We left Austin feeling like we had done it right and headed west. West Texas is a whole lot of… well nothing, aside from one nice little town we just carried on highway 10 until we were out of it. At which point we reached El Paso Texas. El Paso is an interesting city because it literally sits on the border with Mexico. It must be very strange to look across a river each day and see a completely different country. I know people do it in Europe but this is a closed border. Apparently it used to be quite casual crossing the border and then 15 years ago or so everything changed and all these people who used to go back and forth for work or family were suddenly cut off and either had to wait in massive lines each day to cross or had to find new work on their own side, I imagine most of the collateral damage was in Mexico. We didn’t linger in El Paso, to be honest while lovely enough it’s not a particularly safe or culturally rich city. We hit Planet Fitness for our workout and shower and headed north on a fruitless search for a lost Atari landfill.
The Atari landfill is some sort of super nerd legend that Jonathan knew about (I don’t even remember Atari), apparently they made millions of copies of an ET game to go with the release of the movie and it was one of the biggest gaming fails in history and essentially brought about the collapse and end of Atari. They threw all of these unsold games into a landfill in central New Mexico. Why? How? Where? No idea, nor did we ever find out. Even though there was a massive hoopla about it in their teeny tiny desert town less than one year ago no one seemed to be able to point us in the right direction of the landfill, we eventually had to give up. We also managed to stop at White Sands National Monument which is very random and very alien area in the center of the desert where white sands from a millennia ago is piled up in dunes for miles, Gogi particularly enjoyed himself here. To continue our “Tour of the Strange” we detoured up to The Very Large Array, yes that is the real name. The Very Large Array is a group of 27 or 32… I can’t remember the exact number, satellites that were built in the late 70s that can be transformed and rearranged to create one very large satellite, the largest in the world in fact. It was cooler than it sounds I promise. You might know it from the film Contact or a Bon Jovi video perhaps? Great photos, if my camera hadn’t died, merde.
We cut through Albuquerque to catch Walter White’s house and another shower at Planet Fitness (a great deal at 20 dollars a months get both of us access to any Planet Fitness in the nation), then disappointed with the lack of charm we left to get to Flagstaff to meet my sister and go the Grand Canyon.
I guess the most important thing we got to this week was the fact that we went a whole week without plugging in or paying for any campground, sure we slept in 2 car parks but the rest were legitimate free sites. We parked in beautiful places for free and twice we even had a grill provided. We managed to dump our tanks after a week and while they were full they weren’t overflowing and we had enough water. Planet Fitness is a big help because showering costs us a lot of water and fills our grey tank quickly. But at least we know it can be done without problems (though not at 8,000 feet as our generator wouldn’t catch, but that was the only time we tried to use it). We’ll get solar panels eventually but at least we know it’s not urgent. We’ve once again had a slight change of plans, the Southwest is far larger than a girl from Ohio and a guy from England could imagine, distances are massive and we’re going too fast to try to keep up so we’ve pushed back our dates in New Orleans to give us a bit more time before we have to be there, so we’ve added on Vegas (where I write this) and a bit of Colorado, lucky us.
This is going to be a bit of a selfish blog, as to be honest, we’ve both acted like normal people in the last couple of weeks, by both having very separate (& full) days.
So, I have always wanted to go to the SxSW festival in Austin (a mixture of Interactive, film, music, gaming, and anything else they can fit into that genre), which has its claim to fame as being where Twitter was first launched onto the world. Since those heady 2007 days, much has changed, and it is now a pretty massive event with the likes of Snoop Dog as a ‘keynote’ speaker. As the platinum passes are some $3,000, it worked out that if I volunteered for a certain amount, I could get one for free – count me in. Ticks lots of things off, i) gets me access to everything, ii) allows me to hang around with some interesting & different people & listen to interesting stuff, and iii) gets me out of bed in a morning.
I did a few days at the EDU (education. Yawn) part, and then a few days at the interactive element. Unfortunately, the room I was ‘monitoring’ (scanning people’s passes basically) wasn’t particularly busy, and wasn’t particularly interesting in terms of talks, so that was a bit of a bust – and naturally with a bunch of student volunteers, being managed by yet more student volunteers, it wasn’t the most efficiently run of places either. But, still managed to see some good stuff, and a lot of great documentaries & music once my shifts had finished. And, managed to bump into a few friends/colleagues from the UK and Australia. As an added bonus, a Hairventures theme (back to the heady 2011 days of the Mongol Rally) was ‘home’ by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and we managed to get front stage passes to see them – so, all in all a great couple of weeks!
After a day of tidying up, packing things away, and generally getting Milton ready for boondocking days, it’s time to hit the road again. We’re planning to be in New Orleans for the jazz festival at the beginning of May, so we have a month or so, to head a little West and back. Arizona and the like. Time to get that Atlas out, and that Shell fuel card….
We pulled into Austin two weeks ago now and decided that reading about us being stationary is probably not as exciting as reading about us doing things so we’ll break these up into two two week blogs. These two weeks have been spent with me actually working (wahoo, some money coming IN rather than going OUT) and Jonathan working on Milton. Milton looks great, we’ve added wooden floors, new curtains & blinds, as well as finally covering up some of that particularly heinous RV fabric (why oh why do they all look the same?!). He’s very much a home now, he hasn’t moved very much in the last two week, and there has been one hell of a learning curve on being stationary - but he doesn’t feel too overcrowded and he looks nice. It’s taken a long time to get figure out how to connect to city water and how to get the sewer so we don’t spill any on us, but we’re there now. We’ve settled in nicely and everything is great other than the fact that Gogi is TERRIFIED of the stove and panics any time we cook. It’s…. obnoxious to say the least.
Austin is great. We’re a bit further outside of the city than we’d like but the city itself is very cool. Lots of food trucks, unique eats and “alternative culture”. It’s exactly what we were looking for. I was thinking yesterday about the difference of our lives in each of the three cities we’ve lived together in, and how the character of a city (and our income) affects our outings. Shanghai, oh Shanghai how I miss your hedonism and your pink monopoly money. Shanghai, was eat, drink, dance, pass out, order food delivered to your door… and repeat (throw in a bit of work every now and then, but nothing serious enough to worry about). We did spend our time taking long bike rides to curiosities we’d read about, but it was mostly the partying. London was museums, art, culture and trying to soak in as much as I could as fast as I could. I’d say we did a pretty good job in our time there. We were busy most nights of the week, and I wouldn’t say there was anything major we missed. Austin is about music and quirk. We’ve gone the last two Thursdays to see these old guys play Irish drinking music in a dive bar. I cannot say this enough, I LOVE them, seriously it’s fun and light hearted and they’re really, really good. South by Southwest (SxSW/South by) starts next week so the music (with a bit of free drink and food) will only continue. I like it here a lot but the weather has been rubbish, and to be honest I’ve been working quite a lot so perhaps we’re missing some big bits?
Work. I am not like Jonathan, I simply cannot fathom the idea of not working for three years, I would go INSANE. I was going a bit insane before we got here, I love working, perhaps it’s because I love what I do and I’ve been lucky enough to get a place at Easy Tiger on 6th (the heart of SxSW), the bakery is amazing. They provide the bread for most of the city’s quality cafes and restaurants. The quality and the care that goes into it is fantastic and I’m learning loads. I like going to work each day and I always leave feeling like I’ve learned something, and I’ve done some good work. It’s been really informative to see how a high volume bakery works, it operates 24 hours a day and the labour is split up perfectly so they never need more than 5 people at a time. I was just lucky enough to get in because they needed extra hands for SxSW when, not only their business will more than double, but so will all the people they wholesale for. The next two weeks are going to be insane at work; I’m very much looking forward to it!
We’ve been looking at our ever changing map and plan for the next year, and we’ve decided to head to New Orleans for a month, rather than head further along the east coast first. It just makes more sense, and I’ve already found a place to work, so we’ll have three weeks after we leave here to see a bit more of Texas and perhaps the Southwest before charging up the East Coast.
This week started off with a bit of a blinder.
One of the key stops on the ‘Blue’s trail’ through Mississippi was the little town of Clarksdale. According to Morgan Freeman’s club there, it was ‘ground zero’ for Blues – where it all started. Whilst the ground zero club had some good live music, Reds’ across the road was what we were hoping for: an 80 year old dude, sat on a stool with his guitar, strumming out some blues in this old Juke joint (pronounced Juk – and interestingly where Juke box first got its name from). It really was what I was hoping for, and hopefully we’ll find more little places like this on our travels.
The next day we headed off to Vicksburg, a major American civil war region (pretty much the death knell for the Confederate Army, after being besieged for months by the Union forces). The town itself is very much a tourist town, and I think Civil War lethargy over the last couple of weeks, meant we perhaps didn’t give it the time it deserved. But, I’d like to go back if possible.
With a bit of discussion, we thought we should definitely go for Mardis Gras, as it was a couple of days away, and we were too close not to give it a whirl (the sky high prices, and booked up RV parks had previously put us off). Meg found a truck stop not too far from the French Quarter, and so we headed off, via a quick stop at Natchez – apparently the wealthiest town (per head) at the start of the civil war than any other part of the US (the houses still standing, that we saw, definitely proved that).
Mardis Gras was great. The main floats bit was a little bit disappointing (think trucks dressed up in tissue paper, with people in masks chucking beads into the crowds), but the French Quarter parades & milling about were great. Essentially every artsy resident of New Orleans, dressed in whatever random clothes they could find in their cupboard, drinking, dancing and generally having a good time. There were block parties on every street corner, and just a jovial atmosphere all around. Add the amazing looking architecture of the French Quarter, the cool neighbourhood bars, and it was a mix that I can’t wait to go back to (which I think Meg agrees).
We’ve now made it to Austin (via Breaux Bridge swap/bayou stuff) and are happily camped at our first ‘base’. The luxurious Royal Palms, “Manufactured Home & RV Community” whereby we have a little strip of grass, a slab of concrete, cable, electricity, laundry and a huge list of do’s & don’ts. But, the good news is that Meg has got some work lined up at a bakery in town, and I have volunteered my services for the SxSW festival which rolls into town in a few weeks. In the interim, there is 101 little jobs that I need to be getting on with in Milton, as well as trying to get back into doing some exercise – with both of our brand new second hand bikes ready to be utilised, and a depleted bank balance, this has helped force the fitness/diet issue (we have perhaps been living a little too much like our mascot Milly the Sloth over the last couple of weeks)
After a last minute scramble, as usual, we hit the road. It was weird and exciting knowing a random mention in July of this year is actually being executed. We were heading for Nashville but planned to stop in Lexington to see Colonel Sanders grave because why not? We’re going to try to take a random pit stop each day in an effort to slow down something we’re not used to. Not having an end date, a meeting point, a finish line, or really much of a fixed agenda is new and should be an interesting change for us. We’ve always been more of a seen it, check, move on sort of duo so Milly the sloth hangs from the cupboard to remind us to slow our roll.
We went ahead and boondocked in a Wal-Mart park lot as we arrived to Nashville quite late. Boondocking is a new word in our vocabulary, we’ve got a lot of new words being added to our vocabulary, grey/black water tank, full hook ups, plug ins, there’s a lot to learn, and as usual we’re just going to learn as we go. The fact that the generator didn’t start the first time we started it was a bit worrying, but we persevered and it kicked on eventually. We’re just not really sure how much power we’re drawing, how often we need to use the generator or really anything electric or power related.
Nashville was great, we managed to park up in a truck stop overnight and walk into the city, a little note to self that it never hurts to ask if you can park somewhere, it was free to park, safe and very convenient. New in Nashville seems to be the slogan, everything is new but it’s still a very small city. It’s become a very hip city and that can be seen everywhere, we swung by Jack White’s studio, a coffee shop and distillery in an old car warehouse, a co-op of small huts for local businesses and lots of good bbq. Each plate I have gets better and better.
We left Nashville and took a pitstop in Lynchburg just south of the city to tour the Jack Daniels distillery, I highly recommend it though I had to translate nearly everything for Jonathan, southern accents are apparently very difficult for him to understand, I imagine it will only get harder from here. After 3 very cold nights in Milton the relative luxury of a campsite where we could plug in and use the heater all night were a godsend. It is unseasonably cold. It’s always unseasonable cold when we got on holiday. But luckily we’re not up North, which is getting hammered.
We swung down towards Mississippi to have a look at Elvis’ birthplace (hint, it’s a tiny tiny white house) then went back toward Tennessee to hit Memphis. There’s a lot to see in Memphis even if the city itself isn’t much to look at. Blues artist crawled up from Mississippi into Memphis to make a name for themselves and any musician who was anyone in blues, soul or early rock and roll cut their teeth in Memphis. We toured, Stax records and Sun records who had very different approaches to their tour and both of which were very worth our time. We switched gears and went to the National Civil Rights Museum, which the motel where Martin Luther King Jr was shot has been renovated into. Also very much worth a visit, though you’d better carve yourself out a lot of time, the museum is very big. We camped up next to the Mighty Mississippi and realized we’d only been on the road a week, how could that even be possible? The rest of our plans are loose, Mardi Gras is the 17th and we don’t have to be in Austin until the 21st. We have a lot to learn, a lot, we really have very little idea of how anything works in Milton. But we’re settling in.
So, there were a number of reasons for originally wanting to buy our own van and converting ourselves (e.g. like a Mercedes/Dodge Sprinter van):
However, the US threw a few early curveballs. As previously mentioned, firstly, they don’t have a lot of what Europeans would class as a motorhome (said converted Sprinter van) – instead, as RV’ing is a popular past time, and the Americans like to travel around their own country - which has wide roads & lots of space, the campervans are proper RV motorhomes (even the smallest ones, are still longer & wider than European campervans). Secondly, because of the popularity of RV’ing, factories churn them out, so the market is awash with them, and therefore you can actually pick & choose any which kind of model you want. And finally, I naturally have a limit in my abilities, and putting in plumbing & the electrical requirements was something that was way above my station, and something we were not going to risk leaving in my hands. And this final point, is what ‘pushed’ us down buying a 2nd hand RV route (trying not to sound like a wimp who bottled in when push came to shove!) – we spoke to a few RV mechanic/renovation places, and the quotes we were getting back to just put in the electrics & plumbing was exorbitant (in one instance, the quote was c.$30,000 – and that didn’t include the cost of actually buying the van itself)
So, to bring us back to this last week, it was a case of getting Milton (our RV) to a state inside that we were happy with. Meg naturally wanted all pretty, flouncy, patterned stuff and bright colours. I wanted navy blue. Just blue (perhaps with a dash of white to add a bit of contrast). After a lot of backwards & forwards to Home Depot, and TJ Maxx, and Ross, and 101 other cheap interior/knitting/homeware shops we were starting to build a nice pile of ‘stuff’.
Thankfully, this week we were staying with Meg’s brother & family, and so it was a lot easier having a (warm) roof over our heads when it came to painting and decorating, and the pain that is renovating anything (word of warning – paint spray guns = paint gets everywhere. EVERYWHERE).
But, after 5 days, we were at a point where the walls were painted (a slightly more yellow than anticipated) and the cabinets were painted (a slightly less white than anticipated) which meant me could finally hit the road with a large chunk of the aesthetics sorted. Naturally that was a priority over anything mechanical. Mechanical stuff we’ll know won’t work once things fall off, or fail. And that’s what we’re going to have to be ready to accept next…
We had been excited to go back and see the Kodiak RV and good ol’ boy Gene on Saturday, however he called us on Friday and told us he would be out of town until Tuesday. Nothing lost, it meant we could have a more thorough think about what we wanted. After a quick visit to see my friends Stef and Justin we were back in Norfolk still scouring the websites looking for our new home. When a 19 footer for $16,000 in the next town over popped up we were excited. We phoned right away and set a time to see it.
After the viewing we were on opposite wavelengths, I thought it was rubbish and Jonathan was sure it was amazing. In the end we decided we were both happy with Gene’s so we’d go that way if we were still happy after our next viewing.
Now is a good time to mention how disorientating I’m finding it being back home. I’m American, but I feel very out of place here. I don’t know where things are in grocery stores, I can’t come up with the American terms for some things and as Jonathan very astutely pointed out, I know nothing about how the country works. It seems exiling myself to Asia and Europe straight out of college has rendered me useless at basic American adult knowledge.
Gene is a good ol’boy, he calls me ma’am and is afraid of things like paypal, in fact someone called him and offered to transfer more money than he was asking for for the RV without even seeing it and he was put off. So we spent the next few days acquiring 19000 in cash from various banks in the Virginia Beach area, neither an easy or comfortable task. We arrived at Gene’s money in hand (well hidden in pockets) and poked around asking questions again. We made our offer and without even haggling he accepted. It turns out what we offered was what he wanted, no haggling required. We had acquired our new home and dubbed him Milton. He’s a 2001 Kodiak 22 footer with awful fabric choices and an air of old people. But we are hyped.
We drove him home. When we Jonathan mentioned he seemed to be pulling a bit to the right. As we planned to drive 8 hours to Ohio on Saturday we thought it better safe than sorry and took him to get checked out. We booked an appointment, woke up to drive him in and he wouldn’t start. Now we at HairVentures have broken down a lot. We’ve broken down on 5 different countries in fact. But breaking down in a 1,500 dollar Citoroen Saxo is one thing, breaking down in a 15,000 RV is another thing entirely. I was sick to my stomach. We called Gene and he said that happens sometimes (wtf?!), we eventually got him to start with some mega jumper leaders and took him. The garage said they would phone us later in the day after having a look at him. We set off do to some Revolutionary War stuff and waited in hope of a clean bill of health.
The call came but a clean bill of health it was not. To you my friend, I will recommend a 300 dollar before you buy inspection. We were lazy you don’t have to be. These things were not Gene’s fault, and I’m going to believe in the good of a good ol’ boy and say he did not know. The tires, all 6 of them had dry rot, we could gamble and drive on but they should all be replaced. On top of that the discs of the brakes needed replaced oh and our battery was rubbish. It was an expensive fix, but they were kind enough to push us through and get it done in 24 hours. Not an ideal start but a very Hairy start indeed.
It always amazes me how slowly a first week goes when a new adventure begins. It seems like a month since I landed at JFK, yet it really has only been seven days.
So, what has happened to give this sense of time going slowly? America. Basically, everything American.
One forgets living in Europe, the difference between the US & the rest of the world in terms of scale (although Australia is to me a 3/4 sized America). Before Meg & I left for the States, we looked at a number of campervans/holiday homes/etc in the UK. We even paid our £6 and joined all the OAPs at the Caravaning show in Birmingham (the pace of life definitely slowed down that day), but this research, in hindsight, didn't prepare us for the 'size' of everything here in the great United States.
As soon as we landed, we had a couple of RV dealerships to look at on our way from NYC to Virginia. Even though it was a Sunday & MLK jr day, we still managed to walk around some RV companies, and get a sense of what was available, costs, and so forth. But, that's when *gulp* sunk it. These vehicles were nothing like what there was in the UK. Even though the equivalent camper vans (think classic white Mercedes Sprinter van) might have been just as tall, the width, length and general 'American'ness' just put the fear of God into me. I was too scared to even ask for a test drive - for fear of ripping down the entrance awning, inflatable flappy man things (see Family Guy), or the 18ft American flag pole. These things were built for giants, on giant roads, in giant campsites, or in giant Walmart car parks. Fine for North America, but as soon as we hit the cobbled streets of Central America, there will be no mistaking that the US tourists are coming through (insert Dukes of Hazzard car horn noise - even the orange of the General Lee wouldn't be too far off how much we're gonna stick out like a sore thumb).
But, that being said, we managed to find a few 'normal' sized vans. How cramped they were made us realise that ok, 'when in Rome' - we need space to live in, and, as long as we stick to something between 19' to 23' in length, then that should do us fine. So, we hit craigslist, and every available RV seller within a 100 mile radius.
I don't want to tempt fate in any way, but I sense we might be close to finding our 'Milton' (at least I hope so). We have a good idea of what we can, a) afford, b) isn't stupidly massive and c) has a rear parking camera installed.
For all reading this, please keep your finger's crossed, please....
(all finger crossing support gratefully received via our twitter, instagram, facebook, etc @hairventures)