Weeks 45-48 (19th Dec-5th Jan) – New York City

Having left 28 degrees in Mexico, we were greeted by a -4 degree stinging wind in New York City. We spent our first night in the slightly insalubrious Brooklyn. The following day, we crossed into Manhattan and our first glimpse of the city was Freedom Tower (or One World Trade as it’s now known). We got the PATH train across the Hudson River to Jersey City, and in true New York style, grabbed our first yellow cab to the cute apartment we’d rented for Christmas.

The following day was the Panthers vs. Giants game, and we discovered that despite being only 10 miles away, it was going to take an hour and a half via public transport—thank god for Uber! It was a freezing day, but we were delighted with our 6th row endzone seats. After being up 35-7, we had a questionable 4th quarter again and ended up winning on a last second field goal! It was our final Panthers game of the year, but we’d been incredibly lucky to choose the Panthers best season ever and see four wins.

For the next few days, we went into Manhattan and saw the impressive Empire State, the bright lights of Times Square, Radio City, the Rockerfeller Christmas tree, and the ice rink in Central Park—everywhere adorned with Christmas trees, lights, and decorations. We bought ourselves a few Christmas presents in Macy’s from Miracle on 34th Street.

We visited the World Trade Centre memorial pools, which were incredibly serene, but were disgusted by the number of people taking pouty selfies by them—how disrespectful. We got soaked in the New York rain, ate $1 pizza (though the best pizza is from Bleeker Street Pizza at a crazy $3 a slice!), saw the Friends apartment building, the Ghostbusters fire station (which is a real fire station!), One Police Plaza from Blue Bloods, and the most beautiful building in publishing—the Flat Iron. We went to a classic rail-cart diner, The Square Diner—it’s a shame there’s not more of these classic diners left across America.

We bought a Christmas tree and decorated the apartment, a we bought real Paxo stuffing and Bistro gravy (as Americans don’t do stuffing and gravy properly) from an English shop called Tea & Sympathy that resembled Open All Hours. Despite the Christmassy feel of the city, it was uncommonly warm—a staggering 22 degrees on Christmas Eve—t-shirt weather! On Christmas Day, we skyped our families and Peb cooked a delicious Christmas dinner. He even made his own Yorkshire Puddings as Aunt Bessie’s doesn’t exist in America, and after the first two attempts set on fire, he succeeded. In the afternoon, we headed into the city for a quiet walk around Central Park, but were pretty surprised to discover that the city was packed with millions of people waiting for the Saks 5th Avenue light display, so we quickly gave up on that idea.

Just after Christmas, my mom and Aunty H were due to arrive and we moved to a bigger apartment. We watched the Panthers game in a bar, losing our first game all season to a rubbish Falcons team, then were even more disappointed to find that mom and Aunty H’s flight had been delayed by a whole day. We spent the rest of the day sulking, then the following day, got the bus through Newark to the airport. A few years ago, our flight home from Florida stopped for a few hours in Newark and we made the mistake of going into the city, where we were eyeballed by people with guns tucked into their pants. It was as horrible as we remembered, but we were quickly cheered up seeing mom and Aunty H come through the arrival doors! After almost a year of being away, it was lovely to see them.

In the next few days, we went into the city and did some shopping on 5th Avenue. The whole city was rammed full of people and it had suddenly got freezing cold! We saw the pretty Chrysler building, had tea in Grand Central, talked to the Whispering Wall, and saw the new Star Wars at the AMC on Broadway. We stopped for tea in lots of nice places and had lovely food in Grenwich village and the Rockerfeller centre, and delicious cakes from Magnolia Bakery. Aunty H cooked us Indian food, which I’ve really missed!

For New Year’s Eve, Peb and I had debated going to Times Square to see the ball drop, but many a New Yorker had informed us that it’s no fun, so we went on a luxury Hudson River cruise. Everyone dressed up smartly, and we had a delicious 5-course meal while enjoying stunning views of the Manhattan skyline from the boat, then docked at the Statue of Liberty at midnight to watch the fireworks. It really was the best way to spend New Year’s Eve!

On New Year’s Day, we took a frosty walk over Brooklyn Bridge, then had dinner in Taphaus in Newport with an amazing view of the Manhattan skyline from our table. The next few days, we admired the city from the Top of the Rock, (though it was arctic up there!), had lunch in the Plaza hotel from Home Alone 2, walked around the lovely Central Park watching the street performers, including an incredible Opera Singer, and went to the Guggenheim art museum, which looks like a giant teacup.

We saw Wall St, the guerrilla art Charging Bull statue (left overnight outside the Stock Exchange after the Wall Street Crash as a present to the residents of New York), and Battery Park, where we got the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. Of all the things in New York City, the Statue of Liberty is my favourite. She’s quite spectacular up close, and much bigger than I’d imagined! What’s more, there are wonderful views of Manhattan from the island and the ferry.

From the island, the gap in the skyline where the twin towers once stood is even more noticeable. We visited the 9/11 museum underneath the memorial pools, which was very well done but indescribably sad. Inside, among many other things, there are photographs and mementos from the victims, voice recordings of the people on the flights, and huge lumps of twisted metal from the buildings where the planes hit. There’s so much to see and read that’s it’s quite overwhelming, and left me with the prevailing feeling—how could any human do that to another human?

On our final day in NYC, a bitter minus 12 degrees, we had the amazing experience of taking a helicopter ride around Manhattan! The skyline is even more impressive from the sky, and you can really see how many buildings are packed on to one strip of land, built all the way to the edges—it was incredible! After a wonderful Christmas and New York in New York City with family, we all headed to the airport together. Thankfully, there were no sad goodbyes this time as we’d be returning home in a mere 10 days. Just one country to go…

Weeks 40-43 (11th Nov-9th Dec) – The Deep South, USA

As we reached Sweet Home Alabama, it became summer again. We saved a tiny bird stuck in a lamp in the pretty town of Fayetteville, then headed to our name-sake city, Birmingham, Alabama—the Magic City. Named after our city due to its industrial nature, their Birmingham is actually nothing like ours, much smaller and with little to no city centre. We explored the historic abandoned Sloss Furnaces, a little creepy with some leftover Halloween decorations (an electric chair, really?), saw the Storyteller statue at Five Points (supposedly Satanic according to the guy who told us not to photograph it, but I thought it was cute), and admired the iron man statue in Vulcan Park overlooking the city. We took the opportunity to recall some of the vital inventions that our Birmingham, city of 1000 trades, gave the world, and developed a new sense of pride for our hometown.

After a brief stop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi (nothing to see there), we drove on into swampy Louisiana, with cypress trees overhanging the roads and wooden houses on stilts. As we crossed the lengthy bridge into New Orleans, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset, then punished with a horrendous motel that we promptly left, so bad that we opted to spend the night at a truck stop instead. The suburbs of New Orleans are…interesting, sort of like being in Grand Theft Auto. Thankfully, the city centre and particularly the French Quarter are beautiful. After exploring the filming locations of Interview with a Vampire, trying traditional creole cooking, and discovering a maze-like bookshop, we checked out the new town—streets lined with Christmas-light-adorned palm trees.

In other news, Peb’s iPhone took a high-dive into a cup of coffee on an uneven road, leaving us with no GPS or Internet, so the following day we struggled to find somewhere to watch the Panthers game. In the NFL’s home country, it’s surprisingly difficult to find places to watch it! We drove aimlessly through a few dead-end towns in the very south of Louisiana and finally treated ourselves to a night at the Ramada and a microwaved Sunday dinner.

From there, we managed to find camping at the wonderful Palmetto Island State Park, where we discovered a tiny frog in the electric box and lizards in the laundry room. We spent the evening sat in the van watching our first armadillos rooting around outside, and a cheeky raccoon eat a lizard while staring at us. The following day, with a tornado warning issued, we did the only sensible thing and got a canoe out in a bayou full of alligators. The park ranger assured us that the 7-foot alligator following our boat was friendly, and since she seemed to be correct, Peb decided to feed him like a duck—just feet away from us.

The rest of the Creole Nature drive through the swamps delivered many more alligators, some just relaxing in people’s back yards. To my delight, we spotted a few flocks of beautiful Roseate Spoonbills, despite being eaten alive by mosquitos in the process. After almost running out of petrol in the remote far south, we got the ferry across the river and saw the sea for the first time since Vancouver—albeit the Gulf of Mexico, so not exactly blue like Australia and Fiji had taught me to expect.

Finally, we reached Texas. Our first stop was Houston, a very slick city, where we hung out in Discovery Green in the hot November sun, then marvelled at the Gerald B. Hines waterfall park for a while. On to Austin, we camped at McKinney Falls State Park, admired the impressive Longhorns’ stadium (both being Longhorns fans), the State Capitol, and the cool Firehouse bar hidden behind a bookcase, and watched “My All American” about Longhorn Freddie Steinmark at a local cinema.

We hadn’t seen a familiar face since Vancouver, and it was lovely to catch up with my friend Clare and her husband John, who had flown over for the Thanksgiving Day game of their Cowboys against our Panthers. Together, we made our way to Fort Worth and the old town Stockyards, full of cowboy shops and saloons. We saw the Fort Worth Longhorn herd cattle drive down the main street and then the pretty Christmas lights in downtown Fort Worth.

We inadvertently stayed in the hotel where JFK spent his last night, before visiting the JFK museum in the infamous Dallas book depository, and were baffled by people taking selfies at the X in the road where he was shot. In preparation for the game, we went on a Cowboys stadium tour, scoring a few touchdowns out on the field and kicking some field goals. Our luck continued and the Panthers won the game convincingly. We missed our dinner reservations waiting in the hammering rain to get back to the hotel, but we gave our thanks in TGIs instead.

We said farewell to Clare and John in Dallas, and got the approval to sell our Canadian van there, so we embarked on a final road trip to Amarillo. Unlike the sandy, barren photos I’ve seen of Amarillo, it was covered in snow when we arrived and unexpectedly freezing. We camped down in the canyon at the epic Palo Duro Canyon State Park, home to a few members of the official Texas Longhorn herd. I felt a little like Snow White as our van was surrounded by animals, a nearby gopher digging, turkeys asleep in the trees above our van, woodpeckers swooping past, and tiny deer strolling around who were brave enough to come over and sniff me. We even saw the emblematic coyote tracking across a field, and hiked 6 hours across red rock and sand to Palo Duro’s famous lighthouse rock.

In Amarillo, we went to the strange Cadillac Ranch, a line of rusted Cadillacs upended in the mud, where you’re actually encouraged to spray-paint. After dinner at the Big Texan, a traditional Texas steakhouse where the record for eating a 72oz is 4 minutes set by a tiny lady, we headed back to Dallas to meet a potential buyer for our van. With mixed emotions, we accepted his offer.

Our final night was in Loyd Park, a campsite by a lake, and full of adorable squirrels playing. We were indescribably sad to sell our buddy Mack. Our home for the past 4 months, we hoped he was going to a good home, but as we drove away in the taxi, it felt like we were leaving a part of ourselves in Dallas. We checked into the Hawthorne Suites near the airport, and with some spare time and money until we were due to be in New York, we booked flights to Mexico City on a whim. Adelante!

Weeks 38-40 (24th Oct-10th Nov) – Southern USA

As we left the north eastern states, the northern magic that had seen the Blue Jays reach the playoffs for the first time in 22 years wore off as they failed to reach the World Series. Almost simultaneously, we arrived in Charlotte to see our team—the Carolina Panthers—for the first time live, and it was as if the luck transferred there too.

The day before the game, we visited the stadium, the best in the NFL—everything adorned with Panthers logos, unlike some of the other NFL stadiums where you had to guess where you were. Outside, we were extremely lucky to bump into the club’s owner and creator Jerry Richardson. When he found out we were from England, he asked if we’d like a tour of the stadium. Of course we obliged and hopped onto his golf cart. Suddenly, we were on the field at the 50-yard line, in the end zone, in the players tunnel, in the locker rooms, in the treatment room, in the gym! It was amazing, and Jerry was a lovely guy.

The following day, we beat the Eagles and went 6-0 for the first time in Panthers history. Having only been to NFL games at Wembley, where there are fans from every team, being the home team in an actual NFL stadium is incomparable— the hush when our offence is on the field, the growl of 1st down, the calamitous noise on 3rd down.

We spent the rest of the week in Charlotte waiting for the next game. It rained torrentially almost every day so worked in the office most of the time. We tried to go camping, but after a lengthy drive and a stop at a Hills Have Eyes type gas station complete with out-of-tune choir singing Amazing Grace, we arrived at the campsite to a chorus of gunshots from the numerous hunters there. Needless to say, I’m not a fan of murdering animals, and the sound of gunshots isn’t exactly a relaxing camping experience, so we swiftly left.

We tried to sightsee, but it turns out there’s not much to do in Charlotte, and it being a very religious town, what little there is in the city centre is shut on Saturdays, so on Halloween we walked around the deserted city thinking the zombie apocalypse might have happened. Despite how all-out America goes on its Halloween decorations, with people adorning their houses throughout October, their attempts at Halloween costumes were just generic fancy dress. We spent the night at our first drive-in movie, Badin Road Drive-in, having great fun watching Hotel Transylvania and Goosebumps.

Finally, it was Monday Night Football against the Colts. The torrential rain continued, but despite getting soaked before the game, I was delighted to meet Sir Purr, the Panthers’ adorable mascot. Then, we discovered our back row seats were directly underneath the jumbotron screen, so we remained dry for the entire game much to the chagrin of the rows of fans in front of us. After a tense game and overtime, we won at half-past midnight. To top off our Panthers experience, before leaving Charlotte we went to a Panthers practise, met some of the players and met head coach Ron Rivera, who chatted to us and was absolutely lovely.

Our next stop was Brevard to see the beautiful white squirrels. We found our first independent coffee shop, Brighter Day Coffee. Having recently watched America Unchained, a documentary about a guy who attempted to travel across America entirely using independent gas, food, and motels, it was pretty pertinent. Our experience of America so far had been towns full of chains, each looking like a blueprint Sim City—towns that had looked the same across the whole of America.

In need of some nature, we drove on through the beautiful Pisgah National Forest and the pretty Lake Junaluska to the stunning Great Smoky Mountains, where we were greeted by a field of groundhogs and elk. The campsite was basic but a massive improvement on truck stops and Walmarts, and a nature walk rewarded us with a beautiful orange marbled orb spider and a pretty garter snake. We saw an incredible view above the clouds from Clingman’s dome, then continued on to Tennessee.

After a brief stop in Knoxville, nothing to do there except go to mall, we arrived in super cool Nashville, home of country music. We admired the pretty Bicentenial Park, Capitol Hill, and the replica Parthenon. We enjoyed the bright lights of Broadway, went to a proper American bar, and had hot chocolate in Mike’s vintage ice cream parlour.

From there, the weather and the scenery picked up as we drove through small towns to Lynchburg. Peb is a big Jack Daniels fan, so we visited the traditional distillery and were thoroughly educated on a great, and free, tour. We stayed in the historic town of Lynchburg, a cute village with chocolate-coated bacon, my favourite. From there, it was due south…

Weeks 35-38 (9th-24th Oct) – North East USA

If the heat had been following us across Canada, then the cold was certainly waiting for us in America! A little sunburnt from Niagara, we were surprised that only a few miles away in Buffalo city, New York state, we had to don coats, hats, and gloves. Not that Peb minded as his hair clippers had died mid-cut, leaving him with half a head of hair for our hour-long wait in customs to cross the border.

We took a walk around the chilly city, full of beautiful and relatively old architecture, but entirely devoid of humans. I mean post-apocalyptic levels. Our only encounter was with a group of kids who, as I’d been informed about America, loved our accents and kept asking us to say “1975”. We tried a local delicacy, a waffle maple chicken sandwich, in “The Lodge”, an awesome cabin-style bar with the Blue Jays on. The Jays are heavily supported by Buffalo residents, reinforcing the impression that Buffalo is more of a Canadian city than an American one.

We commenced our circuit of NFL stadiums at the Buffalo Bills, being massive American Football fans, then on to Cleveland, Ohio, where we saw the Browns’ stadium and checked out the city—a tiny place but with a beautiful city hall that contained the mall. In Ohio, Peb went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we saw lots of groundhogs, discovered that Taco Bell is both tasty and cheap but Starbucks is more expensive than Canada, and found out we could stay at Pilot truck stops, albeit nothing like the Huskies. We also worked out that driving the routes, despite being slower than the interstates, was more interesting in terms of scenery, and had far less roadkill, which had been a depressing point since entering the USA, especially with my love of raccoons.

The autumn colours were in full bloom as we drove through the amusingly named Paris, Calcutta, Liverpool, Palestine, Moon, and the adorable Lisbon. We drove through the hat of West Virginia and entered Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, steel city, was way prettier than I expected, a few glossy skyscrapers surrounded by water in a Perth-esque manner. We checked out the Steelers’ impressive stadium, and in homage to an NFL advert that used to play during every UK ad break, we had a delicious “Roethlisburger” from Peppi’s, where the staff were awesome. We spent the evening in the very European (despite the guy on his mobile telling his 12-year-old daughter to not get pregnant) market square, and watched the Steelers game in local favourite Primanti Bros.

To avoid expensive tolls, we drove on through the back woods of Pennsylvania and made it to the bright lights of Breezewood, a town made entirely of motorway service stations. There, we encountered more people who loved our accents—at least in America nobody mistakes us for Australians, a nationality we’ve been mistaken for numerous times around the world. We had breakfast at an old school silver diner in Breezewood, complete with a chequered floor and red leather booths.

We moved on to Philadelphia, where we recreated the Fresh Prince of Bel Air video in Will Smith’s actual playground, recreated the Rocky movie running up the steps of the art museum, and checked out the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, which hilariously I only recognised from National Treasure. Being in Philly, we had an obligatory melt-in-your-mouth philly cheese steak from Café Old Nelson. Philadelphia was a far better-looking city than expected, despite its apparent homeless problem.

As big movie fans, we’ve watched many a road trip film over the years, most of which are set in America. Contrary to what these movies suggest, we quickly discovered that America was hard to road trip. Unlike Australia, it was hard to locate campsites in advance and Wikicamps was entirely useless. Unlike Canada and its delightful, welcoming Huskies, the Pilot’s charged $12 for a shower, didn’t offer free WiFi, and sold t-shirts saying “Keep calm, carry guns”, “You keep your advice, I’ll keep my guns”, and so on. Really.

Not to mention, navigating the complicated road systems and sometimes absent road signs lead us to take many a wrong turn. Added to that, the north east is clogged with toll roads and a 5-minute drive through Delaware cost us a staggering $8. Then another $4 just to enter Baltimore, which paid us into a traffic jam and an almost pileup thanks to some classic North American bad driving, a subject I could rant about for some time.

In Baltimore, we saw the Ravens’ stadium, and with nothing much to see in the city, we headed to a public swimming baths in a place that despite looking like a gangster movie on the outside, was full of friendly people inside. A little kid amusingly asked us about our van, “Y’all live in this thing? Y’all keep this thing clean?!”.

Next, we went to Washington D.C., starting the day at the Redskins’ stadium. Having visited other capitals, Washington was nothing like what I expected, less of a city and more of a collection of impressive buildings set around a giant park. We saw the Washington monument obelisk, the WWII monument (odd to see American dates rather than the European dates we’re used to), the reflection pool, the Lincoln memorial, and the White House.

Outside the White House, we were lucky to be given free tickets to the Fall Gardens tour, one of two weekends the gardens are opened to the public each year, so we got right up to the doors of the White House, which was pretty impressive. There’s no camping in Washington so we headed back Baltimore, where we watched the Panthers beat the Seahawks. We spent another day sightseeing in Washington, checking out the free Smithsonian Natural History Museum (big room of death, not my cup of tea) and the Jefferson memorial—my favourite of all the buildings in Washington, not just because it’s in Captain America. We saw the Capitol, which unfortunately was under scaffolding, the Library of Congress (more National Treasure), the Pentagon, and Arlington Cemetery.

Across the river, we went into Arlington city (some of these cities are very small, I feel like they’ve missed the word “town”) and struggled to formulate a plan what to do next. To Richmond, to see nothing according to Trip Advisor, or to Virginia, to go camping but with possibly no WiFi to get work done? We took the plunge and decided to go camping in the Jefferson National Forest, so we headed 5 hours into Virginia, where we finally spent a few peaceful days relaxing among the pretty autumn trees. Whew, who knew travelling could be hard work?