New York to New Orleans (via Las Vegas?!): USA PART 1
After nearly 18 solid months working in both Grand Cayman and tiny Little Cayman I flew to the US of A for an epic adventure that took me through 22 states and the most amazingly diverse scenery.
My first days were spent in New York City where I stayed with my friend Olga in 'up and coming' Harlem (Wholefoods is there now!). Having been to the city numerous times I avoided most of the main 'tourist' attractions and went to places a little less explored; except for a brief foray around crazy busy Times Square as that place changes all the time. I visited the Bronx & it's beautiful Botanical Gardens, walked both the High Line and Central Park in their entirety, was at CitiField for Opening day of Baseball season (was lucky to see the Met's actually win a game), watched The Islanders play hockey at Barclay's Center, hung out with couchsurfer's in a Bulgarian bar in East Village, reflected in Washington Square Park, got drunk with stranger's in Rudy's Dive Bar (my favourite- $8 jugs and in Mid Town!) and finally went to my first Broadway show- the hilarious Book of Mormon!
I left the big city on a warm sunny day and woke up the next morning, across the Hudson in New Jersey, to a foot of snow- the area's latest snowfall in over 35 years! I had missed the season's living in the Caribbean but this was taking it to a whole other level.
I desperately needed some downtime and was glad to hang out at my best friend John's, in the forest near the Pennsylvania border, for a few days going through all my thing's, cleaning & preparing his manual 185,000 mile Subaru Outback for the road trip, chilling with his family and spending much time horizontal, with a little visit to a couple of local micro breweries thrown in.
My only experience driving in the US was a week in California going up the Pacific Coast Highway and although I did experience the lovely Los Angeles road network nothing really prepared me for New Jersey. I was thrown in at the deep end when was handed the keys to drive to the Shore then into Jersey City to see a couple of good friend's with my amazing phone/unlimited 4G Simple Mobile plan/Google Maps combination not being enough to stop me from wondering what the hell I was doing- 2 lanes becoming 5 in the blink of an eye, trucks flying by from all angles, forks appearing out of nowhere, toll's and an unbelievable amount of car's at all times of the day on every single road. I come from a small island and make it a habit to spend most of my time in small or remote places so this was overwhelming! The good news is that by the time I picked up John from work I was confident enough to drive around the country by myself and never encountered anything as confusing again.
The two of us drove 4 hours north to Syracuse that same day so that we could hang out with friends Nick & Patti, have the Subaru thoroughly checked over (new front brakes and rear suspension struts needed), spend a day at Destiny USA Mall and go bar hopping with snow being an ever present feature. John was now home in his 'new' Toyota' meaning I was now left in charge of the car, so after a frozen waterfall hike/bowling in Rochester with my good friend Brian I drove a solid 470 miles into the warmer and more humid Washington DC where stayed with the amazing Stein family.
I made the absolute most of my 36 hours in the Capital- managing to get inside the brand new Museum of African American History with no booking (first ever walk in day), walking the full length of The National Mall twice, showing my 'respects' to the President, seeing the magnificent Cherry Blossom on the Tidal basin and taking night photos of the Jefferson & Lincoln Memorial's.
My biggest deviation from my original plan occurred the following day when I left the car in a long stay hotel car park near Baltimore Airport and flew Southwest Airlines to dry/warm/windy Las Vegas for a first of it's kind Bluegrass Festival in the downtown Plaza Hotel called The Bender Jamboree. For those that know me I am usually not one that likes changing things and have never been that into any particular kind of music, especially not a genre I know next to nothing about, but was invited by some cool people I took diving and thought 'f*** it why not! With only about 1000 people, all stages being inside the same hotel you are staying at (including a pool one) and numerous impromptu room parties taking place it was never going to be a bad time, and with Nevada being the newest state to legalize Marijuana we were not just on the alcohol by any means. As well as getting acquainted with some incredible music and live acts that go on from midday to 4am I of course spent time on the overrated Strip and ridiculous Fremont Street Experience, rented a Red Mustang to go and see the Hoover Dam/Boulder City and Red Rock Canyon and won $40 on roulette in the final hours I was there to cap off a hell of a 5 day side trip!
On day 22 of my USA trip I was effectively only on day 1 of the road trip when had to navigate through numerous traffic hold up's around DC (google cheekily took me into Dulles airport to avoid one) to get to the rural countryside of Virginia and my first National Park- Shenandoah. Not long before the sun set I drove up a set of fast steep switchbacks past the unattended entrance gate and south on the infamous Skyline Drive trying to avoid deer and numerous squirrels (did well but the next morning- man down) all the while admiring the view down into West Virginia and Moonshine country. That night I stayed at a freezing cold campground (got to -3c) full of bear warning signs and very few people so wisely slept in my car trying my best to keep warm then escaped at first light to continue in the park then onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and a side excursion to Appomatox Civil War NM.
Eventually I made it to what would be one of my favourite places in the country, Asheville North Carolina. Here I stayed with a friend of a friend, Missy, who showed around the quirky small city nestled in a green valley between the Blue Ridge and the Smoky Mountains. Besides Portland OR there are more breweries here than any other place in the country, including a half billion dollar Sierra nevada facility, New Belgium and a whole heap of awesome others so visited as many as I could and realising that New England Style IPA's were my drink of choice. With it's small grid centre, rejuvenating factory area by the French Broad River (unusually run's south to north), trendy neighbourhoods, street art, cafe's, the Biltmore Estate (most expensive provate home in the US), more outdoor activites you can shake a stick at and less than a day's drive from the East Coast it is a place I would love to live in- if that was possible.
Although I stayed a day longer than planned it still wasn't anywhere near enough but had to make moves and complete the BRP, even if it took me all the way to over 6000ft where I encountered some of the thickest fog for well over an hour. The weather gradually got worse and by the time hit the Smoky Mountains it was not even possible to stop and take a photo at a viewpoint but did my good deed and picked up a couple of hiker's who needed a hotel to rest on their epic 6 month Appalachian Trail adventure.
Past tourist trap Gatlinburg and the unusual Titanic Museum I kept going through to Kentucky and snuck into a KOA campsite right by the town that the first KFC was opened where hung out with a local family who owned a huge truck/caravan combination. After touring both the Jim Beam and Maker's Mark Distilleries south of Louisville in the ever constant rain I nearly hit a suicidal deer on the way to visit Abraham Lincoln's birthplace (the animal ran over 100 metres directly for me!) then reached my couch-surfing host in Nashville TN late afternoon.
I was in Nashville and Memphis a total of 3 nights and was able to walk about both cities seeing the huge differences between them in wealth, color, music and culture with the distance between them feeling significantly more than a few hours drive. I experienced all the live music on both Broadway and Beale, walked along the Cumberland and Mississippi Rivers, watched my beloved Liverpool win their Champion's League semi-final, stood below the balcony where MLK was shot right after eating some of the best meat at Central BBQ and of course had my fair share of beer but it was my two couch surfing host's in both cities that I remember the most- old Montana cowboy Ben who shares his time between both states had one of the nicest soul's and the most interesting stories while Juan literally ran what was a free hotel for up to 6+ traveller's and was more than willing to share his space,chat, do laundry, let you come and go as you please and impeccably cleaned every square foot (better than most places I have every stayed at).
Thing's were going a little too well by this point and I was surprised the old Subaru was running as good as it had been BUT of course everything can change in a blink of an eye, or the ripping apart of a timing belt whilst going 80mph on a highway in the middle of Mississippi thus destroying 3/4 of the car's cylinder's. This is indeed what happened to me just outside the town of Jackson and if I was going to just look at the negative's here such as having to pay nearly $2000 for a 45 rental car, John's car being given two choices, sold for scrap or put on a train to New York, or me spending 7 very stressful hours in a repair shop's waiting room I would be very miserable indeed. Instead I look at the fact the car died in the only town I was passing through on a 6 hour drive, that I didn't get run over by 18 wheeler's whilst checking the engine, that it was during the day on a weekday, it wasn't raining and most importantly the fact that a group of redneck's sympathized with my situation and didn't charge me a cent when 4 of them spent nearly 3 hours taking apart a car they had no experience with in a vain attempt to fit a new timing belt- this was pickup country!
I made it to New Orleans and India House Hostel at 9.30pm in an automatic 2.0l Kia Soul that had probably 30% less space and was not AWD but was superior in every other way. Here I spent 4 fun filled days getting drunk on both Bourbon & Frenchman Street, listening to the likes of Jack Johnson, Rod Stewart, Sting and Sturgill Simpson at Jazzfest, being a part of impromptu street parties so the music never ceased, showing my Mississippi friend Reagan the up's and down's of hostel life, meeting fun people from all over the world and preparing for the next leg of my journey into the incredibly landscapes and national parks of the South West.