1. Houston, Texas.
Problems with bar code readers and face recognition software at Manchester airport almost stopped me flying. My face has clearly changed significantly in the last 6 months.
Arriving at Houston, leaving the airport into 100 degrees and high humidity, we thought we’d gone back to south east Asia! We got the hire car after the usual onslaught of questions: “You want additional insurance, satnav, coffee machine… you really should heeave theeat“. (My attempt at the Texan drawl).
My driving around Massachusetts last November had prepared me for the US interstate driving fiasco. If you thought that direction signage where you live was bad, it has nothing on this place. We drove on the I45 for about 30 miles before we got to a sign indicating that we were, actually, on the I45! I hadn’t taken the satnav option at the car hire desk, adamantly pointing out that we oldies prefer to use good, old-fashioned maps.
We eventually got to our motel, the Best Western at Lake Conroe. I had a vision of a quiet motel, by a beautiful lake, full of birds, with a boozer and Texmex restaurant. Well… the motel was on the wrong side of the road! Yes, all those things were here but, in order to get to them, you had to drive over the road. You know when you put the car away and say “that’s it for the day“?
“How do we get over the road?” we naively asked the receptionist. “You can’t walk!” she replied, incredulously.
OK. So we had to make do with the Michelin-starred ‘Popeye’ ‘restaurant’ – the only thing on our side of the road. Yes, you guessed, the only vegetarian option was fries washed down with Sprite. Yummy! There wasn’t even any spinach!
2. Lake Conroe to Plano, Dallas.
Little of note here. We stopped at Woody’s Smokehouse, offering ‘ The best jerky in the world’.
Helen tried some and agreed. Also, the place had the best toilets in the world. Apparently, in the ladies’, there was a choice of 4 different toilet rolls!
3. Plano to South Haven, Kansas. Of course, we got lost leaving Plano. 9 hours later, through Oklahoma, we fetch up in an area called Kansas Badlands, Motel 6. For those unfamiliar, the Motel 6 chain offers cheap accommodation all over the States. One unfailing delight in all these cheap motels is the pillows. You get a huge bed but the pillows are like small bags of blancmange. American tourists in Britain must gape in awe at the real pillows offered in UK hotels.
Luckily, we came across a huge Wal-Mart on the way. Look at the pic, they get the apostrophes in the correct places! English supermarkets take note.
4. Saturday. The last major leg of the journey, South Haven to Holton, a small town north of the Kansas state capital, Topeka. We’re near the state line with Nebraska.
Found a Pizza Hut. The waitress was totally enamoured with our accents. At one point she effused: “You two are so cute!” It’s about time someone noticed, we thought.
5. Sunday. The weather’s looking pretty bad for tomorrow. Looks like the Parkin jinx factor is about to kick in once more. We may have to rethink our plans.
Just had breakfast. For UK readers, the buffet always offers: do-it-yourself waffles, biscuits and sausage gravy (yes, you heard that right; biscuits are, in fact, scones, and the gravy is some disgusting slop composed of grease, milk, bits of discarded meat, parrot droppings, etc.), orange juice and apple juice. It’s actually quite filling.
We checked out the nearest town that is on the central line of eclipse totality: Atchison. It being Sunday, liquor stores are closed in Kansas but, fortunately, Atchison is on the state line with Missouri which allows said purchase. So, over the border to a friendly store to get a bottle of tequila then back to find a good viewing spot. The place looks ideal but may well get crowded tomorrow.
In an extraordinary moment of serendipity, we stumbled on a shop selling ‘eclipse t-shirts’ and wandered in. Helen immediately got chatting to the shop keeper and assorted shoppers who were intrigued to learn that we’d travelled all the way from the UK to see the eclipse in
this two-horse town. A TV reporter was also in the shop and, to cut a long story short, I ended up being interviewed on camera as the weirdo with the cute accent.
6. Monday. Eclipse day!
Well, it’s finally arrived. We set off early from our motel to the town of Atchison about 35 miles away. The weather forecast was not too good but there was no alternative available; all areas within a 100 mile radius had dodgy forecasts. It was sunny though and we got to our destination at about 9 am, plenty of time before the start of the event at about 11.40 – totality due at 1.05 pm. It wasn’t long before
the Parkin jinx factor kicked in. A huge thunderstorm approached and, for the first time since we arrived in the US, there was total cloud cover, the kind of thing we expect in the UK. Still, we had a lovely spot, on the Missouri river, and it wasn’t long before Helen got chatting to all the other eclipse revellers. As usual, everyone was aghast at our journey here and our unbelievably cute accents! Sadly, I never got to see the solar corona because of the cloud cover but the total darkness for over two minutes was amazing. Of course, all the reports are saying that it’s really unusual that the coastal areas of the States had clear skies but the reliable mid western plains had total cloud cover. It was almost as though there was some visiting joker who had put the mockers on the whole shebang! Looks like I’ll be checking the internet for the next eclipse.
We decided to try our luck at birding rather than eclipse watching. We found an excellent place called Quivira Reserve in south west Kansas so we checked in to a local motel in a town called South Hutchinson. The reserve has proved to be a super choice: we’ve recorded about a dozen lifers including some real crackers like Swainson’s Hawk and Red Tailed Hawk, American Avocets and Dicksissels. My birding friends will have to wait for a while as I produce my birding blog for the full list with pictures.
BIRDING BLOG HERE
8. Vernon, Texas.
After a 6-hour drive, we arrive at a little town called Vernon. One amusing road sign I noticed as we entered the town of Alva, en route to here, was: ‘Hitchhikers may be escaping inmates’. This is odd in itself but doubly so when you spot the other meaning.
We’re stopping here just for one night on our way back to Houston. We had hoped to venture down to the Caribbean coast to do some birding but the impending Cat. 3/4 hurricane approaching has put the kibosh on that. We’ll hunker down in Austin tomorrow for a few days and see how it develops. It’s looking bad.
I’ve been amused by the zany adverts on US TV, 2 in particular: one I heard this morning was an app for parents to keep track of their children. It’s called ‘Reply Asap’ and you load it on the kids’ smartphones and whenever they get a text from you enquiring of their whereabouts, it disables everything on their phone until they reply. My favourite, though, is an app called ‘PoopMobile’ (or something like that). It’s for those tricky times when you are out and about, you need a number 2 badly and there’s no bog near. You summon some poor sap who turns up with a mobile ‘trap in a box’ which you can sit in and offload yourself. He then returns to the ‘dump depot’ to discard. Surely, one of the crappest jobs imaginable.
9. Friday. Austin, Texas. Hurricane Harvey.
Another 6-hour drive and we are in Austin, the Texas capital. It was always our intention to be here this weekend so I could visit The Atheist Community of Austin, a group of brave individuals who do a weekly TV program on religion, beliefs, philosophy, etc. However, the Parkin jinx factor has once more kicked in and Sunday’s show has been cancelled because of the hurricane. They were also due to make an appearance at the Austin Pride event on Saturday – also cancelled.
Saturday. We’re holed up in a hotel for the next few days. Many families arrived last night, evacuated from their homes near the coast. I don’t think there is any need to panic just yet. We’re scheduled to fly back to the UK from Houston on Wednesday but this storm looks like it’ll be here until the middle of next week so, who knows.
In one bizarre announcement, the mayor of Rockport nearby asked all locals who refused to be evacuated, to write on their arms with a Sharpie pen, their name and social security number to assist emergency workers in identifying bodies. Grim!
10. Sunday 27 August.
Rain, rain, rain.
We’re in a hotel called La Quinta. Our TV is permanently tuned to The Weather Channel with its dire warnings: ‘Severe flooding, stay indoors’ and ‘Don’t drive, you will die’. This must leave the average Texan utterly perplexed as driving is their only means of moving about. Thousands must be glued to their TV sets, waiting for the all-clear to get in their cars to visit their next-door neighbours.
The only place we can walk to from the hotel is a rather splendid Texmex restaurant. All the staff there and in our hotel appear to be Mexican; this gives us an excellent opportunity to practise our Spanish.
We’re still not sure when we can make the final move to Houston – maybe tomorrow if we can find a route there which doesn’t entail us aquaplaning into the Gulf of Mexico!
We’ve extended our stay here in Austin which hasn’t been hit as badly as Houston where there are currently 30,000 people in shelters. They’re still talking about a foot or two more rain to be dumped there in the next few days. Naturally, the airport is closed and we’ve just heard that our Wednesday flight has been cancelled. We’ve rebooked for Saturday, arriving back in Blighty on Sunday afternoon and I’ve had to extend the car hire. Still, we’ll do some more birding while we’re here so it’s not all bad. The emergency services are calling on residents with boats to help in the rescue effort and, amusingly, “Bring out your jet skis…” I can’t imagine this request having a great response in my home town, Leeds!
Yesterday, Trump and FLOTUS came to Texas to sort out the problems here. ‘What a relief‘ we all thought, ‘that should do it‘. Nope. It’s now all-time record levels of rainfall that have ever fallen anywhere on the US; 51 inches in one area east of Houston. So, we decided to go west for a few days. We’re now in the Texas Hill Country, in a town called Kerrville. En-route here we stopped at the ranch of Lyndon B Johnson; it’s a huge area, turned into an open air museum, celebrating the old president.
Like everywhere around here, the town is taking in evacuees and offering free meals but we’re well away from the danger zone now. Our flight is still scheduled for Saturday but the airport remains closed. Fingers crossed.
The beautiful Texas hill country is all around us, away from the misery. We found a great birding place, the Lost Maples, only an hour and a half’s drive away. Texas is enormous, about 3 times the size of the UK, or bigger than France and Switzerland together.
We’ve had some amusing conversations with the local store keepers. At our gas station we approached the cashier with some booze and nosh and I inserted my debit card in the reader, punched in the pin and nothing happened.
Me: “I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about”
Cashier: “y’alls card dun bin declaaned”
Me: “Aah, you’re telling me that my card has been declined“, I clearly enunciated in my best (if slightly patronising) English. “Well, stout, fair maiden, let’s try this credit card” (it worked).
Cashier: “‘s faan”
Me: “Splendid! Then I’ll bid thee good day.”
I’m being somewhat facetious (which isn’t like me) and I must say that almost every shop assistant, waiter, hotelier, cashier, etc., that we’ve encountered has been fantastic: helpful, happy, chatty and generous. So many countries around the world could learn a thing our two from these people.
Our flight is still on for tomorrow (we’ll, it hasn’t been cancelled yet!) But, in a new twist, everyone is panic-buying gas (petrol) and our local gas stations have run out. Let’s hope we can fill up today so we can get back to Houston. I’ll post later today.
Our woes really do pale into insignificance compared to the devastation of thousands of Texans in the Houston area so we don’t feel badly done to at all.
Had a delightful walk along the river in our town of Kerrville. Some more animals were spotted here include a group of deer.
Flight cancelled again. We spent a painful 20 minutes on the phone last night to the laughably-titled ‘BA Customer Help Centre’, clearly situated somewhere in India. I’d already spoken to these clowns earlier in the week, following our first cancellation (“Has there been some trouble in Houston?“), and this encounter did nothing to heighten our regard for the place; we could barely understand what they were saying, their English pronunciation falling far short of that of our least-able students. Anyway, we are now scheduled to leave tomorrow on the 16:05 flight from Houston (or 14:05 according to the help desk joker!) so we’ve just driven back to Houston and checked in to a motel close to the airport – it’s chokker with evacuees still. The panic-buying for ‘gas’ meant we had to find any station that was still selling and fill up with the only fuel they had left – ‘premium’ stuff, significantly more expensive than the bog-standard gas but we’re relieved to have made it back.
This’ll probably be my last blog entry for the trip. So, one or two reflections:
The TV adverts still tickle me, e.g., “Unhappy with your catheter? … Have you thought of switching? … Try new EaziSlash and leave your catheter woes behind“. I may have got the name wrong… Also, white teeth are such a must-have that it’s no longer enough to simply have whitening toothpaste, you need ‘White teeth strips’ which you attach to your gnashers to get that Julia Roberts look. “You’re slippy, I’m grippy” was the slogan I heard this morning to get the best strips that stay in place to save your embarrassment. Imagine having a coincidental ‘catheter and tooth strip slip moment’ during your job interview; it doesn’t bear thinking about.
On the roads, pickup trucks abound. No one seems to adhere to the speed limits and lane discipline is non-existent: the most useless road sign seen is: ‘Use left lane only for passing’. Driving on the Interstate highways around the big cities is a shocker. We actually saw four pedestrians in the whole time we’ve been here; I imagine they have all been arrested by now.
Black and Turkey Vultures are everywhere in the skies.
And, despite the slight disappointment in not really seeing the two things that I originally came here to see, we’ve had a fun time, seeing loads of new birds and meeting some very nice people. I’ve driven over two and a half thousand miles and only sworn twice! Helen, who can knit for England, has used a similar length of wool!
Every motel has an ice-making machine and a waffle maker.
Unaccountably, parmesan is pronounced ‘parmezhaan’
I might just do a blog about England next…
Houston, Sat. 2nd September.
Yes, I know I said it would be my last blog on the trip, but just when you thought it was safe…
We got back to Heathrow OK (at 6:30 this morning and had to wait until 2 pm for our connecting flight to Manchester), got on the Leeds train, got as far as Huddersfield and then our luck ran out; the Parkin jinx factor kicked in once more.
Announcement: “Sorry, this train’s going no further. There’s been a fatality on the line ahead. Everyone off.” And, with today’s train and railway system owned and operated by an assortment of clueless companies, no one official really had an idea about what to do next. After about half an hour, wandering along the platform, we heard a rumour that a relief bus was going to be put on to take everyone to Leeds. I asked for confirmation from the one guy who seemed to know what he was doing but he told us to stay on the station. So, we ignored his advice, went outside to see a number of miserable displaced passengers clamouring to get on a coach. ‘We won’t get on that’, we thought so we paid to get on a regular service bus (I’d left my bus pass at home: “I won’t be needing that“, I confidently told Helen as we were packing). It went through every little town en-route, finally dropping us in the centre of Leeds an hour and a half later (the train would have taken about another 15 minutes). After a long trip with no sleep, it was just what we needed.
You can’t make this stuff up!