US Trip 2013: Day I: Doctor and Visits

Our few days in Bossier City and Shreveport before setting off on our road trip were a blur: shopping, preparations, squeezing in a bit of family time as we could (it being weekdays, people had to work, of course), etc. We took hardly any photos in this time, and none from this first day. Chris has somehow managed to tease a narrative out of what I thought were boring enough days to merit skipping … so I suppose I should go ahead and share it with you!

(Remember, my interjections are in green text.)

Day I (Tuesday, 26th March 2013): Bossier City and Shreveport. (by Chris)

Why yes, I am using Roman numerals for the day numbers at this point. Much like preface material in a book, the first few days in the US were preface to the road trip; days will be numbered in a more conventional decimal form when we get there.

I woke and shambled (he’s good at shambling, especially before his first cup of tea) into Nannie’s kitchen a while before SJ, seeking hot water to apply to the bags of precious life-giving Tea I had carefully packed to bring with us (US tea is, in my experience, almost universally bletcherous). (So very true; we’d brought his and hers tea supplies.) To my immense shock and amazement, Nannie had a wireless access point right there in the kitchen (in fact, she also has a tablet and a kindle, something that completely blew away SJ and I!) I could even get my phone to talk to it, thanks to strategic placement of the password! After correcting the alarmingly high level of blood in my teastream, some food, and some chanting of the Ancient and Forbidden Words of Command (“Work, damnit, useless thing! Work!”), I had the data connection on my phone working properly.

I had no idea at the time just how massively helpful, if not vital, that data connection would be for us over the next few weeks…

After SJ had emerged from the depths of slumber and consumed breakfast, we headed out to deal with earwax. Yes, wax of the inside-the-ears variety, specifically SJ’s. SJ suffers from slow but inexorable wax buildup, to the point that it will seriously impair her hearing if not addressed from time to time. In the UK the local GP practice (and all others I’ve heard about) is incredibly reluctant to syringe ears, and when they do the method is so horribly ineffective as to be pointless, so we decided that one of the first things we would do when we got to the US would be to get SJ’s ears thoroughly evacuated.

Off we went to visit a doctor SJ has seen in the past, the inimitable Dr Lippton, an individual who can best be described as being “something of a character.” (US readers: you should note this is Chris employing that infamous British understatement thing you hear about sometimes.) He was more than happy, if not positively enthused, to clear out SJ’s clogged ear canals, presenting the extricated globulous clumps with something approaching a paternalistic pride, all the while providing a commentary that, if a British doctor even attempted it, would cause massive scandal. There was absolutely nothing wrong with his patter, mind – it was highly amusing and entertaining. I’d thoroughly recommend Dr Lippton to anyone in the area (or passing through) – his amusing banter helped lighten the mood during this uncomfortable procedure, and he’s always known just the thing to fix me up – including my first ear syringing some years back, before I’d ever heard of it. It’s just that British doctors are supposed to have Zero Personality, it seems. Despite this, his ministrations were spot on: SJ’s ears were cleared, and as soon as he’d finished he saw what our GP couldn’t (because of the earwax in the way!): SJ had an ear infection. (I’d gone to the Dr a few days before leaving.) Dr Lippton prescribed ear drops and antibiotics – of a strength I don’t think you can get outside of hospitals here (Judging by how big my UK doctor’s eyes went when I got back and showed her the paper for it, I think Chris is right). With vouchers [coupons] in hand, we headed off to a nearby grocery store to get them filled.

While waiting for the pharmacy we wandered the grocery aisles in a sort of daze, “So much lovely stuff! So much stuff the import stores don’t carry! What is their problem?!” Despite us being on the Junk Food Tour of America, we managed to resist the urge and did not stock up on… well, everything, but a few things did manage to end up in the cart anyway.

When we’d finished there, we returned to Nannie’s, and were bundled into her car to go to Sam’s Club. ((For the UK readers: Sam’s Club is a warehouse-style, membership-only retail chain run by Walmart, where goods are often sold in bulk or with no frills, and sometimes – but not always! – for lower prices. Much like Costco or Booker Cash&Carry, but anyone can pay the fee and join; you needn’t meet any criteria to qualify.)) We prefer a few American things enough to import them, so we wanted to take the chance to stock up before we returned to the UK. However, we found that there was very little we needed that we could get there. While they had a lot of stuff, there was very little selection within any given type of item: for example, I found exactly one type of one brand of toothpaste, and this singular form of tooth goop is not one that either SJ or I use. We found a few things on our list there, got some boxes of snacks for the trip, and managed to get a 2.2 litre Airpot flask for my Life-Support-Tea-While-Roadtripping needs. However, the majority of our list included things we simply couldn’t get there, and we left somewhat disappointed.

For dinner, we went to a Mexican restaurant called Trejo’s. SJ actually used to work at Trejo’s back in her wild, rebellious youth (I had one of those? Learn something new every day!), and we were both looking forward to some real Mexican (well, Tex-Mex) food that we hadn’t cooked for ourselves. Unfortunately, we were both quite disappointed with the meal: SJ’s entrĂ©e (Bistek Mexicano) was entirely too spicy, mine (a chimichanga) was okay but it was certainly nothing on the food we cook, and the sides – refried beans and Mexican rice – were similarly disappointing. Maria, one of SJ’s old co-workers, was our server, and she and SJ caught up a bit. I mostly looked on with bemusement, and couldn’t really join in the conversation, as I could barely understand a word Maria said, her accent was so strong! (Oh, yeah, it is … sorry, love, totally didn’t think about that!) When we’d finished dinner, on the way out to the car, SJ ran into Joey Trejo (He’s a classmate and former co-worker of mine – he runs this location now, I believe. Sweet guy; I was glad to hear he and Danielle are busily living their own happily ever after.) and caught up with him a bit, and thankfully I could actually understand him.

Just as we were sitting down to eat, SJ’s dad had called. After dinner we decided that it was rather silly to phone him back when, for a change, we could just drive over and see him, so we did! We visited for a while, chatting about a variety of things, but then he showed me some of his workshop, the cabinet he was making, and made me immensely jealous by showing me his stores of hard woods (which, in the UK, would be insanely expensive). Much of the work I do has to be with pine, simply because hardwoods tend to be ruinously expensive in any useful quantities, and seeing all that hardwood there made me very tempted to find a way to sneak it back in to the country. Alas, I suspect that wandering through airports with large pieces of hardwood shoved under my shirt wouldn’t work too well. We did discuss cutting it into lengths to fit in a suitcase, but Chris oddly vetoed this idea.

After tearing me away from the shiny, shiny wood store, SJ and I picked up a few things from the shop. Water was high on the list of needs, as Bossier City water is drinkable, but it didn’t taste like what we’re used to. We decided to opt for bottled water. We also got some bottles of a drink I love, but can not get in the UK: Bolthouse Farms Vanilla Chai Tea. I find this drink weird bordering on gross, but hey, to each their own.

By this point it was getting late, so we headed back to Nannie’s and headed to bed.

US Trip 2013: Day 0: And so it begins…

Last year, we had an epic, month-long vacation to the US. I adore road trips, and was absolutely itching to go on one again. I’ve been meaning to write it up ever since – in my “spare time.” Let this be a lesson to us all: I don’t have spare time. It’s like how stuff always expands to fill the available space: in my life, activities always expand to fill the available time – overfill, really. If you ever need something from me, say so, and give me a deadline.

Preamble …

My memory isn’t good, so I always want to record my trips so I can remember them later. Making logs of trips I’ve taken has always caused me problems. I write slowly, and I jam pack my trips. Anytime I have tried to write a log while I’m on a trip, I always end up not writing very much and still resenting the time it takes to write it – I could be out doing stuff! So we gave this conundrum some thought before we set off on this trip, and eventually we hit upon a winning idea: since we’d be in the car alone together for long stretches, and we have these fancy smart phones that can record hours and hours of audio, we’d make audio logs as we drove along. It worked out really well, and we recorded LOTS of detail. We even managed to record some of those “Hey, look at that!” moments you get on road trips, spotting something interesting/weird/etc out the window.

Of course, we did so much recording – there were photos, too – that the sheer volume daunted me for the longest time. Recently, Chris got the urge to listen to our recordings. It being a year ago since our trip, I realized I’d need some help if I was ever going to get the write up completed that I promised everyone as we drove along. So, I’ve asked him to write up our audio logs into written logs. I’ll edit them and curate and add photos, and post them here. So, the text for this series will mostly be in Chris’ voice. I feel I should interject sometimes – I’ll do that in green text so you can more easily tell the difference.

Anyway, without further ado, let’s get started…

Preparations … (written by Chris)

Glos Chron 2013_0328

Towards the end of March 2013, as the UK was deep in the chilly grip of the dreaded DOOMSnow, SJ and I escaped to the US for a month. While the vacation was bookended by several days in north-west Louisiana, the majority of our time there was spent on a road trip involving over 4500 miles of driving, crossing or recrossing 15 states. We took over 1500 photographs, and recorded over 18 hours of audio log as we travelled; far, far more than we can really share in any sane fashion. But here, and across a series of entries, I am going to attempt to recount some of the events of the journey. This should not be considered an exhaustive account, if for no other reason than the fact that even those 18 hours of audio log do not cover everything that happened. In any journey of this size, long stretches of road go by, many hours of conversation are made, stops for gas and supplies must happen, and I could not include everything, even if I wanted to. Major events will be recounted, routes and places will be described, and many details will be given – sometimes even mentioning gas and supply stops! – but there will be omissions, either by choice or simply because we never recorded anything. But all that said, join me, dear reader, as we embark upon…

The Adventures of Chris and SJ and The Great Road Trip of 2013

(subtitled “The Junk Food Tour of America”)

The vacation itself came perilously close to not happening at all: in the two weeks before we were due to leave, SJ’s social calendar was packed to breaking point… literally, as it turned out. On Wednesday the 20th – just 5 days left before our flight out of the country – she developed a full-blown raging snot-tornado of a cold, a sinus infection, and (as we found out later) an ear infection. Over the next couple of days, while we prepared clothing, luggage, and supplies, this got worse and worse, to the point where on Sunday the 24th we seriously debated and looked into the possibility of delaying the trip – or even outright cancelling it – but the cost of delaying was prohibitive, and cancelling it was something neither of us wanted to do. SJ had started to feel at least a little better at this point, so we decided to go as scheduled, snot and all.

I will spare you the description of the frenzied preparations, the pondering and revising of itineraries, and the tetris-like packing and repacking process. Suffice to say, the days leading up to the 25th were far from sedate, and our plan to head to bed by 7pm on the 24th failed utterly: it was gone [past] midnight when we finally got to bed, only to have to be up and finishing off everything at 3am so we could leave for the airport at 5. Worse, SJ spent much of those scant hours in bed awake and coughing, and I got little sleep.

SJ and I are emphatically not morning people, and 5am is still “middle of the night” for us, let alone 3am with almost no sleep. This is consistently the hardest part of transatlantic travel for me. Flying and its accompanying navigation of airports is tiring, uncomfortable, stressful, and degrading, but appropriate flights from the UK to the US leave exclusively in the morning, and with the airlines and airport recommending checking in 3 hours before the flight, insanely early starts are unavoidable.

Flying … (written by Chris)

The process of checking in and going through security in Manchester was as enjoyable as ever – that is, not. The clerks on the check-in desks must mainline caffeine while downing amphetamines or something to be so bubbly and awake at godsawful-early-o’clock, but at least ours was efficient and helpful. This was made up for in security where, because SJ was still ill and half asleep, I hadn’t noticed, and the people working the security lines were falling down on the job, SJ ended up having to go through the Porn Machine That Gives You Cancer and then be groped quite thoroughly because she had forgotten to take her belt off. This wasn’t a good start, but thankfully it was the only time that this happened in our outward journey.

As it turned out, getting through check-in and security still only took less than an hour, so we ended up having an hour and a half of people-watching before our flight was even assigned a gate! I wanted a sandwich or something before boarding, so we wandered through the food court, where I spied this sign…

Beer for breakfast - yep, we're not going to see that again for a month.

Beer for breakfast – yep, we’re not going to see that again for a month.

Once we had a gate to go to, we headed over there to wait for boarding, and were amused to find a group of cowboys and girls talking animatedly and messing with smartphones. Even more amusing was the fact that they were all English.

The first flight was from Manchester to Chicago, scheduled to be 8 hours crammed like overheated sardines in a small metal tube hurtling through the air. It was scheduled to depart at 9am UK time (3am US Central time) and arrive in Chicago at 12:40pm Central time. Because of the airline charging ridiculous amounts for seats next to each other on this first flight, SJ and I didn’t even sit together: we were in the middle seats of sets of three, one row behind the other. SJ’s two seatmates were generally surly, uncommunicative, and unfriendly, in complete contrast to my seatmates who were quite friendly… and both scared of flying. The woman to my left, in the window seat, was quieter, seemed to like gripping the armrests, and was extremely shaky when it came to takeoff, landing, any manoeuvring, the small amount of turbulence we had, or gnats farting…. The man to my right, however, had come prepared: over the course of the flight he downed a sizeable bottle of whiskey, and partook of the alcoholic beverages every time the drinks cart came by. When we got to Chicago – almost an hour ahead of schedule! – he was quite happily inebriated, but remarkably coherent for it!

Chris and his cheerful new friend were behind me; he was a Scot. I at least got to eavesdrop on their conversation, not having any of my own. I didn’t even know the Scotsman had been drinking until we deplaned and Chris told me. The guy on my left wasn’t so bad; he was mostly asleep. The guy on my right, however, was rather surly. Hey ho, we travel for all sorts of reasons, and not everyone’s happy to be doing it.

In Chicago we passed through passport control quickly, after first confounding the person herding us by going through the US line together. I’d read enough online to know that we should go through the line together – separating our party would only confuse the immigration officers. I didn’t much care which line we went through, but started with the US line, what with my US passport and all. The woman directing traffic at the head of the line didn’t like to let us stay together, saying we’d hold up her line (processing Chris’ passport would apparently “take too long”), but let us through anyway. As it happened, it didn’t take long at all. We even encountered that incredibly rare and unusual beast, the laid-back, talkative, and friendly immigration officer! He spent some of the time while dealing with our passports telling us about the weather (so we felt right at home there…), and how we’d been lucky: snow had just missed Chicago passing to the north and south. Despite that, as we rode the Driverless Robotic Railway of the Future (which really freaked out SJ; “There’s no driver?!”) to the terminal our connecting flight was going to leave from, we saw some snow flurries, and later while waiting at the gate for the onward flight we watched planes getting de-iced as they prepared to leave. Customs and security passed without incident, groping, or Pornoscanners (hooray!), and while waiting for the next flight onto Dallas we descended upon Romano’s Macaroni Grill for food. By this point, I was quite, quite ravenous. SJ had eaten on the plane, but I have an unwritten rule to never eat airline food: I bring snacks, but the provided “food” never actually smells any good to me, and the one time I did partake of airline food I spent the next day and a half dealing with Emphatic Gastric Dissatisfaction. So, I snack and either plan to eat at the airports, or not at all.

While we waited for our food, I switched the SIM card in my smartphone for a RedPocket SIM we had bought in advance of the journey. The phone and text stuff worked flawlessly, but the data refused to work – it wasn’t until the next day I managed to fix that, but I’ll come to that later. Can’t recommend that RedPocket highly enough; it worked as it was supposed to, and was incredibly useful on many, many occasions. Food was tasty enough, but I sure looked forward to restaurants with better atmosphere – less tightly packed, and not having to manage our suitcases would be a good start.

Once fed, we wandered to the gate for the flight to Dallas and engaged in more people-watching, and watched in vaguely disgusted fascination as planes outside were sprayed with orange goop followed by green goop, producing quite foul-looking mixtures that apparently make the planes so embarrassing to go near that the ice will not form on them as they fly.

Orange goop

Orange goop

The flight to Dallas was fairly uneventful and straightforward. (It was scheduled to depart at 4pm and arrive at 6:40pm, so we’d had about a 4-hour layover. It’s important to build cushions in like this when you fly, particularly internationally.) We actually got to sit next to each other this time, and SJ dozed pretty well during the flight. I have only been able to sleep on a plane once – when I got bumped to business class between Philadelphia and Vegas back in 2006 – so instead I buried my head in a book and tried to stave off the boredom.

On arriving in Dallas we took another Driverless Robotic Railway of the Future to the terminal we needed, although we got a little misdirected on the way there (Warning: Driverless Robotic Railways of the Future may not be going where you expect them to). When we eventually got to the right place we decided we wanted a snack… only to discover that the place we should have got snacks from was the terminal we had just come from! Thankfully there was a small “corner shop” of a store in the terminal (just around the corner from our gate, in fact!) from which we got snacks: I got some US Kettle Chips (UK ones are different), while SJ got Crackerjacks, and a frozen burrito she microwaved in the shop. We also picked up some York Peppermint Patties, and thus began The Junk Food Tour of America!

Dallas to Shreveport is 180 miles; the flight is a half-hour hop. The plane barely has time to reach cruising altitude before it has to start descending into Shreveport. (This one was 8pm to 8:50pm, still Central; we spent about 20 minutes of it taxiing.) Once again, we got to sit together and watch as the lights of Dallas fell behind. The flight was so short that there was no drink service, but even if we’d wanted anything it wouldn’t have mattered, because the flight attendant ended up spending a chunk of the flight dealing with someone further down the plane who had become airsick. I decided against suggesting that they be made to get out and walk, tempting as the idea was.

Arriving at Shreveport was an eerie experience. We were on what must have been the last flight into Shreveport that day; the terminal was pretty much deserted, and everything was closed, quiet, and looking strangely abandoned. Just as we got off the plane, SJ went into the bathroom by the gates, and I made use of Shreveport Airport‘s (incredibly progressive) free wifi to track down why the data connection on my phone wasn’t connecting and dataing. While I found what the problem was, I didn’t have the time or brainpower to fix it, so I decided to leave it for the next day.

When SJ emerged we headed towards the baggage claim and the outside world, where SJ’s dad would be waiting to whisk us away from the world of planes and gates. Now, Shreveport isn’t quite the smallest airport I’ve ever flown into – that honour goes to the hilariously grandiosely-named Rogue Valley International Medford Airport, Oregon, where the terminal is not quite a tin shack – but it is pretty small. Despite that we were half way through the terminal when SJ’s dad phoned us to ask where we were. When we got to him, we could see why: most of the corridor had been blocked off by a metal shutter! Thankfully it didn’t extend all the way across, so we got around that and down to the baggage claim just in time, as they were about to start putting our luggage into the Lost Luggage office! “But I didn’t take that long in the bathroom!!” SJ protested. As I pointed out at the time, she hadn’t, and I was pretty certain that the other passengers had only just left. I guessed the baggage attendants just wanted to get everything away so they could finish for the night.

SJ’s dad drove us through Shreveport and over to Bossier City where SJ’s grandmother, Nannie, lives. We were going to be staying with her for a couple of days before starting on the roadtrip, and SJ’s dad had even moved Iolana (SJ’s car) to Nannie’s house. This was even more useful than he might have guessed: we hadn’t brought toiletries with us as we knew we had left some from the last time we were in the US, and those were in one of the suitcases SJ’s dad had put into the trunk of the car! After manhandling all our luggage into Nannie’s guest room, and finally digging the toiletries out of the very last suitcase, we found that Nannie had actually put some in the shower for us already! But, we finally showered, took sleeping pills to help make sure we could sleep properly and avoid jet lag, and collapsed into bed at just gone midnight.

We had been awake for 27 hours, and travelled over 4,800 miles, but we were safe and in the US; we had made it.