Wild West

Louise’s 2nd July Concert to kick off the 4th July weekend seemed a little ironic – a Brit wishing Texans Happy Independence Day?

But, music is a universal language and the concert connected superbly with the audience. And since we had given ourselves one week to get to Los Angeles from Austin, as soon as the gig was over, we packed up the car and headed into the night.

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West. Wild West, truly!

We had seen some pretty remote parts of the states; the Badlands in the Dakotas, tiny little towns in Minnesota, never-ending fields of farmland in Missouri and Kansas.

But the vast expanses of desert in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California were something even more incredible.

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The Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas and New Mexico border were our introduction to the rugged, wild terrain that continues across the south of the USA. Rich rocks filled with quartz, mountains lions, cacti and forest, snakes and deer – the mountains held a diversity of life thanks to their abundant water supply.

But as we headed further into the desert, the numbers of species fell and soon we were alone with lizards, birds, and bugs. There is nothing like the quiet, the darkness, the heat, the expanse of the desert.

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In towering sand dunes or vast canyons, with the unforgiving sun and no sign of water, it is easy to see how lost and helpless we are under the forces of nature.

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As we approached one of the world’s most stunning features, the great crack in its crust formed by a formidable earthquake, Grand Canyon, we wanted to have a different experience than we had had before – something more than taking that same photo that everyone has.

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So we started hiking down into the canyon. As soon as you start to descend, you start to understand the sheer size of the place. We walked for hours, and had not even got close to the bottom. One can not easily conquer these wild places.

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One of the most fascinating features of the Wild West is the number of abandoned, or almost-abandoned towns that are scattered across the landscape. We came across several mining towns that had fallen into ruin, with their run-down buildings, scrap cars in yards, and mine shafts – some still with undetonated explosives!

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It is amazing to let your imagination create the stories of those who lived here; why they came, how life was, what finally forced them to leave. And for those who have stayed, how do they possibly survive when there is no-one for miles and nothing to build a life around?

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Amazingly, the post office and the railroads are the veins that keep the life blood flowing; connecting and crisscrossing and keeping these tiny towns alive. In the most remote of towns, high in the mountains or deep in the desert, post boxes line the roads and are a welcome sign of life.

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Perhaps the creepiest place that we came across was while we were off-roading in the Mojave desert. We had turned onto tiny dirt tracks, when we crested a hill and found an old trailer; the windows were gone, and it was covered in plastic sheeting.

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Bullet casings and shotgun shells were strewn everywhere, and our minds immediately jumped to Walter White and Breaking Bad! It was a great hideout… shielded from view and protected from the rear by mountains. So either someone there had a score to settle with the coyotes, or the King of the Hill had something else going on…

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But that night, we found a perfect camp of our own. In the middle of nowhere, peaceful, with the brightest stars we have ever seen. It is easy to see why our ancestors worshiped the moon and the stars; these bright oracles bring light in the midst of darkness, and their beauty is astounding!

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As night fell, the howl of coyotes greeted our ears. We made sure the door was firmly locked that night!

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While the days are hot and bright, the nights are usually dark and cool and peaceful. But when storms come, the lightning is awe-inspiring. Driving towards Las Vegas, the air was thick with the smell of electric charge – it looked like “Sin City” was under attack with fierce vengeance! With lightning all around us, in every direction, piercing through the night sky with great cracks of light, once again we felt the force of nature – knowing we were at its mercy and have no power to stop it.

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It is an amazing feeling to be overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty and wildness of our world. It can be uncomfortable, daunting, truly scary. But it is always an enriching, humbling and inspiring experience.

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Coast to Coast

On the 9th July, we made it to Los Angeles! We were in a rush, as we had booked the Defender in for a service at British Car Service and we were later than we had hoped…

But we drove straight to the garage, and were greeted by a warm smile and multiple British Accents!

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The car, having done over 14,000 miles in the last two months, hadn’t let us down, but we thought it would be a good idea to have it looked over. And, when we walked into the garage and saw all the Defenders sitting there, we knew that this was the right place to come.

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They service Land Rovers that have travelled the world, with the pictures on the walls showing some of the amazing machines they have built and maintainted. Steve, the owner, even though he was rushing to fly to England that afternoon, still took the time to show us around the shop.

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Originally from Manchester, England, Steve has lived in the USA for 40 years, first working as a Rolls Royce expert and then later opening his unique British car servicing business.

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They are the largest independent garage for Land Rovers in the USA, and had absolutely everything we could have needed! But thankfully, all that we needed was an oil change and a decent look over… that was until we mentioned that there was a slight issue with the bonnet latch…

It closed fine, but the release wasn’t working properly.

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Three hours later, it was fixed! But it took five Land Rover experts and some serious elbow grease to get it done…

Alex and Josh, who had spent their afternoon educating us about Defender engines and fixing the bonnet, invited us out for a drink, and as we drove to Alex’s local, we got our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean!

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The bar was right next to the beach, and so after 41 days, we have made it Coast to Coast… but we definitely didn’t take the most direct route…

We had a great evening with a truly American meal; hearing stories of off-roading in the desert while turtle evading, and break-neck driving through fields to escape a tornado.

After the sun had set, with the car’s engine all in good shape and a fully functioning bonnet, we started our journey towards the lowest point and the highest point in the USA’s 48 states.

Mario’s Pizza and the Tulsa Food Tour

For as long as I have known Michal, he has told me about his favourite pizza. In fact one of our very first conversations was about the so called Best Pizza in the World – Mario’s Pizza in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I didn’t really think much about it then, but as I have heard the story over and over, people’s reactions are always the same: “What?! The best pizza in the world is in Tulsa?!”

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And Michal is crazy enough about that pizza that he would make a huge detour and drive for hundreds of miles to eat it, as well as to confirm that it’s still the best pizza in the world after ten years.

So, as we drove up from Arkansas, we set our GPS to ‘51st and Harvard, Tulsa, OK’ i.e. Mario’s Pizza. We arrived just in time for lunch, to order the XL White Pizza.

And the pizza is still as good as it was years ago. The Best Pizza in the World!

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We couldn’t leave without saying something. So we started chatting with the owner, Sally, telling her that Michal is one of their biggest fans and travelled across the world to eat there.

Although she wouldn’t tell us all of her secrets, she said the key is to keep consistency in her suppliers. She has had the same suppliers with the best ingredients since she started.

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“I don’t do any of those weird things, like putting a pizza on top of a pizza! I just stick with what works. Sometimes I add a new topping here of there, but I’m not trying to invent something new.

“If it works, just keep doing it!”

Sally and her husband were born in the same hospital in New York, just north of the Hudson river.

“A lot of people say that’s upstate, but it’s still New York City. Martio’s was my favourite pizza place growing up – it was right where we lived – you don’t have to go to Manhattan for good pizza!”

Sally and her husband moved to Oklahoma in 1973, and there were no good pizza places!

They met Mario, who was born in Italy, moved to NYC, and then came out to Oklahoma. He worked in several of the Tulsa pizzerias, but no-one made it the real Italian New York way.

So when Mario met Sally and her husband, Mario’s pizza was born!

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Today, Sally runs the place alone; they bought Mario’s share of the business years ago, and sadly her husband recently died. But Sally’s staff share her passion for that perfect slice, and continue to make their famous New York style pizza.

Eric, one of the pizza chefs at Marios, says that they get a lot of New Yorkers  coming in to try their pizza, and that they’re always impressed.  “When I went to New York City, I couldn’t find the slice that was better than ours!”

He says the ‘cheese warm, not too hot’ (i.e. the standard cheese pizza slice) is the best way to judge if someone is doing their pizza right. “If you get that right, then anything you put on top will be good.”

After finishing the whole 22” pie, (a lot of pizza!) Michal’s praise for the pizza carried on. And Sally didn’t let us leave empty handed, giving us two Mario’s Pizza t-shirts.

The day before, a lady had come from a newspaper to interview Sally and feature her as Tulsa’s top pizzeria. So if you’re a pizza lover, Michal is sending out the challenge to come to Tulsa and give Mario’s a try.

For four years, Michal went to University in Tulsa, and so the food tour had to continue. The second stop on the tour was a visit to his friend Margeret, who owns Margeret’s German Restaurant.

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Their menu is filled with German delicacies; schnitzel, sausages, and spaetzle, but since Margeret  is originally from Poland, she always has some Polish specialties that aren’t on the menu.

We had Goulash with Spaetzle and a dessert sampler; it was amazing to eat European food and catch up with an old friend.

The next day we had cravings for Chinese food since we had been out of Hong Kong for over two months. So Michal took me to one of his old favourites; Hot Wok on Louis Ave, right next to his old university.

We ordered Szechuan dishes… not as hot as the authentic Szechuan but they are still definitely worth a try!

That evening we were invited to dinner by our friends Mark and Susan, who we knew from Hong Kong. They wanted to take us out, and we ended up at an Irish Pub on Cherry St. Of course Guinness was a must, to go with the Guinness Pie!

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On Monday morning went to visit Michal’s old school and reconnected with his professors. We said that we might be coming through Tulsa on our way back to New York, (for another slice of Marios), and since the school year would have already started, Michal could come back and share with the multimedia students – so we have another great incentive to come to Tulsa.

The food tour continued, and later we visited another friend Renata. As hard as it is for Michal to admit, Renata makes better Pierogis than his grandma!

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But as it was a surprise visit, she didn’t have any Pierogis in the freezer, so she made us a fantastic home cooked Polish meal. We could hardly leave the table we were so full!

After a long day, we arrived back at Mark and Susan’s home; and to our surprise, they had cooked amazing seafood Creole! Originally from New Orleans, Mark who is a pastor by day turns into a chef by night, and cooked us come delicious authentic dishes.

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It was great to have that true Creole food, since when we were in New Orleans having lunch with a friend, we got so caught up in conversation that we didn’t even order proper Creole dishes!

Our Tulsa visit was filled with food and friends; the two seem to go together. As we were driving south on our way to Texas, it got hotter and hotter, and so for the final visit on the Tulsa Food Tour, we stopped for ice cream at Braums.

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You can only find Braums in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas; a double-dip of butter pecan is Michal’s choice every time!

Half Way There

Half way through our journey. Half way through the year.

The half way point is an interesting place to be – you look back just as much as you look forward. It’s the beginning of the end, but right in the middle.

We are almost exactly in the middle of our trip. We have been on the road for nine weeks, and have just over nine weeks until we say goodbye to the Land Rover for a little while. We’ve been to the most Eastern, Southern and Northern points of the continental USA, and still have the Wild Wild West ahead of us.

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And we are almost exactly in the middle of the USA! Although we only have 13 states left to visit, those 13 make up almost half of the country and we will probably double the 11,000 miles that we have put on the odometer.

So, at the half way point we look back at the truly beautiful times: the parks, the people, the concerts and the open roads. And the challenges: the heat, the cold, the bugs, the lack-of-hot-showers!

And we look forward to even more to come: meeting amazing people with their stories, breath-taking views and being inspired creatively.

This is our first long overland expedition, and even though we’re driving through a “first world” country, it’s definitely a learning curve. We’re using this as preparation for future trips in more remote places in the world.

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From Austin, we’re on our way into the desert, mountains and then, if we make it out the other side, back to the ocean!

If you’re enjoying being part of our journey, please click “Follow” on the right of the post, to subscribe to our blog, and connect with us on Facebook and Instagram. We’ll try to keep it fun!

The Travellers Too

One morning, a few weeks ago, we were sat in a McDonalds in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to use the wifi when a lady approached us… “Michal? Louise?”

Our first thought… ‘What have we done now?’

And then she said, “We’re travellers too. We saw your truck outside, and we’ve been looking at your website.”

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She carried with her a big, beautiful hardback book of her husband’s paintings, called the Wandering Watercolorist, that she presented to us! “From artists to artists, from travellers to travellers. And if you’re ever in Missouri, come and visit.”

So we did!

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After passing through Marshall, MO, to visit Michal’s first college in the USA, Missouri Valley College, we arrived at Paul and Marla Jackson’s home in Colombia.

After being greeted by their diva-dog, Paul took us up to his studio. He had just finished an absolutely huge, stunning watercolour of Budapest at night. It is breathtaking!

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Paul is sure that it’s the largest watercolour in the USA, and says that it might possibly be the biggest in the world. None of his painting colleagues, in all the nations that he has travelled to, have ever come across one bigger. The colours are rich and deep, and the lights on the water seem to actually glow. You feel as if you are flying right above Budapest.

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And Paul actually was flying above Budapest… he uses drone footage to capture unique angles of landscapes, and bases many of his paintings off of these. Two years ago, he flew drones over every National Park in the USA, before they were prohibited. And he continues to fly almost every day.

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One of his favourite local spots to fly and to paint is Burr Oak; an ancient oak tree outside of the city, where legend has it that Abraham Lincoln would sit, looking out over the fields, and wait for his love to arrive.

A storm was coming, but Paul knew that there would be a break in the clouds and a great sunset, so we drove down to the spot and started up the drone.

Five minutes later… crash…

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“ I hadn’t crashed for over a year… It’s funny that it’s always when you’re trying to show off that you crash!”

But Paul was right, the sunset was gorgeous.

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His work has taken him across the globe; to teach, to fly and for commissioned works. But one project that was supposed to be closer to home was when he won the state-wide contest to design Missouri’s quarter coin.

Happy with his winning design, depicting explorers on a boat below the arch, Paul was shocked to see that when the quarter actually came into circulation, his design had been ripped off by the US Mint.

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It was similar enough for Paul to know that it had been stolen from him, but different enough that the Mint wouldn’t have to acknowledge him as the artist! Furious, Paul contacted the Mint asking them why they had done that, and they unapologetically told him that the state shouldn’t have held a contest.

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But the coins were already in circulation, so with an oversized quarter that travelled with him for publicity, Paul and his small team printed over a million stickers of the original design and set about sticking them onto the “imposter” quarters over the ripped-off design.

“At first we would go to the bank, get a bag of quarters, stick stickers on, and then go and exchange them for another bag of quarters. But then the bank hired people at minimum wage to pull them off… In the end we won because they couldn’t afford to hire as many people as I had!”

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Paul and his ‘rebels’ travelled far and wide to put their stickered-quarters into circulation, and estimate that over half a million made it in to circulation.

“There’s a bar at the very edge of Alaska that got stuck with a few thousand of them!”

Whether you see it as vandalism or copyright protection, there’s one thing that is for sure: Paul is committed to the integrity of his art.

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He ordered some of the biggest watercolour paintbrushes, having to have them custom made in China, so that he could complete his Budapest scene, but they didn’t arrive until after he finished it. Instead, he had to use a broom! But now that they’re here, he is ready to paint something even bigger.

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It was a joy to meet with Paul and Marla, and to see that the travelling-artist lifestyle is a sustainable one. One of the ways that they inspired us was with their new concept of Throwaway Thursday. Paul used to be a marathon runner and was able to eat anything he wanted. But getting older, with the toll that constant travel takes on his body, he knows that he needs to stop eating processed junk food and live healthier.

So now, instead of Throwback Thursday, each Thursday both him and Marla choose one “throwaway” – something that they will give up. Sometimes for good, like Marla who gave up ice cream (“unless I’m in Italy… I’m allowed to eat Gelato!”) or sometimes temporarily, like giving up solid food for a ten day liquid diet period.

In a culture where we are always looking for what we can gain, and for what we can add to our lives, it is an amazing idea to look for things to give up: maybe a month without sugar, giving up speaking negatively, 24 hours away from your cell phone…

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One of the things that we are learning to give up while we’re on the road is the comfort of a hot shower whenever we want it. And the day after meeting Paul and Marla, as we headed south, we had the chance to take our first bath in a river. Thankfully, there were no crocodiles to share the bath with us, although Michal did get a peck on the toe from some hungry fish ☺

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We were in the middle of Arkansas; a state that we had no idea about but that is absolutely beautiful! Full of lakes, rivers, forests and diverse wildlife, we tried our hand at fishing and caught a grand total of zero fish… We still need to rely on supermarkets for a little while longer…

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In Little Rock, we managed to meet up with another pair of “travellers too”: Rob and Christine Lilwall. For anyone who thinks that Michal and I are tough for travelling in our non-air-conditioned Land Rover, Rob and Christine are 10x tougher – cycling across the country on a tandem!

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From LA to NYC, their five-month journey is taking them across deserts, mountains and plains, as well as through some major cities. Although Rob has done several similar expeditions, including a three-year cycle across Asia, Australasia and Europe and a walk from Siberia to Hong Kong, this one was actually Christine’s idea.

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“This one is different because I’ve always done them with another guy. Now I have to deal with the wife-factor!” Rob laughs.

Because of the scorching heat across the southern states, the hard-core cyclists have got into a routine of waking up at 5am, and cycling from 6am-1pm most days.

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“The heat is pretty unbearable for the last two hours. But earlier in the day it’s actually quite nice. In the more populated areas we carry about 3-4 litres of water, and we can usually find somewhere to fill up no problem. But there have been days where we carried 27 litres!

“People have been so hospitable. Sometimes people have pulled up beside us in their cars and invited us to stay with them, given us dinner. One day when we were running out of water, a whole motorbike crew pulled over and gave us a load of water!”

Like us, Rob and Christine are unused to dealing with the threat of wildlife, but soon they will be leaving bear-country behind, and are making their way East and North, through Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia and then up the coast to New York.

We will both be finishing our journeys in NYC at around the same time, so we’ll hopefully be having a celebration together in August.

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If you happen to come across this beautiful couple on a tandem, or a painter flying a drone at sunset… say hello from The Travellers Two ☺

Paul Jackson – http://www.pauljackson.com

Photos of Rob and Christine Lilwall pulled from their instagram – https://instagram.com/roblilwall/