The Day that Sandy came to town.

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After a three day standoff with Hurricane Sandy, we are permitted to leave the breezy shores of Great Britain. New York City eagerly beckons and finally embraces us as we descend and come to rest in JFK, Jamaica Bay – a world away from the Caribbean.

We have arrived the day after Sandy came to town. The Big Apple is bruised but not eaten. The East Coast is battered but not beaten. New York skyline stands tall and proud, seemingly indomitable. Trash and filth sprawls across the streets.

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Myriad yellow cabs defiantly speed on their way, relentlessly ferrying their cargo to every corner of the city. New York City Police stand silently by looking, gazing, and chewing gum like modern day gunslingers. New York has survived another attack.

On board the open topped tourist bus, the wintry air wraps around my face like a wraith as we travel ever slowly southward, to the tip of Manhattan. Sandy’s playground is a mess. Damage & destruction, pain and hurt are left in her wake. Grey skies look on dispassionately. A silent reminder of the storm that was.

Emergency responders scurry to clean up, even the army has come to town. We drive up Water Street, aptly and

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cruelly named. Pipes emerge snakelike from the bowels of offices, restaurants, people’s homes disgorging their contents into the street, returning to the open water from where this surge emanated.

A tree is uprooted outside a building; symbolic of devastation and horrors past. Chinatown, normally fervent with energy and light is quiet and subdued in the darkness of a total power outage. Nearby though, Wall Street is mystically aflame with light, life, power and money. The wheels of commerce grind on relentlessly, taking no notice of mere human misery.

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Café owners toss their ruined stock and furniture on the sidewalk. Buildings lie silent and dormant – mute testimony to the force of nature which has conquered and restrained this proud city, temporarily anyway. We take photos but then feel ashamed and quickly put our cameras away. We observe helplessly, there is nothing we can do.

Later, within the refuge of our 7th Avenue hotel I complain to the receptionist about the lack of hot water and heating. She is a kind, middle aged woman from Staten Island. I have a problem but they are the ones with real problem, for across the water Staten Islanders are crying for help.

Yet, this lady still has time for my minor inconvenience and speaks reassuring words in her own brand of New York accent.

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New York baby

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I remember walking the entire length of Central Park with my 2 daughters and arriving in Harlem. So many boroughs and places within New York city are well known and so iconic, and Harlem was no less so…

Harlem seemed far removed from the glitz and glamour of Lower Manhattan on the other side of The Park. Yet, whichever part of this famous city you visit, you cannot fail to be absolutely bowled over by it, and I defy you not to fall in love with the Big Apple – whichever bit you find yourself in.

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Hello America!

I’d only just emerged from Seattle Tacoma airport, and we were heading south on Interstate 5 (i5 to the locals), when I spotted the signage for one of these beauties.  You may be thinking cynically, ‘ yes and your point is…?’, but for me Taco Bell is just one of those places you have to experience in America. It’s as American as Mcdonalds and when in the States it constitutes a virtual rite of passage.  Or was it just because I really like Burritos…?

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Well it’s day 2 and me and my dad wander into the legendary Fish Tale Brewpub in the state capital, Olympia.  We were after some much needed liquid refreshment after baking in the hot midday sun.

Inside we found plenty of locally brewed beers and a most inviting menu to boot.  Sat at the bar with the locals, we soon got talking to a guy called Doug about two things: The Seattle Seahawks, who won the Superbowl earlier this year and consequently are the State of Washington’s pride, and secondly, his job.

Turns out that Doug was a firefighter and had been one for 29 years.  He was obviously proud of what he did and we soon got taking about the horrific events of 9/11. Doug told us that 343 firefighters had died that day, trying to rescue others. 343 was a number I found hard to forget.

He told us also about the parade of some 70,000+ firefighters a year later through the streets of Manhattan.  This was to remember all of the fallen during that dark, dark day in human history.  Doug said the city of New York ‘ opened its heart to them,’ and no firefighter paid for a drink that day in any bar in the city.

As I tucked into my of mountain of nachos the bargirl had just placed in front of me, Doug bade us farewell.  He said we may well see him again as he is most definitely a regular here at the Fish Tale.  Having found a little home from home here , I think he might just be right…

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Sleepless in Seattle

Sleepless in Seattle.  Well almost, because I’m about 60 miles south of the fair city. However it is 4.30 in the morning so I guess that kind of constitutes sleeplessness.

Somewhere in the distance I can hear one of those enormous American trains blowing it’s horn, announcing it’s transit through our neck of the woods.

America is a visual feast for a Brit like me, with its wide open spaces, gun stores, proliferation of fast food outlets, and drive in everything. Talking of driving, I had my first attempt at driving on the Freeway yesterday – what a blast!

Now the dawn is breaking here in beautiful Washington State.  Outside in the woods I can hear a cacophony of unrecognisable bird song greeting the new day. Reminds me of the handiwork of our creator & and the wonder of life itself…

Truckstop

Well we arrived at The Pilot Truckstop, just off Exit 99 of Interstate 5 (the road from Canada to Mexico) in Thurston County for, as my dad put it, ‘a real slice of Americana.’

This was the real deal. Row upon row of beautiful American conventional trucks (engine in front not underneath); many shiny and gleaming with chrome bumpers, radiator grills and exhaust pipes.

We went inside and soon discovered trucker land: a fast food joint, a mini supermarket, DVD’s, basic truck spares and tools, a whole array of sunglasses and of course, showers!

Whilst I ordered the mandatory fast food, my dad had already engaged one of the aforementioned truckers in conversation. I took my seat eventually and we got down to the nuts and bolts of this opportune meeting.

Turns out we were talking to Dane P Carver, one fully certified truck driver running goods between his home town of Portland in Oregon and Tacoma, Washington state.

He was a real interesting guy and he told us he was a San Francisco 49ers fan and he had lived and worked in Scotland, even visiting John O’ Groats – well that’s one up on me.

He also told us that Truckstops were often frequented by ‘ladies of the night,’ and the girls have become peculiarly known amongst the trucking fraternity as ‘Lot Lizards’ (parking lot I guess).

Dane went on to say that some drivers have a special sticker on their trucks, which is a picture of a ‘feminised’ lizard inside a red circle, with a red diagonal line through the centre – indicating no interest. In other words, don’t knock on my window!

It seems that King Solomon of old was right when he said ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’  It’s amazing what you can learn by hanging out in an ordinary place, rubbing shoulders with ordinary people.

As we left, the constant tide of trucks coming in and those departing for their next destination continued unabated. It had been fascinating & interesting to sample this particular slice of Americana indeed.

Dane P Carver – keep on trucking!

Bridge City

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So we headed south on Interstate 5 to cross the border of Washington into the neighbouring State of Oregon – reckoned to be the most beautiful in the USA.

Our destination today was to be the lovely city of the Portland which spans the Willamette River. I discovered that Portland has many nicknames, one of which is Bridge City. This is due to its abundance of bridges connecting the east and west areas of the city that stand either side of the river.

This urban sprawl in the north of Oregon is apparently a desirable place to live and work, and walking around Portland it’s easy to see why. In the pleasantly intense afternoon sun, the leafy, tree-lined streets and a relaxed, slightly hippy atmosphere seem to anesthetise you to the usual rush and bustle of city life.

Portland is also home to Powell’s City of Books which claims to be the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world. Stopping for lunch at the Brasserie Montmartre, a street-side café daringly advertising a touch of Paris, I asked Emma our young waitress about Portland. She described it as ‘eclectic.’

Enough said, for as we had entered the city earlier we stumbled across a group protesting against circumcision.  One of them was brazenly holding up a placard by the roadside declaring ‘Honk if you like foreskins!’  No-one was honking.

Added to the fact that they now have an annual ‘World Naked Bike Ride’ where clothing is optional, I think eclectic sums it up well, and maybe slightly weird.  City life I guess, not what a small town boy like me is used too…

On a more normal note, according to the 2014-15 edition of ‘Travel Portland’ this metropolis is also reckoned to be the Bike-Friendliest City, with ‘318 miles of bike lanes and counting.’ Portland boasts the highest share of bicycle commuters in the US too.

Leaving the city via the iconic Marquam Bridge, one of ten over the Willamette, we soon rejoined the busy commuter traffic on the Interstate 5 Freeway to head north for home.

Glancing right we were treated to a magnetic view of Mt. Hood, part of the the Cascades Mountain Range which spans both Washington and Oregon.  It’s snowy peak rises more 11,240ft to the east of Portland and is a breathtaking sight indeed.

Further north, we crossed the I-5 Interstate Bridge over the mighty Columbia River, which forms a natural border between the two States. The journey home became even more interesting as more of the Cascades Range came into view.

Mt. St. Helens appeared on the horizon, it’s flattened peak showing clear evidence of the cataclysmic volcanic eruption that took place in 1980 killing 57 people. Mt. Adams standing at 12,276ft loomed behind it’s more famous sister but nonetheless formed an utterly engaging sight too.

Finally, as we ploughed further north into Washington State and drew near to the fair city of Olympia, the grandaddy of all the Cascades peaks interrupted our vision.

Mount Rainier, jutting skyward at a height of 14,411ft perfectly capped what had been a most enjoyable roadtrip. It’s jagged summit clearly visible against the blue, late evening sky.

On the final leg of our journey home, the sun which refused to give up, amazingly continued to sit above the horizon and shed heat and light to all. Notably, it was well past 8.45 in the evening.

We really did have a great day, and if you should find yourself in this neck of the woods, do visit the City of Portland – I think you’ll find its worth it!

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I’m a Pacific Northwestern first-timer, but I think I’ll definitely be back.  Compared to the endless lines of New York skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, (don’t get me wrong, I love NYC), this was a breath of fresh air indeed.

The light, airy streets of Seattle had a completely different feel to them, as you were irresistibly drawn to Pike Place seafood market.  Situated on the eastern shores of the sparkling, Puget Sound, you can wander through the fish market or just drop into one of the many inviting eateries.

It’s easy to relax and feel right at home here in Seattle.  Great beer, mouthwatering food, a view to die for and a warm welcome.  What more could you ask?

Ruby and Hoh

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We were headed for The Olympic Peninsula. It was going to be a big trip, but I knew that it was going to be worth it. Punching west on Highway 12, we came to the town of Elma for some much needed liquid refreshment, and of course another delicious slice of Americana.

It was here in this roadside restaurant that my stereotypical image of the American waitress was obliterated forever.

“Hi how are you and have a nice day?” Well, I don’t think so, not this time anyway. This was a REAL slice of Americana. When I dared to criticise my milkshake which was foaming down the side of the glass, instead of an offer to sort this out and clean up the glass, I was met with beautiful, American derision.

Her incredulous response was essentially, “Like soap and water?? [In other words, you gotta be kidding], Like tough!” And off she went. Wow – so much for have a nice day! My brother, who is most definitely a local, proposed the following theory: The girls living in these country towns far from the big city, really kind of resented living where they did (pretty much in the middle of nowhere), and would much rather dwell in the big smoke where all the action is. Well who knows, I’m just a visitor…

Moving on from Elma, we got to Aberdeen – home of the late, great Kurt Cobain. Aberdeen was a tough, gritty industrial town famous for logging and fishing, standing as it does at the convergence of two rivers: the Wishkah and the Chehalis. As we drove through it was easy to understand where Cobain’s musical influence originated from. The once heavy industry of Aberdeen seemed to go well with the grinding, depressing sound of Grunge. Actually, I’m a big fan of Nirvana but you wouldn’t be listening to it to cheer yourself up now, would you?

Driving north through countless square miles of forest, we were heading for Ruby Beach on the Pacific Northwest Coast. It seemed like we drove forever but eventually perseverance paid off.

It wasn’t really the hot, sunny Baywatch I had envisioned but a misty, cool and ruggedly beautiful coastline – with the water temperature being influenced more by Alaska than Mexico. Board-shorts stayed in the bag as the ocean was unbearably cold.

Nonetheless it was a beautiful time and well worth the drive.

Driving eastwards into the interior we headed towards the Hoh (pronounced Hoewa) Rainforest. What a spectacle! A city of tall and ancient trees, that made you constantly crane your neck upwards at their magnificent canopies in the sky.

Moss hung everywhere giving a slightly mystical feel to this aged forest; you could kind of imagine some of this appearing in the Lord of the Rings. Crystal clear pools of water so transparent, you could peer into the very bottom as if there wasn’t any water at all.

We made our way through the dense but beautiful forest until we came at last to the grey, glacial Hoh River. As I stood on her rocky, pebbly shores, surrounded by the trees and hills, I knew that we had come to a very special place indeed.