Lu-Lu Belle

Wednesday was the thirteenth anniversary of Liesel moving to England. We didn’t mark the occasion, mainly because we didn’t remember until the following day. Oh well, maybe next year.

But we did have a fantastic and fascinating 9-hour long trip on board the good ship Lu-Lu Belle.

Lu-Lu Belle

It was raining when we walked across the road to wait, under cover, for departure at 11 o’clock. It rained on and off all day, but that didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the cruise and everything we saw. Captain Fred Rodolf has been cruising Prince William Sound since 1979 so he’s had plenty of time to perfect his commentary which was both informative and very funny.

He was very proud of the oriental rugs on Lu-Lu Belle, so we passengers all had to wipe our feet before going on board.

Just one of the oriental rugs

A boat’s wake is so-called because it wakes up any sea otters that happen to be asleep as the boat passes by.

And we did indeed wake up a few otters, in cold water, yes, but snugly warm with their 100,000 hairs per square inch.

Sea otters

We saw Valdez Glacier as we left the harbour, just, through the mist and the haze. Fred told us that the Valdez we’re staying in is not the original town. That was destroyed in the 1964 earthquake. But why is there a place here at all? Because it’s the northern-most, totally ice-free harbour on the Pacific coast of America. It gets very cold but the sea doesn’t freeze here.

We passed by Glacier Island where we were met by the sight and the stench of sea-lions, great big lumbering slugs lolloping on the beaches.

Sea-lions

Fred told us several times that sea-lions weren’t very popular because they eat the salmon. And the Alaskan salmon industry is second only in size to its oil industry. The salmon population is closely monitored and if one year, not enough salmon return to spawn, then the permitted catch is reduced accordingly.

Further around the island, the boat nosed into several caves, yes, actually into the caves, to try and find some puffins. It was delightful to see them high up, nesting in the caves but it was impossible to get a decent photo from a moving boat while looking up, trying not to fall over and desperate not to drop the phone.

It really is a puffin

Pictures of humpback whales turned out a bit better. There was more time, they were further away and I was more steady on my feet. One of the whales resurfaced pretty much every seven minutes, but where he would appear was anyone’s guess.

Thar she blows!

One of the other passengers was eating ‘gorp’. I don’t know if that’s a well-known term for it, but trail-mix really is a different animal in these parts. At home, trail-mix is just a mix of nuts and dried fruit. Here in AK, it has nuts and raisins, yes, but it also includes little chocolate chips as well as M&Ms.

As we approached Columbia Glacier, we saw ice-bergs. Mostly quite small but there were some large ones too. Their blue colour is lovely, brought about by refraction in ice when all of the air has been squeezed out.

Sunbathing otter

Ice-berg

Approaching the glacier was something I never thought I’d do. Columbia has retreated several miles over the last forty years, and the leading edge is a mile and a quarter wide. From a few miles away, we could see mountains behind but as we approached to within a quarter of a mile, its 200 feet height obscured those mountains from view. That alone gave us an idea of the immense size of the glacier.

We heard chunks of ice crashing into the sea before we saw any calving. As close as we were, sound still reached us too late to be able to turn and look at the right place. It was a bit of a guessing game, but I think everyone saw a few splashes. A couple were big enough to generate waves that reached our boat, but, thank goodness, not strong enough to threaten us in any way.

Captain Fred let us watch the glacier and the calving for a good hour and just as we left, a tall pinnacle detached and fell over, though not while I was filming.

Columbia Glacier

Klaus will talk to anyone and everyone and somehow the crew discerned that it would soon be his and Leslie’s 50th wedding anniversary. They wanted to do something to mark the occasion, but as only one of the happy couple was present, Klaus received the gift of a free muffin!

Yin and yang, though. At some point when Klaus was on deck, the wind carried away his favourite cap, depicting Oregon Ducks, the football team of Leslie’s alma mater. American football, that is.

In the evening, for the first time in AK this trip, we dined out. Fu Kung Chinese but also Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai and presumably other oriental cuisine.

Fu Kung good food

The following day when I went for a quick walk before leaving Valdez, I bumped into Captain Fred again. I asked him to keep a lookout for Klaus’s cap. He said he would, it’s probably being worn by a sea-lion though!

We had to check out of the campground in Valdez by 11am, much earlier than the state-run places, but at least we had good weather for much of the journey today. We had planned to camp one more night, by Lake Louise, but in the end, it was decided to go all the way back home to Anchorage. Klaus thought nothing of the four-hour drive, but then there is a lot less traffic here on the highways than we have to contend with on motorways between London and Manchester.

Being able to see the sights today was wonderful too. The Horsetail Waterfall was very popular with visitors.

We saw lots of lakes and glaciers and mountains as we drove westwards along the Glenn Highway. In places, it looked like a sheer drop to the left, the other side of the road.

The trees were noticeably different from place to place. Tall, bushy white spruce and birches were dominant in places. But in between, where the ground was swampy and the roots less strong, the trees looked really weak and feeble. These are black spruce.

Black spruce

When I saw black spruce a couple of days ago, I thought they were just trees recovering from a bush fire: not much foliage yet and blackened, wizzened trunks. But no, this is what they really look like. If you imagine a nice, thick, leafy spruce as being a healthy, well-fed fox’s brush, then black spruce are the tails of mangy foxes.

We were delighted to see a few groups of cyclists on the Glenn Highway, including one group of about six German girls. They were all doing well even though the road was quite hilly in places. Helped of course by the decent weather we were all enjoying.

I learned something else in the last few days. Where the road is rollercoaster-like bumpy up and down due to melting frost below the road surface, the term used is ‘frost heaves’.

We arrived back home about 6.30pm, and after a chat and something to eat, Mom and Dad went to bed and for the first time in nearly two weeks, the TV was turned on. 666 channels of absolute tosh. Liesel settled for a Harry Potter film.

Someone left the kayak out in the rain

Richardson Highway

Mick: What time does AT&T open?
Liesel: Eight o’clock.
Mick: Oh, perfect timing. It’s quarter to eight so I think I’ll go and get myself a new SIM card as using my UK one to access the internet is proving to be ridiculously expensive.
Liesel: OK, dear, have a nice walk, be careful.

So I walked over to AT&T, the closest telecoms shop to the campsite, only to discover that it didn’t open until 10. Oh well, the girl at Verizon was very helpful the other day, even if she couldn’t provide Liesel with what she needed. The walk to Verizon was a bit longer, across two main roads. But walking can’t be that unusual here, there are pedestrian crossings in all the right places.

The sign in the window said “Closed for lunch, back at 4.30” and I thought, I could work there with lunch breaks like that! The bad news was, this shop didn’t open until 10.30. The only other one I knew of was GCI, just along the road a bit. It opened at 8.30 so by now, I only had to loiter for ten minutes or so. Then I saw the sign: No Loitering.

While waiting for the shop to open, I used somebody’s wifi to do internetty things. By the time I went into GCI, two people were being served and there were two more in the queue. They must have opened early.

The guy with the orange shirt was still at the counter when I left, nearly an hour later. I guess his problems were more convoluted than mine. I was dealt with within ten minutes once Melissa called me up. So, I now get a month’s 4G for what I nearly spent in just two days. Marvellous!

How ironic then that later in the day, when we were on the road, there was often no signal at all, of any sort. Even the campsite had nothing. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Before leaving the site at Fairbanks, we emptied the tanks, refilled with fresh water and I got bitten by a mosquito. I felt a tickle, brushed it off and it must have been full of my very best because it sprayed blood all over my hand. Ideal when you’re emptying that sort of stuff into a hole in the ground. The rain had stopped during the night, thank goodness, but the grey clouds were still hanging around.

Klaus drove us to the Richardson Highway which we then followed for the rest of the day. First stop: North Pole, AK, where of course we had to visit Santa Claus House. Here, it is Christmas all year round. We resisted the temptation to buy any ornaments or other tat.

Santa Claus House
Merry Christmas everybody

A well-known philosopher once said that Richardson Highway is just miles and miles of nothing. No, actually, it was Klaus who said that: nothing but trees and tarmac. On clear days, the views of mountains must be stunning, but we weren’t that lucky. The rain was back, often torrential. But at least the bug remains were being wiped from the windscreen during the day.

We drove by Eielson Air Force Base which has the second longest runway in north America, running parallel to the road.

We saw many mountains in the mist, and I realised that actually, they look brighter when you avoid looking through the van’s tinted windows.

Alaska is known as The Last Frontier, and it’s easy to see why. Apart from miles and miles of highway, there was nothing else manmade.

Apart from one of the wonders of the modern world. The Alaska Pipeline runs 800 miles from Prudhoe in the far north to Valdez. In places, it runs alongside the Richardson Highway and we stopped couple of times to get up close and personal.

Still no good at selfies

The suspension bridge over the Tanana is the second longest of thirteen major bridges built for the pipeline.

We decided to camp about halfway between Fairbanks and Valdez, in the hope that it might stop raining long enough for us to go for a nice walk. Plus, Klaus was doing all the driving while Liesel and I were looking through the windows imagining the views that might have been.

The pipeline again
An old roadhouse

The campsite at Paxson was right by the lake and we were sure the rain would deter the mozzies. Mainly because none of us were keen to go out much in that rain. But other than the rain, it was very quiet.

Sleep was interrupted by rain and by the motorhome’s furnace turning on every couple of hours to provide some heat. We weren’t even disturbed by bears trying to break into the nearby bear-proof, metal food containers used by folks camping in tents. Braver souls than we are, camping in a tent in bear country.

Did I mention the rain?

Liesel heard a chipmunk outside and we saw a pretty green bird in the trees, which we later identified as a yellow warbler.

Day two on the road to Valdez was just as disappointing as far as the weather goes. From one viewpoint, you’re supposed to be able to see three different mountain ranges.

We stopped for a break and I, the bird whisperer, according to Liesel, had a grey jay eating out of the palm of my hand. Although, not necessarily eating: they store lots of food in secret places, a bit like squirrels do.

No, officer, I didn’t really drive it
Grey Jay way

Some of the great sights we did see include the Worthington Glacier, Thompson Pass with patches of snow still on the ground in places, and Bridal Veil Falls. It turns out Thompson Pass is the snowiest place in the state.

Worthington Glacier through the mist

We’re staying in a site near the harbour here in Valdez for two nights. It’s a commercial site, with all the facilities, but it’s just a glorified car-park, really.

We went for a quick walk to the supermarket, after which I went for a longer jaunt around the harbour. The water was milky, probably the grey-green of glacial silt.

Valdez, harbour, boats, mountains

So far, we’ve not seen any interesting large animals, no bears, no moose, no wolves, no wolverines, no zombies, nothing except small rodents and a handful of birds. We have to be careful out in the wild because we look quite tasty to bears.

And if the bears don’t get you, the tsunamis might:

If the tsunamis don’t get you, the feral bunnies definitely will:

One thing I never expected to see in Valdez was rabbits. I thought there were just a few cute little bunnies on the campsite, but no, they are all over town and they are having a mixed reception here.

Fair enough

Liesel and I along with Klaus, Leslie and Asa had a fun afternoon at the fair. The Tanana Valley State Fair is half funfair and half agricultural show.

The highlight of the day was the Giant Cabbage competition. The heaviest one we saw was 61lb and the leaves were old, gnarly, green leather.

Where’s Asa?

Actually, another highlight was the one ride I went on with Asa. The Zipper. Two people sit in a cage which swings around an axis, ten cages go up and down like a zipper and around another axis of movement, very fast and at times, you are upside down. It was today’s scary thing. Liesel joined him on a different ride, Startrooper, which was less violent but Liesel still came off with sweaty palms.

Asa and Liesel
Zipper

Actually, another highlight was bumping into Chad Carpenter doing a book signing. He’s Alaska’s top cartoonist, famous for the Tundra cartoons for well over twenty years. He even remembered meeting Klaus and Asa before!

Chad Carpenter

There were plenty of animals on show, sheep, goats, pigs, llams, alpacas, rabbits, guinea pigs, cattle, nothing uniquely Alaskan on this occasion.

A big black cloud slowly approached and we feared the worst but in the end, I think we only felt half a dozen drops of rain.

We enjoyed fried zucchini (Scottish style), coffee and big, big bags of popcorn that was both salted and sugared.

In the evening, my itchy legs took me for a walk. I heard music close to the river and on investigation, I tracked down a Beer Festival at the Boatel, just along the road from the campsite. Did I have any cash on me? No, of course not, that would have required forethought and planning and I’d gone out on a whim, spontaneously! So no beer for me, nor I could I legitimately get closer to the live country music being played.

Later in the evening, Liesel suggested that we go over to visit Morey, Shylah and Addy. Morey is Aaron’s best friend from many years ago, Shylah is his wife and Addy is their teenage daughter who was also here to play football. I cannot vouch for the spelling of any of their names, I’m guessing, but someone will correct me, I’m sure!

We were offered wine or beer, I chose wine, Liesel declined, and we sat around the campfire batting away the odd insect and passing the time.

Sunday began with a drum solo on the roof of the motorhome. The long promised rain had arrived along with a much darker 8 o’clock in the morning than we’ve seen all week.

There were lots of us in the van for most of the morning and we saw the unusual sight of the windows steaming up. Lots of people plus a cooked breakfast.

The rain slowly eased off though: nobody wants to play soccer outside in that. And we weren’t all that keen on watching in weather like that, either, to be honest.

We stayed in the motorhome until we had to leave for the game: Asa’s last one. Unfortunately, they lost to the team that they beat yesterday, so the chances of playing in a tournament next year in Boise, Idaho, are vastly diminished.

We watched in dry conditions but the wind was quite strong. Fifty shades of grey were the clouds: much more texture than we usually have at home where cloud cover is often just one big sheet of metal grey.

After the match, Aaron, Jodi and their boys left for home: unfortunately, real life intervened and they have to go back to work tomorrow.

Liesel and I had a productive session in a local laundromat. What a big place, with over 60 machines in use. Back at home, we had pizza for dinner, our first takeaway this week. And it’s an American size pizza, wider, thicker, cheesier and way too much for this English person to eat in one go!

We heard some birds singing in the trees, but they must have been the native Alaskan bird of invisibility. Not like the ravens that flew around the football pitches, big and bible black against the clouds.

Sunday ended with another drum solo on the roof of the motorhome. Leslie is flying back to Anchorage.

And then there were three: me, Liesel and Klaus.

Some of my Relatives are Aliens

Liesel drove Asa and me up to her old University to have a look around. There’s a spectacular view from the campus that Liesel enjoyed for three years as a student here.

What a view

The Museum of the North includes a history of Alaska from before even the Russians became interested in the land.

The art exhibition was interesting too, lots of items made by native artists, some of it very moving but all fascinating, being different from the western art that we’re so used it. Our friend Monica had recommended seeing the Decolonization exhibit that’s only here until September, so we were very lucky with the timing of our visit.

Decolonizing Alaska is a multimedia visual art exhibit featuring contemporary artists exploring and responding to Alaska’s history of colonization. A collaboration of more than 30 diverse Alaska artists, both Native and non-Native, the exhibit introduces new ideas around Alaska culture.

And it was very moving. Why westerners think it’s ok to go around the world trying to change other cultures is beyond me.

After a coffee and a cookie in the café, we set off for the excitement of shopping in Safeway. They’re very helpful, here, the checkout assistant scanned all the items while someone else packed them for us into brand new plastic bags. Lots and lots of plastic bags. We’re so used to not seeing this any more, we reuse our own ‘bags for life ‘ (aka ‘shopping bags’) but here in Safeway, USA, you can use as many plastic bags as you like. Who cares if they end up in the oceans killing the fishes and the whales?

We walked over the road to Fred Meyer, another supermarket. Yes, let me repeat that. We walked over the road. Walked. You just don’t do that in America.

We tried to get a local SIM card for Liesel’s phone but it’s an old one, only on 3G, but all the Alaskan providers are gearing up to be 4G-only. Using our phones here other than on Wifi will be very expensive, but we’re only out in the sticks, away from home for a couple of weeks.

Asa and I walked back to the campsite, not a long walk, but another welcome walk, and Liesel drove back later.

It’s been a bit of a disastrous trip so far, and I hope we can start it properly soon. I left my reading glasses on the plane into Seattle but didn’t realise until we were in Anchorage. Then we had the problem with Liesel’s 3G phone. Now, the Logitech keyboard has decided to play up. Some of the keys no longer work. We thought it might be a problem with the batteries, but sadly, not.

I felt eerily cut off, being in a campsite, in a strange town, with strange people (folks I haven’t seen for years, I mean, but come to think of it…), without free access to the internet, with a duff keyboard so I can’t easily blog. And without reading glasses so I can’t relax and read. Oh, woe, woe and thrice woe.

Showering in the motorhome is a different experience. There’s a limited amount of water, so you get wet, turn the shower off, have a scrub, then rinse off. And the control is very sensitive, just a half a degree turn between freezing cold water and scalding hot.

Aaron, Jodi and Gideon arrived in the afternoon having made really good time. They lit a camp fire in the evening, where we all gathered along with some of the other soccer players’ parents and grandparents. A sudden inability to keep the old peepers open drove us to bed again while it was still light.

Woke up and it was already light: still not convinced it really got dark in between.

I went for another wander around the campsite and saw the first real native wildlife. Only a grey squirrel, but it still counts. Not as exotic as a moose or a bear and not quite as big and scary, either.

Fireweed

Merry Christmas, everybody!
Silver birches

We watched the first football game of the tournament, The Alaska State Cup, today. Gideon plays in goal and sometimes midfield.

Later on as Liesel drove back into the campsite, we saw a pair of red-tailed squirrels. Still small but slightly more interesting.

Friday woke me up with my first mosquito bite. I’ve felt the odd tickle and brushed a few away, but this one snuck in under cover of darkness. If, indeed, there was any darkness.

We had another soccer game today, this time Asa was playing for Arsenal ’05. It was a much more interesting game, and I was pleased to get some good pictures. Klaus shouting out “Push it up, Arsenal” made me smile.

I think it’ll be a while before these English ears of mine, even though not belonging to a football fan, get used to hearing the score recorded as “four to zero” rather than “four, nil”. And when enquiring as to the name of an opposition team, “Who are we versing?”

Only recently have the local teams been using the term “soccer pitch” rather than “field”, even though that’s the usual terminology at home. I believe “nice hustle” means “that was a jolly good tackle, old chap”.

Asa taking a free kick
Gid taking a corner kick

Between Asa’s game in the morning and Gideon’s in the afternoon, Liesel and I visited the Rasmuson Library at the University so that we could borrow their wifi and catch up with things on the internet. Using 3G or 4G all the time is expensive: compared with the overall cost of this trip, it’s a minor expense but we do object to large telecoms companies ripping us off like that.

Aaron brought his boat with him and in the evening, he took Liesel, Asa and me for a quick trip up and down the Chena River. The water jet pushed us up to 40+ mph and we travelled quite a distance. Everyone else on, or by, the river waved, it’s a very friendly community.

I wondered why so many of the bankside trees were falling into the water. Then I realised: there were beaver dams and houses here and there, and it was quite a moment when we saw two or three beavers on a beach, looking quite toothy and pleased with themselves.

The wake from our boat caused a kayaker to capsize which wasn’t very nice, but then Liesel pointed out, he’d done it on purpose, just practicing his technique. When we passed him again on the way back, sure enough, he headed straight for our wake.

We went downstream as far as the Tenana river, quite wide in places and according to Aaron’s clever device, there were plenty of fish there.

We passed a ‘Fire Helicopter’: presumably it’s one that picks up buckets of water to dump on bush fires, something you wouldn’t expect to associate with Alaska, but it does happen. We saw the aftermath of a large fire on the drive up to Fairbanks.

Someone else had a water plane parked(?), docked(?), landed on his back garden next to the river.

A paddle steamer passed by us moving in the opposite direction and it left behind a long, long stretch of very bumpy water which would have woken us up if we’d been asleep.

There was a fish wheel, based on a native device to catch fish. Basically, they just swim into the bucket and the bucket is retreived. Easy!

There are lots of houses on the river front, some look in better condition than others, but some are just plain ugly. (I wouldn’t say that to an owner’s face, obviously, this is Alaska and everyone has really big guns.)

On the way back to the campsite, Asa drove for a while, not as fast as his Dad, but very competently, neither of us were at all worried.

Saturday morning was an even earlier start than the previous day. Both boys were playing a game at 8am. Asa’s team won but sadly, Gid’s lost quite badly. Very disappointing for him of course but he is learning that he has 8 other teammates on the field that the ball has to get by before it reaches him, the goalie, and if they are not working as a team the loss is everyone’s, not just on his little 9 year old shoulders. Nevertheless, he had some great saves today and stayed after his game for a friendly scrimmage. (We snuck off to a local bakery to eat lovely pastry. A reward for watching 8 am games!)

So it’s Saturday lunchtime in the University Library again, nice and quiet, I think there are only two other people here in this room and one of them is Liesel! It’s a cloudy day, much cooler than when we arrived in Fairbanks but it’s very pleasant.

Fairbanks

One night in Anchorage was plenty. We spent most of Tuesday driving east then north to Fairbanks. Klaus and Leslie have a massive motorhome which sleeps four and often more.

It was a very long drive and for most of the ride, I sat in the passenger’s seat in the front, gaping at the views of the mountains, the big, blue skies and the forests. Everywhere looks like a bit like somewhere else, of course, but the scenery here really is stunning.

We stopped just a couple of times on the way, and each time, when the traffic disappeared, the silence was loud. Not even the sounds of birds singing, no trees rustling in the wind, not even the sound of my own heartbeat, just pure, golden silence.

The road itself was, mostly, in a very good state of repair. Where there were rough areas, the potholes were nowhere as bad as at home. There were several stretches that felt like a rollercoaster ride, very bumpy, possibly due to climate change: the permafrost isn’s as permanent as we thought.

The mileage markers provided a progress report of sorts, but very slowly. Once the mountains and Denali National Park had been passed, all we saw was road and trees. Lots of trees. I like trees but it’s nice to have a bit of variety.

Asa and I played a quick game of “Man Bites Dog”, a card game in which reasonable sounding headlines are constructed from the words on five cards randomly dealt.

Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, was hidden behind cloud. For a while, we saw the top half and later on, the bottom half. One day, we hope to see the whole mountain at once.

First sighting of Denali

One thing we’ve not seen at home for many years is, after a long car journey, dozens of squished insects on the windscreen. Alaskans just use much less pesticide, I guess. Some of the bugs were quite big, judging by the size of the skidmark they left.

I’m sure everyone smiles when they drive over Ship Creek, with or without a paddle. Only to be outdone later by Sheep Creek. Not forgetting Dry Creek, Joseph Creek and many more. But I looked in vain for Jonathan Creek.

It was good to finally arrive at the campsite in Fairbanks. Good to get out and walk around in the fresh air. I always envisage Fairbanks as a cold, snow and ice covered place, but on arrival the temperature was 91°F, 32°C, not at all what I would have expected. Liesel had attended the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and has told tales of having to keep a car engine heated overnight so that it would start in the morning. And of having to keep her inhaler close to her heart to stop the contents from freezing. And how car tyres get so cold, the rubber solidifies to the point where, until they warm up with movement, they bump along the road. But here we were in a hot Fairbanks and everyone looked happy.

I wandered around the campsite, enjoying the sight and aroma of the fireweed, smiling at the Christmas trees by the so-called nature trail. There are over 50 pitches on this site, but it’s very nicely set out, plenty of space for each motorhome or van or truck or boat.

We are 64.8°N here and the Sun sets very late. There are maybe four hours of total darkness overnight. I knew this but even so, it’s disconcerting to go to bed when it’s so bright outside. I woke up a few times in the night and couldn’t work out whether it was still light from the night before, or maybe the Sun had risen on a new day.

We heard some planes and most of them had small propellor engines, so it was a surprise to hear and see the odd larger, passenger plane.

This is a good opportunity to introduce Liesel’s family here in Alaska. Her Mom is Leslie and her Dad is Klaus. We’re in their ginormous motorhome. Liesel’s brother is Aaron, who is married to Jodi. Their boys are Asa, 12, and Gideon, 9, who both play soccer, that is, proper football as opposed to American football! They’re both taking part in a soccer tournament here in Fairbanks this week, which is why we’re all here. Their teams are called Arsenal 05 and Arsenal 07 respectively but we don’t know why they picked that particular team name.

Wonder

Living in a new place or maybe the air quality or the different impurities in the tap water has affected my dreams. I wake up with a feeling of, that was fun, that was strange or that was exhilarating or whatever but with no recollection of what it actually was.

Saturday morning though, I remembered enough for it to make some sort of sense. Hah: a dream that makes sense? That’ll be a first.

A boy was seeking attention by repeatedly knocking on our door. He was about 13 or 14 years of age. He claimed to be a cycling champion in his age group. But he wouldn’t give us his name. We met his Dad at the gym. He’s been discharged from the Army, he said. While chatting, he was plucking the odd hair from his chest, the waxing wasn’t 100% effective. He didn’t seem to be all that proud of or supportive of his son, which we thought was a bit of a shame.

At home, we looked up ‘cycling champions’ and we found a photo of the boy straightaway. He went by the professional name Mex Tex and that made sense, his shirt had had the word Mex embroidered on the chest.

The next time we met his Dad in the gym, we said we’d found his son on the internet but weren’t sure of his real name. He blanched. He said that he was trying to keep a low profile and that was why he’d changed his haircut and was attempting to alter his whole appearance.

He said that he’d tried to impress on his son the necessity to change his appearance too. But so far, all he’d done was to change his name to Mex Tex, a ridiculous name.

We asked why it was so importent to look different and he blanched again. He told us that he wasn’t discharged from the Army, he’d deserted, and if he was caught, he would be shot.

That’s when I woke up. I would love to see the movie.

The weather had changed. It was raining when we woke up and it was still raining after breakfast. Even after a nice, long chat with Roseanna, we didn’t really want to go out.

I’m not generally one to knock religion, but as I walked up the stairs, I very nearly knocked a picture of Jesus off the wall. Oops!

We stayed in our b&b until noon and set off for Covent Garden for a coffee at the London Transport Museum. The plan was to meet Helen and Steve and watch the end of the Prudential 100-mile bike ride and the professional race afterwards. But the weather was unreliable. Instead, we walked along the Strand and over the Millennium Bridge again (no Bob Marley today), to the Southbank Centre. It’s Chorus Weekend, and we enjoyed listening to some choirs in the Riverside Terrace Café.

In fact, I joined one. Yesterday, I’d turned down the opportunity to learn some Spanish dance steps outside the National Theatre. My two left feet would have stomped too many other people. Today, though, we members of the public were invited to form a choir, learn and perform a song. I can’t sing for toffee, but I reckoned I wouldn’t cause anyone any actual physical damage. And someone said, once, a long time ago, that we should all do something scary every day. Well, this was my scary thing today.

First we had to do some strange choreography, though. Moving feet, stamping, kicking out, waving arms in the air, not my thing at all. Fortunately, this did not form part of the eventual performance.

The lesson was led by a guy from The Choir With No Name. Another member, Brian, sang bits of old songs while we volunteers joined in. Lazy Sunday Afternoon was fun. ‘’ello, Mrs Jones, ‘ow’s your Bert’s lumbago?’ he sang. ‘Mustn’t grumble’ three of us responded in an old lady’s voice!

We learned the Emeli Sandé song ‘Wonderful’. It contains a variety of whoas, woahs, oohs and other woah-oohs. Three part harmony, and I was with the lowest of the three, bass baritones, tenors and me. Whoa, oh, Whoa, oh, we ain’t falling under. Whoa, oh, Whoa, oh, we are full of wonder.
The final performance was helped out by a professional singer doing the solo parts, thank goodness. The thought occurred though that I’m glad to be leaving the country tomorrow, before I’m arrested for offences against the musical arts. If you ever come across a bootleg tape of The Riverside Terrace Café Choir, you can choose to leave it where it is or acquire it and I’ll sign it for you!

The Riverside Terrace Café Choir

We were joined by Helen and Steve for another farewell. We watched and sang along to the West End Musical Choir, still in the Riverside Terrace Café.

Afterwards, we went to Giraffe for our last supper in England for a while. The rain was still on and off and the farewells were again a bit emotional adding to the precipitation.
Monday morning arrived after a very fitful sleep, I got up 99 times to visit the loo, I think. Liesel, once she drifted off, slept quite solidly until it was time to get up. I set my own alarm this time, thanks, Martha, but in the end, I was up

well before it went off.
No time for breakfast at the b&b, we packed, repacked and left for a packed tube train to Heathrow. Butterflies were kicking in so thoughts of a really big, substantial breakfast dissipated and I just had a vegetarian sausage sandwich.

Red sauce, brown sause or no sauce at all? No, no and no: I had Tabasco. Liesel had eggs.

We have bulkhead seats on the plane, so we have plenty of legroom, but unfortunately for us, on this Boeing 787-9, the toilets are in the middle, not at the back. Right near us. As I type, we’ve just entered Canadian airspace. It’s dark on our righthand side but still bright out of the other side.

Going back to cycling again. Geraint Thomas did win the Tour de France, the first Welshman to do so, and a very popular winner too.

We’re Off!

We’re off! After a couple of rather hectic and busy days in Northenden, we are now in London for the weekend. The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. And today, although not planned, we walked just short of 20,000 steps. I feel fine but Liesel’s piriformis is a PITA still.

We think we’ve done all the last minute jobs that need doing when you go away from home for a while, but I keep thinking of things. Did we turn off all the devices? Computer? TV? Internet? Yes, yes and yes. Windows all closed and locked? Yes. Gas turned off? We don’t have a gas supply so that shouldn’t be a problem, but it still crossed my mind.

When we go abroad for a break, whether short or long like this one, we ask each other, do you know where the plug adapters are? No. Of course not. They’re all together in a small basket somewhere. But we’ve moved house, and they could be anywhere in the spare room and its 99 boxes, crates and piles of stuff. Oh well, we’ll just have to buy a new one, or two.

In between overseas trips, we sometimes come across the collection of plug adapters and we wonder why we have so many. Funny, that.

Yes, we have our passports and our tooth brushes, thanks for asking. Anything else is a bonus. Each of our backpacks weighs 9.9 kg, 11 lb, which we hope will satisfy the airlines’ limits. Plus, we each have a ‘handbag’. And that’s it: we are travelling very light.

On Thursday, before serious packing ensued, we joined Jenny to watch Martha and William swimming. Both were great and very happy in the water. But trying to undress William when he’s all sweaty is not very easy. Babies aren’t supposed to have temperature control, but he was having a jolly good try! After her swim, all Martha was interested in was a snack. Fair enough. We had coffee and a snack and Martha had a babyccino with bonus, unexpected marshmallows on top. Not sure her Mum was too pleased about that!

After lunch at Jenny’s, we went home and sweltered in the sweltering heat, yearning for, craving for, almost begging for a thunderstorm.

Everything, packing, printing stuff, moving around, was hard work. No, not a lot got done.

On Friday, we drove to Jenny’s and handed over the car key plus keys to our flat. She has been volunteered to pay a visit every few weeks to check everything is hunky dory. Our car will blot the view from the children’s playroom for a while, but I think they’re too little to worry about that, for now.

Here’s today’s obligatory ‘Martha’s brilliant’ paragraph. There’s a map of the world on the wall of the playroom, carefully hand-painted by Liam. When asked where Grandad and Oma are going on holiday, she points to Alaska, says ‘America’. Where does Auntie Linda live? Also America, but she points towards New England. Auntie Helen? Australia and she knows where that is. Unfortunately, England is hidden by a decorative leaf but she knows that’s where we all live.
She noticed that the blue of Greenland (I know, weird) was the same colour as the blue key on her toy piano. ‘I will get down, show you which one blue is’, she said, a 10-word sentence. She expands on ideas too. Mummy was packing for a trip, and she asked Martha to ask Daddy for his PJs. ‘Can I have your PJs, Mummy wants to pack them’, she said.

Martha planning her own travels

William is good fun too. He’s just turned eight months, and is a wriggler. He now crawls at full speed, blink and you’ll miss him spotting the smallest scrap of paper on the floor, or making a beeline for the cables near the TV. His head is magnetically attracted to the coffee table, that’s where he chooses to do most of his rolling over and sitting up. He understands a lot, can make a lot of noise but despite my best effforts, I don’t think ‘Grandad’ will be his first proper word.

We had lunch again with them all before we left. We had no car, now, so we walked to the bus stop. But I hadn’t anticipated such an emotional parting. Suddenly, the enormity of going away and leaving this lovely family behind hit us. We’ll talk to them and even see them online of course, but not for a long time in real life.

We had a sorbet on the way home as it was still very hot out, and we caught the bus the rest of the way. Last minute jobs all ticked off. A rubbish night’s sleep with some happy but forgotten dreams preceded an early rise.

Last night was the fantastic sight of the longest duration lunar eclipse this century. Not for us in the UK though where the clouds won. I had a quick look out of the window and could see there was no point going outside for a clearer view.

Everything was turned off, unplugged, locked and bags zipped and strapped. We left. We bade farewell to our new home and set off on our adventures. What a strange feeling. It still feels like we’re on holiday living in a new place, never mind going away for an actual holiday.

We took the bus into Manchester, walked to Piccadilly Station, caught the train to London Euston. It rained en route but not for long. In London, a bus to Kings Cross and then the Piccadilly line to Northfields where we are staying in an Airbnb for a couple nights. I realised what a good idea this was: if we have forgotten something important, there’s a sporting chance of being able to go home and pick it up. Hope we don’t need to, though.

Roseanna, our host, is very nice and friendly and knows how to make her guests feel welcome.

After a rest, we got the tube back to Leicester Square: Roseanna advised us that a bus, while more pleasant, would take far too long to get there.

It was cooler now, with a nice breeze to ruffle our hair a bit: Liesel’s more than mine, of course, since she has much more. We visited some tat shops looking for a specific item of tat, ‘a souvenir of London’, so to speak. But I remember the song of that name by Procol Harum, and we don’t need that sort of souvenir!

We stopped for a coffee and a snack at what we thought was a Japanese place. Nope: it’s Turkish. An easy mistake to make. We can recommend Simit Sarayi.

English might not be their first language

We walked towards Piccadilly Circus then to Trafalgar Square. Today was the day of Ride London, when a lot of otherwise busy roads are closed to motorised vehicles so that cyclists can have a go. And what a pleasant sight that is: we were slightly envious when we saw lots of families riding by St Martin’s in the Field.

We wandered through Charing Cross station where they were playing Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond, for some reason. Then over the Millennium Bridge. ‘Bob Marley’ was singing one of my favourite songs, No Woman, No Cry. And, for the first time ever, after giving a busker some cash, I received a fist bump. Rasta.

On the South Bank, we decided not to walk on the beach.

The tide is high

Liesel called her Mom while I had a wander and tracked down an apple. Yes, still got to have an apple a day.

David in the Southbank skateboard park

We then walked along as far as and up onto Blackfriars Bridge where we waited for a bus. Not a sign. I looked at the app on my phone and it said there wouldn’t be one for at least half an hour. So we walked on, towards Kings Cross. A young Chinese girl had been waiting for the bus too, so we told her there wouldn’t be one for a while. We saw her several times on the way, also walking towards Kings Cross, or thereabouts.

There is a newly opened branch of Mildred’s and we were lucky enough to get a table straightaway. The original branch in Soho, where we’ve been a few times, is always packed and busy. And so was this new one. The food, all vegetarian and often vegan is terrific. We came away sated. Another recommendation for visitors to London.

Sitting next to us was a girl in a yellow skirt and her friend. She could talk the hind legs off a donkey and chose to do so, very loudly. Even the couple sitting on our other side kept giving her looks. No idea what she was blabbing on about, really, something about work, I think, but she didn’t waste a lot of time and energy breathing in. As they were getting ready to leave, I looked at Yellow Skirt’s friend. She had aged about thirty years in that time and looked bored stiff. Maybe it was her mother all along. It was noticeably quieter in the restaurant after they’d left.

A short walk to Kings Cross again, Piccadilly line again, back to our accommodation. The lighting in our room isn’t that bright but I can just see the keys on the keyboard. Liesel’s reading, listening to some music and nodding off.

Night night, Sooty, night night. No idea where that came from.

London Bye Ta-ta

When we first decided to move away from Chessington and from London, I came up with a few different ways to mark the occasion. Some were more successful projects than others.

1) While out on my daily (-ish) walks, I decided to walk along every road in Chessington, Hook and Malden Rushett one more time. This would retrace all the roads I’d walked along at least once while delivering mail over the previous ten years. The rule was, I had to start at home or finish at home; I couldn’t get a lift to some remote part of the south of the borough, walk around a small block and then get a lift home. In fact, in the end, the only time I got a lift was when Liesel dropped me off at the southern tip of Malden Rushett on her way to work and I walked all the way home, including offshoots such as Fairoaks Lane and West Road. I think in every other case, I left home, walked a few miles, at least 10,000 steps usually and then back home. I completed this project in just a few months. Easy.

2) I thought it would be interesting, challenging and fun to cycle along every road in Chessington, Hook and Malden Rushett in one go, on one single day. But after a bad experience with blood pressure medication leaving me short of breath, riding a long distance became, if not impossible, certainly something not to be attempted lightly. So, this is a fail, so far.

3) One thing I’ve always wanted to do is ride on every line on the London Underground, visiting every station at least once. I started this in 2000 when I was working in London, short rides at lunchtimes, longer ones at the end of the day. Unfortunately, Sarah died before I finished this, so I lost interest and this project was shelved. Well, 16 years later, I thought I’d start again. I did visit Brixton on the Victoria Line soon after David Bowie died, to see the mural and the flowers left by mourning fans. I rode the Victoria Line to Walthamstow at the other end. One line completed. And that’s it, I’ve not pursued this project, even though I have plenty of time. One day, maybe …

4) There are 32 London Boroughs plus the City of London. I thought it would be good to visit each one, to actually visit a destination or venue in each one, not just pass through on a bus or a train. How am I getting on? Here’s the list:

  • Royal Borough of Kingston – This is where we lived, worked, shopped, took children to school, so we I can definitley tick this one off
  • Bromley – I visited my friend Marie in Orpington a few times.
  • City of London – We visited the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and more
  • City of Westminster – Covent Garden, Hyde Park, Tate Britain, all visited many times
  • Camden – Camden Market and London Zoo are just two venues
  • Richmond upon Thames – Richmond Park, Bushy Park, Richmond Theatre and I worked in Isleworth for a short period
  • Merton – Wimbledon Theatre and Wimbledon Common
  • Sutton – Nonsuch Park and the shops
  • Croydon – Fairfield Halls and the college where I had some OU tutorials and non forgetting Ikea and CostCo
  • Kensington and Chelsea – I went to Uni here, lived here, Holland Park, Kensington Town Hall, the old Commonwealth Institute, Biba, Kensington Market, Kensington Gardens
  • Hammersmith and Fulham – lived here, Shepherds Bush Empire, Bush Hall
  • Wandsworth – Battersea Arts Centre
  • Lambeth – Southbank Centre, National Theatre, Old Vic and Young Vic Theatres
  • Southwark – HMS Belfast, Tate Modern
  • Tower Hamlets – Tower of london, Tower Bridge, Royal London Hospital where Sarah trained and lived for a year
  • Hackney – Stoke newington Church Street: Andi’s
  • Islington – Union Chapel, probably our favourite venue in London
  • Brent – Wembley Stadium and Wembley Arena
  • Ealing – lived in Acton for three months, and we’re staying in an Airbnb place here before we fly off to Alaska
  • Hounslow – Heathrow Airport from where we fly off to Alaska
  • Lewisham – Horniman Museum
  • Royal Borough of Greenwich – The National Maritime Museum, probably my favourite museum, Greenwich Observatory, the Millennium Dome (now the O2 Arena)
  • Bexley – Dad took me and Pauline to visit his old haunts in Welling, 50 years ago
  • Barking and Dagenham – I visited the Dagenham Ford Motorworks when I was at school
  • Newham – ExCeL Exhibition Centre, Olympic Stadium
  • Waltham Forest – Olympic Velopark
  • Haringey – visited my Dad’s Uncle Charlie before he passed away in 1979
  • Barnet – we visited Golders Green recently
  • Hillingdon – Heathrow airport spans two London boroughs and the country of Surrey, and we used to stop at Yiewsley when driving from Peterborough to Guildford, before the M25 was complete
  • Harrow – nothing
  • Enfield – nothing
  • Havering – nothing
  • Redbridge – nothing

Not too bad, then just missing out on four and I admit, some of the historical ones are a bit of a stretch!

5) Cycle on every page of the old Surrey Street Atlas. I did this once in the 1990s, a good way to force myself to go on long bike rides to the extremes of Surrey. Again, I was part way through a second pass on this when Sarah died. It would be nice to be fit enough to have another attempt but as I mentioned above, I am a bit, maybe unjustifiably, scared to attempt very long rides because of my breathlessness issues.

There are also some ideas that I discarded as being a bit too ambitious:

Ride every London bus route

Ride every Overground line, every DLR line,

Cycle the length of the Thames from the source in Gloucestershire to the estuary at Dartmouth or maybe beyond. I’ve ridden it all, in stages, from Walton on Thames to the Thames Barrier in Greenwich, plus a short section near Oxford.

We’ll miss London and Surrey and Chessington but moving away is an adventure and it will be fun coming up with similar, equally silly plans in Northenden or Manchester or Greater Manchester. Any ideas are very welcome!

London Bye Ta-ta is a song recorded by David Bowie just over 50 years ago, and, unbelievably, rejected by the record label!

Three Sleeps to go

On Tuesday, we spent the morning with Martha again. We didn’t take her out anywhere as she’d had a busy few days, visiting London, meeting Great Granny (Sarah’s Mum) again, and spending an exciting day at Peppa Pig World in Southampton. Instead, we had a nice, calm time, playing with Playdough and reading books.

Later in the evening, Jenny, Liam and the grandchildren came round for dinner, the first time Liam’s been. It was good fun with Martha here. If there’s a button, she’ll press it. If there’s a bed, she’ll bounce on it or pretend to sleep in it.

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Who’s been sleeping in our bed… and she’s still there!

What I didn’t realise until this morning was, she’d set my alarm to go off at 5.00am. I haven’t needed such an early alarm since I retired from Royal Mail! Luckily for me, and for Liesel, the alarm starts off with a light slowly brightening, a sort of electronic sunrise, rather than an audible tone. It made me chuckle, though!

We both went to the GP practice this morning for our first appointments, to meet our new GP. Instead, we met a Healthcare Assistant who did a good job of taking some basic measurements. Then, after lunch with Jenny, I went for a massage at Clarins in John Lewis. Lots of hot oil, cold water and goosebumps involved and I still wonder whether falling asleep is a compliment or an insult to the masseuse.

Last night, I watched the latest episodes of Ackley Bridge and of The Handmaid’s Tale. Both are better(*) but both have a few episodes remaining and I’ll miss those. There’s a small sense of incompleteness but I think the excitement of travelling for several months outweighs that loss! (Sorry, Sam.)

Three more sleeps until we leave so we, well, Liesel, started packing this evening. We’re trying to stick to one backpack each. Then I saw Jenny’s packing list. Twelve pages? I know they have two children to pack for too, but even so, my old list fits on one side of A4 and we just wanted to look at Jenny’s in case there’s something obvious that we’ve forgotten.

The last of the PC-based admin has been done, the paperwork needs filing away, and the ‘to do’ list is getting shorter rather than longer. Progress is being made. But we found time to watch today’s stage of Le Tour. A short stage, only 65km, but up and down steep Pyrenees all day. I was tired just watching it. And Geraint Thomas is still in the lead.

(*) “Both Are Better”. This is the name of a book written by a friend of mine, Jane Schnell, about her cycle trips in Britain and France. Highly recommended, a very good read, and not just because I get a brief mention.

Adventure before Dementia

It’s sad, so sad, it’s a sad, sad situation. It makes me feel a little bit guilty, asking to be removed from the Rose Theatre mailing list after all this time. We’ll miss Kingston’s own little theatre. I was a Founding Friend too: there’s even a seat with a memorial plaque for Sarah, so have a look the next time you go. But we have to move on, change is difficult sometimes but it’s worthwhile in the end.

The Government website is a vortex of looping, self-linking pages telling you that you should do something but not how to do it. That’s another two hours I’ll never get back. But the good news is, when the time comes, I will receive the maximum possible state pension in the UK, just over £9000 pa. In Sweden, I’d get nearly three times as much. Here’s an old but interesting article. Yes, I wasted more time reading up on this and trying not to feel cheated.

But in eight days, we’ll be leaving this little nest of ours for a while. As we have to fly out of London Heathrow, we throught we’d spend a couple of days in the capital before we jet off. Sunday is the day of the Prudential 100-mile bike ride around London and Surrey. We’ll probably watch them roll in on The Mall, just as I did myself four years ago. And hope to do again one year.

Then early on the Monday, we’ll fly to Anchorage for Part One of our Gap Year Travels. This is why we’re trying to tie up all the loose administrative ends this week. We don’t want any important mail to end up in Chessington, after all. And we want the flat to be secure. Plus, the car will have a nice little holiday of its own somewhere. For a while, we thought about selling it but having lived here for a whole two and a bit weeks now, we accept that we really do need our own set of wheels. Public transport is OK, but we’re quite a way from the nearest train stations and tram stops.

The other day when we were driving somewhere, we passed a campervan with a brilliant sticker on the back. “Adventure before Dementia”, it said. And we thought, that’s great, that’s our philosophy right now!

This morning, I needed to go out to get some milk. I asked Liesel if she fancied going for a walk, and she said “Yes”. So we walked to Palatine Road, the main street, bought some milk and enjoyed our first coffee in the coffee bar, The Northern Den, recommended by our old Airbnb host, Iris, a few weeks ago. Liesel bumped into our old Airbnb host, Iris, just along the road. She’d left the café just before we arrived. What are the chances?

Instead of walking home, we walked further along the main road and after the bridge under the motorway, we started to walk along the path by the Mersey, towards West Didsbury. Liesel thought it would be great to have lunch at Greens, a fab vegetarian restaurant that we’ve been to several times with Jenny and Liam. It was a nice walk, yes, but poor old Liesel’s piriformis was playing up again.

We had a lovely lunch, the food’s always good. But it was so much quieter at lunchtime than it’s ever been in the evening. And as there aren’t enough pictures of food on this blog (said absolutely nobody, never ever), here’s one of what was left of my double chocolate sponge cake with chocolate sauce:

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On this day last year, I was in an MRI scanner watching a silent Buster Keaton film while strange beeps, whoops and other sounds were being played. I was worried I might fall asleep, but I manged not to. This was some research being conducted on perception of sound by people and how it changes with age. I hope the right bits of my brain lit up while I was processing the information.

One thing we won’t miss from Chessington is our old neighbours’ frequent habit of cooking up fish curry outside. A big cauldron of pink goo that can be sniffed from hundreds of yards away. Such was the case on this day 9 years ago. It must have been especially strong that day because I mentioned it on Facebook. Pee-ook. I hope they enjoyed it, we didn’t!