Well after we left Canada we drove the infamous Route 101 down the west coast of the States. We stayed at some gorgeous campgrounds in Washington and Oregon right beside beautiful beaches. The weather still wasn’t great so we didn’t spend as much time as we thought we would have. We stopped at Redwood National Park in Oregon which was amazing. I have never seen such big trees in all my life, they are massive. About halfway between San Francisco and LA we decided to head inland and find somewhere hot and sunny to hang out. We had been to both cities before so we didn’t mind bypassing them. We ended up at a place called Lake Isabella in California and stayed there for about 10 days. The weather was fabulous and the lake was right across from the campground so Francie had somewhere to swim and cool down. It was really relaxing and gave us time to start preparing for the next leg. Jimmy’s nephew Davy who had spent the summer in San Diego drove up to us for a night. We had a great night but Francie was not impressed that he took over his couch!
After we left Lake Isabella we decided to go to Sequoia National Park where the world’s biggest tree is. The road there was very steep and windy and it was about 105F outside. We drove up the first mountain and were coming back down the other side when all of a sudden Jimmy felt the brakes going. At first we thought it was just the heat so we pulled in and let them cool down. We were only about 6 miles from the next town so we kept going. About 2 miles before the town we were coming down an extremely steep slope which continued into a hairpin turn when the brakes went completely. Jimmy quickly reacted by pulling the emergency brake and slammed the van into reverse. We luckily were able to reverse into a turnout on the road. A park ranger was driving by just at that instant and pulled in to help us. He called his office who called Good Sam Club and organized a tow truck to come bail us out. He said because of the extreme heat and steep roads people constantly screw up their brakes. We should have been driving in a low gear to prevent them from overheating. By the time the tow truck came it was nearly 6pm on a Saturday so nowhere was open to look at them. We were dropped off at a Wal-Mart and camped there until Monday. We went to a few garages and got 3 different stories and 3 different extremely high prices. The brakes were working fine again so we decided to leave it until we got to Phoenix.
That day, we made another attempt to go see the biggest tree in the world before making our way to Phoenix. From the entrance of the park it was about 16 miles to the tree, all uphill and very steep. We drove about 10 miles and then the engine just died. We were stuck in the middle of a narrow road and the van wouldn’t move. We figured it was the heat again so we just popped the hood and let it cool down while trying to direct traffic around us.A car passed and then pulled in a few yards ahead. Two men and a woman got out and started walking towards. When they got within earshot one of the men shouted “Have ya got petrol in her?” in a very distinct Irish accent. It turned out they were from Birr, Co. Offaly about 20 miles from where we are from. They were 3 of the 15 member O’Donoghue family who all ran the Dublin Marathon last year. They are hoping to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the most siblings to run a marathon. So here we are stuck on the side of a mountain in California and we meet people from our own county! After chatting for a while they continued on and we got the van going again. The engine died again after 4 miles so we pulled in and let in cool down again. Off again and now we were only 2 miles from the tree when the engine died for the third time. This time though an awful sound came from the engine and when we looked underneath there was transmission fluid flowing everywhere. Now we really had done it. We were stuck on one of the most dangerous bends with no way of moving. The park ranger came to help us direct traffic and we managed to start the van long enough to get it off the road. The park ranger drove me to the office and I called Good Sam again. The O Donoghue’s stopped on their way back down when they saw us broken down again. We were been towed to the town where one of them lived so he gave us their number in case we needed anything. It was midnight though by the time the tow truck came and got us to a Ford garage. We stayed in the van that night outside the garage fearing the worst; a new transmission would cost a fortune. The following morning we got a guy to check it out. Luckily we hadn’t busted the transmission, it had just overheated. He gave us a lesson on how to drive in extreme heat and steep conditions. Basically everything we were doing we should have done the opposite! It was the best thing that could have happened before we head into Central and South America. Good Sam won’t be bailing us out down there.
After been towed twice in three days we reckoned it was time to forget about the big tree and just get to Phoenix. We arrived at Thomas and Brian’s house Labor Day weekend and had a busy time before leaving for Italy. The van has had a complete overhaul, new brakes, tires, ball joints, fridge and electrical problems fixed. Both ourselves and Francie got all our vaccinations. Hopefully we are prepared for the next leg. It’s going to be another exciting chapter in our adventure.
July 29th, 2008 – Alaska
We stayed in North Pole for couple of days and visited the Santa Claus House. It was hilarious to be sitting on Santa’s knee in the middle of July. They sold some fabulous Christmas ornaments so we bought two small souvenirs to send to our mothers. At the post office they stamped the parcels with “North Pole” and “Merry Christmas”. Pure touristy but it was a novelty to be there.
From North Pole we drove to Fairbanks and stayed there a few days at the Wal-Mart. The Wal-Marts have come in pretty handy all along the way as you can park overnight for free, but I wouldn’t recommend them for a haircut. It was only $16 but it wasn’t exactly a straight cut when she was done. Jimmy had his done too and came out looking like a schoolboy. Ah well, we have to make some sacrifices.
Fairbanks is more of a big town than a city so it didn’t take long to walk around and see the sights. It was the hub of gold mining back 100 years ago and there is still active mining in the area. So we decided to go gold panning and try strike it rich. It was really enjoyable. We rode an original narrow-gauge train to a permafrost tunnel that depicted the way mining was done in the early days. Our train conductor was very entertaining and played the fiddle and guitar for us. He even opened up for Johnny Cash once. We were then brought to the mine and given a demonstration on gold panning. Afterwards everyone got a bag of dirt and pan. We didn’t strike it rich but between the two of us we found $21 worth of gold in our dirt. I had two necklaces made up with clear lockets and our gold in each locket. It’ll be a nice token to have in years to come.
We headed towards Denali National Park next. I had just finished reading “Into the Wild” and seen the film so we wanted to see where Chris McCandless had hiked too. After a few wrong turns we found Stampede Road where he had got a lift down to the beginning of the trail. We drove down as far as we could and then the road got really bad. So we parked up and walked the rest of the way. We got to the end of the road and the beginning of the trail that leads out into complete wilderness. We met a really interesting character just camped off to the side. He was a student doing a study on wolves and had been living in his tent there for 40 days. He showed us some of his video footage of grizzly bears and wolves that walked right pass his tent. We wanted to hike into the bus where Chris McCandless ended up living and dying in but the student told us it was impossible to cross the river this time of the year. He said he’d seen seven teams go in and only two made it the whole way and it was extremely difficult. So we decided to give it a miss. Luckily we got a great view of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, in the distance before we left.
We got to the Denali Park entrance and were only allowed to drive the first 15 miles into the park. To go any further we had to purchase a ticket and travel by shuttle bus. The tours ranged from 3hrs to 13 hrs so we picked an 8hr hour. Francie couldn’t come with us so this was the first time since we left that we had to leave him for so long on his own, he was fine though. The bus brought us about 80 miles into the park and only traveled about 25mph due to the gravel road and wildlife. Our driver was a bit of a cranky schoolteacher and timed all the breaks down to a second. We were on the bus pretty much the whole time and even had to eat our sandwiches on the bus. We thought we could have a little picnic but they don’t want people leaving crumbs for the wildlife so needless to say our egg and onion sandwiches didn’t go down too well on the bus.We could have got out at any stage and went for a hike and then flag down the next bus but it was very cold and wet out. The park covers 6 million acres so we were only getting a glimpse of it. It really was beautiful scenery and extremely barren and wild. We couldn’t see Mt. McKinley because of the clouds. Apparently it is only visible one out of every three days so we were lucky to see it the day before. We did see plenty of wildlife though including moose, caribou, fox, Dall sheep and grizzly bears. The grizzly bears in Denali are actually more blondie brown so they were difficult to spot but we saw four in total in the distance. It was an enjoyable day and well worth doing but to be honest we both thought Banff and Jasper National Parks were way more spectacular.
Next stop was Anchorage which is a fairly big city. We only stayed a couple of days to take in some scenic walks around the city and then headed south to the Kenai Peninsula. The drive down was gorgeous as we passed endless mountains, lakes and rivers. We got to Homer which was a town on the very tip of the peninsula as far south as we could drive. All the campgrounds were right on the beach with fabulous views of the bay and volcanoes. It still wasn’t bikini weather, actually we were back into our winter coats, but it was a beautiful spot to stay for a few days. Fishing is the main activity in Alaska so we booked ourselves onto a charter boat to go halibut fishing. This was definitely the most enjoyable day we have had so far. We left at 6.30am and went about 2hrs out into the bay near the Gulf of Alaska. The journey out was really rough and I was seasick the entire time. When we finally stopped we had about 4 hours to fish and everyone was allowed 2 halibut each. Jimmy did great and caught a 30lb halibut right away and a 50lb one later on. In between been sick I still managed to get the hang of it and caught two about 25lb each. Reeling them in was the hardest and I thought I was going to be pulled overboard at one stage. I was still feeling really queasy all the time and Jimmy kept telling me to eat something. Again I made the wrong sandwich decision, tuna and onion does not go well with sea sickness. Jimmy caught another 30lb so we kept that one and gave the 50lb to a woman from LA as we knew we had no way of freezing all that fish.Everyone else on the boat was having their fish flash frozen and shipped back to their homes with FishEx. After cleaning and filleting our fish we had over 40lbs of halibut fillets. There was no sense in us sending it back to Chicago plus it was pretty expensive to do that. There were 3 guys from England in our group. One of them was a fanatic fisherman from Kent and had dreamed all his life about coming to Alaska to fish. The poor man didn’t catch a thing. His friends were giving him an awful time saying even the seasick Irish girl caught two. We felt sorry for him and gave him half of our fish. He was over the moon and went off singing with the bag of fish to have it shipped to Kent. We just about had enough room in the fridge, freezer and cooler for the rest of it and have been eating it ever since. It is too good to be sick of yet and I have got pretty inventive with ways of cooking it.
We still had 2 days left on our fishing licenses so we drove back up the peninsula about an hour to another beautiful town called Ninilchik. Again the campground was right beside the beach with panoramic views. When we arrived the woman in the site beside us was cleaning a big bucket of huge razor clams that she had caught that morning. We traded some halibut for clams and she gave us a lesson in cleaning and catching them. So the next morning when the tide was out, we rented a couple of buckets and shovels and headed down to the beach. It was actually really hard to get them. We had to look for a little dimple in the sand and as soon as you saw one you had to dig as fast as possible and then reach down to grab them. They moved really fast so if you didn’t get them in the first 2 shovels they were gone. I was useless at it and just left a trail of holes after me. Jimmy got the hang of it and got four. We named them Clamillus, Clamentine, Malclam and Sheila Shellida (for any Bosco fans). It was freezing cold and we were soaking so after 2 hours we had enough. I kept the four amigos alive for most of the day in some water and then cleaned them up. Between our four and the bag of clams we got the night before we had the best clam chowder ever.
We made a few more stops back up along the peninsula and tried our hand at salmon fishing in the rivers. Apparently the red salmon were on the move to spawn so everyone we met said it was really easy to catch them. However we were only allowed to use a single fly hook, no bait, and the idea was to try snag them. It seemed like a weird rule but we gave it a go. After 2 days of trying we didn’t catch anything. We really needed to have all the oilskin gear and go out waist down in the middle of the river. That’s what all the professionals were doing and they were snagging them by the minute. There was no point in us buying all the gear for a few days and we couldn’t rent it. We had enough halibut to last a month anyway.
There was so much to do in Alaska, anything from white-water rafting, kayaking, cruises to scenic flights but everything is very expensive. We enjoyed the few things we chose to do and would have liked to do more but we still have a long way to go. We also looked into getting a ferry to Juneau and the inside passage of Alaska and that was just as expensive as a cruise. They quoted us $1200 from Skagway to Prince Rupert via Juneau! Juneau is the capital but you can’t actually drive there so we had to make the decision to give it a miss.
We drove all the way back up through Anchorage and west to the Canadian border. We stopped in Tok for a few groceries and bumped into our German friends, Gaby and Paul again. We hadn’t seen them since Quebec and I had just been wondering where they ended up. We gave them some halibut and Gaby gave us a jar of Bolognese sauce made from deer meat. They used to rear deer on their farm in Germany and this was her own homemade sauce. It was excellent. We had it that night with some pasta. We were back in the Yukon eating deer Bolognese all the way from Germany. Alaska is really an amazing, gorgeous state and well worth all the driving to get there. We would definitely love to go back again some day.
Back in Canada we had to drive all the way back by Watson Lake to reach the highway south to Vancouver. It was a bit of a pain to back track but even with the price of gas it was cheaper to drive all the way back than get the ferry. Once on the highway south we passed into British Colombia and have been doing long days of driving. Again it is fabulous countryside which makes the journey more enjoyable. We also had a moose dart right across the road about 10 feet in front of us. We stopped to make sure it was gone into the woods and 5 seconds later a grizzly bear bolted out from the woods and was headed straight after him. It happened so quick neither of us got the camera out fast enough.
We are now on Vancouver Island. It took us nearly a week of 8hr days driving to get back down this far and then we had to get a ferry to the island. At the moment it is raining but it is supposed to clear up tomorrow. So we are hoping to spend a few days here and then catch the ferry back to Vancouver. 4 months and 16,000 miles and our trip through Canada is nearly complete. People have asked me to list all our favorite places so I will do a complete summary of our trip so far on the next blog. Until then, take care.
Friday, April 25th, 2008 – Maine
After the last update, we followed the Route One through Maine. Absolutely beautiful countryside, our favorite state yet. We ended up staying at the Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. The park was not officially opened but there was a stack of envelopes at the entrance where you left $10 for the night, no hook-ups but free firewood. We went for a walk out of the park and less than 50m was the Atlantic Ocean.We decided to stay at the park for two nights and went for a 6 mile hike by the ocean the next day, gorgeous scenery. The weather was sunny but still cool. We went and got an oil change in the main town as we have already done 2,000 miles.Finally popped the champagne and attracted some hippies to hang out with for the night.
After Acadia we stayed on the Route 1 heading for Canada. We passed through some really wild looking land, a cross between the Burren and Boora Bog. Definitely a great drive to take, one we will remember.It was late when we got to Calais so we decided to cross the border the next day. We couldn’t find a campground open so we ended up at a gas station trucker stop. Felt pretty safe with about 20 trucks parked around us.
Crossed into Canada with no problems, they didn’t even ask for Francie’s paperwork. We drove for a while again through wild looking land. Eventually found a campground in Sussex, New Brunswick. It wasn’t officially opened either but the owner let us park up with electric for $10. Good job we are saving on the campgrounds as the gas went up 6 cent per liter the day we arrived. It is still really cold and actually snowed. We stayed 2 nights in Sussex so we could get some laundry and some repairs to the van done. A few of the drawers and closet doors were wonky so glad we have a carpenter on hand.
April 20th, 2008 - Brunswick, Maine
Well I finally got over the flu. We went into New York City last Wednesday and did one of those bus tours. Was really cool as we got to see most of the city. We started at Times Square and went past Madison Square Gardens, Empire State Building, Greenwich Village, Chinatown, Wall Street. We got the ferry to Liberty Island to the Statue of Liberty and then went on to Ground Zero. Police security was crazy as they were getting ready for the Pope’s arrival so there were lines of cars on every street.We walked down 42nd street and Broadway which was full of the glitzy and glamorous NY that you see on TV and then got the train back to Yonkers.
So that was our trip to New York. Thanks to Martin and Bernie for putting us up, it was great seeing you all and baby Katie.
We left Yonkers and headed for Rhode Island. Ended up at Fisherman’s State Park Campground in Point Judith for two days. The weather was beautiful but still very cool at night. This was our first real chance to get used to been in the van since we left Chicago. Fortunately, everything is working good and it’s really comfortable and cozy at night. The electric blanket was a great buy and is working well off the solar panel battery. We got the LPG filled up and the stove is going good too. We did some reorganizing on the van as everything just got thrown in leaving Chicago. Other than that, we went for a scenic drive around the area and saw some of the lighthouses and surfing beaches. The surfers were all wearing wetsuits, so I am sure the water is still pretty cold.
After Rhode Island, we ended up in Cape Cod, MA. It took us four hours of driving around to find a campground! It seems to be more hotels and summer rentals than campsites. We finally found a state park to pull into for the night and got some fresh shrimp and scallops from the local fishmarket for dinner. We decided to empty the septic and water tanks before we left and got stuck in the process. While reversing up to the dump station the van got bogged down in soft ground. The owner’s son had to bail is out with his truck. This gives us an idea of how easy it is to get stuck so we better stick to the main roads in South America.
At the moment we are in a parking lot behind a Ramada Inn at Brunswick, Maine. We couldn’t find a campground that was opened and just by chance we stopped here to ask for directions. Turns out the owner is an avid RVer and provides free parking with electric hook-up for RV’s.It works out fine for the night. We are leaving in the morning again and should be in Canada by tomorrow or the next day. Hopefully it will start warming up, there is still snow on the ground here in Maine.
That’s all for now. Will blog again once we get into Nova Scotia.
Tuesday, April 15th - Yonkers, New York
Greetings from Yonkers. We left Chicago and drove for 2 days to get to Stamford, CT with a brief stopover at a campground in Mercer, PA. The first night in the van was actually really comfortable and cosy. Francie has made the sofa his own so I don't think we have to worry about him not feeling at home. We just spent our time in Stamford hanging out with Ollie and the gang, thanks guys for having us. Unfortunately I got that really nasty flu that is going around and am only starting to feel better today so we really haven't been doing a whole lot. We're in Yonkers at the moment with Martin and will be moving on again in a few days. Until then, slan.....
Sunday, March 2nd - Pre-Trip Chicago
Well we decided (seein' as Chicago is our starting point) we should probably see some of the city before we leave. We parked the car in North Grange parking lot as we thought it was closer to the "bean". Then we proceeded to walk the wrong way on Michigan Avenue and ended up having to ask someone where the bean was. Meanwhile Francie decided to leave his mark on the Magnificent Mile and do a big sh*t right outside the Congress Hotel. We eventually find the bean and are told that there are no dogs allowed. We walked the full mile and back again and then couldn't find the parking lot. We went into one and couldn't figure out why the machine would not take our ticket before realising we were in the wrong one. I am living here 8 years and Jimmy is here 16 so it just goes to show how many times we have been downtown. This trip is definitely going to be eventful if we can't even find our way around Chicago!