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Monday, 22 March 2010

To Do List...

After a couple of happy days poking about the GMC last week I have a To Do list which seems dauntingly long but contains nothing really major. Its full of small items like REPLACE FRONT LEFT MARKER LIGHT BULB - GE 67. It looks very important when you write in capitals though. I'll get rid of the curtains and replace them with blinds, stop one of the air-conditioners projectile-vomiting lumps of old foam, and I'll generally tinker about with a number of other bits and pieces inside, hopefully fixing more than I break... I have consulted the oracle and found out how to adjust the air-suspension at the back so the GMC doesn't sit lopsided when you switch it to "auto". I have to de-winterise it, which makes it sound like you shovel out the snow and remove the plastic santa from the lawn, but really it just means draining out the anti-freeze from the plumbing. To be honest, that is the only thing we have to do in order to go off somewhere in it. We have a couple of weekends in May set aside to try it out properly, so that's a deadline to get some stuff done. I wish I was there today but there is lightning flashing outside the Barnes and Noble Starbucks where I am tapping away now, and its not the day to be playing with the RV in Woodbridge. Maybe tomorrow...

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Woodbridge, VA Mile 820

After a day mooching about Washington, we decided to come back and play with the GMC again. Its now clean and tidy and I have a list of things to tinker with to make it ready for its next trip, in which Philippa, Tom and I will actually cook, eat and sleep in the thing as opposed to wimping out with motels...

Fairmont, West Virginia. Mile 600

I'll say this for the Super 8, it had super soundproofing. We both slept hard after a cracking meal at the Cracker Barrel, complete with young waitress who was extremely suspicious of the word "ta" and questioned us closely about what it meant. I don't think she entirely believed us.

We slept so well that we completely missed the fact that the clocks went forward an hour overnight. Ours didn't. We arrived for a lobby breakfast on Sunday morning to find that it had mostly been put away. Drawing in all my reserves of English righteousness, I approached the front desk to point out that the sign said it was SUPPOSED to be available until nine. Yes it was she said, but now it is ten to ten. Ah. Well there was coffee and orange juice and so we loaded up and headed out.

The road was damp but the sky was clearing as we eased back onto 250. It was still twisty but in somewhat better condition and we knew that at Belgium (Belgium, WV) we would turn left onto Route 50 which would take us the rest of the way. Somehow we never really noticed Belgium  (seems unfair to make the obvious point there...) but 50 soon became a rollercoaster of a road, taking us deep into the mountains, hugging the sides of the valley, hairpinning up to the high ridges and then twisting back down the other side. There was quite a lot of snow, and we passed between banks almost as high as the GMC.

We clipped a bit of Southern Maryland and the road instantly improved...a smooth salmon tarmac replacing  West Virginia's rutted concrete. The houses were smarter too, it was like crossing a border in Europe where all of a sudden things are the same, but different.

Back into West Virginia and we stopped in Romney for lunch at one of their two Italian restaurants. Mario's was lined with pictures and bits and pieces of Italiana; gaudy vases and knick knacks. Sherry, our server today, was skinny as a rake with deep set dark eyes. She was as dedicated to her craft as any upscale DC waitress, and the food was hearty and tasty. We both had meatballs; mine on spaghetti, his in a crusty baguette.  The waitresses had their lunch at the other end of the restaurant and we thought we would be the last, but other groups came in. An older gentleman who everyone referred to deferentially "Hello Mr Peters", and a lady in her sixties with a younger man and a woman perhaps in their forties, both of whom were blind. Mr Peters came over to say hello and they all chatted a bit. He went back to his table and as he did so, the blind man said "who was that?".

It was spotting with rain as we left, but the clouds lifted as we headed East and soon we were rolling through prosperous farm country; white fences and well tended yards. All of a sudden we were at Holly Acres RV and Boat store in Woodbridge. PT and Tom were stuck in traffic on the way from home so we had time to nip out to a 7-11 and get the wherewithall for cups of tea and biscuits when they arrived. Soon enough Philippa was pulling in and the two of them were checking out our new addition to the fleet. Tom was all set for us to embark on a roadtrip immediately and was somewhat indignant to find we were all going back to DC together.

Traverse City to Woodbridge: 820 miles. What a great experience and all the nicer for having been able to share it with my Dad - thank you so much for coming!

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Ashland, Ohio. Mile 400.

Rain. Lots of it this morning. I watched it pounding away on the roof of the GMC as it sat stately across the car park from our Holiday Inn Express. My first thought was "is it watertight?" Most motels are though and Holiday Inn has been in the business for a few years so I had every confidence.

We packed up and headed out, with the rain really pouring. I opened the GMC door with some trepidation but all was well - apart from some drips by the dinette but nothing major. That job will be first on the to do list when we get back to DC. Once again it fired right up though and soon we were splashing out to Route 250 in the murk. We'd poured over Google Maps before setting out and found that we could get all the way to DC on two roads, 250 and 50, both old highways that cut through the hills.

Wooster, the next town came and went and we stopped before Uhrichsville for some fuel. I looked over at the next pump and there was an elderly Amish man with a white beard and a broad brimmed hat filling a fuel can. His buggy was parked by the garage, the black horse steaming in the rain. We saw several more buggies on the road and in fact we only saw Amish people walking about. Otherwise everywhere we went through seemed deserted.

The road got smaller and the communities more sparsely settled. We began winding up into the damp hills and soon we were twisting along a high ridge looking over rolling brown landscape. We came to Cadiz, birthplace of Clark Gable. There was not a great deal for Clark Gable to have stayed around for. Outside the town  was a sign which said "Clark Gable Museum + Coal Museum". In town, was another which just said "Coal + Gable" and an arrow.  Gable had deserted them after all and Coal kept people employed for a while at least.

We crossed the river into Wheeling and West Virginia. Its very much a faded remnant of its 19th century heyday. Once grand Victorian buildings now housing flea markets and carpet warehouses. The rain didn't help and its probably a lot nicer in the sunshine but neither of us felt like stopping so we zizagged through the streets until we hooked back up with Route 250, which ran across an old iron bridge and YIKES a "Clearance 8'" sign . I wasn't sure that we could fit under it but Dad hopped out and checked and we squeaked through.

We were both getting hungry by now so pulled in to a Walmart, as you do when you are hungry. It was actually the Subway which called us in like a Siren. Two hours later, reeling from the vastness that is Walmart and laden with the inevitable bags of rv-related purchases we staggered back out to the carpark where I realised I had left the lights on and turning the ignition key I was greeted with a depressing "click". So this is where the little "aux" button on the dash comes in useful. It switches to a backup battery, the engine turned over and all was well.

All was not well in the West Virginia that lines route 250. The communities seemed mired in the most depressing kind of dank poverty. It was hard to tell which houses were derelict and which still inhabited. The difference between one and the other seemed wafer-thin. It felt like being in what we would now euphemistically call a Developing Country. Rotting cars lay strewn around muddy yards and the road itself was completely falling to bits. At times it was hard to drive over something that actually had tarmac on it; great swathes of roadway were just collections of potholes loosely connected by gravel. Cars would occasionally fall in behind us only to turn off a few miles further on. No-one else it seemed was driving the whole length of this road. There were several occasions as we rounded another crumbling hairpin, the wheels spinning on the greasy road, that I wished we weren't either. I saw two people by the road. A man scowling as chickens scratched about in the mud at his feet and an elderly lady with a mushroom of white hair getting out of a car. She gave me a big smile and a defiant wave.

It took about two hours to drive the eighty miles from Walmart to the Super8 in Fairmont West Virginia where we are propped up on our beds half-watching Monsters and Aliens. Tomorrow we drive the final two hundred miles to Philippa and Tom. Great! Night all.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Ann Arbor, MI. Mile 250

Mary from across the road joined us for breakfast and it was lovely to catch up over blueberry muffins and coffee. She is, of course, already haranguing various Important People In Publishing that she knows in Boston, into find us space for the GMC. She told us that one such victim said wearily "I wish you had called to ask something about books...".

I took my Dad into Ann Arbor after for a potter about to kill some time before going to Wallace House, the focus of my Fellowship in '07. Everything felt exactly unchanged; students in cafes, frowning into laptops over lattes, others crossing the road as if they were indestructible.

Wallace house was just the same too though it was rather startling to see a whole bunch of different faces earnestly listening to the speaker of the day. Birgit and Charles were friendly as ever and Jill McGivering from the Beeb was there along with Nick who was visiting for a couple of weeks. It was so nice to slip back into that cosy, clubby environment and feel to be among friends. We freeloaded lunch, headed back to Brooklyn Ave to pick up the GMC, goodbye Bill and Betty, Mary and Randal, goodbye Ann Arbor. Back to the road.

We decided to get off the freeway today. So, after a quick dash to Toledo on the Interstate we turned off onto Route 20 for a while, cutting through run-down farming communities with sagging roofs and peeling paint. The road had been widened almost up to their front gates. Route 20 is one of the old two lane highways which runs from Maine to Oregon, but there was no romance here. Stll it was better than the anonomity of the freeway which always leaves you wondering where you actually are. It was nice to trundle along at 55/60 rather than the mad rush of 70 /75 on the freeway. This old bus was made for an age when 55 was the maximum across the country and it settled into an easy quiet hum.

As we crossed into Ohio, the road instantly improved, and soon the farms became more gentile, with clipped shrubberies and smart dutch barns. Our motel's location was a bit of a mystery as the satnave didn't know where the road was and the and lad behind the desk couldn't really explain how to get there - or at least I couldn't understand the directions, but we got here. Bob Evans provided dinner which is now glued to my stomach in a rather satisfying way and at 9.41pm it feels somehow very late.

Traverse City, MI: Mile 0

D. Lister and R. Lister had a midnight rendezvous at the Knight's Inn after our separate journeys to begin this one.  Fortified by a heart-stopping breakfast we got a cab over to the Midas and Jerry, who has been unbelievably helpful in this process. A great mechanic and an all round good guy - thanks for everything Jerry. The other Jerry was unable to make it down from Northport but sent his best and I owe you a beer as well Jerry...

I got some new keys cut and turned the engine over. It fired up straight away and soon we were nosing through traffic and heading for the freeway, the sun burning off the morning mist and shining on the ice flows on the lake. 
TC was distinctly less snowy than the last time I was here, which is a good thing, as I didn't relish the chance to drive our GMC home through ice and slush. It really is remarkably easy to drive; the steering is light and the suspension soaks up the potholes pretty well. Sitting high up in that rather "Dynasty" cream leather Captain's chair, looking across at my Father similarly ensconsed was somewhat surreal. Do we really own this thing? Yup.

And so we turned away from the lake and headed to the freeway in bright sunshine. Either side of the road the trees were tall and ghostly and the landscape flat and browned off by the winter. I cautiously pushed the GMC up to seventy and it seemed happy enough - if a bit louder - so I clicked on the cruise control and there we cruised, along an almost empty freeway watching the landscape flashing by but hardly changing. It was like a continuous loop of brown grass, skeletal trees and grubby icebergs of marooned snow. It was nice to talk and not worry about the road too much, though I could hardly take my eyes off all the gauges, half expecting one of them to either rise dramatically or dip, heralding some awful metallic grinding noise and the slow death of something important. But it didn't happen. The old bus just cruised along.

We had lunch at the Willow Tree Restaurant in West Branch Michigan. We had been expecting some kind of roadhouse, but the Willow Tree was really quaite refained. Opening the doors we were greeted with the kind of music they used to play as you took your seats in the cinema; all tumbling strings and plunky pianos. our waitress though was the magnificent Sharon Z, who pronounced herself the "world's greatest Anglophile" and could not have been nicer. She was probably in her fifties and positively crackled with energy, talking about all the places she wanted to visit and the things she was interested in. I wondered what she might have done if she hadn't lived in West Branch, Michigan, but our lunch stop with hearty soup and bread, and a peanut cookie each for the car (!) was all the nicer for having met her.

Out, in, and back to the dial-a-scenery. Around Saginaw we suddenly started to pick up traffic heading into the  rush hour, and there was the turnoff to Ann Arbor which was suddenly familiar from when we lived there. We cut through the town past our familiar landmarks - the coffee places, the old cinema and tiny Blimpy burger like a throwback to another era with its red and green neon. Tuning into Brooklyn Ave, there was Bill waving us into a spot right outside the house. Betty came out and of course we were staying for supper and no question of going to a hotel we were staying there - the beds were made up! Lovely. It was a smashing evening in the house that had been our home away from home.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Planning the first road trip

Its been a busy couple of weeks. Here in the capital of American bureaucracy I have been buried under a pile of GMC paperwork. I've been lining up insurance and trying to penetrate the arcane requirements of getting the "title" in my name, something for which there is much advice and less understanding. I've also been looking for somewhere to keep the thing for the next three months. There is a place at the dodgy end of DC, but its cheaper to buy a berth in leafy Woodbridge about half an hour away. I will see them on Wednesday before my flight to Traverse City. There, Jerry B brought our motorhome to Jerry R at Midas for another thorough going over, with  an oil change and various other checks. He thinks the brakes are in good order, but found a suspect wheel bearing which he is replacing ("they used the wrong kind of grease when it was put in"). The plan is for it all to be in one piece on Thursday morning when my Dad and I will pick it up. Its not quite the Route 66 roadtrip through the sunny southwest that we once talked about, but an eight hundred mile drive through the wintry northeast in a thirty two year old camper van will surely be far more entertaining...