Day 8 – Peak Tourism

Atlanta

A day exploring the joys of Atlanta today. It started off with some homeless guy spotting our directional confusion and appointing himself as our tour guide. To be fair he was very engaging and well spoken and gave me a detailed lecture on the socio-economic shortcomings of Atlanta. I couldn’t help but agree and (much as I am a guest in the country and don’t feel particularly inclined to comment), with all that is going on here at the moment I can’t help thinking that they would be better fixing the present rather than trying to fix the past. Anyway, our guide then relieved me of slightly more money than I had intended. Ethan said it was the politest mugging ever, but given that we were just about to drop $80 to visit an aquarium, I couldn’t really begrudge a homeless guy a meal.

The aquarium is quite spectacular, especially the vast tank with 4 whale sharks in there. They are pretty impressive beasts.

Whale Shark

Some of the other denizens were creepier or cuter to various degress

Shiver!

What? Not another tourist…

Onwards to the Coca-Cola museum. I have to admit, that I couldn’t really see the point of this place other than to extract money from people with sugar addictions. Having been there, I don’t see any reason to change my view. Ethan has wanted to visit this place for years, particularly the hall where you can try all of the drinks that Coke make around the world. Ironically, his cold meant that he couldn’t actually taste most of them. I think that the Indian one that tasted like TCP got through though – probably did his throat some good too! I hadn’t realised that they actually had a Coke dispenser on the space shuttle.

Evening was given over to a trip to the baseball to watch Ethan’s favourite team the Atlanta Braves. That was quite an experience and the Braves won which was all good.

I was surprised to see that, given the various racial tensions which are bubbling just under the surface here, noone thought twice about the celebration involving a chant and dodgy tomahawk motion of the hand.

Go figure.

Day 7 – The Hall of the Mountain What Now?

Chattanooga to Atlanta

A day of mountains today, of which I thoroughly approve of course. We started the day with a visit to Rock City on Lookout Mountain, the sole purpose for us including Chattanooga in the trip. Those who have read American Gods will know that it is one of the key sites in the book, but I won’t add any spoilers for those who are just watching the series (should arrive about season 3 or 4 at the current rate I guess!).

Rock City seems to have started as someone’s garden on a cliff with a view over a number of states and in true American style was seized upon as potential gold mine. It follows the standard pattern of taking a natural wonder and “enhancing” it with some bizarrely manufactured kitsch. The “Enchanted Trail” is all very pleasant (piped soothing music notwithstanding).

Fat Man's Squeeze

… and yes I did make it through! Things get decidedly

Things get decidedly weirder as you venture into the Fairytale Cavern.

Moonshine Gnomes
Moonshine Gnomes

Red Ridng Hood

I love this stuff. There is something very appealing about a personal folly elevated to the level of obsession and shared with the public (it’s what makes the internet great after all). If you are going to do it, may as well go for it! I can see why Neil Gaiman latched onto these places as places of power.

Anyway, having had our fill of gnomes, it was on to Atlanta via Stone Mountain. Stone Mountain is America’s version of Ayers Rock – a huge granite monolith (only about a tenth of which is above ground), rising 1700 feet just outside Atlanta.

Stone Mountain
Granite Iceberg

Stone Mountain

We toyed with the idea of walking up for all of 4 seconds before leaping on to the cable car to the top. Stopped for a snack in the cafe, but the only veggie option was fries. I went for the cheesy option, thinking UK style cheesy chips and then looked on with horror as they piped some noxious gloop on top. Ethan was very amused.  It is a bizarre concoction which seems to combine a very unpleasant slimy texture with a thoroughly bland taste, and yet not quite bland enough…

Didn’t stop me eating the fries of course, but I felt dirty.

At least the dining was better in Atlanta later, even if it was in a restaurant famed for its bison.

Westin
Home for the next few days

Day 6 – Elvis has (largely) left the building

Smaller on the Inside

Memphis to Chattanooga

Today could be a struggle. We started off with a trip to the pharmacy to get some drugs for the poorly one and I can feel whatever lurgy he has burrowing its way into me.

Still, a trip to Graceland beckoned so we manned up and hit the road. The actual mansion turns out to be smaller than expected

Smaller on the Inside

but it manages to cram in a fair amount of tackiness. Any room that has carpet on all surfaces is pure class. I would say that the decor is of its time, but I don’t quite remember the 60s and 70s like that.

Onwards with the tour and a visit to the grave. People were still genuinely upset visiting the grave 40 years after his death. Given the sombre atmosphere, I felt that reenacting the scene from Spinal Tap might be considered inappropriate. All those hours learning the harmonies to Heartbreak Hotel wasted…

Since my baby left me..?

Leaving Graceland, we girded our loins for the long drive to Chattanooga, passing through Mississppi, Alabama and (briefly) Georgia (tick, tick and tick). We were both a little nervous about stopping for food. Spotted a shack called the Camo Cafe and wondered whether to stop. Not so much. A Burger King further down the line seemed a better bet. The staff were the friendliest, most helpful people I have met on the trip so far. That will teach me to harbour unwarranted prejudice based on shallow media stereotypes! Alabama also looked pretty pleasant and (mostly) devoid of Confederate flags, so there you go: more civilised than Norfolk. Move on. That said, I was very careful not to give any excuse to be pulled over by a southern sheriff.

Sweet Home Alabama

In Huntsville we passed the space centre. Had I realised that we would be passing that way I would have tried to spend some time there. The Saturn V and space shuttle looked pretty impressive even from the road.

 

Day 5 – Pyramids, Goats and Absinthe

Memphis to… well, Memphis

It would appear that Memphis has broken Ethan. Whether it is the syrupy air or some airborne malady emanating from the Mississippi, he seems to be struggling with a sore throat and feeling a little iffy. Looks like the Nicholls men will not be taking Memphis by storm tonight.

I just about convinced him to venture out for some food (first taste of catfish at the Flying Fish cafe – surprisingly good!), and then dragged him along to Beale Street to soak up the atmosphere. He clearly felt that he had soaked up enough of the atmosphere earlier in the day and dismissed the experience with a “Like Vegas, but sleazier”.  I don’t necessarily disagree, but the music is much better. So with a sense of regret and a vague urge to head back to the absinthe bar later, we left Beale Street behind, reeling from Ethan’s disapproval.

Like Vegas, but sleazier

We stopped on the way to replenish our supply of Wild Turkey with honey, the new favoured tipple, which Ethan tried to pass off as a medicinal requirement. I was rather amused to be IDed for this (I’m assuming it is Tennessee law rather than holiday relaxation resulting in me looking under 21) and quite pleased to partake of the American tradition of carrying a bottle of spirits in a brown paper bag, Fitted right in with some of the locals.

Will have to sneak in past the Sleepless One though. The concierge in the building seems to be there 24/7. Not only is he in the lobby every time we have entered or left the building, but he has also been in the elevator several times when I have called it. I am beginning to be just a little freaked out by this…

It’s been another long day, although one without driving. Had I booked the right day for Graceland, I would have had to get the car out of the car park. I would like to think that I had planned it that way, but it is clear that only one of us did any planning! Anyway, Graceland tomorrow left the day open for some exploring.

Wandering around Memphis, it is obvious that the recession has hit here. Much of it is very run down, although, in common with most US cities, it is easy to move from run down to swank in the space of a few hundred yards. I have to say that everyone is really friendly here – even people asking for money, No sign of the tension which is gripping large parts of the US in Memphis.

So, following an abortive attempt to visit the civil rights museum (not open on Tuesdays apparently; not our first inappropriate day for an activity on this trip), we wandered down the riverfront to the pyramid. Yes, Memphis has a pyramid. Get over it.

En route we passed a memorial to the Sultana disaster. I couldn’t help but agree with Ethan when is espoused the view that anything involving sultanas is a disaster.

Sultanas

Onwards to the pyramid, which is a sporting goods store containing a fake swamp with real alligators – don’t attempt to understand the logic, just go with it.

Not Egypt

Any sign of alligators?

Following that, we trudged back through the heat for a boat trip, The trip itself was pretty dull ( just a loop between several bridges, but the commentary was quite entertaining and for at least half of the journey, there was a very welcome stiff breeze), but it was on the Mississippi, nuff said.

Oddest thing of the day? Irish goats. I must remember to ask Dec about this – I had no idea it was a thing:

It’s not clear whether the goats are Irish or whether they tend to dive at Irish people and hence the warning.

 

Day 4 – Hunkered down in Hopkinsville

Woah!

Bowling Green to Memphis via Hopkinsville

Well, it seemed like a good plan: Get to Hopkinsville (sorry, Eclipseville) early, avoid the traffic and soak up the party atmosphere.

Even without an eclipse, the 21st August is an important date in Hopkinsville, being the anniversary of the Hopkinsville goblin incident when a number of locals were pestered by goblin-like creatures – possibly of extraterrestrial origin, possibly the result of moonshine visions. The incident is celebrated every year with the Little Green Man festival. Having a total eclipse on the 62nd anniversary is surely a sign of imminent return, and we wanted a piece of it.

Unfortunately, as I was wide awake at 4am like an excited kid at Christmas, I was in danger of dozing off and missing the eclipse entirely. I even set an alarm just in case!

The heat doesn’t really help. It’s one of those days where to exist is to sweat – no movement necessary. Rather aptly, the W3W tag for this place is tapes.saxophone.sweat (can’t help thinking that that should be somewhere in Memphis). If only I had checked first. The other thing that may have borne checking was where the viewing site is in relation to the centre of town. Ethan and myself are no strangers to walking, but 3 or 4 miles in this heat is probably not sensible, so probably just going to have to tough it out here and sadly miss all the weirdness.

Ethan has even been (largely) restrained in telling me that I was overly paranoid about traffic, and needn’t have made him wait in the heat for 5 hours, but I expect I will pay sooner or later.

It is all depressingly sensible and civilized at the viewing site. Everyone seems to have come prepared with their gazebos, deck chairs, coolers, barbecues, telescopes etc. We had a beach mat purchased from Walmart this morning, but assumed the moral high ground, having travelled further than everyone else.

Still, you don’t need all of the professional kit. The eclipse itself was awesome. I can see why people chase them all around the world.

Woah!

I was a bit concerned at the sound of gunfire during the eclipse though. Fireworks, fair enough, but shooting at the sun?

Having ventured off the interstates today, we have seen something of small town Kentucky, which all looks very pleasant. Into Tennessee and we found a town which seemed to have more churches than people, I am actually going to check. It also had a place for drive-thru prayer, which I couldn’t quite get my head around. Ethan has done some more routing jiggery pokery today to maximize the number of states visited. Hence we traveled from Hopkinsville to Memphis via Missouri and Arkansas, crossing the mighty Mississippi several times in the process.

It's huge!

I’m sure it was the quickest route… I’m not sure what to think about those two states though. Imagine the excitement of Lincolnshire if it was the size of France. (Seems I didn’t have to wait too long to pay for the early start after all!)

The Memphis apartment seems pretty good and ideally located, even if it was like an episode of the crystal maze to get in via various codes, time trials and battle of wits. Seems unlikely that much exploring will be done tonight after the epic drive,  but lots within easy walking distance to see tomorrow. I feel that driving 1100 miles in 3 days entitles me to a day off.

Day 3 – Hotter than a coonskin jockstrap

Winchester to Bowling Green via Louisville and Mammoth Caves

Phew! 90-odd degrees and humid… and stays that way well into the evening. Just as well we spent a few hours in the subterranean coolness of Mamouth Caves. Not that we thought we were likely to make it. We turned up with exactly zero minutes (well not exactly, we were in fact late) to spare, despite having an extra hour due to crossing a time zone. I don’t know who thought that having several time zones within a state was a good idea, but we appreciated it today. We are choosing to view it as an exceptional example of planning and maximizing use of time. And Mammoth Caves? It’s a big cave.

To rewind…

The day started with a trip to the very pleasant looking Lousiville to visit the Lousiville Slugger Museum.

En route, we were constantly encouraged to divert to various distilleries on the Bourbon Trail. Tempting but oh, wait minute, it’s Sunday and thinking about alcohol is beyond the pale. Who planned this trip? If it wasn’t for the extreme temporal ninja skills already mentioned, I might have been critical of this. As it turns out, the prohibition does not extend to Liquor Barn. Oh my, that was quite some discovery. I could happily take up residence in their bourbon section (or the wine section, rum section…) so we were well provisioned when we got to Bowling Green.

From Lousiville there was a quick trip across the Ohio river into Indiana (another state, tick) to Clarkesville Seafood. A fantastic throwback to simpler, cholesterol-friendly times. Ethan described it as “greasy, salty perfection” and who am I to argue? He certainly knows his onions when it comes to food research.

Greasy, salty perfection

Sadly, my weak attempts at Monkees based humour went unappreciated. I had suggested that we should head to Clarkesville later in the day by train, but this was met with a look which expressed the concern of having to potentially have an elderly relative locked away for their own safety.

Ah well, onwards to Mammoth caves, or so I thought. Apparently, there were plans to undertake a drive-by photograph of Fort Knox.

Show me the money!

It was this “diversion” that put us into a lively debate around priorities and led to the aforementioned scheduling masterclass, although a certain amount of flexibility with regards to local conventions around vehicular alacrity.

Anyway, we finally made it to Bowling Green, with quite the party atmosphere developing in the hotel amongst the eclipse celebrators. I guess we could stay here and watch the eclipse, but who is willing to put up with a mere 40 seconds of totality when you can get 2 minutes more by queuing in traffic to get into Hopkinsville? Ethan has learned that the twin princes of conspiracy theories Alex Jones and Jesse Ventura will be in Hopkinsville tomorrow (presumably awaiting the return of the goblins), so the die is cast…

I am now inordinately excited about the eclipse, and irritating Ethan severely with my geeky desire to get up at stupid o’clock and head over to Hopkinsville.

Day 2 – Drive until you drop

Mmm...salty

Three States in a Day – Washington to Winchester, KY

Not much sleep last night due to what sounded like a cricket ball rattling around the air-conditioning duct. Still, not a bad thing to be up early as the car hire company was already getting pretty busy before 7am … and of course we do have some distance to cover today.

I am Ethan’s bad books on 2 fronts with the hire car. Firstly, turning down the offer of a free upgrade to a Mustang on the basis that the cases wouldn’t fit (wouldn’t look so cool with the boot wedged open and a stream of stray underwear flying behind the car) and being assigned a car with New York plates, which I’m assured will not go down well in the South. Could be a long day…

Not much to see today as we blasted across Virginia (both the basic and West varieties), beyond some nice scenery and distant mountains which bode well for the return journey via the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline. We have had to amuse ourselves by admiring the custom registration plates passing us by. We have had

Giga TB, Dr Bytes, (presumably IT), Sparx (electrician?),  Go Kart (a small Fiat with an encouragingly amusing bumper sticker stating, “* Actual Size”) and our favourite XStacey I. We wondered whether this was deliberate or just that someone called Stacey was convinced that this was the closet she could get to a custom plate, much to the amusement of the people selling it.

Also encountered a rather strange toll road in West Virginia. We were charged twice along the stange stretch of road, without any opportunity to leave between the two sets of toll booths? Why didn’t they just charge double at the first one I hear you ask. Good question. We could only surmise that it was some sort of job creation scheme. For the record, the toll road was the worst maintained road we have been on.

By mid-afternoon it became apparent that after the earlier hold ups on the I81, reaching the Buffalo Trace distillery was but a pipe dream and pulled over at a Bob Evans restaurant for some refreshment. The manager who came over bore a striking resemblance to the pictures of the founder and I couldn’t help but wonder whether every branch of the franchise had a similar looking, middle aged genial manager called Bob. You don’t mess with a winning brand! You can tell we are back in the States though . What’s not to like about deserts with bacon?

Onwards to Kentucky and a hotel in Winchester. Switched on the TV and seem to have slipped into a time warp…

but at least Ethan can watch the baseball. Go Braves!

We have been researching drinking laws and been bewildered by the wet, dry, and moist (I have no idea) counties – some of the dry counties being the home to famous distilleries. Apparently even in wet counties, selling drink on Sundays is not allowed, nor between 29th December and 2nd Jan. That must have been some New Year’s celebration.

We thought we would go out and source a bottle of the local delicacy, but the local general store did not seem to stock spirits. It did, however, have plenty of stereotypes, so we beat a hasty retreat.

As ever in the US, everyone has been remarkably friendly and 500 miles in the first day means we can take it easy for the next couple. Weather forecast for Monday seems to be improving (fingers crossed) so, all looking good.

Day 1 – Getting there

Did you remember the…

So it seems that a checklist is not much use unless you check it. Who knew?

During the journey to the airport we have realised that a crucial piece of (was tempted to leave the “pie crust” of auto correct there) specially purchased equipment has been left behind. To wit, the USB GPS dongle to allow the tablet to be used for navigation. Ah well, the phone may make it…

Also seems that the Chromecast is not on board, which worries me somewhat less. More disturbingly, we seem to have misplaced the airport parking. On arrival at Purple Parking, all did not seem as slick as usual. Indeed it was so far from slick that it took me 20 minutes to find someone to fill me in on the renewed status of the parking area as a development site. Can’t help but think a sign would be useful. Apparently, I had been notified – just not on any of about 6 or 7 email accounts that I use it would seem. Anyway, a frenzied drive through busy and aggressive London traffic got it sorted.

If that is all of the holiday snafus out of the way, I’ll be happy enough. Off to the airport bar for a (hopefully greater than) half full glass of something…

Now I understand Bernoulli’s principle as well as the next guy, but there is something not right about 747s. There is no way that those things should fly. Still, fly it did when it was finally allowed to after a good hour on the apron, disgorging us some 7 hours later into the humid Washington air like a couple of croutons dropped into a steaming bowl of soup. If this is what it’s like at 9pm, this is going to be a warm trip!

I’m melting…

Another week in glorious Swindon. The mid 30s and humid, and this is what passes for air conditioning in the Travelodge…

That should do it then!

Still, at least Swindon has its compensations. There is, of course, the magic roundabout, a marvel of modern traffic management…

Be afraid, be very afraid…

… and an integral part of what makes Swindon such a joy to drive around…

Believe it!

 

Looks like the moon, no?

Looks like the moon, no?

…opined the receptionist as we arrived at our hotel in Reykjavik. From the little that we had seen on our way from the airport, it was hard to argue. Spectacular in its bleakness, I had a good feeling about Iceland.

moonscape
Looks like the moon, no?

According to What3words, our hotel can also be known as younger.aquatic.scout and I couldn’t help but think that this was a good omen for Ethan’s aspiration to explore the Blue Lagoon.

From the moment we arrived, everyone was remarkably friendly and helpful.

New Friend
The natives are friendly

Even the motorists seem to defer to pedestrians. Where is the road rage? (I was later to find that it is, in fact, possible to induce this if one tries hard enough by sticking annoyingly to speed limits). Could it be that all of the national umbrage was used up during long past Viking raids and now Iceland is emotionally becalmed? Whatever the cause, the culture seems to be based on politeness and mutual respect, and that is hard not to like.

Of course, the politeness could just be a mechanism for diffusing any potential flashpoints over restaurant bills. Oh yes, Iceland: breathtakingly beautiful, eye-wateringly brutal and changeable weather and prices which combine the physiological effects of both and the aesthetic impact of neither. Retreating from the bars (£8 per beer if you would be so kind sir), we drifted into a supermarket to provision ourselves for the day of driving to follow. Several sandwiches, some crisps and chocolate? That’ll be £60 please. Damn, they had better be good. I had thought that the Blue Lagoon prices were a little steep until I realized that equated to the cost of a packet of crisps. To be fair, this was all amateur stuff, Ethan (whilst menu surfing) discovered an Indian restaurant offering poppadoms for £52. No that is proper gouging.

So a few hours wandering around Reykjavik to the sound of pounding Icelandic rap spilling from one of the bars finally took its toll and we retreated back to the hotel. Something of a slog in the cold (walking had seemed like such a good idea earlier), but we were rewarded by the clouds parting to reveal a green curtain of aurora. My first sighting! Shame it was largely drowned out by the street lights, but you have to take what you can get. I was hungry for more, but Ethan had ticked the box in his mind and was ready to move on out of the cold. Maybe tomorrow…

Day 2 and time for some serious exploring, starting with a quick hop between two continents. Looks like someone has dropped in between – not often you get the chance for intracontinental travel.

Intracontinental Travel
Is it America? Europe? Seems it’s neither

 

Back onto the European continental plate and on to see a series of geothermal wonders. I swear I am beginning to like the sulphury smell – although showering in fart water still takes some getting used to.

 

 

So, geysirs (or should I say THE Geysir – it being the original),

 

bubbling mud, steaming landscapes,  Thermal

 

waterfalls Gulfoss

 

 

 

 

 

and savage, windswept vistas.Snow & Sun

 

 

 

 

At Geysir (or more accurately Strokkur, which is the more active and hence tourist friendly), I was continually baffled and amused that people stood downwind of an erupting geysir – only to scatter in panic as they are engulfed in steam. Who could have predicted it?

Strokkur
Thar she blows

According to What3words, Geysir’s nomenclature is scatters.inclement.beliefs and,  as I watched the tourists run for cover, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was true. Takes all sorts.

 

 

 

 

Day 3 and an opportunity to explore Reykjavik during daylight – communing and empathizing with the unknown bureaucrat

Unknown Bureaucrat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and then just time for a quick, heavy duty pastry breakfast from what appeared to be the most popular bakery in town.

 

bakery
Best Danish ever!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just the thing before heading off to the Blue Lagoon en route back to the airport

Blue Lagoon,

 

via a quick stop at a somewhat understated, and completely unannounced lava cave.

 

Lava Cave
Enter if ye dare!

 

And just when I thought that Iceland couldn’t hold any more surprises…

Noel Fielding
Is that Noel Fielding?

 

Outstanding!