Our 24 hours in Port Townsend felt a little like that.
We had a rocky start, arriving to find the historic campground booked out and every hotel room in the town full of happy travelers that were not us. Our only in-town option was the County Fairground, which kind of felt like we might get murdered in our sleep. Stressed, cold, and tired, we looked at options C-E (the fairground being option F). Option C was Oak Bay Campground, a county-operated park 20 minutes from town. It ended up being heaven on earth and was only at about 15% of its capacity. It was possibly the most beautiful campsite we have stayed at so far: our site was at the very edge of Oak Bay in Puget Sound and was surrounded by trees, providing us with a fairly private little enclave for the grand price of $25 for the night.
The accommodation box ticked, we Yelped nearby dining options. We found a delightful local restaurant, Scampi & Halibut Seafood Grill, where we had a few drinks and stuffed ourselves to the gills with delicious fresh seafood. Happy, warm and full, we climbed in the back of the ‘roo later that night and fell asleep listening to the waves lapping the edge of the bay.
We woke up to the sun rising over Puget Sound and drank our coffee whilst marveling at our little corner of the universe and musing that we would spend a week in that exact spot if we could.
From there, we went into Port Townsend. Months earlier, we had booked to make our wedding bands under the guidance of boutique jeweler Stephanie at With These Rings. We knew from the outset that making each other’s rings was the right option for us, but we didn’t expect it to be such a rewarding experience, or to be so thrilled with the outcome. We left feeling happy, in love and rather accomplished at having just smithed wedding bands out of raw gold.
Stephanie gave us a hot tip to stop off at the Finnriver Cidery on our way out of town. Not quite ready to leave the Olympic Peninsula, we decided to stop in. The place was vibing with happy locals sitting in the sun, drinking cider, munching pizza and listening to a live bluegrass band. We managed to get a free cider tasting board with a token Stephanie had given us (combined with some sweet talking in an Australian accent), ate a remarkably good kale pizza that had been cooked in an old buoy (side note: Americans pronounce this ‘boo-ee’, Australians pronounce this ‘boy’), and I even had my first taste of apple cider donuts.
As we pulled out of Port Townsend and drove along the beautiful Washington coastline it occurred to me I may have just had one of the best days of my life.
The first time I remember hearing of Seattle was on the Brady Bunch.
Alice was sneaking off and pretending to go visit a relative in Seattle. The city was just a device so one of the kids could misunderstand and think that Alice was going to see somebody named Attle. She was actually feeling unappreciated for all that she did and needed a little space. But that’s really none of my business.
Coming off of our week in Yellowstone via one night stays in Bozeman and Spokane, Seattle felt very big and densely populated. Slinky had secured us a great little budget hotel with a kitchenette that allowed us to cook for ourselves—a boon to both budget and health. Our room even offered views of the Space Needle, which was only a ten-minute walk through the Seattle Center.
The weather was meant to be nice for the first half of the week before turning to the drizzle that pretty much defines the town. So, we decided to take the obligatory ride up to the top of the Space Needle on our first full day in town. While buying tickets, we saw a sign for a city pass that would allow us access to five different sites over the course of the week. Since we were interested in a couple of the other attractions, we opted for the pass and were issued with little booklets containing tickets to each attraction. Up we went to the observation platform where we could view the city we’d spend the next week exploring. By the end of it, we actually used up every ticket in the book.
Between working in the mornings and turning into full-on tourists in the afternoons, our days stayed pretty jammed. Also moving into Pacific Time while working for a client in the UK caused some hellishly early meetings for me. On the upside, Slinky found herself in much better alignment with her clients in Australia. The shift allowed a nice little window between noon and four to go out and soak up Seattle.
Our trusty tickets took us on an hour-long harbour tour of the Emerald City, during which we learned about the Edgewater hotel, which juts out over the water and where fans, undaunted by security, had swum to the hotel when they found out the Beatles were staying there. We also learned that the Seattle Aquarium (for which our booklet held tickets) had both sea otters and river otters so we made a mad dash there to see them along with sea lions and a couple of giant octopuses. Among the first things we encountered in the museum were tanks where we were invited to touch the invertebrates and feel there little invertebrate reactions. Hopefully, we weren’t just one more chapter in their nightmare existence of lacking bones and constantly being poked by people.
We used another afternoon window to visit Chihuly’s Garden and Glass exhibit. Dale Chihuly is a glass blowing artist resident to Seattle who creates these giant and magnificent works containing hundreds, if not thousands, of glass blown shapes. The light and color in the place were amazing, but truly remarkable is the sheer scale of everything he did.
We also toured around Pike Place Market a bit, where Slinky got to see the famous fish throwing. During our wander of the market, we gave thought to visit the original Starbucks but deemed the line a little too long. Slinky had been threatening to try her first ever pumpkin spiced latte at the original location but it wasn’t happening that afternoon.
We saved my favorite ticket in the city passbook for our last full day in the Emerald City. The Museum of Popular Culture, or MoPOP, was formerly the Experience Music Project (actually MoPOP is the museum’s fifth name since it opened in 2000). What they lack in moniker-decisiveness, the make up for in, well, everything else. In addition to the regular exhibits of legendary guitars and fun interactive displays, the museum hosted exhibits on Jim Henson, Horror Movies, Fantasy, Sci-fi, and Star Trek. Highlights for me include Woodie Guthrie’s guitar, in which he scratched “this machine kills fascists,” a booth in the Henson exhibit where you get to make your own muppet character and the bridge from the starship enterprise.
But my absolute favorite part of the museum is the sound lab where banks of instruments are hooked up to consoles that give you mini-lessons and allow you to jam with strangers. They’re even organized into these little-windowed cubicles so you don’t realize you’re going to jam with a stranger until you are in place holding the instrument. I saw so many brief flashes of horror followed by smiles of pure joy in the fifteen minutes we spent in the room. And Slinky learned Louie Louie on guitar.
The museum closed at 5:00 pm and they were serious about that deadline so we sort of sprinted through a few exhibits that we would have liked to have spent more time in. I could spend a couple of hours in their gift shop alone. We capped our week off with wood-fired pizza at the Masonry and a nightcap at Tin Lizzy, a prohibition themed bar where I accidentally left without my credit card. Thankfully the same venue hosted breakfast for our hotel so I got it back nearly as quickly as I realized it was gone. Hopefully, those 10 nervous minutes will help me remember to take the thing with me next time.
Before we left town on Saturday, we decided to take one last stroll down to Pike Place Market so Slinky could get that Pumpkin Spice Latte from the original Starbucks. The weekend line we encountered made the weekday line seem almost reasonable. I mean it wasn’t anywhere near reasonable given there are 15 Starbucks within a quarter-mile radius of the place. Which is why, 90 seconds after glimpsing the line, Slinky was experiencing her first pumpkin spice latte from the not-quite-first Starbucks. Based on her reaction, I don’t guess the pumpkin spice craze is going to catch on Down Under.
It takes 24 hours to drive from Indianapolis to Yellowstone, so we had a few pitstops along the way, as well as an unplanned detour back towards Chicago for 90 minutes, making our 24 hours closer to 27 (lesson learnt: always have Google Maps on, no matter how sure you are of your route).
We were actually meant to start with a 3-day jaunt in the black hills of South Dakota to see the Badlands, Crazy Horse, and where a few presidents are reportedly carved into the hillside. But, as we both contracted a lurgy within days of leaving, we postponed and the Black Hills had to be cut to make our date (booked 6 months in advance) with Yellowstone. Whilst we were both disappointed to be driving across such a vast stretch of the country only stopping for coffee, fuel (for both the roo and her human companions) and sleep it was amazing to see how much the landscape changed again and again.
Once we got to Yellowstone, it was incredible. It is the first National Park in the World (thanks again to our good friends the Roosevelts, although this one was Teddy’s doing) and you can see how it inspired the idea of National Parks. It is hard to do the rugged thermal beauty justice in the written word, so here is my photo essay of our highlights….
As beautiful as Yellowstone was, it was also the most challenging stay so far.
Vanlife in the cold was something new to the Eagleroo crew. And when I say cold, some days barely crept above freezing and the overnight lows were -10C (14F). It was impossible to be outside without a ski jacket on, and most of the time I wished that I had brought my ski pants, too. This was a shock to our constitutions, having just driven from Indy where the mercury hung around the 30C (86F) mark. Erik drove us into the park in a blizzard (he agrees it was a blizzard, this wasn’t an Australian’s version of a ‘blizzard’) and although the snow generally melted pretty quickly once the sun hit it in the afternoon, there was plenty of the white stuff to be seen, crunched through and admired.
The night we arrived we jumped into bed fairly soon after arriving and, snuggling under our winter comforter with beanies on, we were cozy and slept pretty well. The second night, however, we left the doors of the van open for hours as we prepared, ate and packed up our dinner (Yellowstone is strict bear country. Absolutely nothing can be left out, meaning we essentially had to pack up camp after every meal). When we climbed into bed that night, we realised that our memory foam mattress which held the heat so well in summer also holds the cold equally well in winter. I am not lying when I say there was a moment that night when I genuinely wondered if this was how hypothermia started. It took a good two hours for the bed to heat up that night, and we vowed to buy some hot water bottles to help warm the bed up before we got into it in future.
The remoteness of Yellowstone’s campsites also meant that whilst we were at our home base we were sans hot water, showers, electrical hook up or any sort of phone reception. Fortunately, it did have fully plumbed bathrooms which were heated (yes, heated!) which provided a great reprieve from the cold, particularly when it came time to get changed in. We also were afforded many hours of blissful, uninterrupted campfire staring without being disrupted by social media, email or other online distractions.
The threat of bears was ever present. And not just those cute black bears that we saw in Shenandoah, but also the great big eat-your-face-off grizzly bears. I’ll be honest: much like Americans are petrified of our snakes and spiders back home, grizzly bears scare the bejeezus out of me. This fear was not diminished by all the signs around the park saying ‘WARNING: BEARS PRESENT. THEY CAN KILL. DO NOT HIKE IN GROUPS OF LESS THAN FOUR OR WITHOUT BEAR SPRAY.’ Thus, I was nervous about hiking given it was just the two of us and we didn’t have proper bear spray (we did, however, have a small pepper spray that Erik insisted I carry to go running with in the states, which I kept in my pocket during all hikes and to go to the bathroom at night. Just in case.). At the start of one hike, someone had written an ‘EXTREME’ in red permanent marker above the ‘WARNING’. Needless to say, I was on high alert the entire trek.
Despite these challenges, it this didn’t diminish our pleasure at being at the park. We loved our time in this (sometimes austere) thermal wonderland, and given Yellowstone was closing down for the season as we left, we felt lucky to see it in the snow-covered state that many don’t experience.
Oh, and the only bears we saw were at the bear rescue centre after leaving the park. Phew.
Our first stop on the way in to Nashville was the Loveless Motel, which dishes up southern cuisine prepared in all manners from fried to deep fried. It was on Slinky’s dad’s must do list and I must say I’m glad we did. It was like Mecca for beige food enthusiasts such as myself. Even the biscuits were served with sorghum, which the waitress explained was best mixed with butter to achieve maximum beigeness. As I waddled out to the van, I swore to myself I’d go for a run the next day. But first we had business to attend to at the Grand Ole Opry.
Relocated from its original location at the Ryman Auditorium to a roomier venue out in the burbs, the Opry has hosted legends of country music since 1925, including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and about a hundred others. There is a circle in the center of the stage cut from the original stage so that performers literally get to stand in the footsteps of their heroes. The whole place had a great feel to it and there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. Well, normally there wouldn’t be anyway. As soon as we sat down, a man in a comically large cowboy hat took the seat right in front of Slinky’s dad, Andrew. I have to admit that my respect for him grew as I watched him tap the guy on the shoulder and ask him to remove his hat. I worried about being involved in an international incident but the guy, perhaps then noticing that he was the only one wearing a view-blocking hat, took it off and placed it in his lap. Thus Andrew got to enjoy great sets by the likes of Del McCoury Band and Vince Gill unobstructed. I think he asked the guy to put his hat back on during Rascal Flatts.
We continued to soak up more Nashville music goodness over the next couple of days at various sites up and down Broadway. It was fun to have Andrew and Tom along for that part of the ride. Andrew has spent more time in Nashville than I have and between his suggestions and Slinky’s mastery of internet research, Tom and I got to kind of go along for the ride.
Our country music indoctrination culminated in a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was a boys’ trip to the museum as Slinky was feeling a little worse for the wear by then and possibly had had her fill of lap steel guitar. Having started off leg one of the trip with a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, it seemed like good symmetry to spend our last day of leg one at its country counterpart. I can’t say enough good things about the museum. I find it mind-blowing that one building houses the telecaster that Charlie Daniels played on Nashville Skyline, the Bandit’s Trans-Am, and Gram Parson’s Nudie suit. If none of those things mean anything to you, I still suggest a trip. Not to out anybody but there was a member of our group whose response the mention of Willie Nelson was “who?” and he still enjoyed it.
As we left the museum, the rain that would soon spur tornados and cause flooding across Nashville started to fall. It rained hard enough that evening that we drove the tenth of a mile to dinner and didn’t feel the slightest bit lazy about it. The rain continued on through the night and stayed with us for the entire drive back to Indianapolis the next day. Our caravan had to stick pretty close together to not lose sight of one another.
Our country music theme followed us through the rain to Indianapolis as well. A couple of hours after pulling into town, we were at the Melody Inn for Hillbilly Happy Hour with Rick Dodd and the Dickrods, a band I helped form and still feel like part of even living in a different country. They put on a really great show that made it even sweeter to be back in Indy. I even got to join them on stage for a few songs that I did my best to not mess up. It really did feel like a storybook homecoming.
I, for one, was excited to be in one place for a few weeks as we ramped up for part two of the trip. Slinky on the other hand barely had time to catch her breath before she was on a plane back to Melbourne to visit the rest of her family, meet with clients, and renew her visa status. Tom and Andrew headed to New York for the U.S. Open after a couple of days. I don’t think anybody wore cowboy hats in front of them there
We weren’t meant to be in Memphis, or not yet, anyway.
But the lure of two of my family members – my Dad and brother – being in the country was great. Even greater still was the lure of ambushing them. As Erik said, ‘It’s not often you get to surprise a Linklater.’
So, after we disposed of our very sad, slightly grey pork loin in the Charleston Holiday Inn swimming pool bin (which you can read about here if that comment lacks context), we jumped in the van for our ten-hour drive to Memphis for project ‘Ambush Linklaters’. The drive was largely uneventful, although was almost made significantly longer by an attitudinal Google Maps app which kept rerouting us. I thought we had been super sneaky in our ambush plans (I even roped my mother in from Australia to call them on the auspice of ‘checking in’ so we could figure out what their plans were), so I was disappointed when we rocked up at the same dinner joint as them when we meant to be 700 odd miles away and my brother simply said “here they are” . Apparently, my second phone call to find out their exact locale as we entered the outskirts of Memphis was less than discreet. It’s not often you get to surprise a Linklater.
But, we were in Memphis with my Dad and brother, and that was all that mattered. We caught up over Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, whilst I answered my brother’s many queries about middle America, and marvelled at how far I had come in four months. Yes, you have to tip in a place like this. Yes, you will like iced tea. No, it doesn’t have sugar if you ask for unsweetened. Yes, when they say fried pickles they mean deep fried pickles.
After dinner, we checked in at the Econolodge, where Dad and Tom were staying. This was a dreary affair of a hotel, set atop an even drearier parking lot. As we walked the halls to our room, we tried not to touch anything. We arrived at our room, hoping for the best. Alas, our key didn’t work, so I guarded our luggage whilst Erik went all the way back down to the ground floor to wait 20 minutes for the desk clerk who had decided to abandon her post. When we finally got into our room it reeked of stale cigarettes, the hot water didn’t work, and our coffee pot looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the hotel opened in the 1970s. Not wanting to face the MIA desk clerk again, we decided to make do (and perhaps get an STD check later on).
As we wandered the streets the next morning marveling at the beautiful abandoned art deco buildings, we realised the state of the Econolodge was representative of Memphis itself, which has surely seen better days. There is nothing that represents a great city well into its decline more than a boarded up, midcentury office building with a revolving restaurant that has most of its windows broken. We spent the morning in the library, which left us feeling even sadder about the state of the world, before retiring to a coffee shop for the rest of our working day (Tom and Dad meanwhile enjoyed the excellent Civil Rights Museum and toured Sun Studios. Damn this working holiday.)
However, not all is lost in Memphis. We met up later that day for a cocktail in the Peabody Hotel and to watch the Peabody Duck March. Watching these five ducks waddle from their fountain in a four-star hotel foyer to the lift which took them to their purpose-built $200,000 duck penthouse was one of the most joyful things I have ever experienced.
After cocktails and ducktails, we wandered down Beale street – a part of Memphis that is fortunately alive and well – for a drink, some live music, and some local food.
Our two nights in Memphis were bittersweet: we shared some great times with some of our favourite people, but it is sad seeing such a wonderful city in such a state of disrepair. We will be back in Memphis on leg 2 of our trip and hopefully will get to know the good parts of this tired old southern belle a little better.
Upon arrival in Charleston, South Carolina, we checked into our campsite at James Island and set up our shelter in the blistering heat. I was still carrying around a little of the cold I’d picked up in Savannah and the heat made the task miserable. I don’t think Slinky was having much more fun dealing with me than I was having being me. Eventually we got all set up and headed into town, vowing to return to camp to cook this pork tenderloin we’d picked up at the store on the way in.
We caught a distant glimpse of Fort Sumter, site of the start of the Civil War, and walked around the beautiful city for a while before stopping in for a drink at Blind Tiger, a little pub that we had read about. Once inside and sipping cocktails, we were sucked in by the reasonably priced and tasty looking dinner options. We decided to cook that tenderloin tomorrow. After all we had the campsite reserved for 4 nights. Dinner did not disappoint and we had a lovely evening decompressing and soaking up all of Charleston’s southern charm.
We both slept fitfully that night, woken up by thunder and kept up by heat. As we worked from the campsite the next morning, we started planning our getaway. By midmorning it was getting too hot to be productive from a picnic table so we headed into town to work from the library. Libraries have been our salvation on many an occasion and Charleston proved no different. We set up in the air conditioning, finished work for the morning and randomly selected a nearby deli for lunch. It was crowded with, if the name badges were any indicator, mostly local office workers. The sandwiches were delicious. We had no idea that, at that moment just down the street in another popular lunch spot, a deranged man was declaring himself “the new king of Charleston” and holding hostages at gunpoint. Blissfully unaware, we discussed what to do about the upcoming thunderstorms. It wasn’t until we were driving from lunch to the Holiday Inn Express that we’d identified as potential replacement lodging that we had any clue something was happening. Several city blocks were ringed with police cars and people were being moved off of the sidewalk. Slinky found the news about the active shooter situation on her phone as I worked my way around unfamiliar backstreets trying to reroute us.
As we checked in to the hotel, the lobby television played CNN’s coverage of the situation. One person had been shot and dozens more were held hostage. Thankfully they got the man into custody without anybody else getting hurt. We stood glued to the coverage for a while then realized weather was more pressing than news in our current situation. We rushed back to the campsite to try to get everything packed up before the rain started. We almost made it. We did manage to get the shelter packed up before it got wet, which we’ve found to be the difference maker in how our packups go. As soon as it was in the van, the drops started, at first just spitting then a little heavier. We scurried around to get the van packed up. The tenderloin was hastily chucked into the cooler.
Back at the hotel, we jammed all of the food in the tiny refrigerator, and hatched tenderloin plan c: we’d go to a park with a charcoal grill. Too tired to enact that plan immediately, we opted for a little bistro that had a fondue special on. It was an interesting little hallway of a restaurant with bar seating and a few tables in the back. A card on the bar informed us that this was a no-tipping restaurant. I have to say that one of the things I really miss about Australia is the lack of tipping. Things cost more but people make a living wage and I don’t have to do math at the end of a nice meal. Win, win. So, I was really happy to be eating fondue and not tipping. And as the clouds gathered, I was exceptionally happy about going back to sleep in a bed under a roof.
We spent Friday and Saturday strolling around Battery Park and a neighbourhood of multi-colored houses known as Rainbow Row. After taking in some of the beauty of modern day Charleston, we checked out some of the ugliness of its past. We toured the Aiken Rhett house, a faithfully preserved nineteenth century plantation. It was confronting to see the slave quarters and artefacts of that barbaric institution. Seeing the furniture and personal affects throughout the house drove home just how recently these atrocities were committed. I was glad that we went but was also happy to leave.
By the weekend, although we still had the best of intentions to cook our tenderloin, we’d submitted completely to the Charleston foodie culture. We ate bahn mi rolls at a downtown art and food market and fried pigs ears at a local brewery. Over half-price Vietnamese tacos, we discussed what to do after Charleston. We were supposed to meet up with Slinky’s dad and brother in a few days. They were headed to Memphis and we had planned to visit Alabama before meeting up in Nashville. The plan made sense at first but as we discussed it, it seemed crazy to be so close (relative to Australia anyway) and not to spend a few more days with them. So, we hatched a scheme to drive the 10 hours from Charleston to Memphis on Sunday to surprise them.
Our last night in Charleston was spent strolling through the night market and listening to the local musicians. It was a beautiful night and while we were both excited about the new plan, we were sad to be leaving. We agreed that Charleston was one of our favorite cities so far. All the same, we called it an early night so we could hit the road early the next morning. The nearest route from our hotel room to the van was through the pool area. It was there that I finally admitted defeat and, with a glance over my shoulder, deposited that well travelled, still uncooked tenderloin into the swimming pool trash can. We tried. Just not that hard.
Yes, we were in Savannah for the eclipse! The almighty eclipse that crossed the entire continental US in its arc of totality.
When we originally mapped our trip across the US we were only vaguely aware of the eclipse, but fortuitously planned to spend this time in Charleston, right on the path of totality. ‘Well, that’s worked out nicely!’ we thought…
Turns out Charleston’s campgrounds were completely booked out and any rooms available were in the thousands of dollars per night. Not being flush with this sort of cash, we decided to switcheroo our dates with Savannah which was scheduled for 98% totality, but whose accomodation was far more reasonably priced (and available!). Not a bad trade off when you consider the crowds of crazy eclipse chasers that were forecast to descend on Charleston during this time!
The weather was forecast to be cloudy all the way along the coastline, so we figured we had as good a shot as anyone to see the lunar-solar collision. We bought our eclipse glasses and picnic supplies. We located our picnic blanket to afford several hours of comfy eclipse viewing. We found a nice wide open park (complete with confederate statue – thanks Savannah) to watch the eclipse. We were ready.
We got down to the park and set ourselves up, praying for the spotty cloud cover to hold and hoping to at least catch glimpses. We were thrilled that with our eclipse glasses we could actually see the sun through the clouds. We were winning.
That was until, 5 minutes prior to the sun starting its slow creep across the moon, dark storm clouds started brewing, followed by a steady few hours of thick cloud cover and rain. It got colder and darker, but that was about it. Our eclipse experience was a bust. But hey, at least we got to look cool in our cardboard glasses for about 3 minutes, right? Right.
But it wasn’t all bad. We saw some art at SCAD, visited the Mercer-Williams house (of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame), went on a ghost tour with some drunk people and ate at Lady and Sons, a southern style restaurant owned by US celebrity chef Paula Deen. And, on the plus side, we can now at least wipe the word ‘totality’ from our vocabularies for the next little while.
Ps. Savannah is actually very pretty – those who haven’t been should actually put it on their wish lists. Just don’t do it during an eclipse – you’ll be disappointed.