The End of the Road

After twenty-one thousand incredible miles, we made it to our 48th state.

What a blessing to be able to have seen so much of this beautiful land; we’ve had countless people tell us that that is something that even few Americans have been able to do.

The last two states for us to visit were Ohio and West Virginia – but as we were on an epic 48 hour drive on our way back to New York to prepare to fly out, we only got a glimpse of these states.

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A rough sketch of our route

But, we took the time to celebrate the 48th state milestone with one of our last on-the-road meals, at a little park in Bethlehem, WV. Thankfully we could enjoy the sunshine before driving through nine hours of torrential rain across Pennsylvania and New Jersey!

In New York City, the end of our journey, we amazingly met some friends who had also just finished an epic journey of their own. Rob and Christine Lilwall cycled from California to New York City on a tandem!

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We both reached our milestones on Thursday – for us 48 states, for them coast to coast – and we both arrived in New York City on Friday. _MG_0576

Enjoying a celebratory drink overlooking the Statue of Liberty, and where so many Europeans first set foot onto these magnificent shores, we were thrilled to be able to share our stories and congratulate each other. And, we look forward to seeing them both back in Hong Kong.

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In Tulsa, just three days before we arrived in New Jersey, we gave the car a tremendous clean out, scrub and hoover – so much dust from the desert! So when we got to NJ, we just had to get it ready to drop it off with the shipping company.

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It is really amazing how much you can fit into a car! Our stuff was spread all over the lawn, garage and our bedroom. And the car looked very ‘naked’ without all of its equipment.

But now everything is almost-neatly packed into bags and boxes; our whole life seems to be a series of packing, unpacking, repacking and re-repacking. I’m thankful for the new Lianne La Havas album that got me through it.

On Friday, we took the Defender to the shipyard to have it inspected and received to clear customs, before it makes its long voyage home to the UK. The next time we see it will be in December.

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It really is remarkable car; although it is very loud, not the most comfortable, and there’s always something that doesn’t quite open or close properly, it drove us thousands and thousands of miles through extreme heat and crazy terrain, and never let us down once.

If only it had air-conditioning…

While the car is on the ship, we are already dreaming of how to prepare it for the next expedition – what we would change, what we would keep the same, how we can make it fit a few more people in so we can share the road with some friends…

Hopefully next summer we will be able to take the car somewhere even more challenging. We have a destination in mind – maybe we will be able to reveal that within the next few months.

But for now, as we look back over the past four months, we also look forward to The Travellers Two returning to Asia and sharing those new stories as the journey continues.

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Off Road Arches

After our off-road “training” with our Belgian friends in Idaho, we were more confident to take the car off road ourselves. And we had heard many stories from 4×4 enthusiasts that Moab, Utah is the best place for it.

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So after following the tourist trails through Arches National Park, we turned onto a gravel road. The sign said “4×4 vehicles, high clearance recommended” and that it was best to take the road from north to south.

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After a couple of minutes of driving on gravel road, we saw two cars coming down from the hills; a Dodge and a Toyota. The guy in the Toyota stopped, and told us “It’s pretty gnarly up there.” But then he looked at our car and said, “you have pretty high clearance – you should be fine.”

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Michal’s reaction was, ‘hey if your car can do it, we’ll have no problem’ – after all, our car was built for this.

If only he knew what was coming up…

Half way through the eighteen-mile track, we saw that a storm was approaching from the west. We knew that if it started raining heavily, the road would become even more dangerous and impassable, and that we would likely get stuck for the night. But, thankfully, we were only hit by a light spot of rain and the heavy clouds moved north and east.

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After hours, literally, of adrenaline producing hills, with the tyres clinging on for life to the steep rock and soft sand, we made it to a beautiful spot a mile away from the main road.

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As the sun was setting, we decided to stop for a magic hour dinner, and as I was cooking Michal went hunting for the perfect last photo of the Moab’s arches.

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Yellowstone – but instead of Yogi we met Lucy

Driving across Northwest America has been another feast for the eyes and for the soul.

Leaving the west, making our way east, led us through Cascade National Park with the bluest lakes I have ever seen and some of the most jaw-dropping mountains of our drive.

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Thick, dense pine forests coat the landscapes, and we spent a day exploring Glacier National Park before heading to the world’s most active volcanic region; Yellowstone.

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We’re not usually early morning people, but we entered Yellowstone at 6am in time for the sunrise, and the mystical scenes that greeted us easily repaid the hours of sleep that we had given up.

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It was magical; the mysterious mist rising over early grazing herds, the lakes, rivers and mountains, the colours, the smells.

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We hiked one of the parks highest peaks; Avalanche Peak, and it almost lived up to its name! Once we summited, we made our way across a ridge to the next peak, with Louise being literally knocked over by the wind several times. And as our path downwards turned into a scree slope, the only way down was to slide through rocks and pebbles, creating mini-avalanches and hoping we wouldn’t bring any bigger piles down on top of us.

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It was an exhilarating, somewhat nerve-racking but beautiful hike… and we still had a day ahead of us to explore the Teton Mountains, a stunning mountain range that we had heard so much about.

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But when we woke up, the heavens opened, and our plans for a beautiful hike in the Teton Mountains were spoiled. So we decided to just drive south.

Ten minutes later, as we entered Jackson, Wyoming, we were shocked to see a beautiful red Defender sitting outside a Dairy Queen. It wasn’t just any Defender; it was kitted out with a roof tent, roof boxes, two spare tyres, and those tell-tale stickers with a website and logo that told us “this car is on a serious journey”.

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So we went inside, and met Sam and Hanne – a couple from Belgium who are into their 11th month of travelling.

When we told them that we had a Defender parked outside next to theirs, they of course jumped up and went out to take a look!

We started comparing our different interiors and exteriors; Michal and I were a little envious of their fridge and custom built units at the back. They had travelled around Africa for the first ten months of their trip, and had had a lot more time to build their house on wheels. The end result was beautifully organised and convenient; we learned a lot from them!

After a couple of hours of hearing each others’ stories, since we had no plans for that day thanks to the rain, we opted to join Sam, Hanne and “Lucy” their Defender on the road.

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After an afternoon of driving and filling up on groceries, we found a perfect, secluded spot in the Idaho wilderness and set up camp for the evening.

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The rain clouds had cleared out and the sky that night was absolutely stunning!

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After a European breakfast, Sam and Hanne found some 4×4 trails through Crater of the Moon national park, and so after a morning of exploring caves and volcanic craters, we took our vehicles off road to put them through their paces.

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They wanted to give us a little taste of what it might be like driving through Africa…

And within the first ten minutes, we heard a smash… We had lost a window!

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We’re not sure if it was the intense vibrations, or the pressure from the car frame, or a stone flying up and hitting the window.

But it was gone!

With Sam and Hanne’s help, we patched it up using a plastic crate lid, and have now joined the league of travellers whose cars are somewhat held together by duct tape.

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The rest of the 50-mile trail passed without any drama. But Sam and Hanne said that the roads and the landscape looked so similar to that of Namibia that they expected to see a giraffe or elephant at any moment!

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We were planning to go our separate ways when we reached the lake, but there was a campsite just a mile away and so we spent our evening fishing (again, zero fish for us…), cooking and planning our next journey together somewhere in the world.

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The next morning, we were both planning to get on the road early, but again we had so much to share and discuss and dream about that we didn’t get away until almost 3pm.

What a joy to meet such like-minded travellers by absolute chance! But we don’t believe in coincidences, and are very sure that we’ll get to travel somewhere together again in the future; maybe we’ll get ourselves a matching roof tent by then…

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Sam and Hanne have been through Africa, N. America, and you can follow the rest of their epic journey through Central and South America and into South East Asis on their website www.tweejaaropreis.be – which means “Two Years On Vacation” – and if your Flemish isn’t up to scratch, google translate will help you out!

On a trip like this, it is imperative to be prepared and make good plans. But, sometimes, it is just wonderful when plans get changed or rain throws a curveball… something amazing might just happen…

Four Corners

With Michal having to take a short trip to Poland, I spent a fantastic week in Seattle with dear friends. They were terrific hosts; and my week was full of music, wonderful food and watching my first baseball game.

But as soon as Michal landed, we were back on the road, and as we’re getting close to the end of our trip, we have just accomplished one of the challenges that we set ourselves: to visit the most extreme compass points of the 48 States.

East: Quoddy Head State Park, Maine – 1st May

The perfect place to officially start our trip. With strong winds, freezing temperatures and rugged rocks, it was a chilly start, but the sunrise was just breathtaking and we got our first glimpse into Canadian territory.

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South: Key West, Florida – 22nd May

Three hours from Miami, and only 90 miles from Cuba, Key West is an interesting mix of tourists and free spirits. You can almost taste the spirit of the Carribean! And with the relationship between the USA and Cuba getting warmer,  that Cuban spirit is only going to get stronger!

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North: Lake of The Woods, Minnesota – 17th June

Unfortunately, you can’t actually drive up to the northern tip during the summer without going through Canada. In winter, you can drive right over the frozen lake. So, we drove right up to the southern shore of this stunning lake, and enjoyed a sunset dinner.

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We reached the western tip of the 48 States with our friends from Hong Kong who drove all the way down from Vancouver to join us. It was foggy, and so when we heard deep, loud noises coming from offshore, we weren’t sure if they were ships or whales! With huge cliffs and mysterious caves, the western tip was a lookout for local tribes for centuries passed…_MG_9011

We only have seven states left to visit on the quest to visit all 48… but at the end of the day, it’s the journey, not the destination, that really matters.

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Old Fashioned, Organic, and The Smashing Burrito

Before you read any further, you have to watch this short video… If you have watched the show Portlandia, you know exactly what Portland is all about. If you haven’t… sit back and relax…

We came to Portland to visit a friend, as we were on the way up to Seattle, and he told us to watch this video before we got there.

It turned out to be 100% accurate.

It’s all organic, chilled out, and young people do go there to retire.

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But we started the visit with a smashing burrito! Tomek, who is a partner at the “FUEGO burritos and bowls” food carts business, brought us a couple of his best burritos. Food trucks are one of the Portland staples, and Tomek’s burritos are one of the best! They’re only open for lunch and you can find their locations on their site.

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old-fashioned-short1Tomek is a friend from Poland, but he has lived in Portland for years, before  the hippie-organic movement exploded. He wanted to show us the best that his town has to offer, and so we went on the search for his favourite cocktail, the best “Old Fashioned” in town.

Michal and I are new to the Old Fashioned drink; it’s a simple, yet hard to perfect mixture of Bourbon, Bitters, Orange Rind and Simple Syrup. We sampled these delicious little drinks in bars all over town, and they all had their own twist. And they were made all the more enjoyable by the local bands that were playing here and there.

Mornings were lazy breakfasts from farmers markets or at brunch spots; at the farmers market, we took so many samples that we weren’t particularly hungry for breakfast… but of course, everything’s local, everything’s organic, and everything’s triple the price!

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The organic, vegan, local movement is hard to get used to… Even when Michal asked for some milk at a bar, they apologised and said that they were a vegan bar! A little bit strange…

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Portland is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, and Tomek took us hiking to a spot with amazing views of several peaks. After the previous evening’s bar tour, it was good to get some exercise.

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After a good barbecue, we went to try a couple more Old Fashioned’s at a couple of bars that we couldn’t visit the day before since we didn’t have our passports (If you’re a foreigner visiting Oregon, make sure you bring your passport as ID otherwise they won’t let you in.)

When we came back, we were greeted by a garden on fire! The hot ashes from the grill had fallen onto the wood chips that the landlord recently spread all over the back garden. Had we come back an hour or two later, the house would probably have been gone!

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So after playing firefighters, we spent the rest of the night celebrating the fact that we had been spared and learned our lesson.

We had a wonderful trip – Portland is definitely a fun place. But the health-food hippie culture brought out Michal’s rebellious side – after finding out that the bar we were in was vegan, he asked for a steak…

But if you want eat chicken-with-a-name, sleep in until 11am, and live the 90s dream, Portland is the place to be.

Californication

My perception of California has been, up until now, pretty one sided. California in my mind was Hollywood, Santa Monica Beach, Napa Valley and the Golden-Gate Bridge; in other words; beautiful cities and beautiful people.

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But, after being in the state for a few days, it became clear that The Golden State is one of the USA’s most diverse.

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Within 24 hours, we were at the lowest point in the country, Death Valley (-282 ft), and trekking up through the 48 States’ highest point, Mount Whitney (14,505 ft). They are less than 50 miles away from each other.

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Death Valley – it is easy to see how it earned its name. Just getting up and down the hills to arrive into the valley, our car almost overheated several times; we had to stop every few minutes on the intense climbs at extreme heats just to cool it off!

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Once we were back on the flat, driving along with the windows down, the heat and wind combination was like someone blowing a hair-dryer into our faces. Chapped lips, dry eyes… we were drinking at least a litre of water per hour…

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In our water-guzzling, sun-screen lathering state, I am always amazed at the resourcefulness of animals and plants that have adapted to survive in these incredibly harsh climates. But, in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, the landscapes are parched and bare, and the few creatures that do manage to survive here are quiet and still beneath the scorching sun.

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The next morning, we woke in the foothills of Mount Whitney, in the southern Sierra-Nevada, where waterfalls gush from rocky crags, dense, lush vegetation fills every inch of fertile ground, bears, big cats, deer and myriads of birds all live and thrive. What an amazing contrast!

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It became clear pretty quickly that we were not prepared to summit the mountain, and so we took a fantastic hike up to one of the mountain’s many lakes.

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Following the mountains north, we found ourselves in the Sequoia Forest with the most majestic trees I have ever seen. It is interesting that scientists are still only just figuring out the life cycle and optimal living conditions for these trees: they actually never die naturally! They are sometimes toppled in storms, but most often forest fires weaken and eventually eat away at the trunks until they die.

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So in an attempt to protect them, the park stopped all fires; both natural and man-made. But soon, they saw a decline in the number of young trees. Eventually, they realised that small forest fires are the only way the seedpods will dry and be opened, releasing their seeds… So the fires are back… but under the careful watch of Ranger Rick ☺

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Yosemite National Park is breathtaking – literally, when you hike up the hill for hours :). We did one of the most challenging hikes we have attempted – the famous Half Dome.

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Scaling an, at times, 80 degree wall after four hours of steep ascent, was one of the most exhilarating, exhausting moments on our trip so far.

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And the views from the top were just beautiful!

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But as we headed back West, down from the Sierra Nevada range, the effects of the drought that we had been hearing about became devastatingly clear. Empty cattle barns, fields parched gold, dried up lakes…

The only green fields that seemed to be worth the investment were, quite ironically, vineyards.

Now in its fourth year, this catastrophic drought is forcing farmers to either pay water usage fines or leave their fields unplanted. State agriculturalists are getting desperate, and even considering doing a mass move of California crops to Arkansas…

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But one very clear way that we see California’s environment truly benefitting its residents is the countless wind farms across the state. Driving through turbine forests along the highway was quite something!

And, one more thing about California… the traffic… As we drove north, headed up into Portland, it took us five hours to get out of San Francisco onto the freeway… but the Golden Gate Bridge was worth it… just about!

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Now that we only have seven states left to visit, we are starting to be able to pick our favourites. And, with its absolutely incredible diversity, beauty and amazing national parks, California is definitely high on the list.