Hello world!

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Hi everyone.  Not long to go now before we set off on our European and perhaps world adventure!

Our new home for the next nine months

The front cover of my first children's book .

The front cover of my first children’s book .

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Day 7/50: The rain in Spain ……..

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Like pretty much everywhere in Europe this year, summer in Scotland was the best in a long time as I told you in my Munroamers post. This prompted our great friends from Kendal, Mike & Het, to pull their caravan North into Scotland and have a tour. They did really well too and we were delighted when they accepted our invitation to come and spend a few days with us in Dundee. It was a laugh from start to finish and included a visit to the Falkirk Wheel and a walk up West Lomond for me and Mike. They really are a splendid couple and we always feel totally at ease with them which is a huge bonus. We also visited a childhood haunt of Het’s (Anstruther) and of course had a fish & chips lunch at the famous chippie.

At the Kelpies

At the top of West Lomond

It was while we were visiting Anstruther that I suddenly received a missed call from the son of my Auntie Pat and I feared the worst. My fears were realised when I later received the bad news that Pat had passed away after suffering a stroke. Needless to say, Mary and I attended the funeral in Newcastle and met up with all the English relatives. I didn’t know I had so many cousins! We remember with great affection how Auntie Pat and Uncle Brian (not long departed himself) came to Vilanova Park for a few days at the end of a Mediterranean cruise and the absolute belter of a time they had with us and our friends. Now both are gone unfortunately, but they’ve left us with happy memories.

Pat & Brian at Montserrat

Brian & Pat at the Biker Bar

I should mention that we’ve done loads of work in the flat this summer and it now boasts a brand-new bathroom, a new living-room ceiling, wallpaper, lighting and carpet, so we’re quite happy to fly back for a short break anytime to enjoy what we’ve spent our money on. We also had our annual weekend away at the scout camp in Powburn with most of Mary’s family and once again Ben came along with us. This year he decided it would be much more fun to sleep in the dormitory with all the other kids rather than be cosy in a private room with Grandad George and Granny Mary. We also celebrated sister Claire’s husband’s 50th birthday and all dressed up in Blyth Spartans strips for the occasion. Mad, but a great laugh!

Claire, Ally, Bruce, Dot, Mary

Ben doing grass-sledging!

I saw plenty of the grandchildren this summer and had a terrific day with Artemis to myself which included a visit to see one of the 50 penguins Dundee City Council had spread around the town before auctioning them off. Well it wasn’t really much of a visit because the Council had positioned one of the flightless birds (named Chic!) right outside our window and at the entrance to the park opposite. It was a delight to see it there first thing in the morning and I’ll miss it now that it’s gone.

At the swings with Grandad George

Me and Arry with Chic

I’ve always thought that the beauty of living here is that it hardly ever rains, even though when it does it fair chucks it down! But this time around we’ve been left reeling by the utter monsoons that have swept through here on a fairly regular basis since our arrival back in Vilanova 7 weeks ago. Indeed, it was so bad the first evening we were here that the sheer weight of water brought down the partly-erected awning, snapping one of my new glass-fibre poles (you know, the ones that are virtually unbreakable!). Since that day we’ve been plagued by the notion that every time we leave the caravan unattended to go somewhere there is a chance we’ll return to find the awning lying on the ground and our possessions soaked if not ruined.

And it’s not only in the awning that we’ve had problems. That awful damp smell returned to the front of the caravan on my side of the bench seats and I had to go in with serious intent to track it down. I never did find out where it’s been coming in over the years but I found the results of the intrusion: the window shelf witnessed water penetration over a long period of time and I was forced to cut out a couple of feet of it and replace it with new wood. That seems to have done the trick and we’ve had no more bother since, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that the rainstorms don’t find their way in and ruin things again.

On a happier note, we’ve had lots of family out to visit over the past 2 weeks as it has been the Scottish school holidays. George, Fiona and grandson Ben started the ball rolling when they flew in 2 Thursdays ago for a 2-week stay in Vilanova Park – just in time for Mary and I to fly back to Scotland the very next day! No. it’s not that we don’t get on, it’s just that we had arranged to fly home to attend sister-in-law Ally’s Silver Wedding Function in the Queen’s Hotel in Dundee. Everyone was going to be there and we really didn’t want to miss out on a good party, which is exactly what it turned out to be. The live band in particular were excellent and had a crowd on the dance-floor pretty much from the start, even chucking in a Gay Gordons and a dashing White Sergeant for good measure! Son Scott and his girl Keira were there too and they came with us the next morning to visit Dundee’s new top attraction the V & A Museum built in the town centre on the banks of the Tay. That was really impressive and we hope to visit the actual galleries when we’re home at Christmas.

Me, Mary and Scott

Exciting times for the City!

Second son Gavin came to the flat on the Sunday evening and at 3 in the morning we headed off to Edinburgh Airport in his car which he left there before joining us on the flight back to Barcelona where he spent four days with us and his brother getting in a bit of sunshine between the downpours! I was of course in my element with 2 of my sons and my grandson with me out here. We all had a trip to the Camp Nou to tour Barcelona’s stadium and trophy room and we all got the souvenir photos you can buy there. Here’s some from the collection.

The leader of the pack!

Just before going out onto the pitch

Ben with Leo

Gav flew away again on the Friday morning but we were back at the airport for a second time that day when Ally and Dave flew in late that evening fresh from their Silver Wedding celebration the previous weekend. George, Fiona and Ben stayed another week with us and we managed a few trips out to local spots including Roc de Sant Gaieta, Coma Ruga, Castellet, Tibidabo and Barcelona Zoo. Mary and I were quick to acknowledge that this place is heaven when the family are out here sharing quality time with us and it’s just a pity they can’t be here more often. Mary’s family have now returned home as well yesterday and that explains to a certain extent why I have now found the time to sit down and add to my blog. The previous 2 weeks have been full-on and I’m a bit worn-out although in a totally positive way. I’ve done a real lot of driving people around but it has been worth it and more!

Mary. Ben, Fiona and George at Roc de Sant Gaieta

George and family plus flamingoes!

Ben on Tibidabo

Ally, Stephen and Mary

As for Lady Burton, well she has returned to work for Global Connect, getting her job back as promised after a year off to go travelling with me again. She is presently doing 4 evenings a week Monday-Thursday plus one lunchtime class at the primary school Sant Jordi, although she might be offered more with the resignation of one of her colleagues to take up a full-time job in Sitges. Which brings me neatly to my new interest which is amateur dramatics! My pal Jeanette, Fred’s wife, has been involved with a group in Sitges for a couple of years now and had invited me before to give it a try, but she recently told me the group were short of one Scotsman for a sketch and I agreed to take the part. I have a final rehearsal tomorrow in Sitges and the performance will take place there next Saturday evening. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Fortunately I’ve been able to take up tutoring my wee pal Guillem again and have already done a couple of lessons with him. We had a day out with his parents Ramon and Beti at the Cubelles Wine Festival recently which was a fine event for all, although we were shocked to discover that they’ve been going through a rocky time in their relationship and are currently living apart. We hope that they are able to resolve their differences for Guillem’s sake as well. He came up to the campsite last week to play with Ben whom he has met during his two stays with us in Dundee and it was great to see them together again despite the age gap.

Guillem and Mary in Cubelles

Mary and I had a trip into Barcelona with her friend and colleague Heather to see an exhibition in the National Museum of Catalunya of the life and influence of Salvador Dali’s wife Gala. She was quite a woman and had previously been married to a famous French poet before marrying Dali and spending the rest of her life with him. It was a good day out and I think Heather particularly enjoyed herself. We even managed a tour of the roof, affording us spectacular views of the area around Placa Espanya and of course Montjuic and the Olympic Park to the south.

Heather and Mary looking out over Barcelona

You’ll remember our close friends Tom & Margareth Bakker whom we’ve visited in Holland and who have come to visit us in Dundee. Well, four weeks ago, they celebrated their Golden Wedding here in Vilanova alongside their entire immediate family and their friends from the campsite. We were invited to attend a special lunch with them and their family down at the Wok in town and then a street party here on Section F in the evening. Both events were brilliant and we had a wee singsong later on in the evening. I made a point of playing “The Wild Rover” which Margareth particularly enjoys as she has learned all the words since I sang it for them at a ceilidh in The Fisherman’s in Broughty Ferry when they were staying with us. It was a pleasure meeting their lovely daughters, their spouses and their children again, having been introduced to them during our visit to Petten in the summer of 2014.

The Bakker Family

There was a big day for eldest son George recently when he took part in the Great Scottish Run, a half-marathon through the streets of Glasgow and George’s first ever. He did really well too, coming home in just under 2 hours (1h 57m 34s to be precise!) and as the event was live on BBC2, Mary and I were able to watch it. We even caught a wee glimpse of George himself just after he crossed the finish line. The disappointment was that his wee brother Scott, who encouraged George to enter in the first place, wasn’t able to take part himself after rwisting his ankle at the football a couple of weeks earlier. Scott was of course gutted, especially as he had qualified to run with the elite group of runners who set off first. Chin up, Scotty! There’s always next year.

A happy George

I’m still having a game of golf once a week up at the local 18-hole par 3 course and I’m shooting some reasonable scores in the mid and low 60s although I still haven’t manage to hold it together all the way round and beat 60. Maybe soon though!! I’m going to take part in the annual handicap competition later in November so I’d better get practising for serious. I saw my second hole-in-one live the other day. This time it was my pal Steve who knocked it straight in off the first tee to move alongside Fred who holed out on the fifth hole a couple of years ago. That’s another bucket-list target for me, but whatever you do, don’t hold your breath! Here’s a photo of the only 2 people I’ve seen get a hole in one.

Fred & Steve, aka The Chuckle Brothers

My brother and his wife have finally gotten round to walking a part of the Camino de Sant Iago, starting in Portugal near Porto and walking for 10 days to finish (hopefully!) this Sunday at the pilgrims’ mass in Santiago de Compostella and getting their official certificates. Originally Mary and I were going to accompany them on the journey but it just didn’t work out in terms of mutually-convenient dates, given Mary’s work and so on. Never mind, I’m sure we’ll get round to it while we still have our legs!

Mary won’t love me for telling you this, but she managed to get out of the Audi outside the caravan the other week and walk away not having put the handbrake on! She had to look on in horror as the car sedately rolled away down the hill for 10 metres before taking out a wooden fence and ending up with one wheel hanging over a wee wall. The neighbours and I managed to rescue the car and I patched it up as best I could. Luckily it still runs perfectly so I’ll just have to drive around with the dents and scratches as I’m sure the insurers would make it a write-off and I don’t want that. At least it’ll blend in perfectly with all the Spanish dented cars! The most important thing is of course that Mary was uninjured although she was plenty embarrassed and didn’t hesitate in confessing to them up at reception about her mishap. They’ve now repaired the fence and thankfully haven’t sent me the bill!

The poor Audi!

The poor Fence!!

No news from Greg and Karen this time round so I’ll stop here and try to post once a week for the next wee while. You all stay bright and healthy and get on with preparing for Christmas!! We’ll maybe hang on a bit yet!

Here’s another big day in the family – Arry’s first day at school. She’s my granddaughter so obviously the most beautiful child ever to sit in a classroom. I hope she has her Daddy’s brains too!

Arry, School, Day 1

Munroamers 2018

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Every year for the past 13 years, my 4 sons and I have gone off for a few days into the mountains of Scotland to walk up Munros which are hills over the height of 3000 feet or 912 metres. There are 282 Munros (I know several people who have “bagged” them all) and while I had already done about 50 with a group of teaching colleagues (the Lofty Peakers) the boys and I have chalked up about 50 more. This may not seem like a lot but we only have time to go out for 3 days every year. We have bagged 7 of the highest 10 which are all over 4000 feet as well, so have been putting together a decent collection of Munros.

Walking on the hills of Scotland, enjoying a healthy, free pursuit, is not the only reason why I organize this every summer however. It gives me also a fantastic opportunity to be together with my four sons away from the girls and the children and all the other distractions of daily life which demand of their attention and time. I am therefore able to talk to each of them individually and hopefully find out the honest truth about how their lives are going, their hopes and fears for the future and whether there are any issues needing to be tackled. Thankfully I tend to come back from the hills a lot less worried about any of them!

For this year’s weekend away, I had chosen to take on Mount Keen near Edzell in Angus on the Friday. This meant asking the boys if they could get that day off work, but they had all managed it before George had to pull out at the last minute after getting an interview for a promotion. Scott actually came over to the flat on the Thursday evening after work in Falkirk so Mary and I had the opportunity to catch up with him then. But we were up bright and early on Friday morning to prepare our sandwiches, pack our rucksacks and drive up to Gavin’s house in Arbroath where we were to have the night together. The three of us then drove to Edzell where we joined up with Greg in his car and we took both vehicles to a car-park in the village of Auchronie, from where our walk would begin.

But wait! There was something unusual about it this year. Now let me think: same boots, same sandwiches, same rucksack, same car. Got it! The rain. It wasn’t! Yes, for almost the first time in 13 years, the sky was a uniform blue and the temperature was up around 20 Celsius. So much so, that we all lubed up with sun block before heading off up the track, having also made sure that each of us had a couple of litres of water to keep us going. We knew of course that there would be opportunities to replenish our stocks in the numerous streams cascading down the steep hills.

Day 1 Mount Keen

The first 2 miles were pretty much over the flat and we soon reached “The Queen’s Well”, a memorial arch where Queen Victoria is said to have stopped for a drink on one of her sorties out into the Scottish countryside (probably on a horse in the company of John Brown). Shortly afterwards we began the plod skywards via a fairly steep bulldozed track. The boys were soon striding ahead leaving an ever-growing gap between me and them so they reverted to our policy of “helping Dad get his arse up to the top” by taking turns at dropping back to keep me company and keep me focused on the strenuous task in hand. Thankfully all these steep hills eventually let go and the gradient becomes lighter, allowing a time for recovery before the next challenge. That’s how it was on Mount Keen, as the hill relented and we all joined up again to bandy anecdotes as we approached the summit, a rocky and quite steep mound.

When the going gets tough (I fall behind!)

Mount Keen bagged!

As always, we shook hands at the top, placed a stone on the cairn and took some photos for posterity and our own records. Lunch was a ham sandwich, a couple of pork pies, some crisps and an apple for me, while the boys displayed an amazing variety of dietary elements according to their own regimes and tastes. Scott was “Mr. Health” himself, Gavin ate normal healthy stuff and Greg had a couple of cigarettes! No longer do they get tucked into different packets of “Pop Tarts” which for several years were the lunch of choice at the summits. I never really understood that! After lunch, for the first time, we were able to just stretch out on the ground and enjoy the warm sunshine on our bodies. We had splendid views through 360 degrees north and west towards Ballater, Royal Deeside and Glenshee, and south and east towards the coast which, unknown to us, had failed to shrug off the veil of mist which we had left behind as we drove inland from Gavin’s.

The Queen’s Well

Coming back down was, as is always the case, painful for me with my knees but easier on the lungs and legs in general. As we passed, we stopped at the Queen’s Well again to take some photos and, half an hour later, we were back at the cars. A short stop at a supermarket in Brechin for beer and nibbles was necessary before we arrived back at Gavin’s and settled in. Granddaughter Arry had gone next door to her other grandparents and Gavin’s wife Eve was away for the night to a show in Dundee, so we had the place to ourselves and, after showers and a change of clothes, we got stuck into the beer while Gavin rustled up one of his famous Spag Bols but made with Quorn mince to accommodate George’s vegetarian lifestyle. George himself arrived around six o’clock to join in the evening meal with us. He had no news of how he had done in the interview but admitted it had been very tough to negotiate in terms of multiple questions, tasks to analyse and deliver upon and theoretical challenges to manage. We had all crossed our fingers for him but felt it was fine to uncross them now.

The night progressed as it often does when all four of the boys are together, freed from their female life companions. It just got sillier and sillier, especially after Gavin called upon his computerized manager to play some background music. Once we all realised that it would respond to our voices we were off and running, asking ludicrous questions of it, sometimes getting ridiculous answers and often loving how it played us exactly what we wanted almost immediately. I sat and mused that I was witnessing a scene which would have been regarded as Sci-Fi when I was a teenager: you speak to a wee box on the table and it plays songs you want to hear; you ask difficult questions and the box tells you the answers. It even apologizes when it can’t find the answer to a question!

As now tends to be the case after 5 or 6 bottles of beer, it was me who put his thumbs up first and dragged myself upstairs to bed. The boys continued for a bit longer but I don’t think they were very late, considering we’d agreed to all get up at 06.30 the next morning. When the alarm woke me just before six-thirty, George was lying on the other side of the double bed. I had obviously been sound asleep by the time he came up. We all showered, ate breakfast, made up sandwiches and packed our back-packs then Scott joined me in my car while George drove off with Gavin as co-pilot, leaving Greg to make his way to Pitlochry alone. We arrived as ever later than we had anticipated and pressed on to the access point of the Beinn ‘a’ Ghlo range where I was relieved to find spaces in the small parking area for all three of our vehicles. And off we went. The walk-in was flat and easy, we found the hut, crossed the stile and started the ascent but before long the going got tough for me and even for Gavin who thankfully shrugged off his sore back and raced ahead. Scott was my saviour, slipping back to talk me through the steepest part of the mountain and get me to the cairn, after which it was ok.

Munroamers Day 2

Carn Liath

With the first Munro in our pockets (Carn Liath), and the weather continuing just like yesterday, the best we’ve ever had on the Munroamers, we settled down for lunch, took a few pics, admired the wonderful views then followed the path down to the bealach. The descent was steeper than we had imagined and it went on longer as well, leaving us with quite a steep walk back up to the second peak. Shortly after we started back up, I hit the wall and eyed the path back down to the car park with serious interest. But this time it was Greg who stayed with me and he very quietly encouraged me to take it 10 metres at a time with a minute rest in between. We repeated this rhythm over and over and suddenly the pain dissipated and I knew I was going to complete the climb. A couple of false summits tried my resolve but Greg stuck by me (he always sticks by folk!) and we all met up at the top. This mountain had a ridiculous name which none of us could get anywhere near pronouncing but it was spelt like this “Braigh Coire Chrunn-bhalgain.”. Two down, but what about the third?

Summit view

Well, as we set off down to the next bealach (a low point between two hills), I was the first to come out and say I’d done enough and intended heading down the valley following a path from the bealach. Greg was quick to join me and surprisingly both George and Gavin agreed that the two mountains were quite enough and that the third would have to wait for another day. But Scott, the fitness fanatic, was a whole different story. He quickly asked for permission to leave the group and go it alone up the third peak ………. running!! We don’t normally like any of the five of us to go off on their own as there are multiple opportunities for things to go wrong out on the hills, but Scott reckoned he could get up to the summit, back down the mountain and catch up with us on the descent path within about half an hour.

So we let him go and set off down the steep valley. As usual it was torture on our knees but how much worse would it have been if the weather hadn’t dried up most of the boggy patches and kept the streams to a trickle? Just as predicted, about 30 minutes later, as we reached the flat path leading back to the car park, Scott came racing up behind us and for a moment I thought he was going to sprint right past us and keep that up until the end. But even he was glad to put the brakes on and join us as we trudged back along a path that seemed to go on for ever before we finally saw the sun gleaming off the roofs of the cars next to a wee forest and we knew we were finished for the day. Thank God!

There was an embarrassing few minutes when I couldn’t get the name of the hotel we were staying in from my emails, necessitating a call to Mary who rescued me quickly, allowing us to head straight for Craigvrackie where we would be spending the night in two rooms. But being ever-so-slightly later than we had imagined arriving, and needing to shower and change, we were left with either having our evening meal in town, or starving and seeing the World Cup match in our room. We resolved this dilemma by ordering pizza and curry locally and staying together in the family room. George and Greg went and got beers again and the evening was spent in front of the TV watching the footie. Having missed a classic France v Argentina game that afternoon we hoped for a repeat and nearly got it as Croatia knocked Ronaldo’s Portugal out by 2-1. Shortly after the end of the game, it was Dad again who flagged first and fell asleep, fortunately on the bed I was meant to occupy.

Sunday started with me turning in my bed and knocking a half-eaten curry off the bedside cabinet and all over the carpet, giving me a tricky clean-up job to start the day. Fortunately it was almost all Pilau rice and no sauce which probably saved us an explanation to the owners. We all had a great breakfast, paid up and left for Blair Atholl again similar to yesterday, only today we drove to the caravan site where we had booked mountain bikes to cycle up Glen Tilt and take on our final Munro for this year. “The best laid plans of mice and men ……!” The bikes were secured, we donned our hard hats and off we went through a part of the town and into the glen.

Ready to pedal!

Had I known how steep it was going to be I wouldn’t have hired a bike at all. But I did manage to push/ride it uphill for about 5 kilometres before admitting defeat and sending the boys away to enjoy themselves despite their protests that I would be freewheeling downhill on a country track all by myself. To tell the truth, the ride back was totally exhilarating as I picked up speed and tried not to fly off into a hedge or over an escarpment. I got back to the campsite safe and sound, had a cup of tea and wandered around the site, talking to caravanners sitting out in the lovely sunshine. In what seemed like no time at all (I was actually checking the campsite plumbing if you get my drift!) the boys were back having decided to take a rain check on the final mountain and just enjoy a breakneck descent back down the glen. They appeared to have had a great time on the bikes and I think we’ll be repeating the adventure on future Munroamers.

Me going back

They seem happy!

Scott and I drove back to Dundee and chilled out while Greg drove Gavin back to Arbroath over the Moulin Moors road and George drove himself down from Pitlochry via the A9 around Perth. The weekend was completed when Scott set off back to Keira in Falkirk and I had just enough energy to drive down to the station to collect Mary who had sneaked off to see her sisters in Newcastle while we were up the hills. Via Social Media we all thanked each other for a brilliant weekend and voted Munroamers 2018 a huge success with 3 Munros bagged (4 for Scott) and a day of mountain-biking.

Roll on next year!

Gav happy

The End of Munroamers 2018

 

 

 

 

America Day 37: The Last Post

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No, not a sad trumpet tune but a reminder that this was our last day in America for this particular adventure. Lady Burton is already talking about “when” we come back and not “if” so there’s a fair chance that one day we’ll come back and see a bit more of this totally amazing place. But all good things must come to an end, and that’s the case for us.

We had breakfast after being roused by the Housekeeping team at 07.30 this morning. Mary complained about it before we sat down to eat and we were given an apology and a late check-out until 12.30 which suited us perfectly. For my part, I went back to bed after breakfast and grabbed another couple of hours sleep while Mary did whatever she did: I don’t know as I was sleeping! We filled up just along the road and headed off up the I-15 towards Las Vegas where we were booked for the last night back in the Luxor again, it being also where we had to drop off the Kia.

Classic advert

Having driven this route three weeks ago, there wasn’t a whole lot to marvel at but we did manage to snap the frequent oddities that came our way. In a regulation two-and-a-half hours we were on the streets of las Vegas, watching the daily chaos unfold in front of us. I refilled the tank for handing back, found the upper car park with no problem at all compared to our first visit and rolled the Kia into Avis bay 16. As we unpacked the Avis lady in charge came driving by and took our documents and the car keys, saving us any bother in that respect. Mary soon checked us in (room 245 on the 18th floor this time!) and up we went to settle in.

Vegas Streets

But this is George and Mary you’re reading about, so settle in doesn’t mean settle down. You see, we had always intended trying to fit in another Vegas show before leaving and we’d noticed there was a Cirque du Soleil presentation of some Beatles music in a show called “Love” on up the road, so if we could get a ticket we would give it a go. In the room however, I re-read the brochure and it appeared to be a lot more acrobatics than music at the “Love” performance. So I searched on and would you believe it found a show by a Beatles Tribute band on at 17.30 in The Planet Hollywood Resort also up the road. I found this at 16.35!

In a flash we were out on the Strip, marching boldly along, up, across, down, along, up, down etc until we found the CVS Market we’d bought our last tickets in and yes, they had some for us at discount. Tickets in Lady Burton’s handbag, we continued to sprint along then up, over Las Vegas Boulevard and back down before plunging into the Miracle Mile at Planet Hollywood. When we reached the Box Office inside, it was 17.22, but we’d made it and in we went.

The show was brilliant. They recreated The Beatles’ appearance for the first time in America on the Ed Sullivan Show with a really good “Ed Sullivan” by the way, before switching to The Sergeant Pepper’s Beatles and doing stuff from the classic Album as well as songs from “Yellow Submarine”. And they finished with the late Beatles songs from “Abbey Road” and “Let it be”. It was an excellent 90 minutes and we were well pleased with making it there. We also had photos taken with the Fab Four at the end of the performance.

Original Line-Up

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Austin powers popped in!

Good Moment

After the show, we ate out at a Mexican place and then enjoyed a slow walk back through the madness to the Luxor where we had another go at the roulette. As before I lost all my money but Lady Burton won almost exactly what I lost, so we actually came out on top. The pace however began to catch up on me at this point and I had to get back up to the room where I’m writing this bleary-eyed but happy.

Mary above the Strip

Fairy Tale City

Well, that’s it! America – done and box ticked! We both think this has definitely been the best holiday we’ve ever had and we almost can’t believe the amount of things we’ve managed to do in the last five-and-a-half weeks. I hope you’ve enjoyed following my blog and if you can’t comment here then send me an email to let me know what you thought of it. For the moment, Goodbye everybody and thanks again for sharing the crazy ride with us! Bye! Bye!

A Final Selfie

 

America Day 36: Sequoia

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We knew today would be long and tough but we just HAD to finish in style. Up at 7, breakfast and packed by 8, on the road by 8.30 heading North surprisingly. Although Sequoia National Park has an entrance right across from Visalia, it’s a long way up 5000 feet on a very narrow, windy road and we’d end up 40 miles further away from tonight’s hotel which was already 220 miles away. So start at the top and work down was the order of the day. Because of the rather strange road design around that area it took a good hour to reach the north entrance to what is actually King’s Canyon National Park and not Sequoia., by which time we’d already climbed 5000 feet but on a gentle incline with the odd hairpin to keep me awake!

Just past the entrance (no fee, “America the Beautiful” duly flashed, but we did get I.D.ed) we turned right and entered General Grant grove where, among a selection of giant sequoias, stands the 2nd largest tree in the world. Our first taste of what a giant sequoia looks like was a real surprise, as they are not in the clouds (like the Beanstalk!) so you can easily see the tops, but it’s the girth at the bottom which captures your attention and provides the “Wow!” moment. We had a bit of a walk round a loop trail which took in the General Grant tree and a fallen trunk you could walk into as if it were a wooden building. These two goliaths helped us make some sense of the dimensions we would be dealing with today.

Mary in front of the General Grant Tree

Back in the car, we now drove from the King’s Canyon National Park through south into the actual Sequoia National Park, maintaining our height (I’m still 5’9″!) and entering the land of the giants. We made our way to the car park near to the General Sherman tree (the largest tree on the planet) and walked down to see it for ourselves. We ticked a box here seeing the famous tree but actually it was a combination of all the other ones that made our eyes widen with delight. You know, after all that red rock and desert, it was wonderful to have living trees all around us, trees that were here when Jesus walked the Earth and some even older!

Having ticked off the big tree, we jumped on the Sequoia Shuttle bus and were taken down to the Giant Forest Museum which we visited for half-an-hour then took another shuttle bus further into the forest to a place called Moro Rock. Now this is a huge rock that overhangs the valley beyond and offers fantastic views of the high Sierras to the North and East, including Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the USA outside of Alaska. Now, believe it or not, those crafty American engineers have gone and cut a stone stairway all the way to the top of this rock, including handrails on both sides. Well, we could hardly turn down such an invitation, could we? So off up the stairs we plodded. And by the time we got to the top, we knew we were experiencing something quite extraordinary up there. Moro Rock itself is round and smooth and yet tourists are able to quite safely climb onto its whaleback and take photos from on top. And what a view we got from up there!

Moro Rock

On the way up

Selfie on Moro Rock

Once back down on the ground, we took a notion to go for a wee hike, so I checked out a trail of about a mile that would take us over to something else we wanted to see. Once on the trail and in among the pines but entirely on our own, the presence of bears began to play with our minds and we started to talk really loudly to each other, which is one of the tactics you are advised to use to keep curious bears from venturing closer to you. It obviously works because we saw not the slightest sign of Yogi or Boo-Boo in the depths of the forest and came upon the main road again, safe and sound.

As my orienteering skills are finely honed(!), we came out right beside our target, The Tunnel Log. This tree fell over in 1937 and somebody later had the bright idea of cutting a hole in it big enough for a car to drive through. This was after the more famous tree which straddled a road in the park and was also cut to allow passage to vehicles fell down in 1957. Well, we took some photos on foot then resolved to go back to the car and drive it down there for a better photo, at which point the shuttle bus drove by. I rushed over to intercept, charmed the driver into letting us get on (he wasn’t allowed to let people on except at official stops!), swopped shuttle buses at the Museum, reached the Sherman Car park where we’d left the car and drove back to the Tunnel tree. The results are obvious!

This wasn’t in my test!

It was now time to head down the twisty road to the bottom of the mountain and we knew there were road works half-way down. This delay caused by a much-needed contraflow left us sitting in the car for twenty minutes, by which time we were both fast asleep! I was woken up by Lady Burton shouting “George, they’re moving!” as the queue in front of me set off down the single track road. The journey down was quite amazing and we had continuous excellent views over into the valley.

Great view!

The road out seen from above!

Once outside the Park itself, there was the small point of a 200-mile drive over to our hotel in Barstow, where we had stayed three weeks before. OK, it was hard going but the ever-changing landscapes kept us enthralled for most of the time with crops, hills, desert and one-horse towns to consider. We stopped in a slightly more-civilised place and grabbed some fast-food for tea but ate it en route as it was getting on and the computer told us we wouldn’t reach our hotel until ten o’clock! Well I put my foot down and we got there at 21.58! We’d driven through towns called Boron, Cameron and Keene and we’d passed the famous Edwards Air Force Base where all the experimental flying takes place and where the first shuttle took off from and landed.

A beautiful dusk

So that’s it, our last day visiting on our tour of the West. Tomorrow we drive back to Las Vegas, drop off the car, stay the night in the Luxor, get up early, taxi to the airport and fly to JFK in New York. From there it’s straight to Edinburgh and the train back to Dundee. How will we ever cope!

Sequoias

Lady Burton in repose!

America Day 35: Crops

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Look what was outside our door this morning!

Today was meant to be just a travel day, designed for no more than to get us from King City over east to within striking distance of Sequoia National Park for tomorrow’s visit. So after breakfast, we took our time and headed away just after eleven. There were just ordinary 2-way traffic roads to drive today with no great highways to negotiate but we still had 130 miles to cover so we hoped that the route would at least be interesting.

The road east started by penetrating some high hills covered in a beautiful golden yellow grass, the likes of which we had only seen in one other place, and that was also in this valley west of the Sierras. From early on there were little creatures dashing out in front of us to cross the road and we couldn’t help but notice the obvious signs of those who hadn’t quite made it over safely. We’re not sure what they were but we did notice some of them standing on their hind legs in the fields, like you see in the meerkat adverts. (Mary is researching as I type! She now tells me they were probably bushy-tailed wood rats!) I kept pulling over to let cars behind me pass as we were really enjoying the drive and were in no hurry to get to our destination. Then the crops gave way to fields of cattle and a field of goats, something we hadn’t seen all that much of on our travels here on the west coast.

Eventually we came down out of those glorious hills and passed through a town called Coalinga and, chancing upon a Walgreen’s (we now know that’s Boot’s the Chemist in the USA!), we pulled over and went in to buy our tea for the next couple of nights. When I opened the car door to get out, it was like walking into a furnace! The thing is, you don’t notice the heat at all when you have AC blasting away in the car as you travel along, so you can get quite a shock when you stop and get out. Fortunately, there was an electronic signpost not 5 yards away so I was able to record for posterity the temperature.

It’s a cooker!

Once we’d done our shopping, we headed east straight along the road towards our destination Visalia, yet another town we would be sleeping in, whose name we had never heard of. Visalia will join an esteemed list that includes Holbrook, Barstow, Kayenta, Price, Moab, Hatch, Hurricane, Bishop and Merced! While I imagined that the following 30 or so miles would be boring and uninteresting, I had no idea what lay ahead. The next part of the journey started by passing the Pleasant Valley State Correctional Facility (prison to you and me!) and Lady Burton quipped that it could have been more appropriately named as “Unpleasant Valley etc.” It looked like a grim place to be a resident in, all walls and razor wire and turrets, just like the other 3 places we’ve passed where folk go to get “corrected”.

Miles of fields!

And then we reached the fields. Fields of what? We weren’t really sure although I did manage to identify some Maize and some vineyards. But it was the extent of these fields that rather blew us away. They averaged maybe 2 miles in length each and we could see that they went back at least half a mile in depth. With a tree or bush maybe every 6 feet, that would amount to (let me see…..) an awful lot of whatever it was! Our lack of ability at recognizing what was growing in such vast quantities all around us only frustrated us even more  as mile after mile of beautifully cultivated fields sped by. In the end I counted 38 miles of non-stop crops both sides of the road. There were great intricate watering systems on view and this was clearly a very major growing area of the west coast. I couldn’t find a specific name for the flatlands we passed but it was all west of Fresno and part of their agricultural administration.

When we were checking in to our hotel in Visalia, there was a young man doing likewise and he was able to tell us that the area we had mentioned was the main place for the production of almonds and pistachios, which was a real surprise to us who were thinking apples, oranges and lemons. By the way, and I’m not so sure how we got round to this, the guy told us he had been looking after his grandfather who got shot 3 times by a son-in-law who rather “lost it” one day! Would you believe that? Anyway, we researched the crops once we’d settled in and discovered that the guy with the shot grandfather was correct about the almonds and pistachios but there is also a vast amount of aubergines, grapes and honeydew melons growing in this area. The main agricultural product nonetheless turns out to be milk!!

In the late afternoon we sat out by the hotel swimming pool and did the reading to prepare for tomorrow’s visit to Sequoia National Park (pronounced “sek-woya” and not “sek-koya” as I had guessed, so Mary 1 Me 0) as well as treating ourselves to a wee glass of Morgan’s and diet. Tea followed in the room and then we just watched some TV and chilled. The AC is on full blast now at nine in the evening and the outside temperature is 91 degrees Fahrenheit. Did I say “chilled”?

Mary last night in Monterey

 

America Day 34: Big Sur

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We were quick off the mark after breakfast this morning as we had a two-and-a-half hour drive west across fertile plains to rediscover the Pacific Coast near the town of Carmel. It’s at this point that US Highway 1 dons the mantle of the famous Big Sur, a coastal helter-skelter with the Pacific Ocean to the right, a single-lane route of world renown which has lured adventurous drivers for almost a century. So that’s what we did today – we drove the Big Sur!

 

 Not all of it in truth, because you can’t do that ever since a landslide took out a section of the highway about 50 miles south of Carmel. So we took in about 30 miles of this glorious coastline before simply turning and driving right back to where we’d come from. So did about three thousand other cars today, this being the Sunday before Memorial Day holiday and one of the busiest (one Ranger said it WAS the busiest) of the year. Huh! Was that going to stop George and Mary on their adventures? Not a chance!

Our couple of hours up and down this great road was punctuated with stops every so often at one or other of the hundreds of “turn-ins” (laybys) on the ocean side of the road to look over and see what the Pacific was doing at that point, the shapes of the coastline, the surf, the cliffs, the beaches, the winding road, the birds and the boats. We took it all in with little or no comment, just looking and thinking. It was wonderful and I was happy Lady Burton was there at my side to share it with me, to gaze over that immense ocean and wonder if we’d ever see it again for real. Don’t get us wrong, we’ve seen much more amazing things on this incredible journey, but just being on the Big Sur ticked a box for both of us. If they can drive it then so can we, and if we can drive it then so can all of you. We’ve taken it on because the opportunity has presented itself and we encourage you to do likewise if you ever get the chance.

At Rocky Creek Bridge

The fog was never far away

Nor here!

Just don’t do it on the Sunday of Memorial Day. Because, when we started our journey back up the Big Sur we got 8 miles from the starting point then met the queue! We’d set the iPhone to navigate us round to Monterey (yes, the famous Monterey of the 1967 Music Festival – think Hendrix, the Who, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar etc) – and the dashboard information told us we’d be there in 80 minutes! We scoffed at this and assumed a malfunction until we turned one corner and met the others, thousands of them! From there it was literally nose-to-tail, 4 miles per hour. Surprisingly we were both uber-cool about our predicament and just put on some classic rock radio channel to help us wile away the hour and a half of 1st gear stop/start. At one point, on came Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” which drew some great air-guitar moves from me (the car wasn’t moving, remember!) and then followed Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” which just seemed perfect for where we were.

Oh no!

Look what’s crossing today!

Once free of the traffic, I put my foot down and headed south for the hotel, an hour or so away and it was already 18.10. Five minutes later, having rejected going into Monterey, I suddenly had a thought that I’d never get the chance again so did a rather nifty U-turn at some traffic lights and drove back into Monterey Beach. We parked up, walked to the beach, took our shoes and socks off and walked into the ocean, to be specific, the Pacific! We’d done it! The waters healed us of the frustration we’d held in so well in that ridiculous traffic jam and we smiled and hugged one another.

Mary paddling!

A walk along the pier followed then we grabbed something to eat and headed back to the car. The 50-minute drive down to our hotel, Keefer’s Inn in King City, was the first time we’d really driven in the USA after dark but we got here safe and sound and we’re watching the Memorial Day Concert on TV. It’s been another brilliant day and I for one am absolutely shattered. So “Goodnight!”

A Pacific selfie!

America Day 33: Champions

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We woke up this morning with a bit of a worry because we actually have nowhere to stay tonight and all of a sudden all the hotels and motels are either fully booked or $200 a night! It would appear that Monday is a holiday called Memorial Day, to celebrate the fallen combatants of US wars and everyone and their dog is checking into a hotel somewhere. Over breakfast we resolved to stay exactly where we were here in Merced as I for one was beginning to feel the pace of this amazing romp around the West.

The problem was that we knew from asking last night that the hotel was fully booked, so we asked the guy at reception to give us the first cancellation he got and book it for us right up to checking-out time at 11. In the meantime, I went in to the Eagle Bar next door and asked if there was any chance that I could watch the Champions’ League Final between Real Madrid and Liverpool at 11.45 this morning. The guy checked the TV schedules, found the game live at 11.30 on Fox Sports 1 and said he’d put it on when I came in. Brilliant!

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Our room here in Merced

For the following hour or so we kept checking on the Internet for a reasonably-priced hotel but got nowhere so packed our bags and put them in the car in anticipation of leaving. As I took the last bag out, the room phone rang and Mary answered it. I could tell by her tone that it was good news and so it was: the guy would let us keep the room we were in for a second night! To make things even better, he not only kept the price the same ($88) but reduced it to $76! We paid up, I put our cases back in the room and we went over to the pub to watch the game, although Lady Burton took her Kindle with her.

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The pub where we watched the game

 

As you probably know by now, the Final was a classic even though Liverpool lost and we’ll all remember Gareth Bale’s overhead kick and the Liverpool goalkeeper’s 2 shocking errors for a long time. Well done to Real Madrid for their 3rd consecutive Champions’ League Final win all the same and I’m especially pleased for Bale himself who hasn’t had it easy since joining the Spanish club a couple of seasons ago. After the match, we walked to a service station to get something for lunch, ate it back in the room then I crashed out on the couch for the next 3 hours as the fatigue and the 3 glasses of IPA caught up with me. Lady Burton had a soak in the bath while I was in the Land of Nod and then when I awoke we got back to organising the next couple of days.

It looks like we might go back down to the Pacific coast near Carmel so we can drive a bit of the Big Sur which is the SR-1 and runs south for about 90 miles towards Santa Barbara. They say it is one of the most beautiful roads in the world to drive so it should be worth the 2-hour drive to get over there from where we are just now in Merced. We have to hand the Kia back at the Luxor in Las Vegas on the 30th of May as we fly to New York the following morning, and we still have to set aside a day to visit Sequoia National Park but that still gives us a couple of days to do something a bit spontaneous.

It is an adventure after all!

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