Got any Gas?

I have a golden rule that I always follow when driving in the US: Once the car’s trip computer says that you have less than one-hundred miles of gas (petrol) left you fill up at the next gas station you come to. This acts as an insurance policy against the fact that, at times, gas stations can be few and far between. I made the mistake of not following this rule today. 

The road between Santa Fe and the Texas edge of New Mexico goes through an area known as the ‘high plains’. While not a desert, this is a huge area of grasslands and ranches that is very, very sparsely populated. About thirty minutes after leaving Santa Fe on the interstate the trip computer reported that I only had one-hundred miles worth of fuel left. Following my rule, I started searching for a gas station. About ten miles later (ninety miles of gas left) one of the helpful blue exit signs indicated that there was a Shell station near the exit. I left the interstate and got to a stop sign at the end of the off-ramp. Next to this stop sign was another sign that indicated that the Shell garage was, actually, eight miles away down a side road. I had a long way to go today so decided that a sixteen mile round-trip for gas would take up too much time. 

Besides, I was on the interstate. The interstate. Of course there’d be another gas station within the next ninety miles. There was a large town (bizarrely called Las Vegas) around thirty miles on which would definitely have a gas station or two. Wouldn’t it?

I carried on. 

Thirty miles later (sixty miles of fuel left) the interstate indeed went through the town of Las Vegas. There were four exits that served the town. I passed the first exit: no gas station. The second exit was also dry. And the third. And the forth. Hmm. 

Still. I had sixty miles left. There’d probably be five or more gas stations in that distance. Even so, I knocked the cruise control back from 75 to 70mph to conserve a bit of fuel. 

A number of other small towns went by: no gas stations. 

I turned off the air-con. 

A few miles later my prayers were answered! With forty miles of fuel left one of the helpful blue exit signs indicated that there was a ‘Sinclair’ (big green dinosaur logo) gas station located at the next exit. I turned the air-con back on and headed up the off-ramp. I turned right at the stop sign and pulled on to the gas station concourse. 

It was deserted. 

Well. It was more than deserted: It was abandoned and looked like it had been for several years. In desperation I drove off the forecourt and conducted a reconnoissance mission around the other side of the interstate to see if there was, per chance, another gas station to which the interstate sign was referring. There wasn’t. 

I was starting to get worried so enlisted the help of the sat-nav (it has a ‘points of interest’ mode that can tell you how far away the nearest gas stations are). It pulled up a list that said there were one, two, three, four, five gas stations 20.1 miles further down the road. It’s quite common to find a cluster of gas stations around a junction so I was reassured by this. Even though the sat-nav maps were a few years old I was confident that at least one of them would still be in business. I had forty miles of fuel left so would have a bit of margin. 

I got back on the interstate and resumed my journey, albeit at 60mph with the air-con turned off.

After about ten miles I started to get worried. I could see a fair way down the road ahead of me and I could see nothing but endless grasslands in all directions. I decided to get the sat-nav to pull that list up again to just confirm in my mind that they were really (now ten) miles down the road. 

The sat-nav pulled up the list. There they were: all five gas stations now……32.5 miles away. 

What?!!! WHAT!!! They’re further away?

Oh crap.

I had the sudden, sickening realisation of what had happened. When I was investigating the other side of the interstate by the abandoned gas station a few miles back the sat-nav must have assumed at that time that I’d swung around and was about to head in another direction. 

Damn damn damn. I looked at the trip computer:

Fiddlesticks. (This was not the exact phrase I used at this point in time but this is a family-friendly blog.)

So even if I could turn around right away (and I couldn’t – the other carriageway was separated by a good half-mile of grass and there were no exits visible anywhere ahead of me) I would potentially run out of fuel seven miles before arrival at the gas stations. I asked the sat-nav to tell me where the next gas station was on my current route, going in my current direction. 

37.2 miles.

Fiddlesticks. 

I decided I didn’t have a choice. I had to go for it. I was reminded of the scene in Apollo 13 where they have to keep the lunar module’s power below two amps to prevent the electrics tripping and have to turn everything off. So I turned everything off. 

Radio – off. Fans – off. Sidelights – off (it was daylight). Sat-nav – taken off charge. iPod – disconnected.

I slowed to 55mph and hoped for the best. The consequences if I ran out of fuel did not bear thinking about. I was possibly in one of the more isolated places you could be in New Mexico. I figured that I could hitch a lift to the nearest gas station, buy a gas can and hitch back. 

The fuel economy went up and, by my calculations of rate, I’d get to zero fuel around six miles from the gas station. I then turned the trip computer off (every little helps).

Ten long minutes went by. 

I rounded a corner on the interstate and wait! What was this? A helpful blue sign saying that there was a ‘Historic 66’ gas station at the next exit! I tired to contain myself and remembered what happened the last time the blue signs alleged there was a gas station. 

I indicated right and headed up the off-ramp. At the top there was a railroad crossing and….and…..the most beautiful thing I’d seen all day, no, all week:

 A fully operational gas station! I almost cried. 

As I’d turned off the trip computer I didn’t know how close I’d got to disaster. The car had a fifteen gallon tank and, once I’d finished filling it up the display read:

 

That was after one click of the pump handle. By my calculations (based on instantaneous MPG before I turned the computer off) I had around eight miles left. I would have got to the station indicated by the sat-nav but would have probably have had to coast the final mile. 

Phew. That was close….and a clear demonstration of my golden rule: When driving in the US always, always, fill up you tank at the first gas station you come to after passing the one-hundred miles remaining mark. No exceptions. 

 

(As an aside: With an exchange rate of 1.55 $ to the £ you can work out how much the above fifteen gallons of fuel cost in £’s and then what the equivalent cost-per-litre would be. I’d advise you sit down while you do this.)

 

 

 

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Santa Fe

I feel I should write briefly about Santa Fe. Although it added about two hours on to my journey to Oklahoma, I thought that it’d be worth a visit (I’d spent the previous night reading literature about the Santa Fe art distrct and its numerous Native American stores). In my mind I saw Santa Fe as a windswept desert town with permanent blue skies and sunshine. This turned out not to be anything close to what Santa Fe actually is. My first clue should have come from the weather on the way over:

This didn’t bode well for my ‘desert with blue skies’ imagery. I stopped a few miles outside of town to take some pictures of the surrounding scenery:

This was better, but still looked a lot more mountain than desert. I headed into town and found somewhere to park. Santa Fe has quite a compact ‘historic old town’ which has not changed much since it was founded several centuries ago. In the US, ‘historic old town’ means that it’s somewhere that you can walk (rather than drive) around. However, if you really, really, don’t want to walk there is usually some form of themed heritage tram. 

I walked into the centre of the old town and was greeted with the site below:

Snow, trees and a distinct lack of tumbleweed / cacti. Walking further out from the centre didn’t help much:

It had more similarities to a European mountain town than somewhere in New Mexico. I think the snow may have been shaping my opinions a bit but it wasn’t what I was expecting to see. There was some remarkable architecture and I think the library and information centre (below) came closest to my view of what I though Santa Fe should be like:

I suppose if you visited the place in forty-degree heat in the middle of summer it would be a different experience. But in my mind I will remember Santa Fe as a Swiss mountain town that was bizarrely full of shops selling stuff from the ‘olde west’.

 

There is one other thing I should note. There were some excellent Native American art and craft stores that you could spend a lot of time (and money) in but all of these paled in comparison to the coffee shop. 

Yes, the coffee shop. 

It was a very understated coffee shop, being located in the basement area of one of the covered malls:

You can see it hidden down the end there. 

The people who owned it have lived in Santa Fe all their lives and were (I think) descended from both Native Americans and Mexican Immigrants. The shop had a Mexican feel to it but a lot of the photos on the walls were of Native American ranches. The reason I mention all this is because the coffee was something else! I only ordered a latte but I can honestly say that I have never had anything quite like it. The caffeine level was through the roof but there was something else going on – I don’t know if it had hints of jalapeños in or some olde Native American remedy but the effects were wide-ranging. I was more alert than I’d been in days but also thoughtful and reflective. I may have gone on a brief vision quest. The coffee made me gag when I first tried to drink it but then became strangely satisfying. It was so unique that I asked the lady behind the counter if she had a bag of it that I could buys to bring back with me. She just smiled, shook her head and said ‘family secret’. 

Although I was dissapointed by this it was probably for the best. I have a distinct feeling that if I’d brought a bag back with me I would have had a nasty run-in with one of those Heathrow drug dogs…

 

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Zoned Out

I woke up at around 5am again this morning, having not got to sleep until gone midnight. This was not surprising as I’ve been struggling more than usual with jet-lag on this trip. I think this is not just due to the time difference with the UK but also because I’ve been moving through time zones since I arrived here. This is not something you have to deal with in the UK. Our whole island is included in the one time zone and the only thing we note about it is that it ‘doesn’t get dark until quite late’ if you’re on the Welsh coast. Twice a year we have to deal with either putting our clocks back or forward by an hour, and this seems to cause all kinds of problems. It’s something that’s happened every year for many decades but yet, the majority of the population can’t remember whether they are supposed to be going forward or back and everyone else just forgets completely. It then takes around two weeks until all the clocks are aligned with the new time zone and we then engage in a four month debate about if we should switch to double-summer-time (we should, but it’ll upset some people in the North of Scotland, so we won’t – but we’ll still have exactly the same debate every year). The only other time we have to worry about putting our clocks forward or back is when we go to Europe, and that seems to make sense as we’ve definitely ‘gone’ somewhere as we’ve had to travel over (or under) water. 

In the US things are very different. The continent of North America is divided up into six different time zones. These range from GMT-4 (Newfoundland) to GMT-9 (Alaska). So there is, in fact, a greater difference in time between the extreme west and east of the continent than there is between Newfoundland and the UK. 

In reality, the vast bulk of the continental United States are covered by four time zones. These range from GMT-5 (New York City) to GMT-8 (Los Angeles) and are named, west to east, as ‘Pacific Time’, ‘Mountain Time’, ‘Central Time’ and ‘Eastern Time’. On this trip I first flew into Newark (Eastern Time, GMT-5), and then got a connecting flight to Las Vegas (Pacific Time, GMT-8). On the first full day of travel I drove to Flagstaff (Mountain Time, GMT-7) and then, today, I drove into Texas and Oklahoma (Central Time, GMT-6). This has left me without any clue of what the correct time is. 

To give you an idea of my dilemma: It is currently 21:14. This time yesterday it was 20:14. This time on Monday evening it was 19:14. This time last week it was 03:14 tomorrow. Confused yet? I’ve been intending to get up at 6am every day. But 6am on Tuesday morning was 7am on Wednesday morning and will be 8am tomorrow (but 7am again on Saturday morning). It starts to mess with your mind. 

What makes things even more confusing is that the US put their clocks back last weekend. In a similar style to the British, this doesn’t actually mean that all (or indeed any) of the clocks have physically been put back. So when I arrived yesterday in Albuquerque (GMT-7), most of the clocks in the hotel (including the bedside one) actually read GMT-6. I was convinced that Albuquerque was still in the mountain time zone but ended up having to ask the front desk to confirm the real time as all the clocks were showing central time zone. 

This problem wasn’t confined to Albuquerque. In reality each time zone currently has two times – a real one and a displayed one. 

Keeping up?

11pm tonight (displayed) is actually 10pm. Yesterday this was an actual time of 9pm but a displayed time of 10pm. On Monday evening the displayed time was 9pm but the actual time was 8pm and on Sunday evening the actual time was 5am tomorrow with no displayed equivalent. It gets even better if you move to early afternoon: 4pm displayed today is actually 3pm but was 2pm yesterday although displayed as 3pm. On Tuesday it was 1pm at the same time (displayed as 2pm) and on Monday it was 5pm displayed (Newark) although actually 4pm. And, of course, on Sunday it was 9pm!

The only plus I can take out of all of this is that I’ve now reached the western extent of my travels (Guymon in Oklahoma). This means that tomorrow I get an hour back and, at some point on Sunday, I get another free hour. This should help with my travel plans as I’ve got a few days of quite long drives ahead of me. 

I need to make sure I hire a Delorian the next time I do anything like this…

 

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To Albuquerque – A Chance Discovery (Part 2)

I arrived in Albuquerque just before 2pm local time having very almost done a ‘Salt Lake City’ on the interstate. As you enter any big city the interstate transforms from a two-lane dead-straight country road into a eight-lane beast with lanes joining and leaving every quarter-mile and random lanes on the left or right of the throng being arbitrarily designated as ‘exit only’ lanes, suddenly steering you off to somewhere you had no intention of going. It was only by moving across four lanes of traffic in pretty-much a straight line that I was able to get off at the correct exit at all. 

I checked into my hotel and then immediately headed off out again. In the tourist information centre at the New Mexico boarder I had found out that the ‘National Museum of Nuclear Science and Technology’ was located in Albuquerque. I couldn’t not go to this so programmed the sat-nav and set off. Unfortunately the maps in the sat-nav are around five years old and, in that time, the museum has moved into new premises. I didn’t realise this prior to turning up at the old (now abandoned) location. Once that minor hiccup was resolved I successfully arrived at the new location of the museum and spent the next hour-and-a-half looking around. 

I won’t bore you with (too many) of the details here except to say that it’s probably one of the best museums on the history of nuclear technology and power there is. It does focus more on the initial years and the developments that were carried out in the various secret laboratories in New Mexico but that’s to be expected really. It’s easy to forget that pretty-much all of the early development work on the Manhattan Project was carried out by a bunch of British scientists who were relocated to New Mexico. The state built on this early work and is now home to the majority of the US national nuclear laboratories. 

Something of particular note was this development version of the Trinity test device, which heralded the nuclear age when it was tested in New Mexico in 1945:

Another ‘interesting’ exhibit was this prototype low-yield nuclear demolition charge – for use in the controlled demolition of large civil engineering structures (yes, really):

And the good old ‘atomic cannon’, again, not the best idea when you sit back think about it:

My personal favourite though was the submarine that had apparently got a bit lost:

Shortly after the above picture was taken a small monsoon hit and I again got comprehensively soaked while heading back to the car. I drove back to the hotel via four locations from the Breaking Bad television series. Perhaps the most well-know is this car wash, which plays quite a central role in the show:

There seemed to be more people photographing the car wash rather than actually washing their cars – and most of the people taking pictures had out-of-state license plates. 

To get round all the locations I had to drive through a fair chunk of Albuquerque. I must say, there are areas of the city that explain perfectly why a series about a crystal meth dealing ring was set here but, there are also areas that are simply stunning. I was up in the hills as the sun started to go down and managed to get a series of pictures of the sun setting over the city. This is one of my favourites:

So in the end, not a bad day considering I had to tear up my plans and start again at 6am this morning. I’ll be up again early tomorrow to head out across New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. It’s going to be another long day! 

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To Albuquerque – A Chance Discovery (Part 1)

I woke up this morning to find that snowfall that had been predicted overnight in Flagstaff had occurred. It wasn’t much by American standards (around six inches) but was much worse on the road up the the Grand Canyon, to such an extent that the road had been closed for the morning until it could be cleared. This scupper end my plans to head up there in time for sunrise and meant I had to carry out a hasty re-planning exercise over breakfast. I decided that I’d head straight to Albuquerque and spend the afternoon looking round the city. Apart from the obvious Breaking Bad links, I wasn’t that familiar with the city but was sure there’d be enough to keep me occupied. I would return to the  Grand Canyon later in the week, on the way back round the loop. 

I headed outside. It was still snowing and I was greeted with this:

There were a good few inches of semi-frozen snow all over the car and I had nothing in the way of ice scrapers, brushes or the usual winter paraphernalia (this snow was not forecast a few days ago). Struggling for inspiration I had to resort to the tried and tested emergency de-icing method that we’ve all put into practice at some point in our lives. On this occasion, the sacrificial credit card was an expired Costco one:

Twenty minutes later, and with hands frozen solid (no gloves either) I was quite pleased with the results:

I headed out onto the interstate in the direction of Albuquerque. The sat-nav spat out its best direction of the week so far: “Continue on I-40 East for three-hundred and eighteen miles”. The interstate was quite empty (it was just after 7am) so I settled into the usual routine (straight, straight, straight, truck, straight, straight, straight, truck, straight, straight, straight, slight curve, straight, truck, straight etc) and sought out ‘targets of opportunity’.

Targets of opportunity are attractions or monuments / museums that are advertised from the interstate and can be worth a ten or twenty mile divert to visit. You do have to roll the dice with them a bit though as sometimes you can drive down a dirt road for thirty miles and end up at something that does not in any sense of the word live up to how it was advertised on the interstate. Worst-case scenario is that the particular attraction you’re visiting actually went out of business in 1997 and it’s just that nobody’s got round to taking down the sign on the interstate yet. That said, you can find some absolute gems. In the past I’ve been to some really fascinating national monuments, museums and ‘scenic views’ courtesy of heading down a byway from the interstate under the direction of a brown or blue sign. (Brown signs are like the UK brown signs – something of cultural importance – whereas blue signs are jugs ‘stuff at the junction’ signs).

As a general bit of guidance, if something has ‘national’ in front of it it’s definitely worth a look (National Monument,  National Park, National Historic Site). As examples: Devils Tower in Wyoming (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) is a National Monument and Yellowstone is a National Park. If an attraction has ‘state’ in front of it then again, it’s probably worth a look, but this depend on what state you’re in (for example the ‘state botanic gardens’ are probably better in New Hampshire than they are in New Mexico). If an attraction only has ‘county’ or ‘district’ in front of it then it’s probably not worth the effort. Counties in the US can be vast in geographic size but relatively small in population. Chances are if you visit a ‘County Museum’ you’re going to end up in someone’s living room for a few hours looking at civil war artefacts. 

I’d been travelling for a reasonable amount of time on the interstate this morning when I saw a blue sign proclaiming ‘Rest Area: 42 Miles’. This was notable as, so far on this journey, I had not seen any rest areas. They are usually situated along the interstates at relatively regular intervals and consist of toilets and vending machines surrounded by a small, locally themed, park. They are often maintained/sponsored by an appropriate local voluntary group and, if they’re the first one after you enter a state, they’ll often have a manned tourist information building too. I decided to stop at this rest area and pick up something from the vending machines. That was, until, I got two miles further down the interstate. A sign proclaimed: 

Meteor Crater Road: 38 Miles

This caught my attention. Why was a road being advertised this far in advance? There must be something significant on it, and by its name it could be something quite interesting. I mulled over this for a number of minutes until:

Meteor Crater: 34 Miles

Now this was an interesting development. It sounded as if there might be an actual meteor crater to go and have a look at. By my calculations the exit for it would be about two miles before the Rest Area. I eagerly kept an eye out for any additional information. Six miles later:

Meteor Crater – One of the Most Extraordinary Places on Earth: 28 Miles

That was quite a big claim. Not only the best place in the county, or state, or nation but on Earth. This had to be worth a look. I started wondering about how far off the main interstate it could be. A few minutes later:

Meteor Crater – Visitor Centre Open 8am – 5pm: 20 Miles

Very exciting! A visitor centre! That suggested quite a big attraction and one that would be more than someone’s living room (at the very least it would be a living room and a diner).

Meteor Crater – Discovery Centre, Museum and Gift Shop: 10 Miles

I was sold by this point. The above sign was in its own special font and had a funky logo attached. A bell started ringing somewhere in my mind. I remembered back to a GCSE. Geography textbook where there was a full page photo of one of the biggest meteor craters on the planet. For some reason I thought I recalled that this was located in Arizona. 

Meteor Crater – Gas Station and Subway at Exit: 4 Miles” 

Come on come on come on come on. 

Meteor Crater – Come and Marvel at the Power of Nature: 2 Miles

Are we there yet?

Meteor Crater – Next Exit

I could hardly contain my excitement. I exited the interstate and was immediately confronted with…  well nothing. Nothing except a gas station and a Subway. I sighed to myself.

But wait! 

A small road headed off perpendicular to the interstate and, by its entrance, there was a sign that said “Meteor Crater: 6 Miles“. All was not lost! I headed down the road, which rapidly became quite narrow, and then lacking in any kind of surface. Unperturbed I pressed on and arrived at quite large parking lot at the base of a relatively sizeable hill. Some steps lead up the hill to a smart, red brick, building – the visitor centre. I entered the centre and was greeted by an attendant to whom I paid the entrance fee (apparently there was an entrance fee. It didn’t say that on the signs). 

There was a cafe, and shop and a nice museum about meteors, dinosaurs and an elderly gentlemen in Utah who innocently used a radioactive meteor fragment as a paperweight for most of his life. I clambered up some more stairs and eagerly headed out to the viewing area. I was half-expecting to see a crater a few meters across with some interpretive panels. I was wrong. Very wrong:

People say that when you first see the Grand Canyon it leaves you speechless. The above had a similar effect on me. It was vast. Mind-boggingly so! And the fact that I was not expecting anything on this scale added to the impact. The hill I had walked up to get the to visitor centre was not a hill at all – it was the rim of the crater itself, into which the entire visitor centre was built!

The crater was indeed the one I remembered from my geography studies. It is in fact one of the largest and best-preserved craters in the World. It was formed over fifty-thousand years ago by a meteor (bits of which have now been found) that was about 150 feet across and travelling at a speed of around 26 000 mph. The crater is almost a mile across and deeper than The Shard in London is high. The resulting explosion when it was formed would have been equivalent to the blast from a 20 Megaton Nuclear Bomb and would have flattened everything for several hundred miles in each direction. 

There were a number of walkways at differing levels so I got up as high as I could to take a panoramic picture:

For scale, the top of the three-story visitor centre can be seen on the right. 

This really was one of the most impressive natural things I’ve ever seen. It’s very difficult to convey in photos the scale of the thing and more that fact that you can see the various layers of the ground torn up and scattered in all directions. The power that must have been involved to produce the crater (175 million tonnes of solid rock blown out the way) is really quite humbling. I later found out that Meteor Crater is in fact a ‘National Monument’ and ‘National Area of Special Scientific Interest’. Which kind of makes sense. 

 

I got back in the car and made my way back to the interstate. Two miles down the road I passed the following: 

Rest Area: Next Exit

Followed promptly by:

Rest Area Closed.   Next Rest Area: 124 Miles

I kid you not. 

 

(Two hours later I arrived at the above mentioned next Rest Area. It was, I’m fact, the first one in New Mexico so had a handy tourist information centre. I picked up some leaflets that gave me an idea of things to do in Albuquerque….):

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Driving in the States

This morning I left the delights of Las Vegas and headed back to the airport. This was not to catch a flight but to enable me to pick up my rental car for the week. Renting a car is incredibly cheap in the US and is by far the easiest way to get around: public transportation generally leaves a lot to be desired (except in the big cities) and sidewalks appear to be illegal in quite a few states. In some places it is almost impossible to walk to a shop or restaurant that is only a few hundred metres away. If you do decide to brave it and scramble over the grass verges / gravel banks then you run a fair risk of being picked up by the police. (This has, in fact, happened to me twice. I think the assumption by the police is that if you’re walking from one large out-of-town lot to another you are either planning on robbing your destination or are fleeing from the place you’ve just robbed. I found the best strategy if is happens is to put on your best British accent and play the ‘I’m from England’ card. You’ll then get a series of questions about the Queen and London but otherwise escape without consequence.)

So the upshot of all this is, if you’re serious about seeing the US, you have to drive. 

I remember the first bit of driving I did in the US. It was from somewhere called the ‘Winking Lizard Tavern’ in Paradise, Ohio, a few miles through a forest back to the hotel I was staying at in Akron, Ohio. This was when I spent a month based in the US for work purposes. I was with a colleague and we had decided to go to the Winking Lizard for our evening meal. He drove our hire car (a Ford Fusion) there and, as far as I was concerned, he was going to drive us back. Things did not proceed as expected. 

The Winking Lizard Tavern is famed (as we later discovered) for its spicy wings. It buys in chillies especially and offers wings in twelve different levels of ‘hotness’. My colleague, who was never one to shy away from a challenge, opted for the ‘magma’ wings that particular evening. Magma was the highest of the twelve levels of hotness and, given the disparaging comments that my colleague made when he ordered them (never be as hot as curry x he’d had in y) I think the bar staff took it on as a personal challenge to get these things as hot as they possibly could. This was affirmed by the fact that, when the wings emerged, a small huddle of bar staff and regulars gathered at a safe distance to witness the fireworks. 

In the UK, we would say that the magma wings ‘disagreed’ with my colleague. This would be a characteristic British understatement as the wings didn’t so much ‘disagree’ with him but completely annihilate him. He was in tears about three bites into the first one and started desperately downing pint after pint of diet coke to try and douse the fire. This proved to be mostly in-effective and the tears continued to stream down his face. He then made his fatal mistake: he tried to wipe the tears away. Now, you eat wings with your fingers. So if you then try to wipe your eyes with those fingers all you succeed in doing is wiping whatever the ‘magma’ formula was into your eyes. 

His eyes became red and swollen, his nose was streaming and he was crying uncontrollably. He would have been better off if someone had emptied an entire pepper spray into his face. Suffice to say the regulars in the bar found the situation hilarious and the bar staff mixed their concern with ‘helpful’ comments about how ‘you really shouldn’t wipe your eyes you know’. I was left with an incapacitated colleague several miles away from our hotel and, hence, had to drive in the US for the first time. 

 

I was pleased to see that the car that was waiting for me today in the Avis depot was, once again, a Ford Fusion. The Avis desk didn’t try to upgrade me to a truck or Ford Mustang this time which left me a tad disappointed as I usually enjoy that battle. I headed out on the 270 mile trip through Arizona to Flagstaff, a trip that started in 80 F heat under azure blue skies but ended in thunder-snow with the temperature closer to 30 F. It appears that the first snowfall of winter has arrived, suddenly, and a few weeks earlier than expected. The snow may put paid to my plans to head to the Grand Canyon tomorrow as the roads out I’m that direction are at an even higher altitude (up to 11000ft ) than those I travelled down today. 

I’m currently going through my usual series of teething problems associated with driving in the US. Despite having driven over 15000 miles over here since 2009 there are still a few rituals that I have to go through:

Ritual 1: Get in the wrong side of the car. This will happen no matter how much you think about it and tell yourself that the steering wheel is on the other side. Today, it’s happened twice. I think this may be because of the fact that it’s been pelting it down with snow and rain which has meant that I’ve been hurrying to get in the car. The decision you have to take is that, once you’ve jumped in the wrong side, shut the door, and gone ‘oh crap, not again’, do you get out of the car, walk around, and get in the other side, or do you try and move across internally while not impailing yourself on the gear stick. This decision usually depends on how many people saw you get in the car and how many times you’ve done it on that particular day. 

Ritual 2: Scrabble around over my right shoulder for the seat belt, then realise that a) I’ve got in the corrects side of the car (result!) and hence b) the seatbelt is therefore over the other shoulder. 

Ritual 3: Spectacularly screw up a freeway intersection and end up having to do a second (or third) pass to get in the correct lane to exit. I think my best effort on this count was when I went to (or perhaps through) Salt Lake City. You entered the freeway (six lanes of traffic) from the right and had around a quarter of a mile to gets across to an exit ramp located off the lane on the far left. The first time I did this I missed it. I didn’t even get as far as lane two. I then left the freeway, turned round, and came back at the junction from the other direction. I missed it again. I left the freeway, turned around, and came back at the junction again from the original direction – and missed it again. It was not until the fifth attempt that I managed to get across six lanes of rush-hour traffic in less than fifteen seconds, which I thought was quite an achievement. 

Ritual 4: Go for the clutch when no clutch it there. This is a common problem as 95% of cars in the US are automatics. This usually only happens once and will result in one of two this happening: either you’ll put your foot down on thin air or you’ll push e break pedal to the floor. One is more exciting than the other. 

Ritual 5: Loose the car. This happens a lot. With the size of the parking lots you get in the US it’s very easy to completely forget where you parked. Most cars now have a button that you can push on the remote key to get the horn to beep to help you home in on its location – but this doesn’t necessarily work if there are six other people wandering around doing the same thing. 

 

I also added a new driving ‘lesson learnt’ to my list today: 

When driving along a freeway or highway that goes through the mountains you will often encounter steep gradients that stretch out over several miles or more. What you’ll find is that a lot of trucks will sit in the right hand lane on these gradients and put their hazards on – as they will slow to speeds of 30mph or less and have to warn the traffic coming up behind them. Large trucks will often have an additional bank of yellow flashing lights that they switch on to add to the hazard lights for effect. 

About twenty miles away from Flagstaff I encountered quite a few of these slow-moving trucks. The weather was moving in and, while the carriageway was still remarkably clear, the snow was building up on the hard shoulder and I wanted to get to the hotel before the worst of it arrived. I spied another slow-moving truck ahead with a spectacular array of flashing lights on its back. As I got closer my windscreen started to become obscured by the sheer amount of spray that this thing was putting into the air. Through the hyper-speed wipers I could just about read a sign on the back of the yellow monster that read ‘please keep well back due to spray’ (touché) so I decided to go around. The instant I pulled out from the slipstream of the yellow truck the spray got much much worse. I pressed on through the deluge and glanced to my right as I drew level with the front of the vehicle to see what on earth was causing so much mess.

It was at is point I realised I was overtaking a snow plough. 

So that’s why the carriageway was so clear…

Whoops! 

 

 

 

 

 

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The MGM Grand

For those of you who have never been to Las Vegas I’ll attempt to describe it for you: 

It’s a very subtle place. Everything is paired to the bone and nothing is at all extravagant or excessive. Take the MGM Grand for instance. For a start it’s very difficult to find when you’re coming along the strip. You could almost go straight past it if you weren’t paying attention:

Luckily they’ve put a small, fifty-foot golden lion outside to help you find it. Usefully to, they have another of these lions, similarly sized, in the main reception of the building. So you can be exactly sure that you’re checking into the right place. 

The reception area itself is similar to the rest of the complex in that it’s quite understated. I think there were only forty or so check-in desks and the fountains in the entrance area to the elevators only barely go up as high as the ceiling. Checking in itself was an experience. The conversation went something like this:

“Welcome to the MGM Grand Mr Duck*, do you have your ID and credit card? I see you’re spending only the one night with us and we currently have you in a standard room in the West Wing. That’s quite a small room so I’m going to go ahead and upgrade you to a double suite for a charge of only $60. I’ll put that onto your bill now.”

“Wait what? Hang on, I don’t want an upgrade, the standard room will be fine.”

“Are you sure Muscovy* (for some reason we were now on a first name basis)? We want you to make the most out of your experience at the MGM Grand and your current room is one of our basic ones.”

“I know, that’s why I booked it. It’ll be fine.”

“It’s a good deal compared to the usual cost of the suite.”

“I’ll be fine in the room I booked, thanks.”

“How much luggage do you have Mr Duck* (obviously we were now no longer on first name terms) as the storage space in our standard rooms can be limited.”

“I have one bag.”

“Ok then. I’ll go ahead and remove the upgrade from your account (this was said as if it had been there all along) and put you back in the standard room.”   I now felt somewhat underwhelmed by what I’d originally though was quite a good room. 

*Names have been changed in commemoration of the fact that London Heathrow Airport (which has apparently become self-aware) referred to me yesterday as ‘Mr Muscovy’ on Twitter. 

 

Unfortunately the lady on the reception desk was right. My room was small, pokey and (to be quite honest about it) utterly unacceptable. Of all the hotel rooms I’ve been in this was by far one of the worst. Take for example the walk-in shower that had (gasp) only two shower heads:

Or the puny size of the television embedded in the bathroom mirror:

I mean how am I meant to see anything meaningful on that while brushing my teeth? And then take the size of the room in general. The main floor / bed area has got to be no more than 8m by 7m. The queen sized bed hardly fits it! Then there’s the storage. Oh dear; the storage. The lady on reception was spot on – the only storage in the room was one small, pokey, walk-in wardrobe in which my case only just fit:

(That’s my case jammed in the bottom there). I mean, what if I’d had six people over to my room in the evening and we’d decided that we wanted to have a cocktail party in the wardrobe? We’d have all been able to fit in but it would have been quite cramped for the canapés guy. 

But then that’s Las Vegas for you. Efficient, environmentally-aware and considered. Nothing over-the-top, nothing extravagant and definitely nothing that you could even begin to call tacky. 

 

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After checking in and recovering from the shock of my under-spec room I went for a wander. As I left the main entrance of the hotel I was in for a surprise: Despite having been on a plane for the best part of five hours, it appeared that it had all be a deception! I was, in fact, back in New York!

Who would have guessed it?! 

Anyway, more on Las Vegas later. It’s 7:30am (3:30pm GMT) now and I’ve just finished breakfast. The security staff are starting to eye me up as I’ve now been sitting here, in the Starbucks off the main casino floor, for almost an hour and haven’t yet gambled on anything. I think they’re concerned that my seat could instead be occupied by someone who is willing to bet their house (literally) on the fact that a little ball will land in a red square rather than a black one. 

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Immigration

Something that’s changed quite a bit since I first visited the US, back in 2007, is the process you have to go through at immigration. Previously, it used to be nothing short of a full on interrogation. I remember when I flew into Washington DC in March 2007 I must have spent ten minutes being asked questions about my employer, my reasons for visiting, where I was going, what I was doing there, why I was doing it and when I was leaving. The whole thing was conducted in a style similar to what you see on ‘Law and Order’ when they’re cross-examining a witness. 

I’ll admit my first trip to the US was a bit unusual. I flew into Washington DC on a Thursday evening with only a backpack for luggage (taken in the cabin) and a vague idea of how to get from Dulles International airport to the centre of the city. I’d booked one of the cheapest hotels I could find and, as it turned out, it wasn’t in the best part of town. I could make the excuse that this was in the days before TripAdvisor became popular but, if I’m honest, I’d done pretty-much zero research about DC. I had a picture in my mind that had been assembled from hundreds of Hollywood movies and BBC news reports – that DC consisted of lots of white stone buildings and large open spaces. This is true to a point: the centre of DC is exactly that – wide boulevards and grand structures – but the majority of the city is about as far from that as you could imagine. DC is, in places, quite rough. Very rough in fact. Notorious even. And the hotel I’d booked was on the wrong side of the Navy Yard district. 

Of course I knew none of this at the time and I wandered from central DC out to my hotel completely oblivious to the fact that the area I was going through was (as I later found out) in the middle of something of a drug war. I remember sitting in my hotel that first night listening to the gunshots and sirens, and watching on the local news about a double-homicide that had just occurred a block away from where I had walked earlier. 

My luck held though and I spent a very nice day walking around central DC (the Friday), then got the AMTRAX all the way up to New York City on the Saturday (on the way back the train caught fire – apparently this wasn’t an unusual occurrence for AMTRAX). I got back at gone 1am and had to head back to my hotel in a taxi I shared with someone who very-much looked like he may have been a key player in the ongoing drug feud. I spent the Sunday walking round Arlington and some of the fancier districts of the city and then took a flight back out of Dulles on the Sunday evening. Essentially a long weekend in the US. 

Looking back on it now I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was flying almost completely blind and made a lot of the travel arrangements up as I went along – so no change there then. 

It was an adventure though. Going somewhere so completely different from anywhere I’d been before with nothing but a backpack and a vague sense of unease.

Times have changed though and this was reflected in the experience I had going through immigration in Newark today. I read something a few years ago (I can’t remember where) which said that all the US boarder officials had been sent on a training course organised by the people who train the Disneyland greeters, to make the immigration process a bit more welcoming. This has certainly had an effect: I was stuck at the immigration desk for over ten minutes today because the officer was explaining at length to me the best routes to drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, what time of day to go and the precautions I needed to take when driving through the desert. He drew me a map on a spare piece of paper showing me how I could get to LA and back in a day from Vegas. He talked about his history in the airforce, how he used to be based on a base in southern Nevada and then proceeded to recount some of the hairier experiences he’d had when driving back to the base straight though the night after a period of leave. 

This was all very fascinating but I was more than aware of the queue of several thousand people that was building up on the air side of the desks. The officer took my fingerprints, stamped my passport and sent me on my way, sketched map in hand. 

It was only later when I thought back to the conversation that I realised that I had, in fact, told him where I was going, what I was going to do there, when I’d be leaving again, who my employer was back in the UK and why I’d chosen to come to the United States. I was impressed. Without me realising it he’d extracted exactly the same information as the officer had back in 2007, but instead of feeling like I’d been interrogated I felt welcomed. 

Heartened by this I headed off to find my next flight. On the way I decided to get a coffee and, in the process, managed to break the self-service checkout to such an extent that they gave me the coffee for free. Please don’t ask me what I did – all I know is that when I tried to offer the machine some money it crashed to a blue screen of death, as did (simultaneously) every other machine in the Newark Liberty International Airport Terminal C food court. Chaos ensued.

It was a 20oz coffee too. 

Result. 

 

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Muscovy Migrations

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on here. It seems that work takes up most waking hours in the week and weekends have been reserved for, well, anything and everything. It’s difficult to believe that it’s been a year since the time I spent travelling round the UK by rail. That’s because it’s not. It’s eleven months. Well, ten months two weeks. OK – ten months, two weeks, six days and around twenty-three hours. I just worked it out. 

I’m two hours into a seven-hour flight and hence have a bit of time to kill. While working out exact anniversaries of calendar events isn’t the most thrilling thing in the world to do it did just while away three or four minutes. Usually I’d be watching something on the in-flight entertainment system but, unfortunately, United Airlines have decided to assign a heritage aircraft to the route between Heathrow and Newark and hence the in-flight films are on a loop and (apparently) recorded on a VHS system with some severe tracking issues. The film I was watching (UP – it seemed appropriate) finished some time ago but the system won’t reboot until all the other films have also finished. By the time it’s taking for this to happen I can only assume that one of the other films is the special director’s cut extended version of Ghandi. You could say that United have put me on the Pacer of the aircraft world. Although I dearly hope the plane wasn’t constructed out of surplus bus parts.

So what am I doing? Where am I going? Well I can’t tell you too much because I honestly don’t know. What I can say is that this is the first of two flights I’ll be on today and the second one is almost as long as the first. My final destination today is Las Vegas, Nevada, but that is really only a staging post. I have seven days, a hire car, and a map of the South Western United States. The only thing that’s really fixed is that I have to ultimately find my way back to Las Vegas by Monday of next week, otherwise I’ll miss my flight and be stranded forever in the western wilderness; or have to find some other way home (maybe a house elevated by several million helium balloons?).

This may seem like quite a loose travel itinery to some of you but it is not the first time that I’ve done this. I have, over the years, spent many months driving round North America, some of it for work, most of it not. I’ve mangled to visit thirty-seven of the states and the majority of the Canadian provinces. There was an original aim at some point in the past to have visited all forty-eight continental states before the time I finished being thirty, but unfortunately other things (Blackpool, Umberleigh and the Caledonian Sleeper) got in the way of that. If all goes well, on this trip I should add another four or five states to the tick list which will leave me only the Deep South to visit. Oh and Alaska. And Hawaii. 

Travelling round the thirty-seven states to-date has been fascinating, eye-opening and, at times, slightly surreal. I’m sure this trip will be no different except, this time, I’ll be taking you all around with me. The important thing though is that, when I land in Las Vegas later today, I’ll be around five-thousand miles from Blackpool, which can’t be a bad thing. Although I will be in Vegas. Which is basically a bigger version of Blackpool. In November. 

Hmm. 

I’ll leave you with that thought as the flight attendants are now coming round with the fourth pass of the beverage service. I’m sure this is more than usual but I think they’re feeling a bit guilty due to the antique nature of the aircraft. They might have figured that if they ply us all with drink for the duration of the flight half the cabin will be too drunk to notice they’re watching the same film for the third time and the other half will be permanently holed-up in the toilets. 

I’ll see if I can post this online while in Newark. The United Airlines magazine tells me that the majority of their fleet now has in-flight wi-fi; but unfortunately this aircraft was built many years before the internet became a big thing. Here’s hoping the gaffa-tape attaching the port engine to the wing holds for the remaining five hours….

 

 

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The Mother of All Meetings

Unfortunately my chosen line of work means that I very rarely get to talk about what I do or what may have happened on a particular day. I am sometimes struck with a tinge of sadness when I think about the people in my office who have tirelessly dedicated thirty or forty years of their lives to the job they do but will never get any public recognition for it or, indeed, ever be able to tell their friends or family about what they have accomplished. Every so often though, an event of such magnitude happens that it seeps out between the clouds of secrecy and gets a brief moment in the sun. Such an event happened today and I feel it is my duty, no, my honour, to tell you all about it.

Today I organised the mother of all meetings. It was magnificent, glorious, epic…and managed to accomplish precisely nothing. Let me give you an idea of the scale:

This meeting involved eighteen people, yes eighteen, crammed into a relatively small room.

‘So what?’ you think. ‘I have much larger meetings every morning on my commute to work’.

The killer is that this cramped meeting room was then linked to ten other relatively-small meeting rooms (filled with slightly-too-many people) by VTC (video conference).

It was a work of art. I have no idea how many people in total there were actually in the meeting but, with it being a one-hour meeting, I’m pretty certain if everyone had spoken in-turn we each would have been limited to just over a minute each (without deviation, repetition or hesitation).

VTCs are, by their nature, a difficult beast to work with. As those of you who have them regularly will know, they have their quirks and generally follow a similar pattern: The first ten minutes of any VTC will be taken up by everyone waiting for everyone else to connect and then trying to figure out who is actually online. It usually goes something like this:

“This is Derby here. Bristol are you on yet?”
“Hello?”
“Bristol?”
“No this is London”
“Ah”
“Hello?”
“Who’s that?”
“London”
“No! Not you! The oth-“
“Hello?”
“Hello?”
“Is that Kevin?”
“What?”
“Kevin?”
“No this is Matt in Derby. Are you Bristol?”
“Did they accept?”
“Yes”
“Who are you?”
“DERBY”

“Hello?”

And so on. The next five minutes is taken up by a weird ritual where everyone has to introduce themselves to everyone else by ‘going round the rooms’. You often have to complete this exercise twice because, at some point, two sites will try to introduce themselves at the same time. Once you’ve got that out of the way it’s on with the meeting, which is usually filled with awkward pauses as different sites try to interject at the same time and then engage in the verbal equivalent of the dance you do when two British people approach a narrow door at the same time.

The final ten minutes of the VTC are generally taken up by people reminding everyone that there are only ten minutes left and ‘we should really be drawing this all to a close before we get cut off’.

So what was so special about today? I honestly don’t know. It wasn’t a particularly important meeting but seemed to develop a life of its own and stated to grow organically. Three rooms became four. Four became five. Five became six. It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. People started to catch word of this massive meeting that was going off and wanted to be involved. They wanted to be part of history.

You see, once the number of participating sites in a VTC goes above eight it stops being a meeting and starts becoming an event. People turn up early to make sure they’ll get a seat. Someone will bring a packet of biscuits. One of the engineers that you’ve never seen in anything other than jeans and a t-shirt before will turn up in their wedding suit. Pre-meetings will start to occur.

Ah the pre-meeting. You know you’ve made it when your meeting starts spawning pre-meetings. Occasionally the pre-meetings themselves will start spawning smaller pre-meetings and, if you’re lucky, their own ‘wash up’ sessions. You can spend a whole week of your life in pre-meetings, pre-pre-meetings and wash up sessions if the main meeting is sufficiently large. They are essentially the support to your headline act and some even come with their own collection of groupies and roadies.

So the meeting today had eleven sites in total on the call. The pre-event buzz was amazing. I thought we were going to have to put a seating plan up on Ticketmaster. There were pre-meetings everywhere; people were queing outside of the main room. We had three packets of biscuits. Someone actually brought a teapot.

The demand was such I had to link another room on our own site in via VTC to cope with the demand. We ultimately had to turn people away due to fire regulations.

And the result of all this? Well I’m not really sure and can’t really say. But people will remember this meeting. They won’t remember what was discussed, or what the conclusions were. But they will remember the meeting. The event. The biscuits. They will tell new graduates about it in many years time whose eyes will grow wide with admiration:

“You were actually in the MOAM (Mother of all Meetings)?”
“Well no. But I listened in from outside”
“Wooooow”

And so it will pass into legend. The details will be altered and exaggerated with time but the central message will remain: It is possible to have an hour VTC meeting between eleven different sites and have almost forty-three seconds of meaningful discussion.

What an age to be alive.

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