5. My American Dream is Realized
Western United States (Visiting Canada & Mexico)
June 29th : the first day of travel and the first of many early starts. 3:30am and I’m off down to Gatwick Airport, London, to catch my 10 hour flight to Houston, America – My first ever time out of the UK and my first ever flight. In Houston I changed planes and flew up to Seattle, that was my first real glimpse of America, it was a beautiful day and the views over the Rocky Mountains were magnificent. I arrived in Seattle at 4:30pm, 12:30am the following day in England. I found a cheap motel near the Airport and relaxed with my thoughts of my first ‘out-of-England experience’.
I awoke with a refreshing sense for adventure. Breakfast at ‘Denny’s’ was my first taste of real American food, with huge portions and refillable drinks, free refills, a concept unknown to the British. My second experience was tipping, a concept virtually compulsory in America and the tax applied after ordering left me utterly bewildered. I then checked-out of the hotel and decided to head into Seattle in a search for cheap accommodation in the form of a hostel.
I was told that wheelchairs could use buses, ‘how’ ?. I had no idea as it wasn’t possible in England. I approached the front door and shouted up to the driver “I need to get into Seattle”, I expected him to get off and lift me on, but no, he asked me to “move back”. I assumed that his reaction meant ‘go away’ but then a large mechanical platform slid out from under the bus. I steered onto the platform and the platform rose about 4 foot allowing me to wheel straight into the bus through the front door. A couple of seats were collapsed where the wheelchair was tied down for a secure ride. The entire process was safe, simple, effective and very easy.
We finally got into the centre of Seattle, where the bus lift system delivered me back to street level in the reverse manner to how it had lifted me. Unfortunately the idea of me towing my bag proved virtually impossible, thankfully, an Australian guy who I’d met on the bus was going to the same place as me, helped me the half mile. Seattle being built on previously erupted volcanic lava remains makes it very hilly, to the point of some hills being a stepped pedestrian walkway. Unfortunately this was the case for the hill leading down to the where I wanted to be but I could also reach my final destination from the bottom of the steep hill. So we took a long diversion to avoid the steps and wheeled up the steep hill.
My final destination was a hostel, previously unknown and undiscovered to me. A hostel is a cheap form of accommodation used by young budget travelers. Hostels are similar to hotels in that they have a reception and multiple bedrooms but you do not get a private bedroom or bathroom. Between 4 and 12 people sleep on bunk beds in each room, without conveniences such as a TV or fridge and maybe no other furniture. The room may or may not have a private bathroom so you could be sharing with only your room mates or there could be a larger bathroom to be shared by all guests. Seattle was my first hostel experience of many through-out America, Europe and Australia. In fact only on rare occasions would I ‘splash out’ on a hotel.
It took me 2 days to settle into the travelling life-style. My 3rd day ‘out-of-England’ was about seeing Seattle and doing the tourist ‘thing’. I rode the buses many times, cris-crossing Seattle. Rode the monorail, went up the famous Seattle space needle and tried a, supposedly ‘heart stopping’ fun fair ride. Due to the severity of Seattle’s hills wearing gloves to protect my hands from friction burns was imperative, the amount of rubber left behind after slides was enormous !.
I wasn’t sure of which form of long-distance ground transportation to use, buses, trains, car, minibus, etc. I decided to investigate buying a car to travel between cities. I got a bus to an out of town car dealer, I explained what I wanted and my budget, and he had only one car at a reasonable price – a 15 year old Cadillac. I decided to go to lunch and consider it, I went into a shop where they sold ‘sandwiches’, I decided upon a club sandwich, which was made for me and given to me in a carrier bag. In England a ‘sandwich’ is 2 pieces of bread with a single slice of meat or cheese with a lettuce leaf and a slice of tomato. In America, where everything is bigger, a sandwich is a foot long bread roll with half an inch of meat and half an inch of cheese, numerous sauces, piles of salad of every description and dressings. It is then impossible to eat, with any dignity but for anyone on a budget and not an over-sized American appetite, there was enough for 2 good meals.
Cadillac’s are big cars, huge cars, with equally huge engines and it was 15 years old, all 3 factors worried me. Could I drive such a huge car in a strange country with vast mileages to cover ?. The engine was very big therefore unnecessarily fast and very ‘thirsty’ on fuel. Being 15 years old it would probably not have been too reliable. So I passed-up on the car.
On the bus back to the hostel, it occurred to me that I could buy a van, travel in the van by day and sleep in it at night, hence saving money on accommodation and therefore giving me more money for an initial outlay. Another guest at the hostel was selling one after travelling from the south to the north of the west coast. I checked it out and it was fine, he even offered me the mattress from the back to sleep on. But there was 2 problems, number one because of the vast distances which needed to be covered (Even in England I did not like driving for 2 hours at a 9time, in America I could be talking 10 hours at a time). Problem number two was the wheelchair, travelling alone how would I get into the relatively high driving seat of a van and how would I get myself and my wheelchair into and out off the back where I would sleep, So I passed-up on the van and the idea of buying any vehicle.
One thing America is particularly famous for is it’s ‘mall’s’, in England, a shopping centre. The largest ‘mall’ on America’s west coast, I was told is near to Seattle. I got on the bus and 30 miles later, we arrived at the mall. 30 miles is not near !. In England, 30 miles is a long way to go for, what is, after all, only a group of shops. But at least, it was a free ‘day-out’ because I got free bus rides, on the entirely wheelchair accessible bus fleet.
All around Seattle they were advertising ‘The American War Veterans Games’, which were a smaller version of the Wheelchair Olympics. It was the first time I’d seen people in wheelchairs playing basketball, tennis, rugby – I was amazed.
I then came across a theatre performing ‘Cats’, assuming this was the Broadway version, I paid for a budget position seat ticket then was lead to wheelchair accessible seating area which was in a prime viewing location. I don’t know whether or not it was a Broadway travelling production, but I was very pleased when it ended. I was bored to tears. Outside it had started to pour with rain but I didn’t want to hang around or pay for a taxi so despite the problem of wheeling on the very wet and hilly ground of Seattle, I did. The 10 blocks could have been walked in 15 minutes but it took me an hour and a half, on the slippery hills.
July the 4th – Independence day, a big day of celebration in America. The hostel was having an all-you-can-eat barbecue outside the hostel and I definitely ate all I could. Me and a couple of Australian guys decide to round off the meal with a couple of beers at a near-by bar, this was not a particularly good idea because a full stomach and beer do not suit me, so my half digested barbecue ended up on the floor of the bar !.
Back at the hostel, with nothing to do, I began talking to a very attractive girl. We talked for hours, I hoped there might be something there, something more than just friends !, there wasn’t. My only consolation was that we then went to see the 4th of July fireworks together, with America trying to do everything bigger, the display was amazing with a constantly lit up night sky.
For a second day I went to watch the Veteran’s Games and for a second day was equally amazed. On my way back to the hostel, I stopped at the supposedly famous and supposedly wonderful fish market – I was very ‘un’amazed at what was less interesting than my home town market.
Back at the hostel I settled back with my bag of ‘chips’ (crisps in England) in front of the communal TV. I flicked through all the channels, in England we got 4 or 12 on Satellite, here 55 channels, in America where bigger is supposedly better, but there was just 55 channels of crap !.
Due to the severe tyre rubber loss from skidding on Seattle’s hills my wheelchair tyres were becoming thread-bare. It should have been simple to find and replace wheelchair tyres in wheelchair friendly America. After phoning every bike shop in Seattle, I discovered that the people from the Veteran’s Games had bought every wheelchair sized tyre in town – big problem !.
The following day, after a filling and very cheap all-you-can-eat (America’s favourite past-time) pizza and drink buffet, I went to the Veteran’s Games, once again. They were behind my problem and therefore were in a position to resolve it. After watching the virtual impossible wheelchair assault course event, I made it known to the appropriate people that I had a big problem because of their, supposed, ‘need’ to buy every wheelchair tyre in Seattle. Although they were reluctant, they gave me (for free) and fitted a new pair of my required tyres.
Having decided not to buy my own vehicle, I decided to check-out the possibility of using trains for long-distance ground transportation. I took one of the trams up the hill to the train station,
there were a variety of tickets or passes with numerous discounts, I took all the information to consider on what appeared quite a good means of transport. Later that day, I decided to go and sample the beer in a local bar but America has a drinking age restriction of 21. Like most underage people, I had fake ID but the ‘numskull’s’ wouldn’t accept it !.
I had been in Seattle for 10 days and decided the following day I should leave. I purchased an Amtrak (The American train company) 30 day west coast rail pass which would give me unlimited train trips up or down the west coast. I got my first ticket leaving the following day at 9:30am, going to Eugene in Oregon. I bought some much needed new gloves & a new back-pack and packed ready to leave the next morning.
I woke at 8am to catch the 9:30 train, it left Seattle on time but, as always, it arrived late into Eugene. At 5pm I had missed the last bus to the hostel, the hostel in fact was not in Eugene but in the surrounds. This meant I had to take a long taxi ride to the hostel, which was very expensive. The hostel was my idea of ‘hell in a forest’. The small community in an isolated forest was run by a group of self-sufficient, gypsy, veggie, hippy types. Due to the fact there was no shops or restaurants, I was forced to eat their expensive home grown meal – berry juice, doll, chutney, rice, etc. The worst thing was that the telephone wouldn’t accept coins, so I was – stuck in hell !.
With nothing to do, I spent the morning in bed, I ate home grown French toast and honey – somehow, not made with milk or eggs ! – but surprisingly it tasted very good. That afternoon I went to look to the fresh-water creek, although only half a mile, in my wheelchair, became a marathon off-road trek !. Happily on my return to the hostel, met an American family on vacation, who offered to share their dinner so I wasn’t forced to eat more gypsy, veggie slop !. Being far too early for bed, I went in search of entertainment. I found a hippy type music and dance concert which, I must admit, was quite good.
I needed to leave the ‘hippy commune’ so got a lift to the local village with the head gypsy and caught a bus back to Eugene in the hope of getting a seat on the southbound train. Thankfully the train was empty, so I got a ticket down to Sacramento in California. Sacramento would be my first stop in California, the State on which my American dream was based. It was the first of many over-night train journeys but with 2 seats I slept in a right-angle fashion, for 2 whole hours !.
My first impression of California was in the cold early morning. The train arrived at 6:30am and it took me an hour to find the hostel, a beautifully restored 18th century mansion, in my half-awaken state. I then had to wait another 45 minutes before the hostel opened and I could shower in the huge wheelchair accessible shower. I then spent the day exploring the city and gaining my first impressions of my life-long dream location, California – it lived-up to my dreams expectations and in many ways, far exceeded them. After drinking 2 pints of beer at the free outdoor concert, I returned to the hostel and slept soundly at 8pm.
Not wanting to waste my ‘Californian Dreams’, I decided to purchase a new camera to record the sights. A 15 block trek began to find the second-hand camera shop, was embarked upon. Going round in circles, up and down, back and forth and eventually with police advice, I found it. I purchased an Olympus zoom camera which due to its size, I assumed that originally it would have been expensive and advanced. Since then I have discovered that it was large because it is very old and neither good nor advanced !.
It was a very hot day so after having 4 large cokes (taking full advantage of the free refill policy), I decided to escape the heat and check-out an air conditioned ‘Virtual World’ computer game arcade. I spent 3 hours out of the midday heat in air conditioned comfort. Returning to the hostel I had my first of many ‘falling-out-of-wheelchair’ incidence’s – down a busy 4 lane one-way road, I ‘capsized’, as cars whizzed by on either side until eventually some good citizen came to my rescue !.
All around town were references to Old Sacramento, so I took a trip to this famed area of town. It was modelled as an old wild west town but with modern chain shops and restaurants in restored wooden buildings. A particular observation in the fast-food restaurants was the signs saying ‘No loitering – 10 minutes eating time’ which meant I couldn’t finish my meal without eating like a pig ! – Seriously, the policy was to dissuade the many tramps and beggars in Sacramento, in fact a nationwide policy to dissuade the many tramps and beggars everywhere in America.
At 5am, Sacramento looked decidedly eerie but with a 7am train booked to San Francisco the day ahead looked rosy. A 2 hour train journey to Oakland then a bus ride to San Francisco. The chartered bus for the journey to San Francisco had no wheelchair lift, so Amtrak paid for a private taxi to take me from Oakland to San Francisco. Once in San Francisco I needed to find somewhere to stay. I had heard of a hostel overlooking the Golden Gate bridge, although it was often full, I hoped they would have a bed at 10am. However it took me 3 hours to find the hostel, which was located in a beautiful park which overlooked the Golden Gate bridge, but at 1pm would they have a bed ?. Yes, they did but it was the last one and in a 22 bed dormitory.
For the first day in my American Adventure it was a cloudy and not particularly warm. I did the ‘touristy’ thing and went along the promenade, looking along all the piers and the harbour area. I also tried unsuccessfully to ride the famous San Francisco trams up and down the inclines. After queuing for almost an hour, was told there was no wheelchair accessibility on the trams. I got the supervisor from across town and had a huge argument about the wheelchair inaccessibility and the illegality under American law.
On a detour from the sea front into downtown San Francisco I got a glimpse at some of the inclines but later found these to be mere mole hills in a city of Everest’s !,
A new day, to feel a new way. Well, by the end of the day I would feel exhausted and have severely aching arms. I took the bus to the opposite end of the tram run, the bus circumnavigate around the base of the major San Francisco climbs so I had no real conception of the Everest directly between me and the Hostel. The first block was a hill, the second a steep hill, the third a mountain, the fourth had to be the mountain’s peak – but no, on it went, each block steeper and steeper and steeper, it was taking 30 minutes climb for each block. Many people offered to help push me up the ridiculously steep hills but each time I refused, expressing that it was a personal goal and I needed to prove to myself that I could do it – and I did !.
But 10 blocks of ridiculous incline skyward meant 10 blocks of ridiculous decline back to ground level and home-base. The easy part if walking, but if in a wheelchair a death run !. As I whizzed past moving bicycles and cars, I realised my gloved hands wouldn’t grip the my speeding wheels. Crossing several cross junctions while praying for a reprieve in cross traffic. At other junctions I left 30 foot rubber skid marks behind as I slid to a halt. This was my experience of San Francisco – exhausted and lucky to be alive I returned to the hostel !.
Back at the hostel I had a nice surprise waiting – A very attractive Australian girl was to share my bed !. Unfortunately, 4 foot above me – in the top bunk bed !.
With my San Franciscan experience being cloudy, cold, exhausting and far too death-defying at 11am the following morning I decided to continue my southbound travels. With the freedom of solo travel, I was on my way within 30 minutes. I didn’t want to miss the picturesque California coast road so I found the bus that would take me south down highway 101, past the Golden Gate bridge. I was heading to a place called Montara, about 3 hours south of San Francisco. Montara is in an idyllic location which over-looks the Pacific Ocean on a rocky out-crop, the hostel which was a renovated lighthouse was equally magnificent.
Montara is, in fact, only an area of coast line, there is no town, no shops, no beach, no people it’s just in an idyllic location. ‘Traveller protocol’ says : if there’s nothing, keep going. So at 6:30am the following day I’m outside, waiting for the first bus. I arrived in Half Moon Bay at 7:30am to catch the connecting bus to Santa Cruz. 8am, 8:30am and still no connection. My enquiries revealed I had missed the bus, probably by about 30 seconds, the next one was at 3:30pm – in 7 hours time.
Half Moon Bay is a town, no, small town, no, small village with 2 shops and in a less than idyllic setting so the prospect of a 7 hour wait was mind-numbing. A thought sprung to mind – Half Moon Bay is a major intersection for 2 highways so it gets plenty of traffic. My question to myself was “Am I a man or a mouse ?”, A male budget traveller without 7 hours to wait, my answer. I found the southbound highway and sat there in my bag laden wheelchair thumbing for a lift !.
20 minutes is all it took, A van pulled in, 2 German guys jumped out, helped me into the front and ‘threw’ the wheelchair in the back – Quick, easy and, best of all, free !.
Santa Cruz is a typical beach resort, it has lots of ‘touristy’ things to do, but it’s got ‘California style’. It’s got a good beach with wheelchair access (plastic mats down to the water’s edge) and ‘wall-to-wall’ bikini clad babes. After my ‘Californian style’ experience of the beach and boardwalk, I found the small and homely hostel. After dinner I went to a ‘big named’ local concert on the beach – Jefferson Starbuck !.
With 3 weeks of my travelling dreams behind me and my ‘Californian experience’ in full swing. I went down to an expensive beach front restaurant and ‘splashed-out’ on a smoked salmon Omelette which broke all ‘budget backpacker protocol’ rules but, hey, I was happy. I then spent the day lying on the beach in the sunshine among the bikini clad babes – ‘Baywatch is not a fantasy – Bikini clad babes are a reality in California !’.
By 4pm I was very sun burnt, but stupidly, decided to go out drinking in my new bright red skin tone. I went with 2 lovely Spanish girls to a local bar, drank 2 pints of beer, saw a live band before returning to the hostel and seeing the contents of my stomach reappear all over the bedroom floor !.
The following morning, after removing last night’s half digested food from the floor, I went to have breakfast with a travel writer. He was the first of many people who believed that my travels were worthy of scripture.
To escape the heat, I ducked into a movie theatre to watch the recently released blockbuster, Independence day. The audience reaction, I decided, was far greater than the English cinema audience reaction because the entire story is based upon American patriotism.
The hostel had got 3 new guests, female guests, very attractive female guests – the ‘travelling way’ is to drink, heavily. And drink we did. The ridiculous 10pm curfew (lock out) at the hostel wasn’t appreciated but in attractive female company the windows of neighbouring rooms could be rattled thus waking someone to open the front door. We got back to the hostel at midnight, we rattled the neighbouring bedroom’s window and 4 very drunken travellers were let in.
Time is precious so I decided to move on again. I took the early bus to San Jose where I picked up the train again, down to Santa Barbara. All the way down the coast I had been hearing tales of the chain of hostels called Banana Bungalow, there was 4, three in California and one in New York. Banana Bungalow is the place to be, where anything goes – the guys are hunks and the girls are babes !. I had not stayed in this style of hostel before, I had stayed in institution style clinical hostels where alcohol is banned. In Banana Bungalow alcohol is mandatory and parties are the lifestyle – ‘If you go to bed sober, there must be a problem’. I arrived at 8pm and it is an old aircraft hanger full of bunk beds for people to sleep on but without segregated bedrooms.
I woke at 9am, the crack of dawn for most Banana Bungalow party guests. I spent the day checking out Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz had just been an introduction into ‘California style’, Santa Barbara oozed it. The cosmopolitan atmosphere created by the shops, beach, ocean, climate and the friendly people combined to make me feel as if Santa Barbara was where I wanted to live.
I tried parasailing which was very relaxing but I had expected thrills or a bit of excitement but unfortunately, only slow and gentle. I saw many stretch limousines presumably of the rich and famous who presumably choose to make Santa Barbara their home. I got into a conversation in the street with two guys who owned a wheelchair shop, they offered to lend me a hand cycle so I could get around to see more of Santa Barbara. The real bonus was that they had new tyres and gloves that I desperately needed, after my tyre rubber loss incurred on San Francisco’s hills !.
For the second day, I went to the wheelchair shop to look at ex-demo sports wheelchairs. They were nice, very nice and at half the cost of a sports wheelchair in the UK – I would return here in a couple of years when I would need a new wheelchair.
As prearranged, I met the 3 very attractive girls from Santa Cruz, and as in Santa Cruz we went out drinking but this time on a bar crawl. The number and choice of bars was amazing, we went in one with 85 beers on tap, one was a gay bar, one was an English style pub but my fake ID was terrible so my entry to one bar was refused.
I decided, I must keep moving, so I tried to book a train down to San Clemente leaving the following day. I was told there was no wheelchair access off the train in San Clemente – this turned out to be the best decision anyone ever made for me, as the next day turned out to be the best day of my life.
At 10am I went down to the beach with the 3 attractive girls who I met in Santa Cruz, each one clad in tiny bikinis which showed there stunning figures. ‘Heavenly bodies in a heavenly location’. We talked till 3pm when I asked the most attractive girl out for dinner, my intention was for a date, but she invited her friends along. Not a date but dinner with friends, never-the-less, sounded good.
Dinner with 3 beautiful women ; a mouth-watering prospect or a disaster waiting to happen. We went to eat at a local bar – all 4 of us. The conversations just died and I even failed to impress her with talk of my new toy, my Jaguar. The disaster was initialized at 10pm, happy hour. 2 for 1 vodka and orange were my downfall, I drank my cocktails at the same rate as they drank beer – a disaster waiting-to-happen. By midnight I was ‘chucking my guts’ in the middle of the crowded bar. The girls took me home and put me to bed, my bed – not the desired outcome !.
The following morning I awoke with a ‘killer’ hangover. My 3 new friends left for Hawaii so I went back to bed. That afternoon someone working at the hostel at the hostel told me about 2 second hand wheelchairs in a second-hand shop, I assumed that they would be old folding type wheelchairs but I went to look anyway. To my utter amazement they were sports wheelchairs. They were the identical model to the ex-demo wheelchairs I had looked at the previous day. At a tenth of the price of a new one or a fifth of the price of the ex-demo ones, I made them an offer for the pair, they accepted – I then had 2 extra wheelchairs to take home, sell and profit from.
The following day, I went down to the wheelchair shop to see if they wanted to buy my newly acquired second-hand wheelchairs. The people at the wheelchair shop knew that the wheelchairs were there and very cheap but they hadn’t bought them because they had the serial numbers scratched off meaning that they were probably stolen.
A sign reading ‘Banana Bungalow Keg Party’ ‘$5 all you can drink’, ‘why not’ I thought despite still being hung over from the night before. This being the first of many such keg parties in locations through-out America. A keg – A steel barrel of beer is fitted with a tap, then whenever you want more beer, which tends to be quite often, you go and refill you glass. Everyone parties in a very drunken state until everyone collapses into bed !.
The following morning, I woke with the worst hangover of my life. Undeterred, I rose to find I had a severe lack of energy, so back to bed it was. I awoke again at 10:30 and decided not to waste my holiday and by noon I started to make my phone calls to Amtrak, the American train network. I wanted a ticket for San Louis Obispo (Just south of LA) but all the southbound trains were full. Although I wanted to continue on my ‘travelling way’ in a southerly direction, an idea came to mind – Bungee Jumping. I had previously seen a leaflet for a bungy jump site in Canada. I could get a train back to Seattle then a ferry to Canada. The northbound train had seats and there would be no cost for the train ticket. So I quickly packed my bag, and nursing my hangover, I left for the station arriving with 2 minutes to spare. I boarded the train, took my seat. Only then did it dawn on me that I would be in that seat for 34 hours.
34 hours passed. People left the train, people boarded the train, I ate, I drank, I even slept. Then more people left, more people boarded. I ate more, I drank more and eventually the train pulled into Seattle. The train arrived at 21:34, ten minutes before I’d of exploded through boredom. I was going to stay in the hostel in Seattle again, where I had stayed 3 weeks previously, so I knew exactly where I was going. As I reached the steep hill outside the hostel, I asked a Mexican bloke for a shove up the hill. This was a big mistake because he was very drunk and started talking about boxing – so I asked someone else.
Saturday morning came far too soon. I left the hostel at 7am and discovered it was pouring which had turned the hill into a slope of Death. If I had problems getting up the hill, getting down would be death defying. To walk down it would be fine but to do it trying to use wet hand rims on wheelchair wheels would be virtually impossible, however the ferry was going to leave in 30 minutes so it was a case of ‘now or never’. As I hit 20 mph I tried my braking process. Nothing. The only way to stop was to jam my bag into the wheel !. It worked after 3 near collisions !.
I boarded the ferry to Canada with 3 minutes to spare. During my journey I took a good look around the ferry where I changed some US Dollars into Canadian Dollars and decided that I couldn’t afford anything in any of the 3 on-board restaurants. As the ferry docked in Canada, we were told of the exceptionally strong undercurrents which made the trip very hazardous. ‘Thanks for the warning, but 6 hours too late’ I thought.
As per normal, I headed the wrong way down the road outside the ferry port. With no bus stop in sight, I turned round and headed back uphill to the bus stop, 100 yards from the ferry port. To my delight, I discovered that Canadian buses also had wheelchair access and the driver knew where I needed to get off. When I got off the bus, I sped down the hill hoping that the hostel was at the bottom. Thankfully it was.
That afternoon I explored Victoria, the shops, the market, the government buildings and the quay. As I was returning to the hostel, I saw a poster for a band which was appearing in a local bar that evening. So after finding something to eat at the hostel, I returned to the bar where the band was playing. My intention was to stay for a couple of songs then leave but they were a great band and although the crowd only just reached double figures, I stayed ‘till the end.
The following morning I woke to the prospect of hurling myself off a bridge that was higher than Dover’s, white cliffs. As the shuttle bus pulled up, the driver jumped out and shouted,
“Right, who’s jumping today ?.”
To her surprise, I was her answer; me and my wheelchair.
Two hours later we arrived in Nanaimo. As we drove into the bungy site, I caught my first sight of the bridge and valley. The high bridge and deep valley !. My first stop was the cabin where I was weighed and briefed on the jump, before I made my way towards the bridge. It only then struck me how magnificent the site was, the scenic bridge straddled the lush pine tree covered walls of the valley with clear blue water running through the valley.
My final problem was still to be encountered – four flights of stairs. Stairs and a wheelchair don’t mix, so climbing a stair at a time on my butt was the only option. After thirty minutes climbing time and a sore rear end, I reached the summit, the bungy platform.
From the platform, I looked down with only one intention; to descend much quicker than my ascent. I was up there being attached to the harness and being watched by a group who dare not jump themselves but appeared to get pleasure from watching other terrified jumpers.
I launched myself on the count of three. My only comforting thought was that I was attached to the bridge therefore it should be safe. Plummeting down the valley was exciting, invigorating, exhilarating, stimulating but most of all it felt like life should !.
When the bouncing had ended and I had done my impression of Spider man, I dangled from the cord much like a spider would. I then was lowered to the security of my wheelchair, where, not only did I feel physically safe but I felt mentally satisfied.
After another 42 hours travel, through Victoria, Seattle, Oregon and California, I arrived back in Santa Barbara on Thursday, where there was another ‘Keg Party’…. where another hangover surely followed !.
Another early start, this time 6:30am. I arrived at the station with just seconds to spare, the 6 hour journey bought me into San Diego at lunch time. Enough time to find a hostel, which had really modern facilities and was in a great location. I dumped my bags and headed off to explore San Diego, A very big city with a large downtown area and mile upon mile of beach.
I discovered the Planet Hollywood restaurant and remembering a ‘Special Friend’ coupon someone had given me, I jumped the cue and expected some free food or something special but no, I just ordered my food (the cheapest thing on the menu), a not so special burger and given a the large bill. Before I left I ducked into the toilets a butler awaited to wash my hands and spray me with after shave, for which I presume he wanted a tip – which wasn’t forthcoming. What I didn’t realise was that Planet Hollywood is a ‘classy’ restaurant so didn’t I feel like a ‘prat’ in shorts and t-shirt !.
San Diego being beside the Mexican border, makes it a favourite trip for anyone visiting San Diego. I took the tram to Tjuanna, the Mexican border town, I wasted my day in Mexico. I stuck to the ‘touristy’ market which was 100 meters from the border crossing and didn’t even get into Tjuanna town. However, I enjoyed the market where I had my first real haggling experience which is so common and ‘later’ to be enjoyed in Asian countries.
Back at the YMCA hostel in San Diego I went to use the extensive gym facilities. There was a fitness room, weights room, swimming pool, sauna and steam room – I left exhausted !.
The following morning I checked out of the YMCA hostel and caught a bus down to the beach area to find return to the more relaxed and informal Banana Bungalow. Banana Bungalow in San Diego was previously a small hotel on the beach but the 6 bedrooms have been crammed full of 8 or 10 bunk beds. It wasn’t easy to find a place on the floor for bags, never mind my wheelchair, so I was constantly wheeling over clothes and shoes. I won’t even mention the cockroaches. But hey, that’s half the fun part of budget travel !.
Along the old wooden pier there was many fisherman, fishing is something that I’ve tried on many occasions but with no success. One fisherman asked me if I would like to use his spare rod, ‘what the hell’ I thought, I picked up the rod and through the line into the ocean. 20 Minutes later I had caught a 6 inch Mackerel, 5 inch sea bass, and one big ‘un that got away when the line broke.
To celebrate I spent the evening drinking Budweiser and people watching from the beach front patio at Banana Bungalow.
After the previous days success, I returned to the wooden pier where the fishermen were. But far more fun was watching to other guys trying to fish as they smoked pot and drank whiskey. There ‘master-plan’ was to use whole fish as bait to catch a shark, unsurprisingly they caught nothing.
Back at Banana Bungalow sitting on the patio, I got talking to a guy walking down the boardwalk. He turned out to be a US marine, after sharing a beer he took me on a personal tour of a restricted Marine base. To thank him we then went to a Thai restaurant with excellent food. Finally we sat drinking beers together at Banana Bungalow watching the sea.
Again, it was time to leave, this time to Los Angeles. I took a bus to the station, train to LA then another bus to the hostel. The hostel was in an idyllic setting on a rocky outcrop in an isolated area not at all what I thought LA was like. The hostel was inaccessible for a wheelchair, which is totally illegal under American law, I expect it in relaxed informal hostels like Banana Bungalow but not in this formal official hostel. My only option was to sleep on a mattress on the floor in the reading room.
With 6 weeks past, my pace of travel was exhausting me but yet another early start and busy day ahead. On the way to the bus stop, I had another wheelchair accident which left me lying on the road with cuts and grazes but nothing too severe. I took the bus to Long Beach which is an area not a just beach and not a very long beach. I spent all day exploring this heavily industrialised area. Back at the hostel, I spent the evening eating cheese puffs while watching American sitcoms and talking to a sexy Australian girl.
Unhappy being forced to sleeping on the floor, I ‘headed for the bright lights of Hollywood’ not to find fame and fortune but to experience the ‘glitz and glamour’ of LA. The 4 hour bus ride across LA, showed me the sheer size and number of people in LA not to mention to the grime and pollution caused by the traffic density. “LA Sucks !.”.
I stayed in the central YMCA hostel, 2 blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. I explored the touristy and famous section of the Hollywood Boulevard – ‘The walk of stars’. My evening excursion onto Hollywood Boulevard revealed the seedier side of LA.
Staying in hostel has its advantages but also disadvantages. On the plus side, it is easy to meet people and it is a cheap form of accommodation but negatively you get no privacy. Which, as that night proved, if your room mates snore or wake up and have conversations at full volume, you get no sleep.
As in San Diego, hostel guests get free use of the up-market YMCA gym. Hollywood being the stars home, I got speaking to another English guy who lived near to me in my home town but now plays a large role in a classic American sitcom.
I took the highly congested bus to Beverly Hills. I checked-out the secluded residential neighbourhood where the stars live then down the exclusive and very expensive Rodeo Drive. I even considered buying something as a souvenir, but even cheap ties were 250 dollars which is definitely not ‘budget traveller’ money.
The vastness of LA means long bus rides but also variety. So I headed to over to the coast, I would stay in a hostel in Santa Monica, with Venice beach and Malibu to explore. As I wheeled through Santa Monica I felt an entirely different atmosphere to in-land LA – it was more relaxed and not so polluted. I arrived at the hostel with a fresh sense of being about LA. There was only one hostel in Santa Monica so when they couldn’t find my reservation, I was faced with the prospect of having to go back to dismal in-land LA. It took them an hour but they eventually found me a bed. I explored the shops, beach and the pier. I watched them filming ‘Star Trek’, they were getting extras from crowd and I wanted to use my ‘killer’ line, “You couldn’t afford me, darling”.
The famous Venice Beach was my next excursion. Venice felt even more relaxed than Santa Monica, with its huge beach, stalls selling a variety of items, street performers and the famous muscle beach gym. I wheeled along the concrete beach path not knowing whether I was a pedestrian on the left or bicycle on the right !.
That evening I ‘vegged’ in-front of a movie back at hostel with my favourite, cheese puffs.
I planned to wake up at 8am to spend the entire day at Universal studios but sleep took preference. 2 hours later I awoke again and hurriedly made my way to the bus stop. Stupidly, my destination was back in the dirty and polluted Hollywood, a 2 hour bus ride from where I came from 2 days ago – Universal Studios. Backtracking had become my travelling speciality !.
Universal Studios theme park was a thriving mass of white-knuckle rides and entertaining shows. I didn’t know where to start but what I didn’t realise was that being in a wheelchair I wouldn’t queue for any of the rides. For example the new Jurassic park ride had a 3 hour queue which I just skipped. The most memorable thing was the ‘back lot tour’ which was a tram ride around sets and studios from movies and TV shows, also several special effect shows taken from movies. I didn’t stop, didn’t eat and didn’t queue all day – I did most rides and saw most shows but 1 day just wouldn’t be enough if you queued, relaxed a little and ate !.
At 11pm I took several buses with transfers back through the, quite frankly, scary LA night to Santa Monica.
My last day’s stay on the LA coast, I decide to have a lazy day in Malibu. Well it may have been Malibu, I may have got off the bus too early because it wasn’t at all built-up as I expected but where-ever I was it had a great beach. Back at the hostel, socialised and ate the ‘all-you-can-eat’, America’s favourite pastime, barbecue.
My fast pace of travel had left me exhausted so I made my decision to return to England, I needed to recuperate before I returned for my final year at university. So I made phone calls to the airline to reserve my flight home as soon as possible. I would leave LA and the United States in 2 days time, on the 17th of August. The problem was my newly acquired wheelchairs were still in Santa Barbara, the cheapest and easiest way to get them to LA would be to collect them myself. My rail pass would allow me to get the tickets for free and travelling with me, should, have made loss impossible.
I took the long bus ride across LA to catch the train to Santa Barbara. At the second-hand shop in Santa Barbara, picked up my 2 new wheelchairs to take back to the station where I would check them in for transportation to LA with me, the following day. My initial idea was to pull them in ‘train and carriage’ fashion back to the station but towing 2 wheelchairs behind my own wheelchair proved impossible. Thankfully, a good Samaritan offered to help and took me and 3 wheelchairs, in her car, down to the station.
Obviously, I choose to stay at, my favourite hostel, Banana Bungalow where there was another infamous ‘keg party’ in full swing.
My final day’s schedule had to precise and if I was delayed at any point, I would miss my return flight to England.
I needed to be at the station in Santa Barbara to catch the train back to LA at 7:45am
Get into LA station at 10:15am to reclaim my check-in wheelchairs
Get my pre-booked airport shuttle bus at 10:45am
Check in at the airport at 12:30am for my flight to Houston
A 30 minute flight connection time from Houston to London
It wasn’t my day, travel wasn’t fun if ‘everything’ went smoothly but for nothing to go smoothly was way beyond fun.
I very nearly missed the train leaving Santa Barbara, for which I take the blame, the previous nights intake of alcohol had taken its toll and I left the hostel late.
The train was delayed on its journey so it arrived 15 minutes late into LA station, I still had 15 minutes to collect my 2 checked-in wheelchairs and bag, so this should not have been a big problem. Amtrak, thankfully, had remembered to bring the wheelchairs and bag to LA, they had been bought down on an earlier train and were waiting for me in the baggage office. Amtrak, proving their total incompetence, made my nightmares a reality, they had lost the key to the locked baggage room. Most of my possessions, a bag and 2 wheelchairs were unreachable.
The airport shuttle bus I had pre-booked was not waiting to take me to the airport, but this was probably a blessing in disguise, because I had time to wait for Amtrak to bring in a locksmith. After nearly an hour of extreme anguish about missing my flight departure for this, my first ever trip out of England. The shuttle bus eventually arrived at 11:15am and my only option was to leave my bag and wheelchairs in America, and trusting Amtrak that they would send them by courier to England.
The airport shuttle was, again, held up again in traffic arriving at the airport with only 10 minutes before my flight departed.
It was too late, the airline staff tried to get me on the plane, but it wasn’t to be. My worst fear had become a reality. It was my first time out of England and I was destined not to return.
I was worrying for nothing, A flight via Newark to London was leaving later that day. A phone call to my parents explaining I would be arriving home late was all it took. Amtrak had time to send my missing baggage to the airport so I could return to England complete !.
I caught my flight via Newark to London with no further ‘hick-ups’. My days numerous problems were behind me. The return flight to England gave me time to reflect on my many great experiences, my travels and even my future.
My travelling experience opened my eyes to the world and its people, my life and future had changed forever. I would return to England to complete my university course before continuing my travels in either Europe, America or Australia.
The realisation had been more than the dream ever was.