A Hurricane, a flirtatious Miss Havisham, and some drenched, French lingerie

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On $6 a day, and with plans to hit my environmental checkpoints on time, I had no intention of reaching Texas, let alone New Orleans.
I have seen and met a few people around the globe travelling on tight budgets, across continents on unicycles, paddling a thousand miles in a kayak, kicking a soccer ball thousands of miles to get to the World Cup, hiking across countries and many other variable challenges, for all kinds of different reasons. One thing has struck me; from every adventurers tales, in every country, amongst every walk of life, whatever the challenge: Every individual has received unprecedented, extraordinary, selfless, and often (while living on such basic means) indulgent hospitality. Often surprised, and as humbled as I am, I am no exception.
I was taken to New Orleans, and was liberally treated beyond what I could imagine.

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There are only a few cities around the globe which have instantly, like a teenage crush, bolted into my loins and said “Hey, you with the emotionless look on your face – Forget holding hands, come cuddle with me naked (“cuddle” NEVER means cuddle)!” and with that, they are in my new urban cuddle puddle. I’ve been naked with my favourite cities; Prague, Paris, Edinburgh, and I’ve gotten away with it – and now, like a teenage lover, the hedonistic New Orleans has covertly yawned, and put an outstretched arm around my lonesome shoulders. She’s a sly one.

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Even though my arrival into the city was rain-drenched, I could still feel the enigmatic streets oozing with charisma, with colourful, cultural history, with a cajun flavour, a high-hat of positivity and a beat that hummed under the harmonious, humid streets. It’s soul that I just hadn’t experienced anywhere else in the country.

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The city was relatively quiet because of the downpour. Porches were empty, only a few characters were mulling around on damp, street corners, restaurants and cafés were closed in the suburbs in the afternoon heat, buses and street cars were almost empty and the foliage that clinged to the streets in the sweaty, southern air was still and silent.

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Yet it wasn’t eery, it isn’t a sad place, and like so many cities when it rains, it didn’t welcome me with a greyish, sympathetic, limp-handshake. I could sense, that from the base of the dirty gutters up to the tops of the elaborate and chic, French-style buildings downtown, there was a hum-drum of infectious, heart-warming vibes. Even the trees, with their bark covered in vibrant green moss and climbers, seeped a hot happiness that suggested they could, at any moment, drop a few outrageous dance moves to this city’s groove.

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It isn’t hard to see why New Orleans is so attractive. She’s suave, sophisticated, and shows off a renaissance-number of curves with flashes of lacy lingerie. She’s passionate, poetic, bohemian and chic; encompassing the influence of French and southern American history into her library of debauched, effortlessly stylish, antique book cases. She clearly drinks a neat bourbon (legally, and without care while waltzing down the artisan streets) to keep her spirits high, and has a cabinet of cocktail ingredients that every high class Madame would have in the corner of their loft space over looking a city which, although maybe full of floozies, (and charcoal/callous-fingered artists and musicians), she is a resolute and flirtatious Miss Havisham.

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My first evening, in possibly the most unique city the USA has to offer was like stepping into a sauna of smooth jazz; sweaty, moist, beat-infectious and awesome. Leftover remnants of mardi gras hung around the buildings and from the trees; signs of colourful, alfresco hedonism were draped over the bohemian edges that framed the shabby-antique city.

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I was taken to Tujagues – documented as the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans. The traditional French-creole/Cajun cuisine was possibly the best food I have eaten since arriving in the country – which arguably isn’t hard to beat when living on $6 a day. However, the style in which it was delivered, the love and attention to the ingredients, the detail on each plate, and the relaxed yet appreciative atmosphere in Tujagues transcended me to the traditional and impressive French kitchen which I grew up above, as a five year old. The chef clearly knew what he was doing, and although I have missed being somewhat of a foodie and a semi-ok cook on this journey, enjoying some edible delights from a professional kitchen was completely appreciated.

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I was treated to a five course extravaganza, each dish accompanied by a traditional cocktail. As I used to be a cook, and a cocktail barman in an previous decade, I set high standards…and they delivered. However, one thing I can’t quite get my taste or texture buds around, is corn bread. It’s sweet! Yet Americans seem to think it goes well with everything savoury, and it crumbles like a dry lemon drizzle cake, turning to corn flour in your mouth. After tasting an oyster and shrimp bisque, some spicy swordfish, and some perfectly roasted lamb, I think I enjoyed the best ever banana pudding and caramel sauce that I have ever tasted – and I’m not a huge banana fan. No puns or jokes in this text; I grew up in France, maybe taking for granted some of the best cuisine in the world: The food in New Orleans was impressive, and not just at Tujagues.

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The city known as The Big Easy is a melting pot of cool, smooth culture, spanktastic food, soulful and infectious good-time music, eclectic and varied art, beautifully chic antiques, plenty of dowdy and dusty artefacts, colourful and quite morbid history, stunning French/Spanish, and (in the suburbs) southern American architecture, devout religion, and voodoo influence (more in part II). All the city’s cultures were brought together in the events and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and since 2005 New Orleans has been a recovering city.

As well as being a gigantic tropical storm, Katrina is sixth on the list of most powerful Atlantic hurricanes. Even though Katrina registered as a level five hurricane (that’s pretty damn knarly), with winds up to 175mph at its strongest over the Gulf of Mexico, when it reached land, it dropped to a level three, and winds were between 100mph and 130mph.

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The reason Katrina was so destructive, was because the Federal levee system failed. The result was the worst civil engineering disaster in American history, or as one Doctor at the University of California stated, “the worst engineering disaster in the world since Chernobyl”.
Floodwalls and levees constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers failed below design specifications, and 80% of the city flooded. Emptying New Orleans was relatively successful after the first mandatory evacuation in the city’s history. However, tens of thousands of residents who remained, will be forever remembered on the news as those suffering and barely surviving in the giant Louisiana Superdome or the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. More than 1,500 people were recorded dead in Louisiana, most in New Orleans, and others are still unaccounted for.

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Even though it was a massive storm, I have mentioned before that we continue to house ourselves poorly (both geographically and by design), in the path of these natural, spectacular gigantums.
I may sound unsympathetic, but on the contrary. New Orleans was intelligently, originally built above flood levels and it is almost impossible to expect the city to move. The rebuild process was commendable and charity completely needed. However flood levels have risen, and nature repeatedly shows its capabilities against our unfortunate, unnatural, modern engineering.
Seeing the city now, and witnessing how proud and resilient its residents are, it is a heart warming experience. It is practically alive with positivity after the disaster. It is also noticeable however, how much of the older part of the city seems to be unaffected by flood damage. Strategically positioned, original cityscapes are commonly built to last, compared to our “developed”, expanding, and modern approach.

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To not just have a one dimensional view of New Orleans, I didn’t just spend time seeing the old French quarter of downtown. A very short ferry trip, across the river takes you to another world, onto a century old, flat, historic battle ground that was once boggy grasslands. Now filled with industrial housing for the not so rich, working class, it also has at its epicentre, the first domestic sugar refinery to process one million tons in a single year: Domino Sugar’s Chalmette refinery. Although hit hard by Katrina, it reopened just 98 days after the disaster, and still processes about 60 percent of the raw sugar produced by Louisiana’s sugar cane farmers, and about 19 percent of the country’s cane sugar. I couldn’t tour it, but it appears future tours and public access is being developed.

The view of the industrial river bank was stark, in comparison to the romantic, chic and bohemian glory of the colourful old town. It appeared monotone, drab, and grey against the grey skyscrape. The bridges over the Mississippi are tough, old iron erections, and the streets around downtown, in suburbia are poorer, unkept, dowdy – although houses were elaborately detailed compared to many across Texas – they were run down, fractured, and in need of some love and restoration.

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Such is the flirtatious, carefree intrigue of New Orleans. She seems to wear a kaftan and a sun hat, but under its wide brim, in her dark shadowed eyes, she holds many secrets, many taboos, hedonism beyond dreams, and is culturally in bed with all kinds of miss-fits. She isn’t afraid to be seen in every neighbourhood, throwing a wry smile at the tourists that might think they can tame her.

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Rather poignantly, much of the interest in her colourful past, and now sadly in her present (following Katrina), is around suffering, misguided and misrepresented religious practices, and death…

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Shameless Sausages, Strange Sacrifices, and “She’s an Easy Lover”

There are many things which I sacrificed for the challenge of getting across the states on $6 a day; knowing where I’m going to sleep each day, some cleanliness and maybe some hygiene, some dietary luxuries, seeing loved ones to name a few. However, I did not bank on sacrificing, or indeed losing the ability to realise when I am being so blatantly hit on.
A new experience for me in Austin was to enjoy a roller derby. A hobby and minor sport in the UK, yet in the USA it is something that is, especially in Austin, rather a big deal.
The roller derby was definitely a fun-filled afternoon, I particularly liked the dowdy, brown couches that they had brought in and positioned under the commentators table, for the VIP fans. Some sacrifices are clear to comprehend and expect, however as unfamiliar as it was, while I sat at the back of one of the bleacher stands, high in the crowds, drinking a Lone State lager and eating a slice of pizza, one of the rather cute roller girls made her way up through the crowds, sat closer than most strangers would next to me, and began discussing my t-shirt, and my day. Unable to put my finger on simple, Texan forwardism, and after she had left, I asked my friend next to me if she was in fact, unwell. Amused by my complete lack of reciprocation, my friends joyfully ridiculed me at my interaction. I had obviously, unexpectedly sacrificed my mojo, and been out of practice for far too long.

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Immersing yourself into a new culture often brings confusion. Nothing confuses my British taste buds more, than having a savoury/sweet breakfast. It’s just not something that is commonplace amongst the continentals or full Englishes that most Brits are used to. However, even though the portions in the majority of the USA are shamefully double that of any normal sized stomach (and I’m not a small guy), I am converted.

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Maple syrup on American bacon works, fried chicken on a sweet waffle works, and although my mouth is still confused by the titilation, my tastebuds reluctantly rejoice over their debauched indulgence. One thing I didn’t understand earlier in my adventure however, was this compilation…

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Another unfortunate gourmet affair, which I experienced for the first time in Texas, is that I haven’t been able to convince my mouth that grits are a good idea. Rather like a cheesy rice pudding made from corn, I don’t know whether to chew, spread them on toast, or just take one for the team and swallow. Like a coach blooding his young players at the end of an already decided game, I threw them onto the field of battle…but they lacked any eager action, failed to inspire another outing, and ultimately, let me, the rest of the edible team, and my mouth down. It’s a southern thing apparently.

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Amongst numerous urban exploits and city excursions, I managed to visit Bastrop State Park – which was victim to one of the largest forest fires in Texas’s recent history. In 2011, after damaged power lines in a storm sparked the fire, 1600 homes were devastated. The large area is now undergoing recovery, and the forest is re-growing around the numerous, charcoaled tree trunks, sticking out the ground like oversized, black toothpicks, and some estranged brick chimney stacks, that used to be attached to the wooden houses built around them. As always, nature finds a way after fire; wildlife is flourishing and I ticked off some pretty lean-looking road runners and dozens of vultures (of which I always imagine to be scousers, sounding like the few from Disney’s Jungle Book), as well as some colourful arachnida, lizards, and mesmerising butterflies on my long checklist of fascinating wildlife. As was the same in Yellowstone, fire is like the hot and hedonistic intercourse, before Mother Nature gives birth to new life.

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Natural disasters are not getting worse. Earthquakes, storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and volcanic eruptions are all as intense and as distructive as they have always been – but we chose to build our lives around fault lines, on flood plains, or in the path of regular monsoons, hurricanes or tornadoes. It’s no wonder natural disasters are assumed to be worsening, but its mainly due to our stupidity of putting ourselves in harms way.
A certain amount of sympathy is required for victims of such disasters, but it does call for some common sense when looking at plans for the future of the human race.

We live on a wonderfully wild planet, but we must learn that to do so, we have to cease making the mistake of thinking that our planet can continue to cope with excessively growing the world’s human population, and stop assuming that it is not our fault when we are misfortunate enough to be in harms way. We used to be wild animals. We used to be a part of nature, instead of trying to control it. If we look at the wild, everything in it does something to contribute to, or aid a neighbour; bees pollinate while they gather food, large fish resist eating smaller fish while they have parasites eaten out of their mouths, trees grow and create ecosystems for everything around them, as well as produce oxygen for every living creature that needs it; humans on the other hand have resisted giving back to the wild what they take, and this needs to be addressed. I mention this because Texas’s reputation for its oil extraction is an obvious example.

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Due to the relentless hospitality, Texas was definitely proving to be more of a luxury adventure. I may have cooked a few meals for my host, but Amanda treated me to some local restaurants where I was blown away by some of the dishes. Not only was I taken for breakfast in Austin, to a restaurant simply called “Bacon” (fairly self explanatory), but I also tried my first ever guacamole margarita; something that grows on you, with its thick and creamy, milkshake consistency.

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I was also treated to my very first pedicure, and when I saw a man twice my size sitting amongst the twenty ladies in the room, we shared a strange yet comforting glance, followed by an assured nod of the head, acknowledging that we were highly outnumbered, and if things kicked off in any possible, dangerous salon war, that we would stick together. I felt rather relaxed amongst the numerous gossipers as they all indulged in being either roughly rubbed, lathered in gritty goodness, clipped and sculpted with fine, shiny implements, or drenched in lava-hot wax.

Texas is not famous for its wildlife, other than cattle, so when dark shapes form over the Colorado River running through Austin at dusk, and they are not rain-filled or made up of Mosquitos, its difficult to assume what they are. The largest urban bat colony on earth, mainly sleep and cuddle under one of the busiest and most central of downtown bridges during the humid days. The bridge and the river was flooded with people, eager to see the spectacle, and it wasn’t long before thousands of rat-sized bats drenched the skies below the bridge. The flying mammals took flight; quite an unusual treat in the centre of a city as they swarmed off into unusual, fast moving clouds.

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I visited possibly the smallest, weirdest, most obscure and eccentric museum that I have ever come across one afternoon in Austin. The House Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata is a collection of “misplaced items” from history, which are arguably interesting and unusual.

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Amongst the somewhat morbid items, which have been collected by the lovely Scott and Jen Webel are: a Faberge egg smuggled out of Russia which belonged to the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna (the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia), a miniature taxidermy crocodile, which sits on a conch shell – the oddity of this is that is cries genuine tears; a rotating wooden, 19th century cellulite massager – much like a giant cotton reel that you sit on, as it rotates and bumps your backside around. There is a whip that belonged to one of the first infamous female big cat tamers (Mabel Stark, I believe), and celebrity hair trimmings…the list goes on. The free museum tour is displayed in a young, eclectic family’s garage; decorated and well presented, it is worth a look if you want something completely, and wonderfully bonkers to pass an hour of your day. Donations are very welcome..

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I once said inappropriately and at high volume over a quiet dinner with friends on a Greek island that, “I love Phil”. Despite their initial reaction of surprise and curiosity as to who Phil was, I’m afraid I had drunkenly admitted to loving Phil Collins, while my friends were unaware that his music was playing in the background. The lovely Phil is about to donate his expansive and impressive, personal collection of artefacts to the Alamo, in San Antonio. I was too early to catch the inclusion of his collection, but the historic site where Texas was fought over was impressive in the mid day sun.

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I genuinely felt like I was seeing some ancient, human history – something difficult to find in the USA. Some people forget that when they say “old” and “historic” to me, I come from the continent where the history comes from (we also do some fine work in condescending sarcasm). The spanish, religious outpost was reminiscent of an ancient Spanish monastery, with beautiful gardens and plant life. It became a barracks for the Mexican army, and was the pivotal point where Texas was reclaimed by the forces of Texas America. With battles still heavily influenced by the sword, the Alamo feels older than it is, but it is definitely a huge draw for San Antonio visitors, holds huge significance for the people of Texas…and for the “Easy Lover”, Phil Collins.

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I was again treated, this time to the riverboat tour around the centre of San Antonio. Informative, humorous and relaxing, it was the perfect appetiser before just one more indulgent trip off-trail. Creole architecture, southern jazz, Cajun cuisine, voodoo practices and a whole myriad of art and history awaits at the mouth of the Mississippi. Before contemplating getting my adventure and budget-challenge back on track, I am to experience, New Orleans.

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A southern threesome with some ex-presidents, and Lionel Richie

Reputations are rarely undeserved. If you’re known for being a flirt, chances are you’ve flung your eyelashes, maybe a few loose comments, and flicked your hips in the direction of someone’s face on a few occasions. If you’re known as being violent, it’s likely you have thrown more than your eyelashes and made contact, and word spreads fast if people dislike your unfortunate demeanour.
When you’re known being the over-sized, oil harbouring, barbecue-loving, Stetson-wearing, humid meat market with an accent so drawly, your words written down become “laaaaawwwwnger”; you’re the state that is little more amusing to a eloquently spoken Brit than some, but you turn up at the party and ya’ll reeeeaally know aboud’it.
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The Lonestar State still lives up to its reputation, and it only takes five minutes of travelling over its endless flat landscape before I’m welcomed by the aesthetically rambunctious threesome of abundant cattle, slowly pumped oil wells, and denim-wearing, wide-brimmed-hatted cowboys.

As well as the alfresco menage et trois, one thing I was not prepared for, were the vast fields of wind turbines. Not only are the oil wells a reminder of why this state has been so wealthy, but now the turbines are a constant reminder in Texas, that energy sources are changing. Even in this part of the USA, where stoic capitalism is at its most obvious, its also clear that reputations, self awareness, sustainability provisions and what you must bring to the party, is evolving.

I wasn’t aware that Texans take so much pride in their hospitality. Seemingly, the ladies of Texas are apparently known for their welcoming nature, large personalities and undiluted, infectious laughter. Texans are simply friendly, and as long as you don’t upset their cattle cart, or try to tone them down, you’ll be just fine.

Detouring again, a thousand miles from my planned route, I landed myself in the city of Austin. With another incredibly welcoming host, who had planned joint ventures around her busy work schedule, I had a diary full of exciting city excursions ahead. Although fully immersing myself into the unaccustomed position of being her retro car’s passenger, for some of Texas’ city culture and history, it allowed me to relax a little, recharge away from the wilderness and catch up with civilisation.

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Feeling like a bank in the movie Point Break, my Texas seemed to be harassed by a few ex-presidents. I visited the LBJ presidential library and archives in Austin, his ranch in the Texas hills (where the Italian sculptor Benini now has acres of art strewn around the humid hill sides), the John F Kennedy assassination museum (The 6th floor) in Dallas and the Johnson Space Centre in Houston.

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Texas has thrown numerous successful candidates forward into the White House, the most recent of which was George Bush Junior. I couldn’t fail to be educated further on sections of recent presidential history. Although like all American history lessons, much of the story is steered very definitely into a propaganda-style box. Even though colourful, informative, well laid out and focused purposefully on the “positive”, much of the effects of “the greater good for the american people” are overlooked. American Indian history is often the first to be poorly represented, but in the more modern era, it is suspicious assassination facts and poignant conspiracies that seem to be conveniently not detailed (and how intriguing would the USA be without a few decent conspiracies?). These attractions are not near each other, and the equivalent of driving around the UK a couple of times only added to the splendid reputation of how hospitable my wonderful and enthusiastic host is. Although ironically, as the state holds such a reputation, Amanda is not from Texas.

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I can’t discuss Amanda without tossing up hospitality, an endeavouring spirit and an enthusiasm for sharing generosity. I was treated, spoilt even, and welcomed with a fridge full of highly-prized, edible British products – including English back bacon, something which she sourced specially, and I have missed since I left home. I was also taken to see Lionel Richie in concert, and people inevitably saw the beard throw some unusual, disco shapes in flip flops. Luckily, no one was hurt.

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Amongst the city excursions which included the impressive State Capitol building/House of Representatives in Austin, and accompanying Amanda to the questionable, but in the end luxurious Chinese massage spa; I helped pack vegetables at the Johnstone Organic Farm for a morning (and received a couple of boxes of product for my labour). It was here that I met one forward and gregarious granny, offering me both insight into her previous life as a crack dealer, and the most accurate sentence anyone ever, loudly thrust into my ears about Austin. She said it was “Texas’s apology”. Referring to both its liberalism compared to the rest of the state and its cities, and presumably, Austin’s leniency towards her youthful vices…

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Texas continued to throw up some social surprises, and after a few more note-worthy experiences at a record store, a restaurant dedicated to bacon, viewing the largest urban bat colony in the world, being romantically approached at a roller derby, visiting the Alamo in San Antonio, and having a one room-tour of a tiny, garage museum of ephemerata, Amanda splurged in her holiday time (and maybe on an extra “sick day”) on a nine hour drive to New Orleans…

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Trying to have kittens with a Colombian…but waking up to a dog.

Metaphorically speaking, Carlos and I had been at it like frisky flamingos, trying to hatch plans like we needed a massive brood to take to Texas for their first flight. As close as we were to having kittens, and with Carlos deciding it was time to put a deposit down on a rusty car to get us there, his “life got flipped turned upside down”, with a phone call that said he had work for two months..

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As happy as I could be for my age-defying friend, this is how a positive attitude is the only thing that saves a hellish haemorrhage of plans which say “Hey, you there with the great idea – come here while I slap you in the face with this giant salmon!”
Courtesy prevailed and Carlos, after laying down some cash to purchase a banger, called to say that my Texas road trip was off the table…at least with him. I was stranded for a few days and had to re-hatch my own kittens. Thankfully, I pulled through. Denver to Austin was only a sixteen hour drive, and I had found a Texan that desired to drive home.

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Some adventures, such as visiting the beautiful and secluded foothills above Boulder, staying with a hedonistic cat that liked to catch birds on balconies in the moonlight north of Denver, and actually enjoying a vegan diet for a while as I couch surfed with a young music teacher with a penchant for spinach smoothies and debauchery in the mountains, will make it into a book this winter, or into bonus blog posts from my detailed diaries.

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More on adventures with Carlos, on my delayed time in Colorado, on meeting more hot-tub-loving people in the pot-friendly, apparently large snake-infested state, will be amongst the pages of future reads…

Linsi agreed with me on the feel and sense of community that Boulder lacked, and spending seventeen hours in a car with her was quite possibly the best extended drive I think I have ever been on. It’s the longest time I have spent in a car in one day, and having to spend it with someone arrogant, narrow minded, selfish, careless or with a menacing mind towards British men would have been quite a difficult drive..
My new sidekick however, is as wonderful as a field of flowers in the spring. She smells good, isn’t corrupted by any wind, loves a warming sunset and even though she wouldn’t like me to tell you, probably has a few interesting secrets that the scarecrows amongst the grass would only know about. She is obviously on my “favourite people of America” list, and she doesn’t drive like she wants to kill me (bonus). After a short delay and credit card issue, which Linsi had when collecting her hire car, we were underway. I couldn’t have asked for a better co-pilot, and while sharing the driving, discussed many things such as acceptable underwear, female hygiene, lost trains, yoga, the environment, devilled eggs, future travel plans and the women of America. Broad subjects…but we had seventeen hours to kill!

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The drive flew by. We only went the wrong way twice, and stopped twice for a short leg stretch, some hard boiled eggs (sadly not devilled), and a trip into a Texan bar to see if we could “borrow” a few wooden whisky barrels, as Linsi’s mother wanted them for her garden. Unable to acquire any barrels, I helped myself to a fancy seat, and briefly took in the slightly uncomfortable, dry heat of a more southern climate. After I had seen two new states: New Mexico briefly, and a long drive through cattle country and past dozens of oil wells, in Texas, we arrived in Austin around midnight.

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One thing I wasn’t expecting to see when reaching the Lonestar State, was the multiple, vast seas of towering wind turbines. They were everywhere, like nowhere else I had seen in America so far. Love them or hate them, and with arguments definitely for and against, I assume Texas is fully aware that their oil supply is not forever. These humming and buzzing, white beasts are hear to stay, covering the flat landscape in massive numbers.

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Arriving in Austin late at night, in the dark was unusual. It was only the second time on my journey that I had travelled in the dark. Unable to see anything away from the roadside or footpath was uncomfortable, and I constantly felt as though I was greatly missing out on soaking up the visions into my sponge of memories. Travelling in the dark suddenly felt unsafe, because I was couldn’t relate to the unknown. I knew that either side of the road were expanses of land with more wind turbines, cattle, oil wells and grass land, and seeing the landscape in day light was daunting enough. Not seeing it at all from a dark passenger seat, with a tired driver eating the last of the rationed snacks, was haunting.

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I woke up in Austin with yet another small dog licking my face (no petite lady jokes, thanks). In fact of the dozens of people I have met across the country so far, I have only met one household without an animal! Im nit sure what it says about a nation, but pets are definitely high on american’s lists of priorities. Breakfast tacos with hot sauce arrived at the door as my hosts came back from a coffee run, and I had an exciting, full calendar of southern treats waiting for me as my Texas adventure began…

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At this point, I’d just like to remind everyone that I’m still succeeding to travel and live on $6 a day. I’m meeting wonderful people, enjoying remarkable hospitality, immersing myself in intelligent discussions, enthusiastic, passionate debate and being welcomed into people’s social lives like a lost, bearded elephant. Only this herd seems to enjoy locally brewed beverages, discussion around their less adventurous lives and reminding me that not only do I say things wrong, but I eat pizza with a knife and fork.

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It’s obviously not all plain sailing. I constantly am aware of: making sure I’m safe, not over spending, not breaking the law (i.e. hitchhiking in certain places), not getting stranded more than a few days from food, always having water, not accidentally finding myself in a built up area with nowhere safe, or totally legal to sleep, staying warm at night, and now in the south, cool in the day, making sure the weight in my backpack isn’t too heavy incase I am on foot for a few days, making sure I write everything down, and keeping a level of hygiene and cleanliness that is acceptable if I sit in anyone’s car, or arrive unexpectedly at a strangers front door. My daily concerns list needs constant management.

I am raising awareness and funds for World Land Trust because it works internationally to purchase valuable land, to conserve ecosystems and to protect endangered wildlife. The issues that our natural world faces are global ones, not just the ones I am coming across in the USA.
If you’d like to donate (no money lines my pockets), please visit here

http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider

If you have any comments before my rambles through Texas, please feel free to join me on Facebook, twitter, tumblr, or email me.

winstonwolfrider@gmail.com
Facebook: Winston Ben Wolfrider
Twitter: @wwolfrider

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The Beard, Altitude and Pedro’s interrogation

According to a chap I met in a mountain town in Colorado, I would fit right in. “There are beards everywhere in Dillon!” He was not lying.

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Since beginning my journey, my viking-clown facial fuzz has provided entertainment, a problem or two, offered reason to be thankful in the cold, and as my chin is normally open to the elements, often made me think as to how I am now perceived on initial interactions.

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My beard has only been a talking point in America when people see photos of me without it. I have found I have been perceived a little differently to how I am maybe used to – but this hasn’t been completely the fault of my growing growler.
My beard has clearly insinuated a misinterpreted lie, of who I really am.
My gruff has actually been more accepted, and admired in general society in the states than I think it might have been in the UK. However this is probably due to not working an office job and slinging a backpack around with me daily; Winston’s beard has become an expected part of my associated uniform.

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As much as I enjoyed the Colorado mountain break for a couple of nights, I was glad to drop down from altitude. The extra few hundred feet on top of what I had been used to while travelling down the Rockies, was an overwhelming surprise for my rather fatigued body. Mixed with a house full of friendly critters and some unfamiliar cigarette smoke at altitude, I suffered.

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I had been invited by Julia, a friendly restaurant manager for one of the resorts in the mountains. As welcoming as she is, it is the first time on my trip that my body has given up, and I have never suffered altitude sickness previously. My organs felt like icing, spilling out from a split icing bag, controlled by an arthritic man who had never iced a cake. I was a mess and any attempt to dam the leek, just made the haemorrhaging worse. Everything aches, and the migrane-type pain is only intensified by the interrogation from Pedro.
Thanks Pedro.

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Down at an altitude where I didn’t feel like dragging a cinder block around the inside of my head to reduce the constant pain, I was back to my old, British self. I took a free tour around the Celestial Seasons tea factory: A rather impressive outing with some intense and invigorating smells. They had a mint room, where they stored the imported, dried leaves and welcomed people in to make their eyes water and their nostrils melt. Recommended.

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Colorado continued to throw up some intriguing adventures, and after spending some time in the Mile High City, enjoying some hospitality in a microbrewery, and in the quiet, secluded foothills overlooking Boulder, rumours began that somehow, I would catch a ride sixteen hours south to Austin, Texas.

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Wearing a loin cloth…and getting evicted

Frankly, the shopping mall is not exactly my first location choice when I have only €6 and one large coffee to last several hours. It may have been entertaining to see what mischief I could have found for a day, but with a heavy, life-containing back pack and a recent lack of wifi, I had work to do (despite the jolly you think I might be on, keeping this blog without a plug socket, internet or even a decent phone signal is harder than you might think). I hadn’t been in a shopping mall since Ohio and I feared the bright lights, the noise of the cash registers and the hustle of the crowds. I sat down in the metropolis of Broomfield CO and worked my thumbs like never before to bring you the radio4-style updates of my journey.

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It was recommended that I spend some time in Boulder. It is a tourist hot spot, a flip flop wearing, Thai latte drinking, wheat grass dieting, luxury, healthy town that is wonderful if you’re on holiday with a few thousand to spend and some arranged adventures to the mountains. It’s full of tanned, beach lovers (I never found a beach though), the restaurant scene, the music and the feel good vibe is generally all around, with plenty of attractive people enjoying a drink. Something bothered me.

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On the surface, the city has every intention to be the coolest and cleanest in Colorado, and be a genuinely warm and “welcoming” place so close to the beautiful peaks. However, it seems to have lunged a little too far, splitting a rip in its fabric en route. While wearing their yoga pants, everyone is hell bent on “doing the right thing” for their body, their soul, for the cleanliness of the streets and the image of the area, that to outsiders it appears a healthy idilic, but lost somewhere amongst their efforts, have they forgotten to actually be a heart-warming community. Seasonally, a lot of people here are either tourists, outdoor enthusiasts or old school, now wealthy hippies living a lavish lifestyle. Even though I met some wonderful individuals, the collective of the city seemed rather superficial, with a fairly transient soul. It merely lacked a draw or a pull that you get when you dive into some home cooked food.

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I had been thrown the digits of Carlos. A Colombian American, soon to be returning to Boulder. He invited me to Couchsurf at his new pad for as long as required while he was in town on business. We first met at 11.30pm in the Yellow Deli. I didn’t buy anything and used the now slightly overused “I’m just waiting for a friend before I order” line. Carlos turned up and we instantly walked a mile or so to his temporary home.

Suited and booted, Carlos went to work the next morning and I helped myself to a shower. I was busy soaping myself and reminiscing over how much we take the simple things in life for granted, when there was a knock at the apartment door. I contemplated answering, but as I was naked and not in my home, decided to ignore it. I wandered in a rather small towel into the presumed empty lounge, en route to my clothes, and was boldly met by a rather determined man in a very crisp shirt and tie. He looked like a young american newsreader, the orange-type that had just walked onto set after being in make up, and with teeth that would probably have lit up the room if I had dimmed the lights. Clearly no burglar (and no need for a torch), he had just let himself in without breaking anything; oddly, standing in a little more than a loin cloth, I said “welcome! How can I help you?”

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Handing me a card he informed me that Carlos was living there illegally and that I would have to leave too. I nodded politely and asked if I could put some pants on first. He wasn’t keen on my humour.
After a short interlude, I explained that Carlos must be unaware of his predicament, but this tall Oompa Lumpa was adamant, we had to leave, swiftly.

It quickly became clear that Carlos had been the victim of a rather unfortunate scam to rent empty accommodation. A father, of a student who had vacated the house for the summer, was trying to save a few dollars. I called my unfortunate new friend and explained his predicament. Carlos and I quickly came up with a solution – it had just gone 11am and it was in liquid form.

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As we mulled things over, a quick refreshment turned into a late evening, with nearly everyone who came to the bar, buying us a drink. Carlos also has a pending bank statement that details how many margaritas he bought. It’ll be a long read.
He struck me as a slightly wiry character, as adventurous as me but with commitments to his business. I have done well to remember two things on my adventure 1) never judge a person on appearance or on first impressions and 2) the best way to get to know someone is to drink too many margaritas together and try not to worry about being homeless in the process..

Assuming that we were some kind of party, we made “friends” with everyone who invaded our space (at the bar). We even caught the eye of a silver haired black man wearing the cleanest white shirt I have ever seen (clearly Boulder was a place to wear crisp shirts). On “holiday”, staying with one of his many lady friends around the country (so he told us), he was interested in doing some business in Boulder. He informed me that his business was cocaine and “this and that”. Intrigued and only slightly inebriated, I took my line of questioning down the only reasonable route. I enquired where drug dealers spent their holidays. Remaining a mystery, he informed me that he never left the country and unsurprisingly, some new “friends” don’t like it when you ask them for a selfie together..

I had a back pack and a tent and could simply walk out of town, but as I had met the bronzed-agent in little more than a loin cloth, and I was the barer of bad news; I felt an urge to help my new friend.
Within a few hours, Carlos had a few leads for somewhere to move to.

I am often reminded that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure, is simply attitude.
I am also reminded often, that it is amazing what I have managed to do on just $6 a day, and the further I go, the larger my beard is getting..

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Shapely white arses…it’s what I came here for

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I thought elk were nervous, shy and retired creatures…yes, most of them are over 65. However, the majestic Rocky Mountain National Park, just north west of Denver CO proved to be home to some rather carefree, left wing socialites who came to inspect their camper-riddled meadow, making sure we were all provided for.
Another bonus state on top of my original fourteen – like a stalk with a heavy, baby-laden sack in its beak – Colorado completely delivered. It was another wildlife wonderland.

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From Rock Springs, I ventured over Rabbit Ears Pass and shortly after, paused by a lake by the side of the road to watch trout and swallows feast on an abundance of hatched flies from both above and below the surface of the mirrored lake. Not a particularly noteworthy spot, there were some fishing boats on the pond and the birdlife early in the morning was mesmerising. More noteworthy however, here I had bacon and egg for breakfast, and I have missed that kind of love in my life.

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The campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park was exposed, slightly breezy and surprisingly, rather quiet. The side of the park I had yet to see promised to be full with trippers from Denver, Boulder and the nearby suburbs on the eastern side of the mountains. Elk have always seemed to be the quiet, slightly awkwardly large child in the playground, and it was no different here. However instead of skipping away because you had just threatened them with the unfortunate classmate’s lergy, elk were wondering around the campsite, flashing their white butts, as if the school bully was off sick.

The journey over the Rocky Mountains and through the protected park was possibly one of my favourite. I marvelled once again at KP’s expressed inner monologue (kind of an over polite, repetitive-sounding house-wife holding a feather duster, who really didn’t want to leave a mess anywhere she hovered) and how he handled the drive.

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It was by far, in all seriousness, the most nerve racking drive of our tour. Irrelevant of any extreme weather, or KP’s quite obvious and acute fear, it was not for the faint hearted. I again reminded him of the stunning views that were indeed out of his window – only this time, for our safety, once we had reached lower altitude…I do have a caring, if not narcissistic side..

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Following a night on the busier, eastern side of the park, which entertained me like a carnival float throwing candy from it, it was time for KP to throw me, like his least favourite chocolate in the box, respectfully to the wolves…or at least to the side of the road in suburbia, in a shopping mall that has wifi. Our time together was brief, we had complimented each other’s personality, worked together to make our trip as eventful but as peaceful as possible and have become great, respectful friends. He may feel like he is getting old, but as I think he’s rediscovered in retirement, the greatest adventure is only a ahead. It was a manly goodbye with an Australian-style, cricketer’s hug….

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….and he gave me three rings when he arrived home safe, twenty seven hours later.

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Schoolgirl in the desert, dinosaurs and a hammer

After abusing Starbucks’ wifi privileges in Jackson WY, it was time to skip town. Just a few hours of volume in a populated area was enough to make me slightly angry – and for those that know me, anger does not occur on my emotional spectrum much. You would think after six years in London, I would be used to a little noise, but losing the hum for a few weeks was enough to reset my natural clock.

I danced very briefly with Idaho, but like an excited school girl playing hopscotch on American states, I skipped into Utah, stopped quickly to pick up my pebble as I travelled the length of the beautifully clear and blue, Bear Lake, and then jumped straight back into the south west of Wyoming.

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Completely different from the north west, where the landscape was lush, mountainous, blanketed with pine forests and sprinkled, generously with mammalian, the south was dry, arid, brown and alive with lizards. I had reached the place in the USA where I would feel the furthest from home; which from northern Utah, the desert stretches a thousand miles south. It will be travelled across, and explored soon..

Fossil Butte National Monument was in my path, and if your vice is dinosaur bones, this was the first landmark on my journey east, through an archeologist’s desert dream. It was only a lunch spot, as the drive ahead would take at least a couple of days, but the landscape couldn’t have been more different from the one I had woken up in that morning.

Just north of highway 40, is Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. More importantly, it was my first shower in almost two weeks. It also appeared to be one of those places completely off the tourist trail. Americans were camped here in their RVs for what appeared to be the entire summer. Their boats were not far away, and in their downtime men socialised by drinking and fishing…downtime is important and most found it daily. Maybe it was the time of year, but even though they were swollen from a late, winter melt, Bear Lake and Flaming Gorge waterway (it’s damned) were astonishingly crystal clear and a perfect lagoon blue. What these people did when they weren’t enjoying their fishing spots on paradise waters, was a mystery. It is many hours to drive to a nearby town, and work in the hot, dusty wilderness is not common. Not that I’m making any assumptions, but I wasn’t surprised to see very, very few females.

The drive south from Flaming Gorge was a nervous experience again for KP, but what’s a little adventure without soiling your pants once in a while? At high-altitude, there were steep inclines and sheer declines on a journey that thankfully, neither of us needed to change our underwear on. We stopped in Vernal to take a breather; it is times like these that the majority of english folk crave a cup of tea. Sadly, KP was not accustomed to calming his nerves with what the empire was built upon , so I made him a peanut butter sandwich. The drive east along highway 40 took all of KP’s energy, and a whole day. After a longer than expected stop in Dinosaur National Monument, I was surprised we made it to our destination before dark.

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Dinosaur National Monument was simply massive, and nobody on my journey had ever heard of it, nor had I come across it in my research before coming to America. Granted, I didn’t look at Colorado or eastern Utah much as the areas were not on my original trail.

The monument has three entrances, one in Utah and two in Colorado. It spans about 100miles east to west and surrounds the convergence of the Snake and the Yampa River. I am not a huge fan of dinosaurs, but it can probably boast one of the best, original site, exposed exhibits of dinosaur fossils on earth (yes, even I this time, will go as far as to say it is probably one of the best in the world, but oddly at the monument, America didn’t).

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The dry rock landscape fielding around the “prehistoric big-hitter”, it is just as breathtaking without the dinosaur exhibit, and the geographic scenery that surrounds you details over a few hundred million years in time. If you fancy a whole day of driving and seeing some rather remarkable, ancient skeletal structures and rock formations, I sincerely recommend it.

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Tucked away at the most eastern end of the Utah section was Josie’s lodge. Following a divorce, she set up her homestead in the shelter of the magnificent gorge and lived peacefully, in renowned territory of bear and mountain lion. She chose this remote spot as her home; it would have been bitterly cold, below freezing for much of the winter, she was without electricity, plumbing, neighbours, and had at least a couple of weeks horse ride to a nearby town or hospital. Josie ranched alone for fifty years before dying at the age of 90.

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The cabin is now merely tree trunks clad with mud and is slowly struggling to be restored. With some imagination, it is hard not to romanticise about the beauty and simplicity of her lifestyle, but her isolation reminded me of how much I miss not sharing my experiences with others. I certainly crave many aspects of self sufficient living, and surviving only on a respectfully modest amount more than what is necessary, but it still shakes my emotions every time I see people living as reclusively and as remotely as Josie.

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Dinosaur National Monument was again, a bonus stop on my trek. For its size, it does well to maintain a conspicuous personality. A 25 mile journey off the highway at the western Colorado entrance gets you to the monument gate, and there are many more miles inside the park – it is never a short trip! A drive from a city, from east or west, really is a day’s outing, but it does mean that it’s rarely overcrowded.

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Seven hours later and after a long, straight, dry drive east, north of Steamboat Springs, is a little place on the map called Clark.

I cleansed my dusty feet in the Elk River (no I didn’t use soap or wash off any deet into the natural water). I was almost washed away by the chill of the teeth-chattering, fast-flowing melt water, but managed grab a tree trunk to avoid the embarrassment of being found twenty miles downstream. I did a little paperwork in the seclusion of the pine trees and managed to find a use for all the abundant sage bush – rubbing it over my smells. I think KP was appreciative, although he didn’t rush out to replace his deodorant stick.

The camp spot may have been a little louder with the swollen river rushing by, and it is clearly a recreational area for some locals to come and enjoy themselves, but it was one of my favourites. In spring, the flowers are everywhere; purples, pinks, yellows, and the trees are bursting with new growth. The ground is alive with wildlife and the lush, green grass is sporadically scattered with sparkling quarts in the setting sun.
The snow-covered Rockies are to the east and national forest surrounded me on both sides of the valley.

After an evening of wine, women and song…which I substituted again for some flatbread, vegetables (which were a treat), water, and a chilly night of interrupted sleep; the journey continued and I arrived a little sleepy, into the showerless refuge of Rocky Mountain National Park…

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Shaolin Squirrels, some frozen vocal chords and spot the Donkey

It might have been my Dad, with his impressive collection of definitely camp, pink ordinance and survey maps prior to when I was born, who taught me how to map read. Grateful for my introduction into the folds of navigational wizardry (we seemed to often drive around rural roads in Britain at high speeds, playing Dire Straights), my directional skills when leaving Yellowstone were on the money.

If you make the mistake of not knowing which way you’re heading and exit south from Yellowstone; to avoid entering a neighbouring National Park you have to travel over a hundred and sixty miles back to a different exit further north…without a fuel stop for over a hundred miles.

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Why you would want to avoid Grand Teton National Park baffles me. I made sure I enjoyed entry into the smaller, well groomed, beautifully formed, sage brush-covered, protected area. It was on my “do not miss” list.

Following the agony and ecstasy of Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park restored my faith in the way Americans conserve their natural heritage.

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Before I indulge myself in some Grand Tetons, I would like to mention that Yellowstone did have its perfect moments (which I might have neglected in my last post). My short videos may have summarised some of my knee jerk reactions and troubling thoughts on the way Yellowstone operated, and even though I think they were justified, I witnessed up close, calving elk, had view points all to myself because I ventured out at dawn, learnt a lot about Yellowstone’s history, to which I was previously ignorant, spotted multiple species of wildlife that I consider an utter treat and I was astounded at the vast array of natural geographic phenomena and breathtaking beauty that spilled into my senses every few minutes. Despite a few niggles, I still have the utmost respect for what Yellowstone achieves, although I do hope it can move away from its sugar coated version of the wild, and resist catering for the herds.

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I travelled south through the effortlessly beautiful Jackson hole valley. Oddly, with it being the neighbour of Yellowstone, the two parks couldn’t appear more different. Quiet in comparison, Grand Teton slipped evocatively into the sublime. The new mountains dropped down drastically into clear, clean, postcard-perfect lakes; then a wide, lush, flower-full valley, carved out by the numerous glaciers that once slid through this impressive landscape flows towards rolling hills: each hill harbouring their own enigmatic view of the scene I was adventuring through.

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The aroma of the valley will always stick to the memory of my now moustachioed upper lip. Sage brush bathed the landscape as well as my now, soaped-up, intoxicated brain. The smell of pine also sporadically and pleasantly interrupted the perfect roast potato flavouring. It momentarily took me back to mid-week roast dinners in the Kent countryside, as friends would always moan that they preferred a sageless potato. Sage-haters!

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KP reminisced of his time here over thirty years ago and was in constant surprise, and disappointment, of how much it had changed. For a second, he was almost in tears that the little town of Moose had been replaced by the new, large and modern looking visitor centre now occupying the south skirt of the park. Possibly an erection inspired by the monstrosities in Yellowstone, but let’s not moan about that. I actually found the hidden buildings within Grand Teton to be rather in tune with the surroundings. KP was almost again in tears….of delight, when we found that the town of Moose hadn’t disappeared at all, it was hidden away, just across the road from the visitor centre where it had always been.

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Moose hadn’t changed at all; a tiny village with a restaurant, a cafe, a convenience store – now with some hipster sandwich makers, a gas station and an outdoor apparel store, in fact the only thing that had been altered in thirty years was the arrangement of the vegetables on the shelves in the store, as KP oddly reminisced. Moose is simple, tiny and buzzing on Thursday nights because the restaurant has a weekly barbecue, yet it is somewhat frozen in time and perfect for the understated, yet majestically formed national park that it holds hands with.

I have had a few camp spots that have raised a few eyebrows, and a few that no eye brows have come across, but north east of Grand Teton National Park, on the Buffalo Valley Road, the ground squirrels entertained me like miniature Shoalin monks, only without orange robes and slightly higher-pitched voices (although admittedly, I have never heard a Shaolin monk speak).

The new horse feed shed was erected because bears constantly abuse the food stores, but as it was too soon and too cold in the season for bears, I sadly didn’t see any.

Many of the towns around Grand Tetons had changed drastically in the 30 years KP had been absent. They now sprawled, sporadically along the highways and into the hidden, quiet crevices of the hills. Farm buildings, stores and dude ranches are dotted around the valley. The market dropped out of the ranching industry around a century ago; ranchers turned to tourism, giving city dwellers an experience of their rural lifestyle. For the townies who wanted to dress and ride like wild folk in the hills, it was a boozy holiday and a slice of the countryside on horse back. The chance to hunt or see american wildlife in its natural habitat was also an attraction away from concrete jungles and some operate today for Wild West getaways.

Some National Parks used to be home to some of these ranches, but now they have either been dismantled, or set up as mini museums (such as in Dinosaur National Monument or the ranch in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado).

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The town of Jackson is a tourist Mecca, a metropolis of tour buses, travellers, souvenir-purchasing, cowboy-wannabes and the brand-wearing youth. The amount of hip coffee shops, expensive restaurants, pricey art galleries and extortionately priced properties in estate agent windows was overwhelming for such a small town – but it runs on tourism and well-moneyed, seasonal trade. As it is the resort town of the winter ski season, it is clearly the place to be seen, yet it was deafening on my wilderness-accustomed ears. I found it difficult to communicate on an appropriate level in the populated area – a skill which had escaped me while travelling through the lesser populated, much colder, more rustic and quieter places of the north west USA. Coming back to civilisation was a hard realisation and while my senses were overloaded with tourism (one chap hadn’t been in the presence of people for quite a while and just wanted to talk the arse end off any donkey, for as long as he possibly could), my vocal chords froze.

At the north east end of Grand Teton, we found a campsite up a dirt road. It was last time KP and I would share a campfire, so I made sure I went to town in the kitchen. It was possibly the most appreciated moment of our journey together. The memories KP has of this place are, I think, the most precious in his life. At every turn I could see the humbled smile and contentment on his reminiscent face. He was on his belated and overdue adventure back to his youth and he shed a tear when he stood aloft Signal Mount for the first time in 30years.

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I felt sheer a privilege that I could witness his joy. Experiencing memorable, emotional, exciting and sometimes difficult things alone in this world, are often times that many live to regret. I have felt the sadness of not being able to share my experiences with those close to me regularly on this journey, and I will always be comforted that KP told me how happy he was to share such a personal moment with someone he respected as a true friend. He said he couldn’t have shared this trip with anyone better (although I think he would have said that just as freely, to a wonderfully adventurous, intelligent and cuddly 60year old woman – I won’t hold it against him).

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The dramatic landscape never ceased to remind me that I was witnessing epic, natural beauty. Although a major attraction in the park, the picturesque Jenny Lake, where trail heads begin and small ferries run hikers and climbers across the water, felt small, understated and respectful of the wilderness (my videos are on youtube). I believe Grand Teton is the only national park with a commercial airport, but even it was small and apart from some leer jets parked, discreetly on the wooded horizon, you wouldn’t know it was there. It struggled to overwhelm the valley and it seems everything here has been designed and constructed to keep the wild landscape as natural and as unaffected as possible. This is how it should be.

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Although not my favourite natural stop on my trip, Grand Teton and Jackson Hole struck an emotional chord. Maybe it was sharing a ditherithing, older gentleman’s reminiscent memories, maybe it was the grandeur of the mountains so close I could touch them, maybe it was the peacefulness following such a crowded, cartoon experience of the wild in Yellowstone, maybe it was the aroma of sage, pine, melt water and a cowgirl’s leather chaps that seeped from the history of the valley and small wooden towns, or maybe it was just the fact that everything combined, makes Grand Teton what she is – a humble, seasonal, remotely quiet, mountain-influenced and beautiful wilderness which people don’t appear to have overwhelmed. She also smells wonderful, like my preferred roast potato flavouring..

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The most frustrating comments I have had to make

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Despite a moonlit moment with a mosquito who munched around my hand, to inflate it to resemble a bloated, naked mole, waking up early on the Missouri again in western Montana was most pleasant. Around 4am the freight trains started to slide slowly and loudly along the track on the opposite river bank, (it wasn’t visible in the evening), and proceeded to periodically honk their massive horns. As much as I enjoy an early wake up call, my fond memories of camping along the Missouri will never leave me.

Driving south east to the Northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, KP and I drove the ten miles within the park to the visitor centre and had a mooch around the wooden walkways that hovered precariously over Mammoth (Hot) Springs.

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The original site in Yellowstone, where the army was based was a busy one. With large stone buildings, cafés, a visitor centre being renovated and a hotel, it was the beginning of what continued to be the busiest and most heavily built in park I have encountered. The wooden walkways look like they required constant maintenance, not only because of excessive foot traffic, but because they are embedded into steaming, corrosive, volcanic liquid – I couldn’t help but wonder who’s tremendous brainchild it was.

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Following a short inspection of an informative pooh-chart, we drove twenty miles to the first campsite, only to find that it was full. They don’t tell you at the entrance if there is no room at the inn. After taking an entrance fee, they let you drive thirty miles inside the park to find out – a possible lightbulb moment from the same think-tank that conjured up wooden walkways over a steaming, corrosive volcanic flow.

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A further twenty miles before we reached an available camp spot in Canyon Campgroung, the fifty mile trip from the entrance of the park is why I do not attempt to enter national parks on foot. I would possibly be ejected, or worse, arrested, if I was found attempting to sleep for free, somewhere other than in a designated campground. Despite my leathered feet, walking even thirty miles after reaching a remote park entrance, at any time of day is a little bit of a stretch. As much as I agree with a camping charge in protected areas, poor access for environmental travellers with small eco-footprints (and smaller wallets), around America as a whole, is another notch against the USA; which falls short compared to other countries, or even continents, which are backpacker friendly. A vehicle loaded with gas is an expected necessity.

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To reach our commercial camping spot, there was a nerve racking drive for KP (and I) as we drove over the frozen, snow covered, 8000ft pass on the eastern side of the Yellowstone. Stunning views of the hills and mountains, as well as sheer, rocky drops, once again added to our adventure. For me, an adventure filled with excitement and moments to photograph thrilling scenery, but for KP it was another chance to experience his turbulent anxiety, of possibly falling to his certain death from a great height. I navigated my pilot through some petrified notions, but I didn’t fail to assure him that some awesome scenery was just out of his window, if he had only bothered to look left while driving…out over a death defying drop. I think we both enjoyed ourselves equally.

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In 1872, President Grant made yellowstone the very first National Park. It is the largest of all, the most visited, with possibly the most varied and diverse natural structures and ecosystems in North America. Yellowstone is the most famous park in the states, possibly due to the shenanigans of Yogi (not to be confused with John Lennon’s, widowed wife), one mischievous and loveable, Yellowstone-dwelling bear.

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Yellowstone is also well known for its controversial, yet successful reintroduction of American wolves, allowing them again to naturally roam as wild and respected predators on the north section of the continent, something which I am hugely in favour of where it can be supported by enough wild territory. Using their own navigational technology, the wolves have successfully trekked thousands of miles across North America from Yellowstone, some even sneaking in a few enjoyable hiking holidays over the Canadian border.

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As relaxed as my expectations were whilst planning my journey, Yellowstone National Park was the one place, through reputation alone, that I held in the highest regard above all others. It was personally, the most geographically unique and significant, “must-see” checkpoint on my trail and I sincerely looked forward to visiting with a passionate urge. It therefore saddened me greatly, and dented my strange pride over somewhere that I had never visited, when my expectations were far from reached.

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My long founded opinion of Yellowstone was that it would be the epitome of what a national park should be, that it set the example for all other prestigious parks to follow and that it would be the most impressive park experience of them all. However, even though I know the impressive work here is ongoing, that the rangers, geologists, naturalists and all other nature of specialist continue to work scientific (but maybe not practical) magic; it appeared that on arrival, instead of entering a natural haven or wilderness, any common sense and respectful examples which I had seen being set in other parks, were not being set by Yellowstone.

“Leave nothing behind, take only photos” is the common national park tag line. Only in Yellowstone, taking more than photos away from the numerous, oversized gift shops was an advertised encouragement.

All other parks that I had visited had tried hard, and succeeded to keep their grocery stores, outdoor apparel shops, art galleries, restaurants and fast food chains outside the park. Yellowstone has welcomed the commercialisation of the wild, into the park. In other parks, as unattractive and as close to the park as businesses could be, they remained outside, away from the “maintained wild”. Yellowstone has huge hotels, restaurants, a marina, parking lots that might dwarf Walmart’s and even an RV repair shop INSIDE the park. This didn’t exactly confirm that Yellowstone strives to set the pragmatic, environmentally-focused example for all other parks to follow, in fact unfortunately, it was the Park Service’s way of saying “Welcome to Disneyland”.

I will speculate and say there seems to be one significant influence Yellowstone has had over other parks. It would appear that recently (in the past decade) every park I have visited has had an upgrade or facelift to their visitor centre – normally just on the fringe of the park.
Whether or not it was needed, I feel like the massive, multiple monstrosities within Yellowstone have allowed for other parks to follow suit. Had it not been for Yellowstone’s accepting nature of commercialisation, many other parks may not have upgraded with such extravagance or spent large budgets on ill-fitting, modern and anti-wild buildings to accommodate the “non-wild” seeking public.

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I explored many parks outside of the holiday season, and now in the first week of summer, crowds, in a wild place, easily dampen the mood. However, I was living the American dream – so much so that 400 other tourists celebrated with me every time I paused to admire something past 10am. The commercial experiences could not have been more prominent as when waiting like lemmings to watch Old Faithful spill a few gallons of scolding water into the air. As impressive as it is, the edge is taken off somewhat by dozens of tourists amongst the hundreds, not having to whine about there being no phone signal (as Yellowstone has installed signal masts) as they all call their friends or talkative sisters from Wisconsin to tell them what they are doing (being the loud, obnoxious, annoying idiot in the national park on their cell phone) while we have to listen. They also don’t need to moan about waiting for nature, knowing when the next spectacle is, is fairly obvious, as there is a clock counting down the event in the massive visitor centre and in the impressive Yellowstone lodge, both a stones throw this from the geyser.

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Just a few feet from one of Mother Earth’s awesome scheduled events, is Yellowstone’s own man-made spectacle. Stretching further than a few soccer fields to accommodate everyone’s cars, trucks, RV’s and ever popular tour buses is the tarmac parking lot, which rolls all the way up to the viewing area, just spitting distance from the watery blow hole.

Nobody can complain of a long or arduous journey either, a journey that might be deserving of seeing the awesomeness of the earth. Yellowstone has built its own highway-style road and freeway junction for all the titanic vehicles to navigate around and park just a few hundred feet from the famous park’s Old Faithful. It’s the kind of car park you can get lost in, but sadly, losing cellphone addicted tourists in Yellowstone is something they try to avoid.

It may not be such a surprise to read that it sadly was not such an awe inspiring or natural moment to witness Mother Nature please so many people around the park, like she was an X-factor contestant, and one that didn’t seem to make it to the finals.

Let’s not be disheartened; Simon Cowell was not at hand with a large buzzer next to Yellowstone Lodge, although I feel Yellowstone might consider the “attraction”.
The experience I had in Yellowstone was a beautiful one; albeit far from an experience with the wilderness which much of the park is.

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Precious moments are best shared, although not with 400 strangers that aren’t really appreciating anything other than an air conditioned bus ride or an over compensated mansion away from home experience. Such is a wilderness experience where you take everything but the kitchen…oh wait, you seem to have multiple sinks.

Another troubling Yellowstone character was to build roads and walkways, literally on top of the attractions, simply to accommodate every able or unable person possible, no matter how detrimental it is for the park. This baffles me – I can’t comprehend true conservation incorporating commercialisation, practically on top of the spectacles they’re trying to conserve.
I commented:

Compared to other parks, Yellowstone has some different burdens to shoulder. However the difference is simply scale. The park is larger than any other and the numbers of people that visit are grossly higher. One might argue that bussing them in on tour buses and dropping them off for photos and at the gift shops is the most environmentally friendly way to handle the numbers, concentrating them into small areas. It avoids overwhelming parts of the wilderness and relieves fragile areas of the park from damaging foot traffic. However I fail to understand how this experience of the park is a preferred one. They dump money at the shops and drive to a few viewing areas for an impressive vista – for the same photo every person on their tour bus has. It was like watching a very slow conveyor belt of snap-happy, emotionless commuters, and I felt upset that non of the bussed crowds actually experience the park for what it should be – the wild.

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Let’s not forget that the wild is exactly what Yellowstone is.

Just weeks following my visit, areas in the park were closed due to bubbling pools and volcanic waters spilling out over the roads (it wasn’t rocket science). Two people have also died in the park since my visit; one man on a river trip and a nine year old girl who fell from the exact walkway which I light-heartedly commented on in my video.

Everyone should have the right to experience national parks and more importantly, the wilderness, but if it is detrimental to the park itself, I think we should rethink how we approach the arranged amenities and access routes into and around the wild. We need to stop thinking that we’re above nature, stop attempting to overcome and overwhelm her, and we need to understand that we must be in a respectful relationship with her in order to have any natural wonders left for even our grand children’s generation. Rebuilding an overused road just a few feet away from a newly-routed, bubbling volcanic flow would be another brainchild from the think-tank that builds wooden walkways into corrosive, flowing, volcanic liquid.

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Although difficult to avoid being a hypocrite, I too travelled around Yellowstone in a vehicle (because accessing the park any other way is practically illegal). I took many of the same photos as hundreds of others (however, without any people in my shots because at 6.30am they’re all tucked up in their mobile mansions) and I too utilised the warm showers (but I hadn’t washed for over a week). If access roads were not available to tour busses, or if the dozens of amenities did not exist – as they don’t in many other national parks – at the same time as the wild benefitting, nothing would stop many appreciating the wonders of Yellowstone.

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If you desire a wilderness that is a busy, commercial Disneyland, where you can have your RV repaired, shop in massive grocery stores, buy everyone a Christmas present, have a meal cooked for you in one of many gigantic restaurants, and experience it all with thousands of other gift shop huggers in one of earth’s most stunning places; indulge your vices in Yellowstone. If you crave to experience the great outdoors, I hate to say this because it’s beautiful Yellowstone, but visit somewhere else.

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As much as I have lambasted Yellowstone for being the unfortunate, cartoon experience of the wild (at least for the majority of its visitors), it is still one of the most important environmental areas in the USA (notice I didn’t say “The world”, like all American marketeers do). It is arguably the largest area of land, with the highest number of impressive natural spectacles in the incongruent United States, away from any salt water shoreline.
It is impossible not to admire her beauty, her concentrated variable landscapes and her titanic influence on the ecosystems in and around her. Yellowstone is a magnificent kingdom, she is a spellbinding wildlife preserve, and I hope that despite the Disneyfied experience that she offers, that she is not damaged by it in years to come. The wild itself holds its own destiny, and we should merely remain attentive, and forever humbled by it.

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