Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Alan's Shiny New Car

Alan has a new wagon! He traded in his Golf GTI for this shiny Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is about twice the size and will allow him to carry a thousand tons of sports gear and go on longer journeys in more comfort.

It has a 5.7 litre V8 Hemi engine, making about 350 horsepower. Yeah, baby!

And see that handsome posterior? Press a button and the boot/trunk lid opens and closes automatically... or you can just lift the glass by itself if you just want to throw something in.

There's even a chance I might get to drive it a little more often than the old car. See this little button on the lower part of the door? It's a seat and mirror and radio and everything else memory! Which means Alan only has to press it to get his positions back; always a bug bear.

I have driven it a little, around the neighbourhood. It's BIG. and LONG. You look in the rear view mirror, and see a car shaped tunnel stretching behind you, across a few time zones.

Talking of looking behind you, it has a reversing camera! It lowers the mirrors, too, so you can see what is immediately behind you. This is great for making sure there are no cats in the vicinity.

It has illuminated cup holders! And little lights in the doors, so you can find things in the pitchy black.

It has real wood inside, that actually looks like wood! Alan thinks too many car manufacturers specialise in making real wood look like the finest imitation plastic. Jeep didn't do this.

It has a heated steering wheel! And an automatic full beam light dipper, although Alan thinks it doesn't react quite as fast as he'd like.

Remember when cars came with heated drivers seats and everyone thought this was great? This beast has heated seats in the front and rear. The front seats also have cooling fans in, so your butt stays chilled. In Texas, this is a Wonderful Thing. All the little holes in the seat leather allow airflow to be drawn through the seat.

It has a navigation system all built in, which knows the way to the pub!

And plenty of music from satellite or MP3 or CD or a 40GB hard drive...

And fancy suspension that goes up and down depending on terrain.

So we're pretty happy with this shiny new behemoth. Stay tuned for further adventures :-)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Road Trip

So here it is; the story of what two girls get up to when equipped with a Jeep and several days to gallivant around the USA... This was born of Diane telling me she wanted to see a bit more of the USA this time. Ha! Be careful what you wish for!

We set off on the morning of Sunday 10th April, heading north on I-35. Drove up to Waco, then on past Dallas, bearing east towards Texarkana on the Texas/Arkansas border. We stopped here after six hours of driving, partly to have a longer break (I stopped every couple of hours or so) and partly to do the touristy thing of looking at the Post Office, which is the only Federal building in the US to straddle a state line. The blue and red sign in front of the building is the state line.

Once we had done here, we got back in the car and I drove around the building and across the Texas border for the first time. I have been to other states before, but always on a plane, so this was a Proper Moment for me!

Two more hours on the interstate took us to the capital of Arkansas, Little Rock. We found a La Quinta downtown and got a room, before going out for some Chinese food. Then we went down towards the river and found the main nightlife street, upon which was a Flying Saucer pub; duly investigated. There were some nice park areas by the Market Place, with various sculptures etc.

Next morning, I felt we couldn't leave a State Capital without seeing the Capitol Building, so we paid it a visit. The building is a replica of the main US Capitol in Washington, and has stood in as such in various movies.

We had a journey of 2.5 hours to reach Memphis, Tennessee, which turned into closer to three hours due to the weather. Torrential thunderstorms were sweeping across the country and we were heading into the southern end of the storm system. I already didn't think too much of Arkansas roads - their interstates are made of concrete slabs that go 'ka-chonk ka-chonk' on your car suspension - so driving through rain so dense you could hardly see the truck 100 yards ahead was all kinds of fun. Still, the Jeep ploughed on through and was washed nice and clean by the time we crossed over the Mississippi and entered Tennessee.

One of the objects of our trip was to visit Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Diane has wanted to come here since forever, so she was fulfilling a long held wish. We arrived mid morning under damp, grey skies throwing down intermittent rain showers.

So we started with the tour of Graceland mansion, which is on the left hand side of Elvis Presley Boulevard. The rest of the complex is on the right, and they bus you across to the house.

Here is the house. I rather like it, it's quite pretty, don't you think?

Going inside, the ground floor level is quite formal. This is the main reception/living area. I like the way they have most of the room in white, which allows those fabulous stained glass pieces to really shine.

Opposite is the formal dining room, with the table laid in fine style.

Upstairs is private; Elvis always kept it that way and it remains so. Only his immediate family are allowed up there. So we go downstairs into the basement, with a wild mirrored staircase that I had some fun with:

Down here, we have Elvis' TV and media room, in bright yellow and blue. The lightning bolt on the wall is one of his trademarks.
There are three TVs in a row and a record player in here. I don't know if he kept shades on standby for the decor, although there was a bar here too, so maybe after a while you don't care.

Next up is the pool room, decorated in this rich fabric on the walls and ceiling.

Further on is the informal living area known as the Jungle room. It has a water flowing down the end wall and that green shag carpet on the ceiling as well as the floor. Elvis used to entertain his friends here and jam with other musicians.

I haven't shown you here the enormous array of gold and platinum discs. Or the costumes. He has a vast amount of each. Whole corridors and rooms' worth of them. There is a racketball court that has been converted into a trophy room. If Elvis were still alive, he'd probably need a whole squash club to house everything.

Elvis is buried in a garden behind the house, along with three other family members. Of course the heavens opened as soon as we got outside so we did not linger long. Back on the bus and across to the main drag.

Next up, the car musuem. Elvis had a lot of cars. He gave many away, but some have returned and are housed here, along with the famous Pink Cadillac:

He also had two custom jets. This Convair 880, named 'Lisa Marie', is converted inside to have sofas, tables, TVs and a bed (complete with gold-plated-buckle seat (bed?) belt, as per FAA regs) - it's all very fancy, but seriously Elvis, did you really need gold leaf sinks in an aeroplane?

This Lockheed JetStar is named 'Hound Dog II' and has normal seating inside, as long as you count bright yellow, green and blue seats as 'normal'.

There are various other exhibits at Graceland, most of which we saw. Each and every exhibit invites you to leave through the gift shop. There are 8,000,000 gift shops in Graceland, and they all sell just sufficiently different stuff in each that one is compelled to visit them all. By the time we did this, we were thoroughly Elvised to death. Run away!

We drove into downtown Memphis to find somewhere to stay. This took a while; apparently there was some kind of church convention in town so it took six hotels before we found one with a room. We lucked out though, the room was nice and the hotel was handy for walking in to town.

We ate in a beer emporium named BarDog which served excellent spaghetti bolognese (and beer), before heading out to Beale Street. Memphis is the home of the Blues, so this is kind of the equivalent of Austin's 6th St, with many bars and pubs lining the street, most of them pumping out live music. It was certainly alive and kicking.

Once again, we walked around the park areas and long the river, looking at the paddle boats on the Mississippi, before heading back to the hotel.

Next morning, we drove to the airport and left the car for a while. Jumped on a plane which took us to Chicago. Inside the Chicago O'Hare airport, we found this Grumman Wildcat. O'Hare airport was named after Butch O'Hare, who flew a Wildcat against six enemy bombers which were trying to bomb O'Hare's ship, the Lexington. O'Hare destroyed five of the bombers and the last one fled. He won the Medal of Honor for this. You can read more about him here.

We only bounced off Chicago; another plane took us to Manchester, New Hampshire, where we were met by Diane's friend Kerry, who came to live in the USA earlier this year, after marrying an American named Vic. They were to be our hosts for the next two nights. They drove us south, to their home in Massachusetts. The countryside there is vastly different to anything we'd seen so far; it is all twisty roads and pine forests. There were still many snow piles on the ground; they get hard winters up here.

Here's Diane and Kerry at one of the many lakes in the area.

We spent a very pleasant time at Kerry and Vic's place. They fetched in some Chinese takeout for us the first night and Diane and Kerry were able to do some catching up. The next morning, they took us on a drive around the local area. Unfortunately the weather had really closed in, so we spent a lot of time staying out of the rain.

After discovering my taste for quality beer, Kerry kindly took us to a nearby brewery: Wachusett Brewing.

Here's the three of us in the tasting bar at the brewery, after doing the tour:

It was great to be able to buy some beer to take away from the brewery. Texas law currently does not allow sales of beer from the breweries. There are moves afoot to relax this, but for now we can try the beers on site, and then must drive to the nearest liquor store to buy them. Anyway, I digress.

All too soon our stay in Massachusetts came to an end, and it was back onto a plane. This one took us to Newark, New Jersey, where we had a great view of the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty as we landed, and then took off again to return to Memphis.

Back into the car once more, and we set off south out of Memphis. You don't have to go far before crossing the border into Mississippi. The route I had chosen paralleled the great river and we travelled along a wide, straight road, through flat farmland that stretched into forever. There were many crop duster aircraft plying their trade here; I enjoyed watching those incredibly skilled pilots work. I really would have liked to stop for a while at one of their roadside airstrips but we were a little pushed for time. We did stop, however, at the Jim Henson Museum in Leland - unfortunately it was closed, but Diane got to see Kermit the Frog's birthplace :-)

We stopped at Greenvillle, MS for some dinner as it was getting to that time. We lucked out again and found a nice restaurant that served us a good meal, before continuing on our way. Greenville lies on the western edge of Mississippi, so we crossed back over the enormous river on a shiny new bridge, into Arkansas again. Our route took us across the bottom corner of Arkansas, before entering into Louisiana. Now it was getting dark, which was a shame, since I'd deliberately chosen this way in order to hopefully see some of the Louisiana countryside. We saw lots and lots of bugs; clouds of them hitting my car as we drove through the night through small towns.

Eventually we reached Monroe, LA where we stayed for the night. Diane wanted to stay at a motel with the doors on the outside, so we pitched up at a Motel 6 and got a room. This was definitely the most basic of accommodation, but it was a bed for the night!

Next morning, we continued west to Shreveport, after which we turned southwest on Hwy 79. This took us past the Bonnie and Clyde museum. Sadly, this too was closed - we were too early, but we could look through the window. I'd gotten us an early start as it would be a long drive back home.

About three hours after leaving Monroe, we crossed over the Texas border. Six hours after that - yes, that is nine hours of driving - we reached HOME, after 1,372 miles on the road and four aeroplane rides. This is my longest trip yet, and I don't mind admitting a few feelings of 'I did it!' when I switched off the ignition for the last time.

Diane had a few more days in Texas after this. I took her down to Gruene, to see some country music. Here's the band in Gruene Hall:

We had a wander about in Austin, got a coffee with Jim, and saw the Capitol building amongst other things:

And finally, went to feed the turtles at the County Line on the Lake BBQ restaurant.

We're compiling a long list of things to do on Diane's next visit..... Next time!

Monday, April 04, 2011

Diane at Taylor Air Race

Diane is visiting from the UK! She is here for a little over two weeks and we have many cool things planned.

First up was Taylor Air Race.... first of the season for the Sport Air Racing League.

So here is Diane posing in front of the P-51 Mustang... it's a fine thing when you're standing 20 feet off the edge of the runway and this thing charges past you on takeoff, at full chat. One of the best noises in the world!

Here's my buddies Glenn and Shane's Cessna 172. Shane is racing this day:

Two racers approaching the finish line at Macho Grande:

Lots more as usual at my main website, futurshox.net.