Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Invitation to Breakfast

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Boris Johnson
Mayor of London
Greater London Authority
City Hall
The Queen’s Walk
More London
London SE1 2AA

8th April 2009

An Invitation to Breakfast

Dear Boris,

Firstly, I’d like to congratulate you on your first year in office. Even your most fervent of critics must be dining out on a large portion of humble pie. And it is on the subject of dining that I am writing, in particular breakfast. I invite you to join me for breakfast at my home in Hammersmith, where we can feast upon delicious home made pancakes, with fresh fruit and lashings of authentic Canadian maple syrup. All washed down with Borough Market’s finest fresh coffee.

After breakfast, I would then like you to join me on my regular commute by bicycle to my workplace in Wells Street, just off Oxford Street. This journey will, I sincerely hope, demonstrate the absolutely woeful provisions for cyclists in West London. The highlights of the journey I shall now tempt you with.

How To Survive Shepherd’s Bush Roundabout

The coffee earlier consumed is of paramount importance at the start of the journey. You’ll need to be awake. We will cycle past the monolithic Westfield Centre with its three lanes of traffic and join the fearful Shepherd’s Bush roundabout. When the Westfield developers planned the new traffic routes, there was an attempt by local residents to get a cycle path installed across the middle on the roundabout, in order to provide them with a safe route across one of the busiest and most dangerous junctions in London. Sadly, the land belongs to Thames Water, and they just weren’t interested in lending this redundant land to the community. So, around the roundabout we’d go, dodging the myriad of cars, buses and lorries as they scream up towards the M41 motorway.

The Ascent of Notting Hill

Having successfully navigated the roundabout, we’d crawl up Holland Park Avenue and gingerly thread ourselves around the tightly packed traffic. This road is often blocked, so unless you want to fill up your lungs with the effluent of large diesel engines, we’d have to overtake and take our chances with the oncoming traffic.

By the time we reach Notting Hill you’ll have worked up a good sweat – and the next part down Bayswater Road provides a welcome respite from gravity.

Lancaster Gate – London’s Peripherique

And then the real fun starts: Lancaster Gate. This junction is a 4 lane semi-orbital in which you have to cross all lanes not just once, but twice before rejoining the road going East. In fact, this part of the journey is so dangerous that almost all cyclists use the pavement on the westbound part of the Bayswater Road, just north of Hyde Park.

Now obviously I would never do something as evil as cycling on a pavement, so we’d dismount and walk the 200 metres to Victoria Gate where we can join the North Carriage Drive, just inside the park. There’s always plenty of Community Support Officers lying in wait with their charge sheets, should anyone attempt otherwise.

Hyde one-doesn’t-do-bikes Park

At this part of the journey it would be apparent to you that we are not using Hyde Park. The entire stretch up Bayswater Road, including the aforementioned peripherique-from-hell, could be bypassed by using the park. Alas, the reason for this apparent anomaly is because cycles have been banned. Yes, astonishing but sadly true. I have had numerous “conversations” with the friendly park’s constabulary about this, but they insist that cycling around Buckhill Lodge contravenes Health and Safety on grounds that it is too steep. The Queen also, apparently, frowns upon all things 2-wheeled (a bit like Westminster Council),
and I guess she knows best about these matters. Just imagine the lure to even the most dedicated of tube users of commuting in this idyllic environment.

Regents Street Obstacle Course

So, finally, we enjoy the delights of Hyde Park itself, safe from congested traffic, fumes and over-exuberant special constables gathering £30 from all unsuspecting cyclists. Past Speaker’s Corner and over Park Lane, past the American Embassy surrounded by legions of machine-gun toting policemen, and onto Regents Street. The utopia of relative carefree cycling ends as we’d again muscle ourselves in between the buses and taxis. Here we’d play a great game called “avoid being squashed by the bendy-bus”. The incredulity you’d experience at their apparent willingness to overtake and immediately stop will by surpassed by their ability to block every lane of the carriageway, at the slightest hint of a corner or parked vehicle.

We’d part company towards Wells Street, which would be my destination and I would thank you for enduring this ordeal with me. Or perhaps you would stay to watch my futile attempts to find somewhere to lock the bike, which you’d likely find highly amusing. You’d then have the unenviable prospect of navigating your way down to City Hall to your own workplace. Perhaps one day I will join you, just to see how I could get myself killed in a different part of London.

In case you don’t have time to join me for breakfast and the subsequent adventure, I sincerely hope that you will appreciate that the provisions for cycling in London are embarrassing at best, and lethal at worst.

Personally, I would hope that the Mayor of London would have it in his or her power to finally get to grips with this situation and actually get some decent cycle lanes built. Paris managed it along with their wonderful Velib system, so why in heaven’s name can’t London? When the Olympics come in 2012, all visitors would clearly understand why we have a world class cycling team – because the only place we can safely cycle is within the confines of a velodrome.

I very much look forward to you joining me for breakfast.

Yours sincerely,


Part 3: Nooing

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

Nooing [kuh-noo-ing] verb, a form of amphibious travel around lakes and forests wearing a canoe on your head. See also knackered.

The plan
Having survived the American experience driving across the south of the Great Lakes, it wasn’t long before the intrepid explorers developed itchy feet in the sweltering Montreal metropolis. The vast majority of the Great Lakes, we discovered, were great in terms of scale but otherwise quite disappointing – in particular the ability to swim without emerging glowing green and sprouting an extra set of ears. Our mission was incomplete, we had to venture further, this time to the north of Montreal. It is no coincidence that 90% of the population of Canada live with 100 miles of the US border for not only for climatic reasons (even Montrealers live in a cryogenic state for 6 months each year), but also practical – it’s only lakes, trees, ice (and a smattering of hardy indigenous Inuits). In short, it’s not particularly hospitable, unless you’re an insect but more about that later.

If you’ve ever flown from the UK to American Pacific coast, then chances are you’ve flown over Canada and gazed out of the window for hours, marvelling at the relentlessly static scenery below: trees and lots and lots of lakes, in fact over 2 million of them. Occasionally you’ll see a road chiselled into the landscape in unwavering fashion for hundreds of miles, but they hardly constitute a comprehensive road system which leaves transportation restricted to seaplanes and boats. North American Indians have been navigating the lakes, streams and forests very effectively for thousands of years using a canoe (or “kenu”, which translates as dugout). However, as canoes are not particularly effective over land they are constructed such that they can easily be carried. For reasons devoid of sympathy with the human form, the preferred method is to stick the canoe on your head – or “portage”, from the French porter, to carry.

The planning phase of our new trip involved consultancy with Benoit, a good friend of Alison. He’s the kind of guy to whom no mountain is too high, no ice too cold, no bear to tough, no paddling too arduous and no portage too long. Two options were presented: a long drive to La Verendrye, a series of large lakes with few portages, or a shorter drive to Papineau-Labelle with smaller lakes and longer portages. I still had a sore heel from my impromptu trip across hot coals a few weeks prior, but this was nothing compared to the back injury I received in a bizarre tennis incident. Benoit suggested a highly ambitious route encompassing each and every one of the lakes in the Papineau-Labelle area. The gauntlet clanked to the ground and the shorter drive won. No contest.

Our intention was to drive out on the Thursday 26th July and back on the Saturday, so off to the car hire shop I went. I had pretty good car-karma last time and was confident of another budget car upgrade. Like last time they were out of crap cars, but unlike last time I was instead downgraded to a masquerading lawnmower.

Road to nowhere
Bags packed, food stashed, lawnmower filled and northwards we headed. A few hours up the highway, a sharp turn left, continue for 40 mins down an ever narrowing road and to Nominingue – comprised of a couple of streets, hunting shops, some bars and plenty of tumble weed. Turn left, right, right again, left (these were Benoit’s directions) and down to end of the road – at least as far as the tarmac was concerned. We proceeded in our unsuitable car navigating the increasingly rocky “road” for another hour until we found the state park office. We registered or intentions and took more arbitrary directions that we followed for another 30 mins until we eventually found the canoe “put-in” site by the lake. It looked as though we were about to receive a stern safety lecture from the solitary guy tending the site, but not quite; he handled us a couple of paddles, waved in the general direction of the canoes and disappeared.

put in

Our luggage was one large rucksack each and a smaller one containing essential items, like camera, car keys and a map. We hauled them into the canoe and slid off into the lake estuary, quickly reacquainting ourselves with canoe protocols essential for forward propulsion. We were on Lac des Sept Frères, a 9km lake and the longest in the series which, according to the map, was home to 12 campsites. I should qualify the expression campsite: it is a small clearing in the forest, chosen for logistical and scenic qualities. It accommodates a bunch of rocks to house a fire and a designated toilet area – an inverted bucket with a hole. The only clue to the existence of the campsites and portage routes are small yellow signs stuck on trees. There is no booking system – if a campsite is occupied then onwards you go. The first few sites we passed were full and mild concern immediately stuck us.


Lac des Sept Frères
At the first vacant campsite we presumed the trend towards solitude would only increase. Our theory proved quite correct, so onwards we paddled, for an hour up to the end of the lake by which time it was 5pm and time to start thinking about making camp. According to our map, there was one smaller lake beyond Lac des Sept Frères, home to a single site on its northern peninsula and connected via a 185 metre portage. Should this site be occupied we would have no choice but to turn back. Never a couple to shirk a challenge, we took the risk – we figured that portaging would be an anathema to most normal people, even relatively short ones like this.


We landed on the beach at the northern shore of Lac des Sept Frères to a welcoming party of mosquitoes, deer flies and horse flies. I was lucky enough to encounter the last remaining seasonally confused blackfly of the year, a bug that maybe minuscule in size but is 98% teeth, 2% aggression and chomps away at your skin leaving a scene reminiscent of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The advise from Benoit had been clear: wear lots of clothes whilst portaging; with your arms occupied carrying the canoe, you are unable to prevent the gazillion bugs from feasting on your sweaty skin. To make matters, mosquitoes are actually attracted by carbon dioxide, which collects in abundance inside an upturned canoe as you huff and puff underneath. Naturally I nominated Alison for the first portage. It took us down a tiny track deep into the bug infested woods and emerged 10 minutes later at the foot of “Lovers Lake” (not, I believe, its official name), covered in sweat and insect bites. But it was well worth the effort as we were now standing by the most beautiful lake imaginable – and it seemed to be all ours. As we paddled towards the designated campsite, guided by a speck of yellow on the other side of the lake, it became apparent that our gamble had paid off – we were very much alone.

Lovers Lake
Upon reaching the site, we unloaded the canoe and surveyed our territory with huge satisfaction and not insignificant awe. First task: swim. As modesty wasn’t exactly an issue here, we jettisoned stinky cloths and jumped straight in. Soap is a bad idea not only for ecological reasons, but also because bugs love the perfume, and we weren’t a fan of bugs. Now, you may think it sounds nice to swim naked in a huge fresh water lake, golden sunshine beating down, completely alone – but you’d be mistaken. It is one of the most privileged experiences I have ever had, and renders all superlatives meaningless. You can feel every cell in your body realign themselves to form one huge continuous grin. All the cats in Cheshire would be humbled. I think you get the idea.

lovers lake

After the swim, the soap-dodgers attended to more mundane matters, like water, food and shelter. For the former, we had bought a small water purifier that resembled a deflated octopus. My task was to erect the hammock, and Alison’s to get some water. After 30 minutes of trying to remember the bowline knot, I gave up and deployed industrial grade granny knots to attach the hammock between a couple of trees – but no sign of Alison. I went over to see how she was getting on and was greeted to quite a sight: balancing precariously on a large rock over the lake, she had one tube wedged between her toes holding the spout as deep into the water as she could manage, the purifier cylinder clenched between her knees, one hand holding another tube aiming purified water into a bottle, leaving the remainder of her limbs to operate the pump with varying success. I was expecting to hear the sound of bagpipes at any moment.

The tent was erected in 3 mins flat, ensuring – as always – that the tent flaps opened to a prime view of the lake.

I scuttled into the woods and collected armfuls of deadwood (each one an entomological study) and lit a large fire. Finally we had respite from the bugs – with the exception of a few persistent mosquitoes that had evolved with fireproof jackets. For dinner we had gravadlax with fresh dill sauce, followed by pan fried duck breast, parsnip puree, roast shallots and fresh mange tout. Well, that’s what the packet said – though it looked like lentil stew to me and tasted significantly worse. After dinner, we retired to the hammock to share a glass of port (yes really) and as we watched the sun gently slide down behind the tree tops casting long shadows over the tranquil lake, we considered if it was possible to be any more smug. We concluded, unanimously, that it was not.


Time for a bit of domesticity before turning in for the night, which involved the usual anti-bear tactic of tying up all foodstuffs, sun cream and toothpaste high up a tree, creeping into the tent in darkness and zipping everything shut before turning on the torch and swatting all opportunistic mosquitoes.

The Loon is an aquatic bird native to North America (and some parts of Europe where it is unimaginatively called “diver”), and takes its name from one of their calls that resembles the yodel of drunken lout. Their second call is very different – a haunting and melancholic two-tone cry that echoes across the lake and makes the hairs on the back on your neck stand to attention – the kind of sound that one, thankfully, never forgets. They are quiet remarkable feeders: they gently cruise the water surface and in an instant disappear to the bottom of the lake for minutes at a time, only to reappear in a completely different part of the lake with a beak full of fish. Being very solitary, when you hear two calling to each other across a lake it’s really quite a treat. Unless you’re trying to get to sleep. But the loons weren’t the biggest source of noise that night – the prize for the most repetitive and annoying sound in nature goes to the bull frog. All night long there were two chatting away to each other. The conversation seemed like, “hello bob, how you doing”, “am doing good tom, how are you” – all bloody night long, without a break. I considered adding some choice language of my own, but was worried that I might give them something to talk about. To add to the cacophony, a small family of mosquitoes had taken refuge between the tent’s flysheet and inner sheet and were busy murdering Handel’s Messiah. That’s the problem with real nature – it makes a hell of a racket.

The following morning we took a swim in our lake and surveyed the bug bites on our legs and arms over our oatmeal and fresh coffee breakfast. Time for another taxing day in the lakes. With increased bravado, we plotted a course that encompassed plenty of portages through a series of small lakes to the east of Lac des Sept Frères. We packed the clothes explosion back into our rucksacks, tucked our waste into a tiny bag and left paradise just as we’d found it. I’d love a recording of people’s first reaction to this site – there’d be some very rich language.


Whilst paddling down Lovers Lake, we had the fortune of a closer encounter with a couple of Loons, who were having a chat across opposite sides of the lake. Against a backdrop of total silence, they called to one another in their inimitable haunting hoots. We sat motionless in the canoe utterly transfixed by this astonishing performance, each call echoing around the lake with the kind of piercing clarity that fills your ears and your heart to bursting point. I’d love to know what they were talking about – maybe it was about us.

For the return portage we cheated – we just picked up the canoe at either end and simply carried it, which proved an adequate arrangement for the 185m back to Lac des Sept Frères. Once back on the main lake we quickly found the small gap in the trees (with the mandatory “caution, canoe on head” sign) indicating the next portage. Confident with our alternative hands-on canoe carrying technique, we set off into another bug infested wood, again leaving all our bags behind for the next relay. This portage had the added inconvenience of a steep and hill, some rotten wooden planks over a stream and several large boulders covered in slime. When carrying something as awkward and heavy as a canoe, it takes all the strength you can muster, until your body reaches breaking point and the canoe drops instantaneously to the ground. That day we managed four portages, 815m in total, visiting Lac Diamond, Lac Labelle and Lac Mercier on the way. We seemed to be getting deeper and deeper into inhospitable territory, with the lakes becoming smaller and swampier.


Alison was at the front of the canoe and was always the first to set foot upon new lands, each time greeted with a small welcoming party of frogs, to her obvious delight. Lac Diamond was renamed Frog Lake in their honour. There was a pattern developing here: the more frogs there were, the fewer the bugs. This gave me an idea that harnessed the appetite of frogs, and so I invented the Frog Hat, in which one attaches a large frog on your head, to sit there happily munching on all the insects before they land on your face. Pure symbiosis – man and frog in perfect harmony. Patent Pending.


Damn Dams and Idiots
The destination for the next evening was Lac des Grandes Baies, bordering another state park whose size alone promised a less swampy and bug infested habitat. Only a small channel separated “Inexplicable Spruce Lake” from our destination, so we were confident of an early end to our arduous day. Confident, that is, until we discovered that a platoon of beavers had beaten us to it and had erected their own version of Hoover dam. After a brief conference, we decided to run the dam head on. We retreated back up the channel, brought the canoe about and paddled like mad towards the dam. Faster and faster and faster as we sped towards the target, ripping though water, white foam churning from our paddles, the dam looming towards us – the point of the canoe struck the dam square on with a “thunk”, making a 2 cm indentation in a small stick and rendering the canoe motionless in an instant. The hight differential was probably only about a foot between both sides, but as we wrestled the canoe perilously over, it seemed more like Niagra falls. With the canoe unbreached and our bags dry, we hopped back in and slid away through the rushes – one more obstacle of nature satisfyingly negotiated – and headed into the jaws of the next big lake. It soon became apparent why beavers had built the damn where they did, for within 3 minutes of paddling we noticed an all too familiar sound becoming louder and louder. We watched in horror as the speed boat careered towards us, music blaring and forging a canoe sized tsunami in its wake. He saw us staring at him, but didn’t bother to acknowledge us grubby primates with contempt filled eyes. Oh well, back to reality.

Runs in the woods
The campsite was quickly found as the boats vacated the lake and peace returned once more. This lake was much bigger with a few large cabins and wooden houses incongruously poking out of the trees towards the horizon. Settling into the campsite, it was easy to pretend the kind of solitude from the previous night, so up went the tent, hammock and fire and our bizarre normality resumed. That evening’s menu was exactly the same as the previous, just with a different name. Which was just as well because despite our best efforts with the water purifier something wasn’t quite right inside me – stirrings of colonic mutiny caused me to spontaneously disappear into the woods on a number of occasions, leaving Alison quietly chattering away to herself. Sleep was not a problem that night, thanks mainly to exhaustion and the cunning fabrication of ear plugs from some gauze in our first aid kit, having made a pact to avoid all sharp objects for the next 24 hours.

Portage of doom
The weather up to this point had been quite perfect – the bluest of skies and hottest sunshine, but this all changed the following morning as a grey misty blanket enveloped the entire lake. This was good news for two reasons: the idiot in the powerboat would probably take longer over his champagne breakfast, but more significantly for us, it would provide respite from the heat as we attempted our longest single portage – 920m back to Frog Lake that would then lead us back to Lac des Sept Frères and eventually back to the car. The idea of separate portages for the canoe and bags was dismissed and I was determined to prove alpha-male credentials by portaging properly and carry both rucksack and canoe together for the whole distance. Perhaps the trickiest part of portaging is getting the damn thing on your head in the first place, which involved the two of us doing an erratic Laurel and Hardy dance. Once there, a conveniently positioned yoke sits across your shoulders to take the weight and you grab an arms-length wooden strut that enables stability and some sort of steering. Amazingly, the canoe is perfectly balanced and, for a while, feels like regular walking with a large and cumbersome fibreglass hat. An illusion that dissipates after approximately10 steps as the yoke digs the full weight of the canoe into your shoulder blades. Nevertheless, we trudged into the woods in high spirits – even the steep and treacherously slippery hill was manageable. The biggest problem is that holding your arms out in front of you like this makes your chest tighten and renders deep breathing quite difficult, not ideal at the best of times but especially problematic when you’re gasping for air.

40 minutes later, three canoe drops, more bug bites than was possible to count, we reached Frog Lake to rapturous croaks from our amphibian friends. Nearly there. We took the last 220m portage in our stride, literally, and as we arrived at the main lake we met another group of pristine nooists surveying the entrance with trepidation. We must have looked as though we’d come from a different planet (a very dirty one), and the expression on their faces dropped even further. We bade them a cheery “bonjour” as if passing neighbours on a street, but these were the first people we’d encountered in nearly 3 days – with the exception of the idiot in the boat – and it felt rather odd.

We passed the rest of the day paddling very, very slowly down Lac des Sept Frères, devoid of the faintest of breezes that afforded a mirror like surface to double the spectacular view. Herons gracefully and silently swooned over the tree tops, landing in inelegant heaps on improbably small branches that buckled under the huge weight, loons hooted and disappeared without a trace, dragonflies perched on the canoe enjoying the free ride – another hectic day in the life of a lake.

7 freres

We swam a few laps around a small island before demolishing the remainder of our rations, packing up for the last time and headed back to the put-in to rejoin the world. We journeyed back to Montreal in our little crap car and headed straight to the washing machine. It was doubly sad time, not only leaving the lakes but within a few days I’d also be leaving Montreal for London. We both vowed to return to do more nooing, perhaps in even more remote areas (of which there are plenty) and hopefully for a longer stay.

That’s the end of the story folks – I hope I’ve given you a tiniest taste of my trips and impart some of the wonderful experiences I’m lucky enough to have had. For the nooing trip in particular, it would be easy to glaze over details with a bunch of superlatives, but the details themselves should set apart reality against hype. Most Canadians who read this would probably just shrug and say, “yep, that’s Canada”, but they’d probably be reluctant to shout about it too much. Can’t say I blame them.

Who Killed The Great Lakes?

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

Once upon a time there was a couple, one from Montreal, one from London, who decided to take a road trip from Minnesota to Montreal to try and get a taste of the American Way.

2nd July

America’s a big country. Very big. It reminds me of Ben Nevis, just when you think you’re at the top, you turn a corner to find yet another expanse of what you’ve just been trudging through. I remember Alison and I driving from London to Devon in May, and her observation was interesting: a kaleidoscopic landscape that’s manically changing form, shape and size, from urban to rural, from quaint to concrete, from trees to fields, every permutation dazzling her senses – in particular her sense of balance that couldn’t quite cope and made her a bit car sick. America (and, on good authority, Canada), is different. You could be driving down the road, set the car on cruise control, kick the seat back, close your eyes and sleep soundly for 10 hours, only to awaken to precisely the same relentless scenery prior to your slumber.

We had everything organised: a car, credit cards, a destination (Montreal) and the cheapest road map available. This map covered America (including Alaska), Canada and Mexico in the vaguest detail imaginable. It was more a guide than a map.

Another difference between driving in the US and Britain, aside from the obvious, are speed limits, which are set at state level and varies from slow to really slow. We picked up a hire car at Duluth, on the western most tip of Lake Superior – the cheapest car available, naturally. We were delighted to hear that Avis had run out of really crap cars and so had to supply us with a not-so crap car. It was a Chevrolet and predominately white. The steering wheel had more buttons than an F1 car, including an array of tempting instruments for cruise control. What excitement.

It wasn’t long before I was playing with the cruise console to see if I could drive the car without using the pedals. Approximately 2.4 minutes into this experiment, the rear view mirror was awash with familiar blue flashing lights. The cop who pulled me over seemed barely old enough to drive himself and asked me why I was driving 20mph over the speed limit. I had no decent reply for him, so I gave him a faultless impression of Hugh Grant instead. His smug, follicle-free face soon developed deep furrows when he took my British driving licence that screamed “bureaucracy” to him. Begrudgingly he handed back my licence after 5 tense minutes and suggested I watch my speed. Thanks Hugh.

We decided to spend the first night in Marquette, Michigan, 250 miles down the dull road from Duluth. Due to the complete lack of bends, I assumed we were on a Roman road, but I have it on good authority that they never made it this far. Michigan comprises of an upper peninsular running east/west and a lower peninsular running north/south. The lower peninsular contains 99.9999% of the population, with the remaining 6 people on the upper peninsular (figures approx). The night was black, the road empty with the exception of startled deer lurking dangerously by the roadside. One of Alison’s cousins recently had an incident with one of these dumb animals, causing terminal damage to both car and deer, so our minds simultaneously filled with visions of a similar catastrophe – right in the middle of bumblefuck nowhere (technical expression). We slowed down and drove nervously to Marquette, arriving at 11pm, exceedingly knackered. So what did the hardened, committed campers do? That’s right, we checked straight into the Ramada Hotel and got a wonderful night’s sleep.

3th July

Next day we explored Marquette, slowly. Slowly because I had a burnt foot from accidentally walking on hot coals the previous week and as it had started to swell up, the only walking I could manage was on my toes. I tried my utmost not to look camp. Michigan is not noted for its liberalism, so Marquette was quite an anomaly – an exceeding clean college town, with delicious bakeries run by hippies and a breakfast café run by God’s staff. The local school kids had been hard at work creating “grandma tribute” boards on the path down to the marina, substituting for historical figures where necessary (either that or there were some very old school kids).

We popped into God’s café for a Godly breakfast that also housed a small bookshop selling all manner of self improvement guides, with God. “How To Get Your Man (with God)”, “How To Find The Perfect Wife (with God)”, “How To Cut Your Toenails, God’s Way”, “I Used To Be An Idiot, But Now I Write Useless Books – With God!!”. Spooky. By our table there was a door that opened up directly onto the car park, 3 stories below. Troubling. This is religious country and, unlike me, they take it very seriously indeed. We thought it only appropriate to buy a small statue of Mary for the car for $3.20 (not bad for a saint) – kind of divine insurance and set off for the next destination.

mary in a dash

You may gather by it’s name that Lake Superior is quite large. About 400 miles across, which is like having a lake that stretches between London and Glasgow. Driving along the lake was too tempting for Alison who suggested a swim. I declined. She swam. She was having way too much fun out there. I also swam. The odd thing is that it’s big enough to have proper waves just like a real sea, except with unsalted water. Of all the pollutants it did have, salt wasn’t one of them.

Alison’s brother Eric, kindly donated some CDs for our trip, with various Beatles offerings and other choice songs like “Love Me, Love Me, I’m a Liberal”, “Are You Drinkin’ With Me Jesus” and “Atomic Power” – all sung in satirical country style (ex Dead Kennedy’s, for the music aficionados). After 3 days we had, for some reason, stopped listening to music altogether. We were far too busy talking nonsense and playing futile eye-spy, a game not designed for the American Mid West.

First campsite, Otsego State Park Michigan (just past, ahem, “Gaylord”). In my idea of camping one brushes with mother nature and attempts to get back to basics, attempt self sufficiency, bond with earth, sky, sea and fire (oh, especially fire) and generally rekindle that primitive spirit that’s been suffocated with the sterile trappings of modern life. Well, you get the idea. Americans feel a similar calling, except they do it with camper vans the size of apartment blocks, with generators, satellite dishes, gas powered BBQ racks, sound systems, bicycles and speed boats. The following day was 4th of July – Independence Day (the day when the British gave the US to the Americans as an act of good will, or something like that) – and an excuse to deck out the sites in lavish decorations, giant flags, bunting, flashing lights – reminiscent of Hamleys on Christmas Eve. We had a tent, a small car and some smelly clothes, and felt satisfyingly invisible. Everything Americans do is 46% larger, 54% brighter and 83% louder than everyone else.

The tent construction had become a slick operation by now, with the noticeable exception of the inflatable double mattress for which we tried, and failed, to find an appropriate foot pump to match my obscure European model. It took 15 minutes of headrush puffing and a cold beer, which was to become a daily ritual.

4th July – American Independence Day

The following morning we witnessed the (hilarious) 4th July parade where all small children were dispatched to do a lap around the campsite, on bicycles smothered in more bunting. The campsite was awash in red white’n’ blue and yee-haw! By the time the procession got to us they were on the home straight and the tail end were looking decidedly shabby, much to the angst of the proud parents on this most important of days as they pushed little Tommy Jr. towards the finishing line (wouldn’t do to be last, I guess).
4th july

Our tiny gas-stove meal comprised of ham, lentils, onions, stock, potatoes and was truly delicious. I suspect that roast badger would have tasted good to us as expectations of gastronomic fulfilment are never high when camping, so anything vaguely nutritious becomes a culinary triumph. This became our staple diet over the next few says, until the point at which we both instinctively declared “oh not bloody lentils again”. We soon switched to authentic mountaineering-grade meal packets of dried “stuff”.

Heading down the southern peninsular a lake swim was calling in Lake Huron. Our so called “map” steered us to the sunny shores of the lake via numerous dead ends and terrifying country roads that lived in an age somewhere between Deliverance and Mad Max. Eventually Mary, begrudgingly perched on the dashboard, directed us towards lake Huron, complete with a swamp and a bunch of dead fish. This was both pretty shocking and saddening, especially for Alison being a native North American. So, no swimming for us.

Back in the car and towards Detroit, home of the motor car and Motown. Sadly, Detroit’s proud industry has taken a bit of a nosedive, mainly thanks to Ford, and the centre has turned into something of a black ghetto filled with unemployed people who cannot afford to leave the city and continue their ‘American Dream’. I wanted to drive through and take a look for myself, but was dissuaded on grounds of personal safety and time. When you drive in America, the roadside is littered with huge billboards that shout “MAC DONALDS!!”, “REAL ESTATE!!”, “TACO BELL!!”, “HUGE CASINO!!”, “YOUR DREAM CAR HERE!!” etc etc, everything encouraging you to invest your bucks in this or that indulgence. When you approach areas of deprivation, the billboards are suddenly concerned with your health & welfare and every conceivable type of insurance is insisted. One, for example, offering help after your impending stroke, as if having a stroke was an inevitable consequence of living. All rather troubling, but at the same time the American Way Of Life was all starting to make sense. Am not sure what happened to the Great American Dream, but it seemed more and more like the party had ended and the hangover was starting to kick in.

We went to a Walmart. Oh my God. If you can imagine 40 Asda supermarkets stapled together, then you still haven’t come close to the sheer monstrous size of these shopping hellholes. You may think that choice is a good thing, especially in the capital of consumerism, but the truth is that you don’t get that much choice, just different brand names of the same sterile processed junk that they laughably claim as food. The fresh veg section is predictably minuscule and largely avoided by the shopping masses as they waddle around with trolleys the size of cement mixers. By law in America every food package has a table printed on the back entitled “Nutrition Facts”. This makes interesting reading but omits the fact that the majority of staple ingredients are genetically modified. Europe has so far, thankfully, resisted GM foods – on the surface at least. And as for any organic produce in Walmart, forget it. There was, however, the longest isle of cookies I’ve every seen and plenty were purchased.

The suburbs of Detroit are, by contrast, very white and very affluent, and so we headed for another liberal haven called Ann Arbor, which was full of wifi cafes, students, Tibetan prayer flags and Birkenstocks. After all, we were on holiday and not on a sociological discovery, so we had a guilt-free feast before setting off for South Bass Island, on the south coast of Lake Erie, somewhere between Detroit and Cleveland. It was on this road that I discovered that Idiot Me had restocked on dollars at an ATM in Ann Arbor, but had walked away leaving my card poking out of the machine. D’oh.

The campsite on the island was stunning and the view from our tent over the lake was postcardesque. We were hot, sweaty and aching for a swim. The lake was an improvement on Huron, but the presence of floating green algae by the shore was troubling as this is often an indication of bacteria from pollution, so we restricted our bathing to matters south of the chin. We weren’t alone in the lake by any means, it’s just that everyone else was attached to either a noisy jet ski or huge power boat.
south bass

5th July

The site was run with military precision by a couple of distinctly odd man, seemingly acting out a ‘good host’/’bad host’ ruse with firewood. One would reluctantly sell you a bundle whilst the other staked out your site to nick it back at the first opportunity. The good host – wide as he was tall – affably discussed with us his ambition to travel to Ireland next year, “I just love islands!”, he exclaimed whilst donating back to us our own firewood. Almost certainly discharged from the military, almost certainly Iraq, most definitely disturbed.

6th July

South Bass island was so pleasant that we decided to give ourselves and the car a day off. We ventured to the main town on the island, the tourist part – big mistake. People don’t walk in America – I think it was banned a few years ago – they are obliged instead to use any type of 4-wheel vehicle. The preferred mode of transport for this town was golf carts, literally hundreds of them. Even the smallest of distances could not be negotiated without the aid of one of these silent, beige, electric blobs and alcohol for the driver appeared mandatory. This town, “Put-in-Bay”, was so ghastly that we sought sanctuary and found, of all places, a church. This gave us such a breath of sanity and peace that we lingered, in blissful silence for 10 minutes until serenely stepping back into the melée (even tripping over the doorstep on the way out couldn’t spoil my karma). Maybe this was what made religion such a magnetic force to Americans?

We were now at the southern most point in our trip – time to swing round to the east and cross the border towards Cleveland, Ohio. Curiously, in the US it’s customary to pronounce town’s name, followed by it’s state. In the UK we’d never say “Barnsley, Yorkshire” or “Guildford, Surrey” because the county is implicit. When you have a country where the regional areas are of similar size to most European countries, one cannot make the same assumption. The town of Springfield exists in 34 US states, and Richmond in 28. I know because I counted them on our “map” during a particularly tedious part of the journey, not that that’s any guarantee of accuracy. And so on we travelled through Pennsylvania (briefly) and into New York State, all in a single day.

Alison had cunningly booked our stay at South Bass Island in advance, which would account for our prime-spot campsite, but from now we were on our own, boldly going where the hell we liked. We asked Mary for some divine inspiration, who (somehow) guided us towards the Finger Lakes region. I made her a fetching sun hat made from banana skins for her troubles.

mary skinning up

With no more pre-booked campsites, there was always the possibility of being welcomed with “sorry, no vacancies”, after all, we were in peak holiday season. Thankfully most state parks reserve a number of tent sites for those who just arrive unannounced. Several times we’d find ourselves occupying one of the last available sites, but we were thankfully never turned away. It’s not like Europe where you can camp pretty much anywhere, albeit discretely; Americans love guns and landowners have the legal right to shoot trespassers first and ask questions later, not a recipe for a peaceful night’s sleep.

The Finger Lakes is a series of long lakes that resembled sinister long claw scratches and is a place of historical significance with its natural source of radioactive mineral springs. We chose Watkins Glen state park to camp for no other reason than it was the second closest to the the interstate road (we figured that the first closest site was statistically more likely to be full, based on 2% calculations and 98% hope)

Ironically, we chose a campsite devoid of any lake, but ample compensation was provided by a spectacular natural gorge. Our only problem was the depletion of our gas camping stove that was a type utterly alien to Walmart and the myriad of hardware stores we pestered. The proprietor of one such store had immense problems with my accent such that I gave up after the umpteenth impeccable English pronunciation of “camping gas”, only to discover that he was, in fact, deaf as a door post. We built fires, cooked our staple lentil broth and brewed our espresso coffee with satisfying ease.


7th July

After a trek up the gorge and a swim in the pool (urgh, chlorine) we headed for a state park in New York State called the Adirondacks (the pronunciation of which I have trouble with to this day). The Adirondacks is 3.5 times the size of Yosemite, which makes it really, really big.

As we entered the state park, we got a sense that we were venturing into real wilderness, a corner of the US whose mountainous expanse was faithfully preserved and conserved as authentic nature. This illusion was quickly shattered as we drove through a town called “Old Forge” that boasted a huge water slide park proudly entitled “Enchanted Forest Water Safari”, reminiscent Wally World, if you’ve ever seen the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation. Our toes curled and we sighed whilst passing this aberration, but we soon re-entered nature, with mountains, rain, pine trees, lakes and utterly deserted roads. Here we encountered a potential problem; we appeared to have broken the car. Not sure what we’d done but complaining noises were emerging from the engine department which had also lost the majority of its power. Alison helpfully suggested that the car was probably just tired and needed a rest.

By the time we’d put suitable distance between us and Wally World, it was getting late, dark and the car was apparently tired. We chose a campsite on Forked Lake (featuring a fork in the lake), situated just before Long Lake (featuring a very long…). The State Park boasted #5 in the top campsites in the US, an accomplishment we weren’t going to dispute. Yet again, the park was impeccably run and beautifully located. When we checked in there was, however, an additional legal formality that they appeared to take quite seriously: a “bear disclaimer” form. They were very insistent that we use the special bear-proof lockers for all edibles (including toothpaste, after all, have you every seen a bear with bad teeth?) I was almost tempted to leave some food out that night to try and lure an encounter with these cuddliest of creatures, but was reminded that out beloved tent was no match for razor sharp bear claws.

bear bait

8th July

The night was free from interference from bears and we awoke to gaze over another stunningly beautiful lake which was, am happy to report, unpolluted. We had developed the ability to sleep in to 10am each morning – a feat not usually associated with camping (top tip: ear plugs!), and this night was no exception. Following a tasty breakfast of oatmeal, blueberries and Walmart maple syrup, not only did we go for swim but we also ventured out in a canoe (which us Brits happily – and incorrectly – call a kayak). The first 10 minutes were spent mostly going round in circles, but we soon found our rhythm and sped along the lake with remarkable ease. I even witnessed my first beaver damn, something that is so commonplace in North America as to be seen as a nuisance, but I was still incredulous at the apparent tenacity of these furry little engineers – surely it won’t be long before they master hydroelectric power. Otherwise, still no convincing sign of life in the lake.

nice beaver

We set off fearful of the car’s health but, to my astonishment, Alison appeared to be quite correct in her mechanical prognosis and the car was positively raring to go. I added Automotive Guru to her long list of talents.

Next stop, Lake Placid. We had promised ourselves that our last night would be spent in the relative luxury of a cheap hotel, and Lake Placid, home of the 1980 winter Olympic games, would surely provide ample accommodation. For some reason, I was expecting a sad looking, derelict ghost town overbuilt for a transient global sporting celebration. After all, most post-Olympic cities seemed to suffer a permanent hangover from planners with a 2 week vision. Oh boy was I wrong. Lake placid is the Chelsea of New York State with monumental private chalets, lavish restaurants and an disturbingly large number of boutiques selling all thing horse riding. We treated ourselves to a meal at a yuppie diner that was as rich in decoration as the food was lacking in taste. It felt like we’d come form a different planet, and I suspect we might have smelled like it too. After all the miles we had travelled, could we sell our liberal-camping souls and rejoin civilisation in a hotel? No, like hell we could. Like a couple of startled rabbits, we ran for our car and headed for the sanctuary of the nearest campsite which was, fortunately, not very far away.

Wilmington Notch state park was virtually deserted, and lay within 200 metres above a roaring waterfall. The office staff at this this site were so laid back that there was in fact no office, just a bunch of hairy dudes drink beer around a campfire, wood for which they generously shared, There were no bears, but plenty of chipmunks and red squirrels. The staple food for the disarmingly cute red squirrels is not nuts, but in fact cookies. One such squirrel was spotted jumping into the car before scampering out a second later with a particularly favourite cookie in its mouth. Naturally, I gave chase. Across half the campsite I ran after the little bugger until he reached the refuge of a large tree. After 6 laps of the tree I did the old suddenly-switch-directions trick, but he had exactly the same idea and peered at me from the other side of the tree, cookie in mouth, sniggering, before disappearing up said tree in gleeful triumph. I returned to the tent to see Alison doubled up in unsympathetic hysterics. He was back 10 minutes later for more bounty, but was continually thwarted by a closed car door. I flaunted my opposable thumb at him and walked away victorious. Meanwhile, the chipmunk was busy burrowing tunnels under our tent, for what purpose was never discovered as we probably squashed him that night.


9th July

And so to the final day that required a short hop across Lake Champlain to Burlington in monsoon conditions, and to the airport where our beleaguered and less than white car would be returned. The plan was to take a Greyhound bus for the remaining 100 miles into Montreal. Why not just take the hire car back to Montreal I hear you say? Good question, but for reasons known only to the US and Canada authorities, talking a hire car across the border is curiously prohibited. Upon arriving at the airport, we found that we had but minutes before the infrequent bus left. We somehow stuffed our lives into our smelly bags in record time (including an exasperated Mary), ran through the airport – chucking the car keys at the Avis desk on the way, dived into a taxi and sped to the Greyhound bus terminal as fast as the taxi driver was able. Which wasn’t actually very fast because he was so engrossed in prattling on about the virtues of Burlington that he plain missed the bus depot altogether. Fortunately the bus was late (very).

Travelling across the border in to Canada was certainly an eye opener. Within an instant of entering Quebec, the fields were smaller and greener, the cars had shrunk, the billboards didn’t so much shout but “presented”, the houses tattier and homelier – the difference was as marked as it was gratifying. After just over 2000 miles of America, we were home, back in Montreal, to familiarity, civility and comfort. We had no idea how much we missed Montreal until we arrived but I guess that’s always the way when you go back home after time away – something immensely satisfying by existing in an environment in which, surprisingly, nothing really surprises you. We had had an amazing journey across and an amazing country, but by God we were pleased to be back. As the memories of our trip unfold my head I can reflect with great fondness of where I really come from and of the person with whom I could share such a wonderful experience.


Thanks for reading

Will & Alison