THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

My oh my, we have been immersed in some spectacular nature and scenery since my last report. After departing my aunt and uncle’s place, for the third time, we made our way north along the coast to a town called Mendocino— a place my aunt and uncle continued to suggest that we visit.

After driving over and through rolling wine country, we came to the shifting coastline that persisted to get more rugged by the mile. Mendocino, a small coastal town that reminded us of home. Soft, green hills meeting sheer cliffs that clash with the ever-changing ocean. After spending so much time in the southern part of California, I had grown accustomed to the architecture out west. Spanish and clay styled homes, a different beach vibe than that of the east coast. Yet as we came into Mendocino, the style shifted and reflected a style much like Cape Cod: weatherboard houses turned grey with thick layers of salt, window shutters, and screened porches. Nostalgia overwhelmed me, this town was a hybrid of Gerringong and Cape Cod. My two favourite coastal locations.

Not to mention the small-town feel. While you could tell this was a place that thrived in summer and from tourism, the locals were out and about, offering smiles and kind hellos. In our first 15 minute stroll, we received a handful of warm welcomes, more than we’ve experienced in our whole time in the states. Not that there aren’t friendly people here, there are just SO many people, the kind ones often get buried in the dense population.

 

All along the coastal cliffs, were little trails through the tall grass, pressed right to the edge. Car parks scattered alongside and we easily set up camp for a few nights by the sea, no issues at all.

Every turn in the coastline offered a different view of various lumped rocks scattered next to the shore. Seal mums and their pups swam through inlets, playing and diving through clusters of seaweed, gathering their evening meal. It was a sight I’ll hold close forever.

 

From Mendocino, we pushed north. We made a pit stop at a campground that was totally worth the $15. We slept surrounded by strong, tall redwoods. We drove  through the redwood forest and it’s a scene I’ll never forget: the ambulance weaving through giant tree trunks stretching to the sky.

Then we made it out of California. Now, Cali is probably one of our favourite states, thanks to the varied landscape, but we’d spent a long time there, some of it re-tracing our steps, so it was time to get onto the next and see something different.

Oregon. We explored both the coast and inland, making strategic zig-zags. First stop was Crater Lake, another destination suggested by my aunt, a natural phenomenon that leaves you feeling like a speck of dust. We drove into the national park, climbing towards the sun as piles of snow began to appear at the side of the road. Though it was warm, we stood in the winter scenery in t-shirts. The lake, as the name describes, is an enormous crater filled with water, staring back at you like a spotless mirror. The sun shone high in the sky, beating down on the bright white snow and reflective water, leaving us squinty.

 

Crater Lake was a pit stop on our way to the town of Bend, a funky country town growing in population (as we were told by a couple from Oregon whom we met in northern Cali). After wandering around and spending a night there, we cut back to the coast. I was shocked to find out that people don’t really swim at the beaches this far north, apart from a few brave souls and surfers. To me, living by the sea is being in the sea. I could not be so close to something so entrancing and not be tempted to dive in. Although, the sea up north does seem dark and moody, and supposedly cold, so I understand peoples’ hesitations.

We spent the night in a sleepy, coastal town called Yachats. Lots of funky little shops, beautiful houses overlooking the ocean, boats in the harbour. Then to a town called Newport, a big fishing port where we couldn’t help ourselves but dine out and indulge in some fresh fish. When it lingers in the salt air all around you, there’s no giving in. We had drinks at a bar overlooking the bay, where seals sunbathed on docks and barked for attention.

 

From the coast, we cut back inland and visited Salem, the state capital, and then on into Portland, somewhere we’d both been itching to visit. Cities can be tough in terms of parking, but we got lucky and stayed just outside the Arts district. Plenty of residential streets with lots of cars, we were protected and comfortable. Spring was in full swing, the air rich with pollen (I cannot believe Abel’s hay fever didn’t flare), the otherwise green backdrop splattered with rich pinks, purples and yellows. Everyone talks about noticing a change as you drive from one state to the next, particularly out west, and coming into Oregon that is what I noticed most: all the shades of green. Deep greens, pale greens, all blending together from the grass, to small bushes and taller trees. You become encapsulated in nature, regardless of being in a city. It also reminded me  of “home” (Connecticut), being around the same latitude, the climate was very similar, as were the style of houses— nostalgia smacked me in the face once again.

On our first night out having dinner and drinks, a guy nearby overheard our Aussie accents and told us there was a popular Australian cafe on the street we were on, called Proud Mary’s. We knew it must have decent coffee so we went the next morning for breakfast and this place was not only huge, but it was packed. Much like the popular cafes at home, they were efficient and organised. We of course had a good chat with one of the owners, as him and Abel both greeted each other with a, “Hey, mate”. The menu boasted smashed avo, pavlova, and meat pies. The coffee was exceptional. We felt very at home that morning.

We did spend one day in the actual centre of the city. There were two large markets right next to each other. One, for pet owners. Literally, hundreds of dogs— pure heaven. The other markets were your typical makers and food markets. After perusing the streets, we got lunch from a Lebanese food truck and sat in the park looking over the water.

 

 

Portland sits right next to the Washington border so it wasn’t long before we were in a new state. In terms of the shifting landscape, the surrounding shades of green just became deeper and more saturated. That first night we lucked out and found a campground closed for the season, fee wise, but otherwise open to use for free. Completely empty, a beautiful clearing in the forest,  a running stream nearby and a water pump— not for drinking, but perfect for dishes.

The evening was slightly dampened however, when we decided to venture out of the van and make some s’mores. Before that, we’d been inside, watching Mad Men, and although I’d left the two side doors ajar to permit some fresh air, I had locked up the rest of the van. We stepped outside, preparing our dessert, and I lightly closed the side doors— enough to lock them (dumb, dumb, dumb). There was no getting back in. Originally, we had three sets of car keys. We’d placed one of them loose in the outside tray that held the three spare batteries. It was nowhere to be found. Either misplaced when we got new batteries, or fallen along a highway somewhere. The other two keys were trapped inside, along with pretty much everything bar a few drying dishes.

The windows have screws on the corners, so we tried to take them off, but the seal held them on tight. Abel used a fork to try and shimmy underneath the seal and cut it, but then the window shattered. We got back inside, which was a great plus, but the next day we had to focus on finding somewhere that could replace the window. Definitely not what we needed budget wise, but now she’s brand-spanking with a fresh layer of tint. And I’m now extra cautious when it comes to closing the doors behind me. You lose but you learn.

 

 

On our way towards Seattle we stopped in to Olympia, just south, the state’s capital. When we thought of Washington, we pictured rich rainforest everywhere. Here we really felt satisfied. It was cloudy and misty, much like a giant greenhouse. We spent a few nights here and drove around, basically just oggling the houses and the lucky inhabitants who live in this lush, seaside area. Before leaving we did a 4-5km trail through a rainforest that sat alongside the coast. Every now and then we’d push through the dense greenery and came to an opening where the sea stretched out before you. It was like two different worlds colliding.

 

Then we went to Seattle. Somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a very, very long time. Our first day in the city, Abel and I did the tourist thing and went up the iconic Space Needle. For some reason I get these weird moments of bravery and forget all about my crippling fear of heights and then we enter the elevator, with windows, and the sensation shoots up my legs and I remember. I did pretty well though. Even in the area with a glass floor that slowly rotates. I stood on it and tried not to look down. Since Abel’s birthday was approaching and we weren’t entirely sure if we would be anywhere special, we treated ourselves to lunch and a drink overlooking the streets of Seattle that led to the harbour.

 

It was also extra special because my long-time, dear friend, Hannah (who now lives in Alaska with her wife Nora) was in town, visiting with friends and going to see Camp Cope, an Aussie band. Hannah, Nora and their twin friends Noah and Eli were super hospitable. They let us park for the night in their apartment complex, let us use their bathroom and shower and otherwise chill with the group. It was so lovely to catch up, I think I’ve only seen Hannah once in the past 12+ months or so and I hadn’t met Nora yet, so it was really special to finally see how happy and loved up they are. We went along with them to Camp Cope, a band made up of three girls who are very political in their lyrics— perfect timing given the bullshit that is happening in Alabama, and other states, and all across the country and the rest of the world. I won’t rant about that now.

The next afternoon, after a slow morning, we were finally all fresh and ready to venture into the city and do some exploring. Abel and I were going to drive in so we could do a few things after, and the rest of the crowd was grabbing an Uber. As we watched their ride drive out of the complex, we tried to start the car to no avail. No noise but a sheer grind. We had a feeling it was the starter, so unfortunately we didn’t really get a chance to see much of Seattle. The ambulance was a little under the weather and needed a doctor. Not too much of an issue, a simple fix really and nothing to do with the engine, however this was not kind to our budget, once again. Dad came to the rescue, used his points to book us a room at the Hilton— the sheer bittersweetness of car issues. We treated ourselves to room service and had the best sleep we’ve had in a long time. Not that we don’t have good sleeps in the ambulance, but it’s nice to have a bit of space sometimes.

From this incident we knew we needed to push our journey along if we wanted to see everything on our list within the means of our budget. From Seattle we moved back East across the state.

Once again, I was in awe of the changing landscape. I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me go on about it, but Washington, like California, was all kinds of beautiful. The lush greenery of the north-western coast trickled out slowly and became big, brown desert. A change you can see, the way you can feel the shifting wind. The hills were green and consuming, then they were rough, coffee-coloured rock— sharp and sudden. The mountains were cliffs, steep and dark to look at. Then they were gone. And it was like we were driving through Texas once again.

We drove a few hours and came to a town called Leavenworth, with an old school Bavarian village. Literally, everything was in that ancient font— every single storefront, including McDonald’s and Starbucks. Not one place interrupted the theme. It felt like we were inside of a fairytale, or The Sound of Music, for the snowy mountains stood tall in the distance, swarms of green pines at their base. We spent a night here.

 

From there we continued East and once again came into a new state: Idaho. A place I’ve never had a desire to go, but I guess was kind of oblivious to it’s geographical location: right between Washington and Montana and Wyoming, all places I knew to be beautiful, so why not Idaho? We stayed in a tourist village, Coeur d’Alene, and it was lovely. A large, glass lake and lots of quirky shops and art galleries. It was Abel’s birthday while we were here, which made it even better because we allowed ourselves to eat and drink all day long, and basically just do whatever we wanted without the haunting thoughts of our bank balance.

That was all we did in Idaho, since we were located in the “pan handle” of the state. If you don’t know, Idaho has a skinny section up top and a wider area down below— the thinner area known as the pan handle. Then we came into Montana.

Montana I knew was going to be epic and enormous, and you could see it instantly. The hills and mountains began to swell, exploding in their mass. Tall and soft bristled— either with large quantities of trees, or velvety grass. Rivers and creeks everywhere. The view just didn’t stop. There was always a mountain or five, always a curved, rushing river wrapping around a log cabin. It was vast, stunning, and quiet. We camped our first night at a free campground right by a beautiful river, everywhere clad with signs stating we were in bear country. Grizzly country more specifically. After speaking with some of the neighbours who camped here often, they assured us it was very unheard of to see a bear in these parts— but it is Spring, and hibernation is over, so never say never.

 

We spent another two nights in Montana as we headed South towards Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming. A night at another free campground on the water. Then in a town called Missoula, where we restocked on our groceries. Then to Gardiner, a town that flanks the northwest entrance into Yellowstone. Lots of people around here, gearing to enter or just leaving the park. We spent a night here, parked at the Library near the local high school as large elk slept on the hockey field nearby.

All at the second free campground just north of Missoula, Montana

 

Yellowstone might just have taken the cake in terms of the most impressive and beautiful place on our whole trip. Maybe. But also most likely. We’ve never seen anything like it. I knew to expect animals and thermal pools, but I didn’t realise that Yellowstone is basically a giant thermal area, due to erupt as it hasn’t for many years. I’m not so good with geology type stuff so I won’t try and sound smart or educated in that area. We took two days to see it all, and we saw it all. Every thermal pool, a baby black bear, wolves, bison and more bison, goats, a few grizzlies. We spent the night in a campground located halfway around the loop, a nice way to break it up, and I was certain we would see a bear here. No such luck, and I suppose that’s a good thing considering there were so many campers in tents. No thank you.

 

From Yellowstone we continued south through Wyoming, stopping to gym/shower, sleep, refuel etc. But basically, we drove straight to Denver, where my cousin Elise lives. We only got to see each other briefly over Christmas, and it was pretty chaotic, so it’s been real nice to see her and not have to rush our visit. Her and her housemate/friend Paxton have welcomed us into their cute little apartment. They’ve taken us to some really good food places so far, with more to come, and we repay them by cooking dinner.

We’ll stay in Denver for a couple more weeks, then we’re planning on flying back to SF, our first continental US location, to visit with my mom and dad who will be housesitting for my aunt. From here, our journey will finish and we will make our way down under.

The ambulance has sold. I’ll talk about that on my next post when I get a bit emotional and talk more about the bittersweetness of a journey coming to a close.

Til next time.

A

CATCHING UP ON THE JOURNEY

I figured I should catch you guys up, so to speak, on the chronology of our trip. I’ll skip over what you know.

After Thanksgiving, we made our way up through North Carolina into Virginia, where we spent a few nights at a campground in a state park. That was a really nice few days– it felt like we had time to relax and not rush. There wasn’t anything particular we wanted to see in Virginia Beach and the weather was pretty crappy. I remember that night was probably the first really cold night we’d spent in the van. I reckon it got down to maybe 1 degree C (the coldest we’ve done was -8 C in Salem). We made a fire and sat pressed up against it, layered in our new hats, gloves and scarves. I wrote, drank tea, and we made our first dinner over an open fire (our new favourite thing to do). I ran (!!!!!) two days in a row (this is a seriously big deal for me– I have despised running for most of my life, and now, I almost kind of like it. Who am I?), but yeah, we pretty much chillaxed there, and that was great.

We drove over the Delmarva Peninsula to go through Maryland on our way to Washington DC. The bridges over here tend to be really big, very high and for people who know me well, heights are not my friend. For some funny reason, I always seem to be driving whenever we have to go over one of these monsters. I know, I know, they’re, for the most part, totally safe. But, I’d almost rather be a passenger while travelling across a huge bridge. I feel as though I’m too in control. Like, if I wasn’t paying attention, or being too careful, or something happened and my arms spasmed and went crazy and we just steered a little to the right, and then BOOM we’re flying off the bridge and into the water. I know that sounds a little paranoid and crazy, but my Aunt Melissa actually feels very similar about this– so I am definitely not alone.

On this leg of the journey we had to drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. It’s 23 miles long (37 km). There are two structures, one for each direction and they both have double lanes. There’s no shoulder though, hardly any space either side of the lanes between your moving vehicle and the tiny little fence. There were about 2x 1 mile long tunnels that broke up the journey. I was in a sweat most of the time.

We made it across in one piece and headed for Crisfield, MD… I don’t know how to describe it. I’ll just say, often when we have made the decision to drive a few hours in the direction we plan to head, it’s difficult deciding where we should go. There’s times where the destination is obvious, well-known cities or highly-populated areas. Other times, though, we just have to wing it and we tend to choose somewhere on the coast (if that’s an option based on our current location) and generally about 2-3 hours from where we currently are. Crisfield, MD. We drove secluded highways to get out to this town. Winding roads with beautiful, emerald yards planked along the sides. I expected something really stunning, and naturally, we got that. I mean to say, it was spectacular in its natural debut, but not much the township itself. We drove through the flat, desolate main street and, as we often do in the more interesting towns, Abel and I shared a glance that said it all. Crowned the “crab capital of the world”, Crisfield sat right on the edge of the water– flat, sprawling, endless, reflective, breath-taking.

But we struggled to find a place that we felt safe in. We drove around trying to find an area to park near the water, and after getting bogged and having to shove rocks on either side of the tires, we came to a small parking lot situated at a tiny little beach. There were toilets, a tap– neither in operation “CLOSED FOR THE WINTER”. A playground on the sand, picnic tables. Very nice. A few suss looking dudes drove down, sat in their running cars for 15 minutes, left… came back again half an hour later. Amongst other visitors. Abel was uneasy. Once it got well and truly dark, there were no more visitors. But you know how it is, once someone is nervous about something and you can feel it, then you start feeling it to. We made it through the night and woke up to one of our best views yet, and then we got the hell outta that place.

Washington DC was really great to go back to. I’ve only been once and was aged 8 or 9, so was keen to check out some of the museums with my newfound wisdom that comes from the gradual ageing process (just being older and appreciating things more). After taking some time to figure out the whole van-city situation, we ended up spending one night in a Lowe’s carpark and the next three at a campground just outside the city. It was getting rather cold when we were there so the wandering and exploring was kept to a minimum. We got to see and do what we wanted though. The National Museum of Natural History, The Holocaust Museum, we walked alongside the Washington Monument, Reflection Pool and The Lincoln Memorial. The basics. Christmas markets were also in full swing at this point (our real first taste of that) which was exciting, and we ate some really amazing Cuban food there.

 

Post-D.C. was really lovely, I made a call to my Mum’s good friend, and our long-time family friends, Val and Mike. They lived in Fairfield while I was growing up and my family spent a lot of time with them and their three boys. West Chester, Pennsylvania is where they live now and Abel and I were welcomed into their home for a night. We were totally spoilt, taken into town to watch the enormous, festive Christmas Parade and we ate dinner at a restaurant that overlooked all of the activity. The township was beautiful, lots of brick buildings dressed in white lights. It’s always nice when you end up in a sweet place, somewhere you probably never would’ve gone to had it not been for some friends.

From there we went to the Amish Market and Philadelphia, where the incident from my last post occurred. So I’ll move right along.

We stopped in briefly for two nights back in Fairfield at my aunt and uncle’s place. Always nice to feel “at home” and be able to relax. We’d left some suitcases there before heading to Florida, so we collected our things, cleaned out and reorganised the ambulance. My aunt and uncle have a beach house out at Cape Cod (we used to go out there twice every summer, my Nan and Grandad had a place there too) and were kind enough to let us stay there. We stopped in Newport, RI for a night to break up the drive and it was a really quaint, little, upmarket beach town– but in winter.

The beach house became our little refuge for the next five days. I don’t think I’ve ever played so many games, condensed into such a small period of time, in my whole life. Kirstie, you would’ve been proud. We tackled one of the puzzles, a decadent fish scene titled “the underwater mardi gras”. You know how when you’re doing a big jigsaw with lots of pieces and you can never seem to find the piece you’re looking for, so naturally you are convinced it’s been lost? I thought I was going crazy. Abel was losing his mind. For a few hours in the afternoon on our fourth day, we sat intent on finishing this damn puzzle. And we did. With 27 missing pieces. Our minds weren’t lost, just those fucking pieces.

It was kind of hilarious to see Cape Cod in the dead of winter. For those who don’t know, this place is a little arm off of Massachusetts– you have the bay side and the ocean side, not too far from each other. It’s a summer haven, where most North-easterners escape to during the humid, sticky months of June-August. Majority of the restaurants along the main road that connects all the little towns have been there since I was a small child. You pull in, see “The Lobster Shanty” with it’s row boat, buoys and nets on the roof and know that you’re kind of in a little time capsule, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Unfortunately, much of the cape closes down for the winter season, each restaurant bearing signs “THANKS FOR ANOTHER GREAT SEASON! SEE YOU IN APRIL!”.

Apart from a Sunday trip out to Provincetown (the funkiest little place ever and again, very, very different in winter than summer) we pretty much reclused (yes, I just used recluse as a verb) indoors. Scrabble, Rummikub, and our new game Jaipur (we bought this in P-town from a game shop called “Puzzle Me This”, a store that’s been around nearly as long as I have) were being played on rotate.

Eventually we moved on. Boston next– we only stayed one night here. It was cold and parking wasn’t plentiful. We found an open lot with paid parking but for the one night and most of the next day, it was $60. We’d explored and seen what we wanted, so we made our way to Salem. Which you’ve already read lots about.

 

From Salem we went to Burlington, Vermont. My cousin Zach went to university here and we’d been told it was a very cute little town. We weren’t lied to, it was lively and filled with young students, and more Christmas lights.

Next stop: Montreal, Canada!!! My dear friend Sarah is living there with her boyfriend, Antoine and it’s just crazy how close it was to where we were, yet a totally different country. It seemed silly not to pay them a visit. Of course, we thought entry into Canada would be a piece of cake! Aren’t all Canadians soft and squishy and just always nice? Kind of forgot about the fact that Quebec is French-Canadian territory and uh, Frenchies can be funny about things. The officer at border security totally grilled us. From the minute we pulled up to his window, he was shaking his head at us and instantly frustrated with our presence. He asked question after question about things we were bringing in (normal, totally normal). He asked if we had any firewood, I glanced at Abel and he nodded, “Yeah, we have a few pieces”. The officer shook his head more. Sighed a couple of times, rubbed his beard and forehead all in one big movement.

“Why do you have firewood?” Why does anyone have firewood? Usually to burn. In a fire of some sort.

“How many pieces do you have?” I looked at Abel and he shrugged, “Ten?”

The head shaking continued, layered with beard-stroking, brow-furrowing and a couple more sighs for good measure.

“Now,” he began, “I could let you into the country with the firewood. And do you know what you’d have to do with it?” I stared. “You would need to dispose of the wood in a metal container.” Ok then.

“Can we burn it?” I asked. Sigh. Head-shake.

“You know what, no. No, I can’t do it. Ten pieces is just too much. How would I know that you would dispose of it properly? You’re gonna have to go back to US soil, do what you will with the wood and come back. I’ll give you a form to pick up around the corner and you’ll need to re-enter the United States.”

We did as we were told. Upon re-entry to the US, I of course had to explain what had just transpired.

“We’re just coming back because we were denied entry into Canada,” I told him. He looked us up and down, “Why were you denied entry?” I told him about the firewood, he asked us some more questions and we left. We headed for the woods, ditched the beautiful chopped wood my uncle had given us and headed back for Canada.

He asked us what we did with the wood and I told him. “So if I look back there, I won’t find so much as a twig?” Jesus Christ. “I hope not”, “Go on in then”.

Three nights were spent at Sarah and Antoine’s apartment in Montreal. I hadn’t seen Sarah since November of 2017, just before she embarked on her journey to live and work in Canada. Seeing her again was something I anticipated and yearned for– we text nearly every day. Meeting her boyfriend Antione for the first time was really lovely and I’ve never seen her so happy.

The temperature was low and there were scattered flurries passing through Montreal, so we pretty much stayed in doors, drank and ate lots and watched movies. We were more than happy to do this; it was nice to be in the company of others, in a cozy space. We did get out to Mont Royal, an incredible natural beauty in the middle of the city, overlooking it all. Being outside the US for a little stint was special too– different sites, different shops and a different language. A bit of a treat for us.

 

From there we pretty much hustled back to Fairfield, CT for Christmas, via New York, a quick sleep in Wilmington, Vermont and down on through Massachusetts.

The Christmas period was a bit of a whirlwind, as it is for everyone, each and every year, all around the world. I guess that’s why it’s so magical– lots of energy and Christmas spirit pulsating from every corner of the globe (or whatever holiday people are celebrating at that time to bring their families close). Getting back to the Finzi’s was exciting because I hadn’t seen my cousins Elise or Nathalie yet, nor had Abel met them. My Mum and Dad were also coming to town over the next few days and while I’d seen Dad a few months back, I hadn’t seen my Mum since April, along with my brother Marcus and his girlfriend Nicole, so the weekend was filled with all kinds of reunions.

Another important one being on the 23rd, Abel and I drove into the city to pick up his cousin Kelsey from the airport. She’d had a pretty hectic long flight, with three different legs on her journey, but we were all buzzed to be with each other, knowing we were going to be having a real winter Christmas in a few days time. We spent that day in the city, window shopping and braving the crowds to experience Rockefeller’s Christmas tree. My dear friend Tenaya was housesitting an apartment in Brooklyn, so we were able to park our car near her place for the day. We met back up with her later that evening for a drink in Times Square and hot meal at the markets in Union Square before heading back out to Connecticut.

 

The lead up to the big day consisted of shopping, visiting family and friends, drinking, cooking and eating– in no specific order.

 

Christmas came and went, same as it does every year. Kelsey’s flight left NYC on the 28th to take her home to Australia, so we had one last hurrah in the city before she departed. Tenaya let us bring our mattress from the van up to her apartment. We had a lovely evening out, drinking cocktails at a rooftop bar that overlooked all of Manhattan. If anyone read or heard about the electrical explosion that happened in Queens and made the sky turn blue… yep, we witnessed that from the rooftop bar. I mean it when I say the whole sky went bright blue, turned purple, grey, black, back to blue. Each wall of this bar was made of glass, it was quite the spectacle.

 

 

The next morning Tenaya took us to the best little coffee and breaky spot in Williamsburg, which we pretty much discovered to be an Aussie café. A jar of Vegemite was spotted on a shelf behind the coffee machine, the barista spoke with an Aussie accent and not to mention the coffee and smashed avo was well and truly, soaring above average.

A quick drop off for Kels at the airport, as Abel and I headed due South, into Asbury Park, NJ. Apparently where Bruce Springsteen got his big name, but apart from a meal out, we just spent the night and headed West.

Stopped in Lancaster, PA for an evening, then down into West Virginia where we spent the few days over the New Year at a campground. The actual site where we stayed was extremely primitive– only pit toilets, no showers, no running water. This was the longest we went without showering, I believe we made it five days strong. If a Planet Fitness had been close by, we would’ve made a journey out, but was a shower really worth a 1 hour 15 minute drive each way? We were fine.

This place was a whole lot of rocks, mountains and rivers– picturesque. Once again, Abel convinced me to step out of my comfort zone and climb up the side of an escarpment that yes, had somewhat of a trail, but a fairly steep and rocky one. There was certainly resistance from my end, but sure, I’m glad he persuaded me. The view always makes the height (somewhat) worthwhile.

 

 

While the site was on the low-equipped side, there was an office left open until late, with heat, bathrooms, running water, wi-fi and a smart TV. We were actually able to ring 2019 in a nice space, with some games, music, drinking and movies. Quiet, but a lot better than many other New Years I’ve had.

As we went to depart West Virginia, we started experiencing some car trouble– it wouldn’t start. There was no cellular service out there and although the office was officially closed for the 31st and 1st (yet left open for us) now that it was January 2nd, for some strange reason, everything was completely locked up. I couldn’t call AAA to have them come start our car. My poor mum, I gave her a call, said “Happy Birthday!” and then “Can you do me a favour?”. When the car had it’s batteries replaced while in Salem, the mechanic mentioned there was a missing tooth on the fly wheel that would need replacing sometime soon. We assumed that was the issue. After waiting in the cold for the mechanic to arrive, he came down to the site where the ambulance sat– terrified it was going to have to be towed up a wet, steep, narrow, gravel road.

He popped the hood, had a look, “turn the key,” he said, and on it went. An embarrassing relief to say the least.

Most mornings since then, we have struggled to start the car. Diesel tends to go sludgy in the cold, but we were still in the Northern half of the country and they use a special winter blend up there.

We stayed a night in Virginia and then headed to Knoxville, Tennessee where we spent a few more nights. I was pretty surprised at how cute Knoxville was, lots of variety in shops and food, the weather was warmer too so we could actually walk around and take in the feel of the city.

We made our way to Nashville via a pit stop at a campground for two nights. Nashville had an electric energy, that I can only describe kind of like New York City, except that it’s completely and utterly different. In no way is it similar– I just mean, in the way that a city’s ambiance can catch on so quickly.

This place was party central from the moment we arrived and it just didn’t stop. We parked over at the football stadium which is an easy walk across the foot bridge into down town. We ate and drank on a rooftop bar and on the streets below, open-roofed buses with drunk, screaming women trudged past, along with everyone on the streets, horse and buggy rides, bicycle pubs. Country music pouring out of every single doorway. Every shop on the main drag is either a bar with live music, or a boots shop. That’s about it. For two people who are certainly not country music fans, you cannot help but be when you’re in a place like Nashville.

 

On to Memphis. Where Abel made sure I played “Walking in Memphis” as we drove into the city. This place consisted of more car trouble– it was time to take it into a shop and get the flywheel fixed. We’d had enough of not being able to start her in the mornings. So we booked a room in a hotel near Elvis’ Graceland. Tacky as all hell, with three framed pictures of Elvis hanging above the bed (I mean, that’s absolutely fine with me, but still) and I kinda loved it. Until Abel and I convinced ourselves there were bug beds and we had to sleep in layers on top of the bed covers. We didn’t have any bites– most likely all in our heads.

 

Graceland was a dream. Elvis was such an influential figure, such a star, and his pad reflected what an icon he was. He put so much care into decorating and entertaining, everywhere you went, you felt his presence in there. Big deal for a big Elvis fan like me.

 

Since then we’ve been making our way to New Orleans and we just arrived… after another incident with the car. While the flywheel did need replacing, it wasn’t the source of the issue. The most recent mechanic wasn’t really to know, he didn’t specialise in diesel and we should’ve thought that one through. So she was in the shop the past two nights and we checked into another hotel, for two nights, in Jackson, Mississippi where there’s a whole lot of nothing. The glow plugs have been replaced and she’s running like a dream now.

Two days here in New Orleans and on Sunday we’re off to Cuba for nine whole days. Bring me that sunshine.

A.

PS. Here’s what our route looks like drawn out on the map

SOME THINGS (PLACES, MOMENTS ETC.) THAT I’VE LOVED SO FAR

I talked in my last post about how everything’s not always hunky dory, smooth sailing while on this kind of journey– and that’s ok. After having a chat with my dear friend Simone she made me realise something. I mentioned how cleaning the van is a constant activity. There’s not a lot of space to leave dirty clothes strewn about (ahem, Abel) and they pile up quick-fast. Plus, you’re constantly going from outside to inside your personal living quarters, so dirt is sure to be prevalent. Simone said, “It’s funny how even though you are living on the road and it’s a bit of a dream, the realities of normal life like cleaning and stuff never stop.” Absolutely correct, and in lots of ways, the cleaning is worse and more constant than if you were hanging about in your house. When you’re at home, there’s more space for things to be messy, so that kind of allows more time for you to put cleaning off. We don’t have that luxury. But then she said, “which in a way is good, because it keeps you grounded!” Right again, Simone. I hadn’t thought of it that way. We can’t always be caught up in how amazing our lives are right now, we need to have some reality thrown in to remind us that life is life, and there’s always gonna be some shit in the good.

That’s enough of that though. I want to touch on the things I’ve loved about this trip. A lot of that has to do with the places I’ve imagined visiting for most of my life, as well as the really simple moments.

The one constant thing that keeps me happy is waking up every single morning. Which is kind of hilarious for me to be saying, or even feeling, since I am NOT a morning person at all. Ask any of my close friends, getting me up before 7 or even 8 am is a slight mission. Not that we ever really wake up too early– it kind of just depends on where we are, what we’ve been doing. Sometimes you forget how exhausted driving and setting up makes you, and then you sleep for 10-12 hours and it’s a bit of a shock, like oh, I really needed that. But I can honestly say that I wake up each morning, in our tiny little bed, and look around the ambulance and I feel so damn happy to be there. It doesn’t even matter that we’re parked on the side of the road, we’re somewhere completely different and we can do anything we please. It’s even better when you wake up and it’s raining– like it was this morning. The pitter-patter makes crawling out of bed a little bit more difficult.

Making coffee and breakfast is the other simple treat that keeps me smiling. Even though it’s not always simple– we have to set up the gas stove, general prep isn’t easy and neither are the dishes– but I enjoy nothing more than cooking up our breaky this way, it’s just more satisfying somehow. Abel and I pretty much alternate each morning whose turn it is to brew the hot pot of jo. We’ve talked about how we really love either end of that– I love getting coffee made for me while I’m still snuggled in bed, but I also love making it for Abel and watching him enjoy the steamy cup whilst tucked in. The simple things.

 

As for places, we’ve been to quite a few in the past few months. Sometimes I feel like we’re speeding along and then I stop and look back over the course of the week and think shit, that felt like a fucking month ago… how did we even get to this point? Time operates differently on a road trip.

I want to talk about how much we loved Philadelphia, but it’s kind of hard to, based on the incident that occurred there. Abel and I were really keen to check this city out. My Nan and all of her family are from Philly, so I feel like that’s kind of where some of my roots are– my Dad was born there. Abel and I also love the show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. For anyone who doesn’t know it, it’s basically just a group of fucking idiots doing stupid, dickhead stuff all the time. Very intelligent humour.

Anyway, this got us really pumped for Philly. We spent the first part of our day exploring around the city centre, there were beautiful Christmas markets sprawling the open complex areas and we felt that holiday cheer beginning to creep on us. Rain splattered down as we enjoyed a German beer at the market, so we made a plan to head back towards the Ambo and grab a bite and a drink. After having a couple drinks and playing some pool before our food came out, I was starting to feel a little queasy– not highly unusual for me, I have a weak belly. After dinner, I was ready to call it quits. But it was a Saturday night and Abel was fairly intent on drinking.

 

He begged and dragged me to a cider bar. Which was awesome, I usually find that cider isn’t as common over here and I love nothing more than knocking back a cold, dry apple cider. We had a couple drinks each and then we tried the flight of different ciders, than we had another to ourselves. I thought we’d go home after this bar, but Abel had a specific location in mind. Maps up on his phone, he zeroed in and took me on a little journey to a certain street he remembered seeing. Turning the corner onto this street, I recognised it immediately. “This is from the opening of It’s Always Sunny! Look at the lights!”

I must say, life was different as soon as you walked down this street– things were happening, people were about. On the surrounding roads, there was the occasional sweet restaurant or boutique bar, but the vibe was unlike this one. Colours shined bright, people poured out of shops and bars, they lingered on the streets dressed in incredible attire, homeless men sat humbly with their dogs. Abel and I shared a glance and a giggle and thought yep, this is where it’s happening. We made our way into a bar that was fairly busy and Abel was immediately content. “This is what I wanted– to be in a real Philly bar, just like It’s Always Sunny.” The top of the drink menu said: $5 MARGARITAS. ALL DAY, EVERY DAY. Sold. We had one, and then another, and then things went a little pear-shaped. I remember talking at length with a guy chowing down on a burger next to us. He told us about how liberal Philly is, how he spent his whole life here, how much he hated Trump etc. I remember making friends with a group of women in their 30s to my right. They laughed at how young I was, saying they had kids my age– but they shared their penis straws with me and stood up for me when the barmaid cut me off after I spilled my second margarita. Fair enough. Then she kicked me out and Abel proceeded to call her “Dee” (It’s Always Sunny character) and tell her to chill out– fairly certain she didn’t hear it or catch on. Things went hazy after that. I remember walking out of the bar and struggling to keep my eyes open.

Fast forwards a few hours and I woke up in the ambulance, fully dressed with a throbbing palm and lip. Abel stirred and said, “can you please grab me a pillow?” It appeared he hadn’t been using one.

“Sure. Where’s yours?” I responded.

“I threw up on it.” Oh. “When did you throw up?” I asked.

“Right after you did.” Well, that was news to me. I have no recollection of that happening. For a while I drifted in and out of sleep and I slowly became aware that the red stuff on my sheets wasn’t blood from my hand, but it was vomit. Great, I was laying in Abel’s vomit. Turns out I had it in my hair too. I arose not too long later and noticed that Abel’s shoes on the floor to my left were covered in vomit. It was definitely mine, and I don’t need to explain how I knew that.

“I am so confused about what happened. How did we get here and why is my hand cut open?”

Abel then told me about how I had tripped over a bike on our walk home. I have a vague memory of falling and biting my lip. Another memory attempted to form: a burning sensation rising in my throat. Trying to think about the night before made me want to be sick again.

That entire Sunday was spent cleaning vomit from the ambulance and sitting in a laundromat for three hours as we washed all our bedding, sheets and any vomit covered clothes.

We shouldn’t be allowed alcoholic beverages, and we’ve been mostly tame since that incident. There was no further sight seeing to be had in Philly. Instead, we dozed in our clean bed, parked on the side of a main road, as it continued to rain and be gloomy.

Despite the incident that caused a lot of pain– pain that continued in the coming weeks as I dealt with an infected and healing hand wound– Philly is one of my favourite places we’ve been.

We actually got to go to an Amish market on our way out there. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. It was not as I expected it to be. To be fair, it was probably better. But you know, I envisioned a barn with some tables of assorted goods and everything to be sold in cash. This Amish market was located in a shopping complex, like where you’d find a grocery store, a bank, a pet shop and a hairdressers. It was an enormous set out market with separate vendors; fruit & veg, a bakery, meat, cheese, health, lollies, etc. Everything was perfect. Picture perfect; the stuff you see in magazines and think nothing looks that good in real life. Here, it existed and it was real and every single thing we bought was mouth-watering.

I was perplexed by the Amish people though. We studied Amish communities during Society and Culture in year 11 and I expected them to be…more old-fashioned, I suppose. Some of them were wearing crocs. CROCS! They were using credit card machines, and when my card had a bit of an issue, the young Amish girl spoke to me like she was very in-tune with the modern technologies of payment. Sure, this would be learned from working in a place like this, but they just felt so close to modern technology that I was a little baffled about how “old-school” they actually are.

 

My next favourite place was Salem, Massachusetts. Which is funny because we had another incident there. I won’t flesh it out like I did with Philly– it’s not nearly as interesting. To put it briefly, we woke up there on our first morning with all four of our car batteries not just flat, but completely dead. It took us a while to realise that’s what was going on. The car had to be towed and spend the night in the shop. While this was not something our budget really had room for, it allowed us to spend a night at the Salem Inn and escape the negative temperatures.

Salem is known for the witch trials that happened there in the 1600s. I have been fascinated by witches since I was a little girl. I dressed up as one multiple times for Halloween (being an October baby, I always had Halloween birthday parties too). I loved the anime movie, Kiki’s Delivery Service. I thought there was one living in my closet for the better part of my childhood. Whenever I was being a little brat, my Mum used to call me “witchy poo”– I think she still wants to a lot of the time.

Regardless, I was intrigued by the historical events in Salem and was super keen to learn all about it. Our original plan had us visiting Salem in October, possibly over Halloween. We learned while we were there that October in Salem is complete mayhem– you can barely walk. It’s amazing, but crowded. In some ways, I was grateful we didn’t make it there until December.

We’d spent all day dealing with the car, but we made it to check-in at the Salem Inn just in time for our haunted and historical walking tour of the town. This went for just about two hours and was incredible. Our tour guide was especially spectacular; she told each and every story with such conviction, passion and expression– and there were only four of us! You couldn’t help but be glued to her face.

The funny thing is, the Salem witch trials only lasted for 1 year… back in the 1600s. One year in Salem’s history and this city is known as “the witch city”. Police cars have witches on them, lots of signs for different business have a witch or a cat or broomstick incorporated somehow. Modern day witchcraft shops litter the city. Modern day witchcraft is real and not evil and to be totally honest with you, I’m thinking of converting. Converting from the religion I do not have to join Wicca. Basically they believe in lots of natural stuff, things to do with the seasons and astrology and their “gods” are both male and female– neither gender dominates. It sounds pretty radical. I will continue to read up on it.

 

Salem has such an epic history aside from the witch trials. They were totally interesting and a really huge part of the city’s history– 20 something innocent people were killed and this has lead to a huge part of the city’s identity today. Not to mention, these people were not actually witches. If something was not explained by God, then it was the devil’s work and was witchcraft. If you were different, a social outcast or a spinster, you were a witch. Salem is 400 years old though, so a lot happened in this place apart from the trials. It was a wealthy area, a shipping port for 80 years prior to the trials. Many of the buildings built back then, still stand. A couple 100 years before Australia was “founded” aka invaded by white men. The old Town Hall and derby square consists of these original buildings. Our tour guide told us stories that happened in our exact standing location, 300-400 years earlier. Many buildings in Salem are haunted and while I’ve been skeptical at times, I am not completely opposed to ghost stories. I genuinely believed most of what she told us about recurring ghosts in certain town buildings. It just kind of makes sense to me.

Salem is stunning because of these ancient buildings and the rich history made it a really exciting place to explore.

This grand boulevard is Chestnut Street. The wealthiest street in Salem in the 1800s and still is today. People would to elegant parties here. Some of these mansions are selling for $700k. Below the average house price in Gerringong… crazy.

The original Town Hall. Scenes from Hocus Pocus were filmed on the top storey.

The Salem Inn, where we stayed. So beautiful and cosy, with a fireplace. Apparently a ghost cat lives here. Wished I’d seen it. 

 

There’s a little bit about our experience with some of the places and moments I’ve longed for. I’ve realised I’m not always going to be writing or story-telling consecutively. You’re gonna get little snippets here and there and some might have more to do with a theme. These are just some of the moments or times on our trip that have made me really happy. They’re some of the times that I already find myself looking back on often.

It’s funny though, because I really wanted to keep this post on a positive note, ya know. Really highlight some of the greater moments, the better places etc. (even though Philly and Salem are tainted with a bit of error, they’ve been two of my favourites) and since beginning to write it, we’ve had all these funny/weird/shitty things happen and that’s all that’s been playing on my mind. The irony, hey.

I’ll tell y’all about that in good time.

PS. I knew I picked up accents easily– mine has been a serious Aussie-US hybrid since our arrival– but now we’re in the dirty south and I sound like a full-blown southerner at times. Lawd, help me.

 

A.