how many people feel when they visit London.
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We first touched down in Times Square, which was one of the most awful places on the planet. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many people bustling about. The crowds were ridiculous.
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There were too many people in that city. There were too many cars too and they all drove like lunatics. I’m not sure if there are any rules for traffic in NYC and I’m not sure I’ve seen such crazy driving since I was in Asia. They also had traffic police directing the vehicles at big junctions, which I also haven’t seen people needing since I was in Asia.

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Grand Central Terminal
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Me and Yannik on the Empire State Building

I love and hate big cities. NYC was busy and hectic but I loved being back somewhere so multi-cultural. Everyone lives on top of each other – and when they manage it in harmony – that’s a very beautiful thing.

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One of the two 9/11 memorials

There was a protest going and a bunch of women marching about with their boobs out. They wanted it to be legal for women to be topless in public because currently only men have that privilege. Seems like an entirely reasonable request to me. Funny to think that a couple of years ago I was in Iran where women weren’t even allowed to show their forearms in public!

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I said goodbye to Dad and Yannik and flew back to Chicago (once again this was the cheapest way back to St Louis). I arrived around midday and Couchsurfed with Phil while I was in town. Phil had actually hosted my Dutch pal Arne, who had put me up for a couple of nights back Holland in January 2015  – just a week into this trip! It’s a small world.
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I really liked the Windy City and I was glad to be able to spend a proper afternoon there. I walked around town with Phil and Merfin, a Welsh guy he was also hosting. As we walked through central Chicago Merfin randomly bumped into a guy he’d been at college with in Northern Wales and hadn’t seen for almost a decade! 

It’s not a small world… it’s bloody tiny!

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Chicago’s ‘Cloud Gate’ sculpture

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The most peculiar building in Chicago was the Tribune Tower, which is covered in rocks and bricks from famous places around the world. God knows how they got hold of them all. All these historical ‘souvenirs’ now sit super glued to the building’s exterior wall. There are pieces from the Berlin Wall, the Great Pyramid, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Great Wall of China, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul etc. It’s a pretty hilarious grab at history. I thought it was brilliant. Only in America!
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I was tired of being a foot-bound tourist. It was time to get back on the bike and begin my last push across the final third of this country.

I’ll be back on two wheels for the next blog!

 

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