Zee Germans Are Coming!

Hi there from Leavenworth (or as some locals unfairly say ‘Worth Leaving), which took us by surprise somewhat in that here, 100 miles or so east from Seattle, is a town completely made up to look Bavarian. I’m not talking a couple of token goat herder hats either, I’m talking ornate wooden houses, farming scenes painted on walls, bratwurst for lunch and Erdinger for dinner kind of Bavaria. It’s very surreal, especially as the surrounding scenery is most definitely not Bavaria. It’s orange trees and craggy rocks Washington. A woman we met hiking today told us that after the lumber trade died back in the 1920s and the railway line got redirected after one too many deadly avalanches, the place had become a ghost town. Then some bright sparks decided to dolly up their new shack to look like a ski chalet. It made the Seattle press and people came from all around to visit it. The Leavenworth locals took notice, a vote was held (“Do you want your town to look like The Sound of Music?”), the town said yes and the rest as they say in Bavaria, ist Geschichte.

Bavaria apparently

Bavaria apparently

Zie German Hitchhiker was very happy indeed. (We were meant to say goodbye to her in Vancouver but it appears that has been postponed until Portland). That is until she ordered her favourite Bavarian dish Kaesespaetzle and they didn’t put any onions in it, which according to her was like omitting cheese from a cheeseburger. The bloke in lederhosen playing the accordion next to us cheered her up, even if he did look a bit like an S & M Jeffrey Archer.

Washington has been very kind to us so far though. When you’re on the road for a while, there are definite peaks and troughs, and moods can be deeply affected by what hindsight might call “trifling matters.” Vancouver, with its expensive hostels, expensive bars, expensive transport, expensive parking and expansive range of homeless folk presented our collective mood with a few challenges. Don’t get me wrong, it’s clearly a great city, with a wealth of stuff to do, trendy people, good music (battle of the bands and Seth Troxler were huge highlights), it perhaps dawned on us that with the freedom we’d previously had with Gina on the open road, we perhaps weren’t quite ready or appreciative of The Big City. It was great to catch up with some old buddies (hello Hugh and Doug!) and the Grouse Grind was a grand achievement (go up Grouse mountain as quick as you can – scores on the doors: Zabrina – 59 minutes, G – 53 mins, Alex ‘Mobot’ Thurlow – 49 mins) but with wallets draining and a mechanic informing us Gina needed a new tail-pipe (exhaust) and muffler (muffler), we didn’t really leave Canada in the highest of spirits. So it was with great relief that we whizzed south to Washington’s vast open spaces, farmsteads out of Smallville, drive-thru espresso stands and most importantly CHEAP BEER.

Furry firs in washington

Furry firs in washington

A bit higher

A bit higher

We halted in Everett for the night (depleted of our garlic cloves and cumin seeds courtesy of US customs – go figure) and happened upon a WHL hockey match between the local side (the Silvertips) and their bitter rivals from Seattle. What followed was a dramatic winner in overtime, pandemonium in the stands and more waving neon sticks than a jedi orgy.

Pink tips for the Silvertips

Pink tips for the Silvertips

The next day we visited the Boeing factory, which proudly proclaims to be The Biggest Building In The World (by volume). We saw the gigantic production lines they ripped off Henry Ford and magnified a few hundred times, the new Dreamliner crafts with flexing albatross wings and even one of their four Dreamlifter aircraft, which transport various jumbo fuselages to the plant. The Dreamlifters look pretty cumbersome and oversized if you ask me – like an anaconda that’s tried to digest a hippo.

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Next stop – who knows! We’re playing a game of Washington Word of Mouth, where we ask a local in the morning where we should go and take it from there. All roads lead to Portland right?

Friends In High Places

I’m writing this in the back of Gina as we chug our way along the ‘Highway Through Hell’ to Vancouver. I didn’t call it that, the locals did. The first uphill has lasted 25 minutes so far. Poor Gina. We almost broke her in Nelson a couple of days ago actually. Fancying a hike out of town we attempted to take her up a 16km road so steep, bumpy and windy she started to make pitiful whining noises, like a broken kettle. We were forced to abandon her at the side and continue to the car park by foot, before ascending further above the tree line for some sandwiches near Lake Kokanee. It was a tough walk as we’d all been struck by the hangover bug doing the rounds in the hostel. Quite a collection of oddballs at the hostel as per usual, including a bloke on crutches who claimed to have seen Bigfoot. Upon further questioning it was revealed he had only heard Bigfoot, which seemed a little unconvincing to me. A bit like saying you once smelled Nessie. It reminded me of a bloke we met in Whitehorse who had seen loads of aliens. They always appeared at night in a spaceship that hovered above glaciers because “the aliens needed clean drinking water.” Suddenly the truth behind the shrinkage of the world’s glaciers was revealed! Amazing stuff marijuana.

We’ve been incredibly fortunate meeting other people though, with Ciaran and his missus Katie looking after us superbly in Banff. We played indoor football with all their chums, where the toll of 3 weeks on the road was cruelly exposed. It took about 3 days to recover. With both Ciaran and Katie working in hotels, they managed to put us in a very posh lodge for a night with access to hot tubs and saunas, while their pal Karl got us complimentary tickets on the Sulphur Hill gondola. The summit overlooked Banff and featured a weather station built in the 19th century that was manned by the same guy for 40 years. Sometimes it got so stormy up there the stone walls started to crack – this was before the gondola existed obviously, so there wasn’t exactly an easy way down.

From Banff it was a rather long soujourn to Nelson, which featured a brief ferry ride across a lake. I misread the ferry timetable so we arrived 10 minutes late. A two hour wait in the darkness playing headers (current record – 28) followed and we were finally on our way. The harsh crags of the Rockies gave way to rolling valleys and actual farmland and the hippy commune that is Nelson greeted us like the corpulent ghost of Lyttelton, New Zealand. Coffee houses, art deco organic vegetable shops, lots of guitar players and more coffee houses distracted us for a couple of days while our German hitchhiker looked for jobs to supplement the working part of her working holiday visa.

And now, with Gina heading triumphantly downhill (she drives much like the train in Dumbo) it is with a prominent doff of the cap we say thanks to Craig ‘Noodles’ Galloway and his lovely wife Shona for putting us up (or putting up with us) in Kelowna. Craig took us on a world tour of his whisky cabinet while we struggled with scrabble. He also introduced us to a local drink called a Caesars, which is effectively a Bloody Mary with sausages in it. The barmaid who served us looked like Audrey Hepburn though (cue me trying to impress her with my travel tales and her revealing she’d basically been everywhere I was hoping to see) so that was a plus.

Onwards to Vancouver then, where more old friends await and we finally bid farewell to ‘Zie German’ and indeed, to big old Canada!

Jasper The Friendly Host

“What’s the difference between an elk and a deer?” Asked G inquisitively. The hostel manager peered up from his laptop sneering, “Oh, I don’t know, that they’re different species? It’s like telling the difference between a cat and a dog.” So I showed him a picture we’d taken of an animal with antlers next to a lake. He paused for a moment before identifying it as an elk. “It has a browner neck and deers have a whiter ass.” Unconvinced that he’d ever seen a cat and dog in the same room we set off to Sulphur Summit, a grey mass of sharp rock that sits near Jasper and rather conveniently has hot springs at it’s base. It was to be our second trip to hot springs in Canada, the first being in Liard River on the Yukon border with British Columbia (whose welcome sign reads – “Welcome to British Columbia – The Best Place on Earth” – modest).

hot and springy

hot and springy

an elk apparently

an elk apparently

G the uber tourist getting his arse in the way

G the uber tourist getting his arse in the way

During that visit we came face to face with our second moose, this time a full-blown textbook bull moose, with antlers like climbing frames and legs like redwoods. We ran quickly and informed the nearest Canadian who took heed of our frantic warning like someone hearing of a blue bottle in their conservatory.

Later, we had to slalom through a bustling herd of bison, about a hundred strong. Round the corner a stricken lorry sat at the side of the highway, it’s whole front bashed in, bumper dashed across the tarmac. A rather more stricken bison lay in the hard shoulder. Wildlife is everywhere here, unfortunately humans are too!

Sulphur Summit in Jasper

Sulphur Summit in Jasper

Gina has been clocking in unbelievable mileage since crossing into Canada. As we’ve been heading south it has certainly felt like we’ve been outrunning winter. The routine for a few days was: Wake up to a carpet of snow. Drive south until sunshine and greenery in the afternoon. Sleep in a motel last seen in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Wake up to a carpet of snow. We’re now in Banff, sleeping my old friend Ciaran’s floor. The drive from Jasper was properly ridiculous. It holds up to the mantle of “World’s Prettiest Drive” rather well. Last night was Canadian thanksgiving, so we ate tacos and drank beer called Black Ice, which tastes of air but is 6.2%. Today’s plan is to go mountain biking and play indoor football with some locals – good job I brought my tiny 1995 Blackburn Rovers shorts. Game on!

Tok the Tok

Ah karma, you cruel little mistress you! In my last post I dared to laugh in the face of the Alaskan winter.  Silly.  Upon waking up in Glenallen (calling it a one horse town would be of great disservice to the horse) to a blanket of snow that was growing to duvet-levels under the perennial downfall, I realised how lucky we’d been over the past 2 weeks. Sunshine! In Alaska! In October! It was indeed a fluke. G took command of Gina like a great polar explorer though. The studded tyres we bought by complete accident proved their worth on the unpisted highway and we crunched confidently eastwards towards Tok. It was a long drive. Alaska is big. In the back, the Germans read out Spanish numbers from our Dorling Kinglsey phrase book and we repeated them, surely putting us in good stead for Mexico and beyond. The scenery had altered from the dramatic mountains and confident firs and pines of Kennai, to timid little saplings poking out of the snow, praying humbly for more sunshine. It was not to be. Tok sits on the last major junction before the border, go north to certain hyperthermia or go east to the land of maple syrup. Gina had had enough (she’s an old bird) so we pulled into a motel for the night. Tok made Glenallen look like Las Vegas. It was a one shrew town. Maybe a one vole town. We found the one open diner called Fast Eddie’s and ate a pile of pizza that should have fed us for a week. Even after we’d all been silenced into submission by the cheese influx there was comfortably enough left over for a doggy bag that kept us going the whole next day. You’d comfort eat too if you lived in Tok.

The next day’s weather was warmer and we strode buoyantly into Canada and the fabled Yukon territory, where Jack London camped out and saw enough to write ‘Call of the Wild’ among others. The border guard seemed more interested in our journey south rather than our passports and we continued on to Haines Junction. The plan was to get to Whitehorse but Gina had other ideas. It turns out she doesn’t enjoy being thrashed through gravel pot holes for a number of hours and let us know this with the ‘Check Engine’ beacon flickering desperately as I veered her up another hill. So we let her cool down for an hour, threw stones into an impossibly blue lake and nursed her to the nearest hub of civilisation. She’s doing well all things considering. Sure, the windscreen has a decorative full-width crack, the boot has to be held open with a stick (nicknamed the trunk tree) and her petrol cap is kept shut with a well-placed stone in the hinge, but the girl has guts. We’re quietly confident she’ll make California. Very quietly mind.

Whitehorse was our final destination and we dropped Petra off at the airport so she could fly home. We’re now down to one German. Upon dropping her off we picked up all her luggage (or so we thought) from the hostel and afterwards did some WalMart supplies shopping (the place sold guns, knives and kayaks but no fruit or veg) and moseyed around the town, which falls somewhere between an old gold-rush settlement and a washed-up tourist trap. We got back to the hostel to plot our onward trip only to find the owner and a bunch of backpackers in near hysteria. Someone had stolen a Korean girl’s backpack with all her travel documents and other worldly possessions and she was due to catch a flight in two hours! Crime in Whitehorse! The Korean girl was in full panic-mode. How would she get home? The owner was busy phoning embassies across Canada to aid her.   I casually checked Gina’s boot (safely implementing the trunk tree first of course) and plucked a strange red bag from her innards. “Who’s is this?” I enquired innocently. We were then subjected to a tirade of abuse and guilt as the Korean girl snatched it off us jubilantly and the hostel owner berated us for taking other people’s stuff without checking. It appeared we’d taken one bag too many for Petra’s departure. A free lift to the airport for the relieved Korean and some apology beers for all other aggrieved parties later, we all agreed that hindsight was a wonderful thing, ate some of G’s “wonder dish” veggie curry and are now planning to walk into the hills at midnight to catch the Northern Lights. We just need those snow clouds to clear…. Next stop, Walton Lake and hot springs!

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

DSCF4852  first off – here’s Gina – what an absolute babe.

The generosity of Americans towards travelers is well documented but when you experience it first hand it’s still like being in your own Disney film. We hit up the Seward music festival, which took place in a giant hall on the quayside in between piles of coal and fish factories. All the locals were penned in the ‘beer garden’ to the side of the stage, where a bunch of hairy people played folk and rock music. Those that had escaped the pen were dancing like Thunderbirds with their strings cut. It was brilliant. The beer on offer, indeed the beer we’ve drunk all over the state has been pretty exceptional – microbreweries are everywhere, with the most popular drink being a ‘Scottish Red,’ which bares no resemblance to anything I’ve consumed in Scotland but goes down like a well-greased otter. At the festival we got talking to a couple of teachers called Marc and Letty Swanson. Marc obviously liked the cut of our jib and promptly invited us and the Germans round their place for breakfast the next day. We’re not sure how much of a say Letty had in the matter but first thing the next morning we were puling up their drive on Lancelot Lane (all the streets in Seward were King Arthur orientated) and tucking into freshly caught salmon and pancakes. Before we could dab our mouths clean, Marc announced that he was going to take us on a little hike. And so up to Exit Glacier we went, scrambling above the huge mass of ice and up to the Harding Ice Field from where it spilled from. By this point, Marc, with top off, bandana and shades on and becoming more and more like Alaska’s answer to Rambo, exclaimed his astonishment at how much the glacier had receded in just a year. “Global warming?” I proffered. “Ya, but this baby’s been going backwards for over a century, however now there’s not even any fresh snow up here, it’s gonna do well to last another ten years!” Feeling a little lucky to see such a phenomenon in it’s final throes, we traipsed back to the Swanson pad for salmon and beef burgers, beer and more stories from Marc and Letty, who are pretty typical Alaskans in that they have seemingly done everything ever and faced certain death several times. We left in high spirits but feeling a little guilty; this guy had just given up his whole day to feed and entertain us! All we could offer in return was a promise we’d look after them if they ever visited Scotland. Seeing as Alaska is basically a massive, more stunning Scotland I’m not sure how likely this is.  Here was the view and here’s the family:

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So onwards to Homer we went, where a wee documentary film festival was kicking off. The whole village seemed to be into it so we obliged and checked out a couple of flicks, one on a bloke who travelled round the States recording street musicians and the other about the last days in Saigon in 1975. I would happily grant both of them 4 stars. The worst thing about the cinema experience was seeing what they do to their popcorn over here. I asked about flavours and the guy said their “Yeast Extract Flavouring was unbelievable!” Yes it was unbelievable. It tasted like rotten soap. Each colonel was coated in this stuff, which was clearly overspill from a redundant bakery. The popcorn would have tasted better with road grit.

Things are definitely closing down for winter now. The only hostel in Homer had shut up shop so we stayed in the Heritage Hotel, which felt a bit like staying in a closed down leisure centre. With the sun still beating down from a cloudless sky (I laugh in the face of the ‘Alaskan Winter!) we took the very long walk along the Homer Spit, which juts out for miles into a vast bay ringed with mountains.

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Sea otters drifted by like furry lilos (seriously they just float on their backs all day) and we grabbed some elk meatloaf at the Land’s End Restaurant. Well G and Zabrina did. G said it was one of the best meals he’d ever had. I took the advice of the waitress and went for the buffalo chicken burger, which tasted like every other chicken burger I’ve ever had. Minimum tip for her! That night the bar we were in closed down temporarily so everyone could rush outside and see the Northern Lights. Just a flicker this time but we’ve been promised the real deal in Tok, which is where we’re heading for now, via Anchorage. Incidentally, another guy we met at the Seward music festival is putting us up in Anchorage – this generosity thing’s a good gig!

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