Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Request

My blog site collects basic information about anyone who visits even if only for a few seconds. I like to see that people find it and maybe spend a few moments reading my ramblings and looking at my photos (which can be enlarged by clicking on them, by the way).

But I'd love to have some sort of comments/feedback even if it's just a few words and even if it's uncomplimentary. I post for MY benefit as I have this 'need' to blabber away and I do like taking and sharing photos - so never worry that your comments will offend me. I'll just delete them

Anyway, I get repeat visitors (bless you all) and so know that a few people do return regularly to see what's new. I get a rough location (Waterford, Michigan for instance) but would love to have a name to go with the location........just a first name would be fine or even a nickname.

So PLEASE add comments - the more the merrier.


Camping US Style

Last Thursday we loaded up the 5th and set off downstate for a 4 night camping trip. Now to a Brit, a camping trip would probably conjour up images of "Carry On Camping" type movies from the late 60's and early 70's where the family would cram everything, including the kitchen sink, into their car and head off to some farmer's field to pitch a tent while curious cows look on.

Even today camping in the UK hasn't come far from those days and anyone who invests in a caravan (like a US travel trailer but much more basic) gets shouted and sworn at by those of us stuck behind them on narrow country roads. I think this is partly due to the fact that they are restricted by law on how fast they can go and also by the fact that the advanced age range of those who use caravans is directly related to the speed they travel. Caravans are mostly for older retired couples with time on their hands and who are in no rush to get where they're going.

So basically caravans and camping in general have a bad press in the UK. How different it is here and there are many reasons for this. For a start the summer weather is pretty much guaranteed to be awesome and so planning for a camping trip rarely involves checking for a few days when you won't be needing a brolly and wellies. Then there are the stunning variety of vehicles in which to go camping - the wide roads and multilane highways mean that length is limited only by what you can walk to the end of without needing a golf trolley !

Other factors are the camp sites. State park sites can be fairly basic but the price reflects this. Private sites vary from those with only electric and sewer hookups, rest rooms and not much else to those with full hookups (electric, sewer, cable tv, internet) and with facilities like swimming pools, shower and rest rooms, laundries and so on. Finally there are the camper vehicles themselves. Did I mention tents ? Yes you see people using tents and there will always be a need and wish to have them.

But most campers here have units starting with a simple popup which amazingly, given it's size, still has sleeping for two or four and an oven, hob and sink. Now this COULD be used on UK roads with ease. Then comes a travel trailer which can be any length up to 33 ft or so and depending on the model (many have 'sides' which slide out once the unit is parked up and this allows for even more space inside. A TT can sleep a soccer team and has a shower and toilet, full kitchen and dining room and is closely related to the static seaside trailer we'd rent in the UK.

Next up the line comes a 5th Wheel and I've no idea why they are so called. These are much more suited to long term living and although they actually sleep less numbers than a TT, the lucky occupants can be in home style luxury with reclining armchairs, entertainment areas, full kitchen and dining areas and up a level into the generous bedroom - usually with a 2nd tv in place. These last 2 units have plentiful closets and cabinets for clothing, cooking equipment and of course food. These 3 units are pulled by a vehicle of some sort, usually a truck.

The final unit is the full blown RV or motorhome which we've all seen on tv and used by everyone from rock stars on tour to working actors on location. It's obvious from all this that camping here is not the rough and ready recreation that we're used to at home in the UK. Once you've got set up at the site with your unit of choice, out comes the bbq, the chairs, the bikes, the inflatable cactus and the family pets. Those who spend the winter months in warmer states like California and Florida have set ups that most of us would class as a first home. They erect little picket fences and get out real or artificial shrubbery. Lights get strung up along the awnings and American flags get placed to remind God where to shine his blessings.

Reconditioned golf trolleys are parked outside the trailer door in case the owner needs to go to the pool or call on friends elsewhere in the park for a game of cards. This life can be so enjoyable that many go 'fulltime' by selling their homes and being on the road all year round. These would usually be retired couples who have no home ties and have the health and finances to tour the country during the warmer months and drop anchor whenever and wherever they please and then head for Florida during the winter. Sounds great to me !!

So with all that explained, I can go back to our camping trip last Thursday. We drove over 3 hours downstate and through Detroit to Harbortown RV Resort near Monroe. We backed the 5th onto the concrete bay, set it up and unhitched the truck, connected the power and tv cables, then the water hose and finally the sewer hose - remembering not to get them mixed up ! Nothing worse than chunky water.

Our two main excursions were to be to the Michigan State Fair and a trip to Toledo Zoo but we quickly knocked the fair on the head as we'd passed the location on the way down and it would've been a 90 minute return journey. The camp site was at Jn11 off I-75 which meant it was only 11 miles to the Ohio line and then a few more miles to the zoo which made it a better trip out.

I told part 1 of the Zoo trip in the previous post and will finish it another time......................

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Toledo Zoo 1

When we were camping last week south of Detroit and near the Ohio state line, we had made plans to visit Toledo Zoo.

We arranged to meet up with a friend (Jenny) and her two kids once in the zoo and so at 10:20 on Friday, we entered the realm of the wild animals. Now Toledo Zoo claims to be in the Top 10 of such establishments in the US but I've done a bit of checking and I can't agree. The one Top 10 list it DOES appear in is for Top 10 Kids Zoos and even then I don't agree - but then I'm not a kid, so what do I know. I just think it's a throwback to the old days when you were kept away from the animals and had to peer through glass or from a distance through bars or netting.

But it was a zoo and as I've not been to many, it was still a treat. We saw bald eagles, bears and penguins by the time we got the call that Jenny and the kids had arrived and so we met for lunch. After introductions (I'd not met them before) and food, we went back to looking at the animals and first up was a crocodile - or maybe an aligator.

At any rate it didn't move at all and could've been a stone model. It needed someone jumping in beside it and poking it on the nose, by crickey, and I know just the person for the job !

Sadly that didn't happen and we wandered off to find something more lively.

I've always been fascinated by hippos as they look such slow cumbersome creatures and even appear quite docile. Then I saw a documentary many years ago when 2 guys in a canoe in Africa got too close to a group of hippos and man did they get a shock. Those docile looking creatures went into a frenzy and with their huge jaws and awesome power, they made mincemeat of the canoe and the men only just escaped with their lives. Brown pants were the order of the day.

This exhibit was very well set up as we went into an area with huge glass 'windows' giving us a glimpse of the hippos above and below water at the same time. This was fun and the hippos seemed to act up accordingly. They'd spend a while with just their eyes and snouts above the water and we could also see their little legs treading underneath. Then they'd drop down to the bottom of the tank and walk from one side to the other - giving everyone a closeup view which was very thoughful of them.

Sadly they did something else which I won't go into in detail but suffice it to say, the tank water wasn't quite as clear afterwards and the term 'floaters' didn't just refer to the hippos !!!

They also had some sort of electronic tag device around their necks although that's just my guess. But I mean, why bother as they've nowhere to go ? Hey, one of the hippos is missing. Oh no, there it is......under the water. Phew. So glad we had it tagged !!

No, I've 2 other explanations : it could be a hippo fanny pack (ok stop laughing you Brits) just in case the hippo wants to have a snack underwater or it could be a hippo ipod. I like that idea best. The hippos walk to the beat of, say, Seal or the Arctic Monkeys or even Crazy Giraffes.

Ok so I made that last one up but I only knew the first two and examples are always better in threes.

I was keen to get to the reptile house as they really interest me. From a photographic point of view it's pretty easy to get good pics of them as by nature they stay still !! It's simply a matter of turning off the flash and getting the lens close to the glass. It amazes me how many people do neither of these things and wonder why they get a photo of a blinding spot of light and little else.

I've no idea what any of the snakes and lizards are called but I loved their bright colours. By reptile standards, this little fella was quite active and I had to wait till it stopped slithering about and posed for me.

Early in my blog posts I put up photos of my trip to my local reptile house in Leeds called Tropical World. The one thing I noticed about the snake tanks there was that they were dark and fairly dirty and it was difficult to see the snakes inside them.

So it was a thrill to see these well lit and clear tanks at the Toledo Zoo and visitors were rewarded with wonderful views of the inhabitants. Like a lot of others, my camera focuses by sending out a beam of light and 'measuring' the distance to where it hits. When close to the subject, this light can be distracting and I was amused when this lizard seemed to take an interest in it. I did it a few times before pressing the shutter and each time it would cock it's head to one side as the light hit it.

I finally decided that this 'look' was much more interesting than it's normal straight ahead stare and so here it is. Maybe it wants to give me an insurance quote !

We were in time to see a hands on event where 3 staff members came to a small viewing area and brought some snakes and a millepede - I think. I didn't count the legs but it had plenty to spare.

It was my first time touching a snake so I took it.......the chance, not the snake. I knew all about them not being slimy so I wasn't surprised by how it felt. I was more interested in the millepede and not many people wanted to touch it. It was huge. I let it run over my hand and it's little legs were so soft and tickly that it was cool. Glad it didn't poop on me but as if she'd read my mind, a staff member was following along behind the ones with the critters and had a pump action bottle of sanitiser so we 'touchers' could clean our hands and be ready for french fries and hot dogs right away !! God bless her.

It was time to move on to the fishies and other aquatic critters and one tank blew my mind as it contained 2 of the strangest and cutest little sea horse type lookalikes I'd ever seen.

It seems they were sea dragons and for some reason I found it hard to get a decent photo of them. They'd float by with a sort of superior air and only their tiny fluttering fins would show they were alive at all. Yes I know that fins isn't the right word but I'm no expert on the locomotion and propulsion techiques of sea dragons.

All I know is they were mesmerising and we all stayed by their tank for ages. The aquarium also had a good walk through rain forest but I have to say the one back home in Tropical World was slightly bigger and better. This one did have birds in it and they'd dive bomb the visitors showing no fear at all. They'd land inches from us on the guard posts and only fly away if you actually tried to reach out to pet them.

But enough Zoo stuff for now and I'll return to it another day and in another post ..............

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Friends & Relatives

As the saying goes, you can chose one but not the other.....blah blah blah.

Back home in the UK I've got few of either but here in the US, I've sort of adopted many of those belonging to my gracious hosts. I've been coming to this part of Michigan for almost a decade now and by staying for up to 6 months at a time, I've met their friends and relatives and been welcomed by all.

Staying here for so long, I've learned much more about the American way of life and certainly much more than the usual visitor who can only spend 2 weeks or so here as part of their annual holidays. Even those 2 weeks are rarely spent exploring deep into the country and sadly most Brits have their impressions of America and Americans clouded by those they may meet at Disney World (FL) or Disneyland (CA).

This would be like an American visiting the UK and only exploring the landmark sites in London and thinking that every Brit was like those they meet there. God help us all but that is often what happens. If only international visitors to our shores would get out of London after a few days and see the rest of our wonderful land.

Even more so than the UK, America is a diverse country with unbelievable contrasts in scenery and peoples. Abject poverty and violence can be just a few city blocks from incredible wealth and (paid for) safety. In the days when I was touring by myself, I'd visit the main cities of all the states and come away thinking of them as clean, safe, vibrant places with much to offer the tourist. Only later might I learn that I'd been lucky to 'escape' without seeing or even being involved in some acts of street crime or violence; that there were parts of certain cities where drugs and guns were commonplace. I was totally unaware of this and looking back on those days now, I'm really glad I was so naive and ill-informed as it has left me with only positive memories and opinions of all the cities and peoples I met.

Now that I've hung up my solo touring boots (ok a few mixed metaphors there !!) with only Alaska left to visit, I have the time to spend many months every year living among the people and getting to know much more about them and what they think and believe in. I have a constant battle trying NOT to compare many of the customs and attitudes here with what we have back home and I tell myself that different doesn't mean better or worse - just.... different.

Televison for a start is.....different. The ridiculous frequency of commercials makes me yearn for uninterrupted programming from Auntie Beeb or Sky Movies or even ITV with it's 3 breaks an hour. Watching any long sporting event like golf here is a nightmare - imagine coming out of a commercial break and seeing Tiger Woods making a 30ft putt, seeing his reaction, seeing the new leaderboard, seeing the customary blimp shot and suddenly....whoooosh, we're off to commercials again. Seriously ! It's probably a good thing that they've never taken to cricket here but I bet the advertisers would love it. An opportunity for a commercial break after every over ??? It makes me wonder why they've NOT taken to it !

And the commercials themselves ??? Take out the ones for food, cars, medicines and lawyers and there isn't much left. Medicines are the, the worst as I hate them all. Here the viewer is constantly urged to "tell your doctor about......." followed by the name of some drug or other which claims to help with everything from piles to irritable bowel syndrome. It would appear that in the US, doctors don't have any medical training whatsoever and sit in their surgeries just waiting for the patients to arrive and tell them about a drug they saw on television which they'd like to try out if you please. I also love that the makers of these commercials have to add information about possible side effects after they've told us how awesome the drug is. I swear one last night told us about this wonderful pill that only had to be taken once a month (probably to stop unwanted nasal hairs from getting trapped in our teeth) and then a man with a vocal speed worthy of a Texan cattle auctioneer told us it wasn't suitable for those who are pregnant or might become pregnant (hmmmmm that's pretty general for a start), those with liver or heart problems, those with ingrowing toenails or flat feet, those with ugly parents or a sibling called Elvis (and basically 9/10ths of the population) due to nasty (potential) side effects ! Yep, I'd love to ask my doctor about THAT !!

There is even one for Lipitor, a pill I actually take. The ad is accurate and yes the people who should not take it are identified and get a mention at the end. Fair enough. BUT then it adds that "you should tell your doctor if you are taking any other medication" as Lipitor should not be taken with some of these other drugs. Now it is just me or shouldn't your doctor know what you're taking already ??? Maybe the NHS isn't so bad after all. I don't tell my garage mechanic what oil filter to fit on my car ( lets face it, I'm just glad if he actually DOES fit the new filter he's charging me for in the first place) and so I don't see the point in telling my trained doctor that I quite fancy trying out a drug I heard about on a tv commercial.

But I've digressed (oh shut up) and may well return to these little US peculiarities from time to time when I remember them.

So last Saturday my hosts 2 younger sons (and a wife) arrived for a visit from down state. They brought a cute doggie, called Bailey, who was just like a lamb in springtime with the same exuberance and energy.

I've known these young men since they were mid teens and along with their older brother (who just got his first teaching job in NC this week) are 3 of the most charming and delightful sons any parents could hope to have. Well I would say that I guess !!

I think the very fact that I'm 'allowed' to live here and become part of the family for 6 months at a time is a testament to the open and friendly nature of these people and indeed most Americans.

So this all disproves or maybe just adapts the statement I typed at the start of this post - they are chosen friends who have become my chosen family in a way. I got the best of both worlds !!

Anyway I'm hoping to meet some more friends over the next few days as we're taking out the 5th Wheel for a spin - so to speak. We hooked it up to the truck earlier tonight and in the morning we're off down I-75 to a campsite near Detroit for 4 nights as we want to see how the 3 of us can live in it together before we leave for Florida for the winter. Best to find out about any 'issues' now rather than when it's too late.

We plan to take in the Michigan State Fair and a visit to Toledo Zoo so the time will pass quickly. We've got cable hookup and even wi-fi internet (we don't rough it) but just in case those aren't enough to keep us amused when in the camp, we got 3 dvds from the local library and can play them on the built-in dvd player. It's a hard life.

So the next posting might be from pastures new and hopefully I'll have some photos of exotic and even dangerous animals to post - and I might even take some at the zoo

Friday, August 18, 2006

Where I'm At.

I don't mean where I'm at in my life right now. Well I do, but not in the usual vague philosophical way that the phrase is often used.

I'm in America and more specifically, I'm in Houghton Lake, Michigan. That's in Mish-a-gyn. Not Mitch-a-gyn. There is no 't' in Michigan. They're more into coffee and Bud Light !

No seriously, I just get so fed up with people - well ok by people I really mean Brits - who ask where I go in America and when I tell them Michigan, they always repeat it back to me but stick a 't' in it. I've no idea why and when pressed, neither do they ! It's one of life's little mysteries - like Ulster people calling movies, filims (note the extra 'i' ). Weird.

There are over 11,000 lakes in Michigan which would make one think that a good pair of wellies would be high on the list of items to pack as the state must be one, large, squelchy bog. Not so, and often we've driven several hundred feet before seeing more water !! Only joking.

Anyhoooo, I'm here in Houghton Lake and what a delightful place it is. The town is on the edge of the lake of the same name which makes it a VERY delightful place. The lake is the largest in the state at 22,000 acres and is 8 miles long by 4 wide. With an average depth of only 8.5 feet and a deepest point of 20 feet, it's not likely to be hiding any monsters of Nessy proportions. There might be a few fishing shacks, supermarket trolleys and even the odd 4x4 which fell through the winter ice, but no monsters.

The town is slightly harder to give statistics for. It's not even easy to know where it starts and ends. This is because there are really 3 built up and populated areas which merge together along this part of M-55 and for many years I thought of it as all being.....Houghton Lake. These are Prudenville, Houghton Lake and Houghton Lake Heights - sometimes just called The Heights. The total community full time population is close to 11,000 if you can believe some web sites but this number could be as low as 6,000 if you try other sites. What they all agree on is that the population increases three fold in summer when vacation visitors arrive to enjoy the amenities.

Another reason for the difficulty in tying down the population figures is that Houghton Lake is a resort area and many of the houses are vacation homes only used at weekends or for weeks at a time in the summer. In fact 47% of houses are vacant in Houghton Lake which kinda proves this point.

I've mentioned before that my daily walk takes me along the shores of the lake and is a wonderful route to follow. Last week I rode my bike on one occasion for a change of pace and today I decided to do it again........this time with my camera. I really wanted to get to an area a mile or so past my turn around point (when walking) as it is almost like a small Fort Lauderdale with various waterways, canals, inlets or whatever you care to call them.

These all lead to the lake of course but the homes along their edges are some of the most beautiful and well cared for houses I've ever seen and being on the water, they are also some of the most expensive houses in the county.

Now this doesn't tie in with another census statistic about the area - that the per capita annual income is only $27,000. This would certainly give the impression that most houses are little more than shacks as that is all the population should be able to afford. As usual with this area and statistics, there is a lot more below the surface.

There are a lot of retired people who have wonderful waterfront homes and I may be totally off beam here but my guess would be their pensions, and certainly their savings, would not be classed as income. This would explain the hundreds of stunning homes I've seen when exploring all the little roads around the lake.

Being lakefront properties, just about every one has a water craft of some sort docked and ready to enjoy right in the water at the end of their lawns.

I'm not really a water person but that might be due to living inland in the UK and having no use for a boat. When I rode by and saw all the pontoon boats, motorboats and jet-ski's lined up close to these homes, it sure seemed like the 'good life' to me.

As usual, the owners were very friendly and not 'snooty' at all. Many homes had the owners names on little wooden signs outside and the word 'welcome' was everywhere.

If I wanted some views from the end of their properties, I was never refused or even questioned when I asked if I could wander down to the waters edge. No one stood over me while I walked about and the only time the owner did accompany me, it was to chat with me when he knew I was from England. Ok I know I wasn't on some exclusive property like in some parts of America but even so, it was refreshing to not be 'greeted' with the cool reception I'm sure I'd get back home if I ever asked permission to walk onto someone's back lawn !!

I do love these pontoon boats. They can be 16-22ft long and can easily be towed from home to water, can carry a ton of people (ok usually 6-12) and are often called party boats. They are not suitable for open sea water as a decent wave would cause major problems but they are very popular on the lake as it is calm and shallow and so suits these craft.

They remind me of glorified WW2 landing craft but they take their occupants to a more peaceful type of beach. Needless to say, they can be as luxurious (or as basic) as you want and prices range accordingly. A cheap basic 2nd hand one would be about $1500 (£850) but a new deluxe model could be as much as $30,000 (£16,500).

They glide by almost noiselessly as the water laws on the canals here state no wakes. To achieve this, water craft have to REALLY go slowly. Given their size and the number of occupants, pontoon boats are not designed for speed - so even when they hit the more open waters of the main lake, they don't suddenly rear up like a speedboat and shoot off like a startled deer. No, they gracefully pick up some speed and never allow the party goers onboard to get a drop of spray on them. Although too wide for our UK canal system, I quite fancy one for Lake Windermere .

They are not confined to home owners along the canals of course and many are docked all around the lake. They can be rented by the hour and due to the number of passengers they carry, the per person price isn't bad at all for a day out on the lake.

Anyway, enough publicity for the pontoon industry !!

I clocked up 18 miles on this bike ride around and along the numerous inlets which lead off the lake. The views were wonderful and it never felt like hard work as there was so much to keep me distracted from the partial numbness and growing pains in my nether regions. Have I ever mentioned my amazement (and disappointment) that no one seems to have invented a comfortable bike saddle yet ??? Ok I probably have !!

My last view of the canal area was when I got back onto my walking road and came to a little bridge which spanned one of the inlets. I took a rest and photographed the scene before me as it seemed I had the whole place to myself. Being a weekday, most of the craft were docked at home and so there wasn't even a single ripple to disturb the scerenity of the calm waters.

The sun was out, the sky was blue and the birds were a twittering. If it wasn't for the discomfort in my ass and the realisation that I'd a 6 mile ride back home, I'd have been a happy bunny.

I think I'll only cycle once a week as it's still a constant battle to keep my heart rate at a reasonably steady pace. It only takes a slight incline to get it shooting up 15% or more and that's not good for me. It's much easier to keep a steady pace when walking but it can be frustrating as I can only cover 5.5 miles in 90 minutes - and on the bike I can cover 3 times that distance and see so much more.

When the 5.5 miles takes in scenery as I've described here, it's not so bad. I'd certainly think twice about doing it in an inner city as any benefits from being out in the fresh air (???) would be offfset by the chances of getting severe lead poisoning (via bullet or knife).

Yes both at home in the UK (see earlier posts) and here on holiday in the US, I'm blessed that I have beautiful walking routes right on both doorsteps. My part in all this is to actually get out there most days and take advantage of it all. I'd normally be concerned about what to do here when winter comes and the roads get covered in snow for months at a time - but this November we're off to Florida so 'summer' should continue until I leave at the end of January. Woohoooo.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

On Yer Bike !!

I have my own bike here in Michigan.....a birthday pressy from a few years ago. It's much better than the one I have at home in England and once again, it's a product which is far cheaper here. I rode it to WalMart a few hours ago and I had a look at bikes there and a very good mountain bike that I'd love to have at home was $69 ! Wow. They also had a dvd player for $27.98. They'll soon be giving them away free in corn flake boxes. Showing my age now as nothing comes free in cereal boxes any more.

Not everything is cheaper here, of course, but most things are. So far I've only found batteries, light bulbs and most fruits to be more expensive. I don't shop that much here so I'm not best placed to make comparisons but I think I'd be hard pressed to get a dvd player in the UK for £15.

Anyway back to my biking. I've been walking most days since my arrival on 1st but as my bike was outside on the porch, I just had to go off on it today. I even washed it - something I've never done with my UK one - and it was gleaming in the summer sunshine as I peddled off along my walking route. Crossing the dreaded main road was hassle free as no darn pedestrian buttons needed to be pushed. Today I was a road warrior !

I've one of those little gismos that records distance, speed, overall distance, average speed, stopwatch, mortgage repayments, Big Brother evictions and so on. As I also had on my heart monitor, I'd so much information at my fingertips that I felt like a NASA astronaut.

I was pleased when it clicked onto 2.75 miles when I got to the junction where I turn around on my walk. That tied in with my pedometer and the site I use so I can be pretty confident now that my walk does indeed take me 5.5 miles. I was getting hungry so went to the local Chinese restaurant and had a cup of egg drop soup - just enough to stop the rumblings but not enough to make it hard to peddle onwards.

Lee's has to be the best Chinese restaurant in the area. The food is awesome and we go so often that we know the family. I even keep in touch via email when I'm back home !!!

And so on to WalMart. I like WalMart. Yes I'm he one. It seems to be popular here to bad mouth it for various reasons from low wages to using cheap overseas suppliers but the one that makes me laugh the most is the blame they get for putting small stores out of business when they move into a town. Just watch those protestors flock to the store and fill up their huge trolleys evey week !

My one complaint about such stores is that they keep costs down by never having enough staff. I know most of us can be trusted to do the weekly shop without needing help but now and again we want something different or have some product question and would like to see a 'happy to help' employee close at hand - seems you have to walk the length of the store to find one of these rare creatures.

I didn't buy anything as I didn't want to have to carry it while cycling back. I was still quite hungry and the hot food counter was tempting me almost as much as the donut section. But I held firm and left empty handed. Being my first ride this year, my rear was unused to this mode of transport and let me know about it. Now I'm sorry but if we can put a man on the moon and develop french fries that have never been near a potato, why can't we have a bike seat that you can get off without the feeling that you've been kicked multiple times by a mule ?

I'll probably go back to walking tomorrow. It's slower and not as much fun as cycling but at least I don't end up walking like John Wayne !!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Bashing & Bikinis

Houghton Lake, where I'm at for a few months, is a resort town. The population is only a few thousand for half the year when the snow covers the area, but this increases dramatically in summer when the holiday house owners come up for weekends and longer and open up their beautiful waterfront homes.

There are also a few annual events which swell the numbers of non residents and this weekend we're having one of them - The Bud Bash. They estimate 6,000 people will come for the weekend and over 400 water craft will be moored behind the Limberlost which hosts the event. This is it's 21st year but it's only in the last decade that the numbers have grown so much and that petty crime has been an issue.

If ever an event could be classed as unique, this is it. Well unique by my standards of reference anyway - as I'm sure there may be events like it all over America. But I certainly can't imagine many bar/restaurants which stage a beer 'festival' where more customers arrive by water than by land !

The bash, as it's called, goes on all over the weekend and at the end of my daily walk yesterday, I popped along to take in the atmosphere and snap a few pics. The front of the place looked pretty normal to the casual passer-by but one clue that something different was going on came from the bikini clad females and bare chested males who were in the car park as well as wandering along both sides of the main road and surrounding areas. Being a resort town, the sight of a few such individuals wouldn't be out of place but this weekend we're talking about them in their hundreds.

As you can see from the photo, Budweiser were, and always have been, the sponsers and so the Bud Bash has made it's way into the town's history. This link is to the local news site so it may not always be available for viewing.

Entry to the bash is not free and so the outsides of the bar were fenced off and customers had to gain entry via a sort of Checkpoint Charlie set up - where money was exchanged for a colourful wrist band so you could leave and return without having to pay again.

When I was there, everyone seemed to be 'happy' and there were no signs of any trouble at all. Now if this had been in the UK, the police would've been out in riot gear and there would have been fighting and rioting, certainly scenes of throwing up and probably unconscious bodies lying all over the place. We are the drunken louts of the Western World and sadly take our behaviour wherever we go. It appears that for a large proportion of our youth, a good night out or even a good holiday abroad involves downing copious volumes of alcohol, throwing up shortly afterwards and waking up the following morning in some gutter or on a beach or if a similarly intoxicated and willing female was found, then in a bed which may have more than two occupants ! Hang on, maybe that IS a good night out !!!

But getting off my soap box and getting back to the bash, I went down the side of the fencing to get some shots of the crowds on the water. I noticed the police were set up at the waters edge and when they saw me, they said I was on private property and needed to leave. I apologised and hearing my accent and learning I was from England, they said I could take a few photos before needing to leave ! So I did.

This first photo doesn't give a good impression of the crowds and the number of boats as the view is close to the shore line.

I should imagine that as the alcohol consumption goes up, individuals attempting to walk along this dock to their boats could very well end up in the water. I guess that's one reason why there was an ambulance on site !

Depending on your point of view, the gent on the dock who is too short for his skin should be either wearing a shirt to spare the eyes those of a sensitive nature or should be proud of his body and sod anyone who thinks otherwise. He's gone for the later.

The next photo shows off the water 'car' park much better - it looks more like an MTV party than a small town beer festival.

The gent in the black closest to the camera seems to be doing, or about to do, something that the police behind me would class as worthy of their attention.

Given that two ladies (??) are about to pass him by, then several other citations could be aimed at him !

I'm not sure if the two up on the tower have seen too many episodes of Baywatch but I don't think sharks have ever been sighted in Houghton Lake......or any other lake come to that. Maybe they have just lost their Buds.

I've discovered that when certain American types have a little too much alcohol, they don't bother with fighting or throwing up as I said the Brits do. No, they get all competitive and want to show off their athletic prowess. Near the entrance gate, I found these 2 in a challenge to try to outdo each other with push ups.

Actually I'm not sure if any counting was involved and they were just keeping in time with each other till one dropped out - I didn't care enough to stay around to find out.

The car park was full of trucks and cars of course but there were plenty of gleaming bikes as well - mostly Harleys which their owners had spent many hours keeping in showroom condition. I assume it's sacreligious to let a dollup of mud or a spot of grease tarnish a Harley as I've never seen one other than in showroom condition.

That was yesterday and today, Sunday, it's very quiet from the area of the bash. Maybe they're having a day of rest too ! Maybe they're all out on the lake !! Maybe the beer ran out !!! Last year there were 120 arrests so we'll be watching the local news with interest to see if that's one challenge that was' bettered' this year.

UPDATE : the bash is over and the news report claims about 130 arrests were made this year - so slightly up on 2005.

Rednecks & Idiots

No I'm not going to have a go at anyone here in America - the redneck and idiot in question is......ME !!

Redneck ? Well I mean this in it's literal sence as after my walk yesterday without any sun goo, I've now got a red neck. Not burned or anything, just a bit red.

And the idiot bit ? Well that goes back to my rant yesterday about the unchanging red hand on the traffic intersection here. I was back there today on my walk and noticed a button on the pole containing the walk/don't walk signs !! Yes it was as simple as that. As I got there, the lights for the main road were on red so I pressed the button and the white man lit up almost immediately and I walked across the road with confidence and barely a break in my stride.

What a plonker I am ! Ok in my defence, we have such buttons in the UK but they don't need to be pressed as the lights will always change to our version of walk anyway. The theory is that the button speeds up this action but I've always known this is a ruse and the button is wired to nothing - it's a placebo to make the pedestrian think he or she is in control of the lights.

Actually I think it IS wired to something. I'm sure there is a big neon sign up on the wall in some traffic controllers office with the words 'Idiot Button' on it and it lights up every time that button is pressed somewhere in my city. There may even be a counter and the office guys have a bet to see what the total comes to each day.

I could have edited my previous post to remove all references to the 'red hand' and spared this public humiliation, but my laziness is even more advanced than my need to be right ALL the time !!

But speaking of being right, lemme tell a little story here. It was a couple of days ago and my first full evening here and we were watching one of those American Idol type shows - this was called "America's Got Talent" and is a throw back to shows from previous decades which spotlighted the sort of acts we rarely see anymore. In the UK we had them too and many stars were 'discovered' on them and went on to have long and very successful careers in what we would call the light entertainment field.

The sort of acts I mean are magicians, tumblers, ventriloquists, comedians and other speciality performers like.......well contortionists. Talent shows these days only showcase singers and so these 'lesser' acts never make it onto tv. The downside is that we're now so used to sophisticated, polished singers on talent shows that when suddenly presented with two guys throwing flaming batons across the stage at each other, we tend to get up and fix something to eat and wait for the exciting (by contrast) commercials.

My first comment when seeing this show was....hey I know him !!! One of the 3 judges is the Brit, Piers Morgan who was editor of a rag tabloid in the UK before being fired in 2004. So now he's a panalists on this US tv show. A few minutes later we saw an act that won through from last week and I again said.......I know her !!! As she was a young contortionist, my friends were somewhat disbelieving but I was able to offer proof.

Back in 2003, we went to Vegas and stayed at the newly opened Aladdin resort and casino. As with most of the new themed hotels there, The Aladdin had a shopping precinct that ran around the complex and was called Desert Passage. It had various entertainers to keep the shoppers amused and one of them was a young contortionist.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to photograph a pretty young thing, I snapped a couple of pics which showed her flexibility !!

I think my friends were still doubtful - this was before I showed them the photos of course - and I was trying to recall more about her in Vegas to jog their memories. This made quite a change as I'm usually the one with the terrible memory but maybe it was the fact I'd taken these photos that made it so clear in my mind.

I thought about her act in Vegas and said..........on the tv show last week, did she happen to fire a bow and arrow using her toes to pull back the string ? Well that did it ! YES SHE DID !!!!!! they screamed.

This was my cue to power up the laptop and display these 2 photos. I was totally vindicated !

But what a small world it is. I have to say when we left her in the Desert Passage back in 2003 I never expected to see her again - never mind seeing her on a national tv show.

Of course I still needed proof it WAS the same girl so I surfed a bit and found her name is Lilia Stepanova and she's 19.......which means she was only 16 when these pics were taken. She lives in Vegas and was a student there in 2003.

So I guess it IS the same girl and that takes me back to my starting point. I may not be right ALL the time but it's pretty darn close

Walking In America

Sounds like a grand title but read it closely - I'm not walking ACROSS America, just IN America. Huge difference I believe.

I got here safe and sound on Tuesday at 12:45pm after a relatively good flight and a relatively easy passage through immigration. Both these are good things and rarely happen together for me. Actually I had to have 2 flights to get from the UK to America but the first was just a short hop to Amsterdam so hardly counts. They did manage to piss me off once again (last January Amsterdam airport security goons confiscated some of my carry on items even though I'd passed through US checking procedures with no hassle at all) but I didn't know about it till I got to Detroit so I'm getting ahead of myself already.

So I'm going down the plane (at Amsterdam) to get to my seat and I see from a distance that some bearded youth in the seat next to mine is reading a book and has got his right leg up over our communal arm rest and his bare foot is on my seat. Oh what a lovely start to an 8 hr flight. He moves his leg slowly to let me know my presence onboard has ruined his karma and for the next 8 hrs we take turns on the armrest and not a word passes between us. Sadly the same can't be said about his bare foot and several times it landed in MY foot well and on a few occasions it even touched my innocent leg. At 35,000ft no-one can hear you scream !

Anyway I watched Mission Impossible 3, Inside Man and The Incredibles and apart from a bit of a turbulent period over Thailand (we took the scenic route to America), the flight passed quite quickly. I'll draw a veil over the food which would have been better if the crew had done the same.

We arrived at Detroit 30 mins early due to some clever downhill flying from Northwest Airlines' finest - but then lost most of that time by first of all taking a sighseeing tour of every inch of every runway on the way to the terminal and then by finding someone had selfishly taken our parking bay with their plane. Damn cheek. After the usual spectacle of 200 people totally ignoring the announcement to remain seated until the plane comes to a complete standstill, we got off and hit immigration running. This can be my undoing and I'm never able to get excited about any US trip until I've cleared this hurdle. But it was a breeze this time and apart from the usual questions relating to my lengthy visit, I was fingerprinted, photographed and told I was welcome to enter ! Wooohoooo.

I went to the luggage reclaim area and that's where I discovered that Amsterdam had shafted me again. The special TSA lock that I'd bought and used on my one case was gone. Ok I guess the fault was mine as I never thought to check what TSA stood for. I thought it was a worldwide company that dealt with airport security. No I tell a lie - I never stopped to think WHAT it stood for at all. I just bought the lock thinking it would be accepted worldwide. Seems not. Amsterdam security cut it off and that was that. Bye bye expensive lock. I'm definitely getting a thing about Amsterdam and it's airport.

But I was in Michigan and could NOW get excited about my holiday. My friend Debby met me as arranged and called up Dennis by phone and in a few minutes a huge 3500 Silverado behemoth loomed into view, gobbled up my luggage and whisked me off up I-75 to Houghton Lake and my US home. After 44 hrs with no sleep, I fell into bed at 10pm and zoned out for 8 hrs.

Next morning I decided to make a start on an early walk as the heat index was heading off the scale again. I started at 11am and walked along the lake side for 30 mins and turned back to make up the hour. I felt that was good enough for the first day and it WAS very hot and humid. No point in overdoing it.

And so to today. It was overcast after a wet night but with the promise of blue skies to come. I took the camera with me as I knew I'd be creating this post. I set off at 2pm intending to try for the 5.5 mile route along the lake. The first photo is of the road the house is on but I won't name names. It's certainly wider than the ones I'm used to at home and the other difference is the lack of a pavement (sidewalk to my US friends).

It's still creates a pretty start to the route as it's very quiet and best of all, almost flat. Over on the right is part of the new 5th wheel that we'll be using this summer and of course for the trip down to Florida in November.

There was little or no sunshine at this time and the temp was about 77F so very pleasant indeed for walking.

I'd noticed yesterday that my heart rate was about 15% higher on my walk than I'm used to - but I put that down to my lack of walking for the previous 4 days and the heat of course. Today was much more normal and my pulse never went into the 90's at all. At the bottom of this road, I turned left and approached the intersection with the towns main road. Now this was where I had the problems yesterday as you take your life in your hands trying to cross it on foot. I know America is infamous for not considering the needs of the pedestrian, but this junction sets new boundries. The red 'wait' hand never changes to the white walking man. Never.

In this photo, I've managed to cross the road and am looking back from whence I to speak. The main road is going left to right (ok and right to left too !!) and you can maybe make out the red 'hand' on the far side. I'm amazed the bulbs haven't burned out by now as it's always lit. The little white man below it must be on vacation himself as he never appears.

Thankfully Houghton Lake is no Chicago and if 3 vehicles are in a line, it's called rush hour. So once the lights on the main road have turned to red, I've time to cross while looking for cars turning from the other road. This is the point in my walk where my heart rate gets close to 90 but it has little to do with the effort being expended and more to do with the adrenaline rush I get trying to avoid an unexpected and ill prepared for meeting with my Creator.

This then is the start of the road that wends it's merry way along the southern end of the lake. There are houses on both sides and the ones on the left are 'on the lake' and so prime properties and cost twice or three times as much as similar homes on t'other side of this road.

Many, if not most, are vacation and weekend homes and lie empty in the colder months. I love looking at houses on my walks in the UK and even more so here in the US as they are so different.

The road is very quiet with little traffic which also suits me and reminds me of home. The home owners are very friendly and most wave and say hi as I pass by in a blur of Olympian speed. I will admit to being a drug taker but in my case they are prescription ones and if anything, slow me down more than anything else !!

There is a good spread of house sizes along this road and they range from places which must only have one bedroom to awesome mansions which could probably sleep The Osmonds if they came to town.

This is one of my favourites of the ones that are on the lake front and I can just imagine John Boy and Jim Bob and Mary Ellen etc all shouting out their goodnights here. Ok it's a long way from the nearest mountain but maybe they could be on vacation for a few shows.

The lake is just visible on the right as this view is of the side and rear of the house. As with all the properties along the road, the lawns are immaculate and better maintained than most golf courses - well the owners have plenty of time on their hands so can keep their places looking nice. It might also be an area where you have to keep your lawn neat as part of some sort of local by-law. In any case, it works for me.

The road doesn't hug the lake but has numerous little offshoots leading right to the waters edge.............and where you can launch your boat of course. I went down one of these off shoots in order to dip a toe in the water but when I got to the edge, there was a load of nasty froth goop floating about and so my shoes and socks stayed firmly in place.

Overall, of course, the lake is very pretty to the eye but like a lot of things in life, it often doesn't bare close inspection.

As you can see, the weather had improved 100% and I was starting to regret not having slapped on the factor 15. My neck was toasting nicely on one side and in an effort to get an overall burn going, I walked backwards for a while ! Only kidding.

There are a couple of pontoon boats out on the lake in this pic and those are boats we don't have in the UK - to the best of my knowledge but I may be wrong. Feel free to correct me btw as I'll readily admit to not being a boat buff.

By this time I'd reached my mid point on the route and turned round. I should walk it in 45 mins but as I'd stopped a few times to take photos, it took me a bit longer today.

On the way back I really wanted to go to the front of a waterfront home to get a view of the lake from that view point. I came to a house where the owner was outside and I kind of invited myself in. My accent can be VERY helpful in situations like this and after changing his will to include me, the owner let me go out along his private dock where he had 5 different kinds of water vehicle moored. Talk about the good life. He was enjoying his and taking quite a chunk of mine too ! But as with most Americans I've come across, he was very open, friendly and happy to share his good fortune (ok not literally) with me.

After about another 30 mins of good hard walking, I was back at the 'intersection of death' and ignoring that darn red hand again, I jaywalked across the main road and was almost home. I thought I'd take a better photo of the 5th wheel but this is the best I could get as a friends boat was in the way and stopped me from getting a more impressive side on view.

This shot almost compresses the unit and makes it appear shorter than it really is. (I'm really saying this for the benefit of most non Americans who may have NO idea what a 5th wheel looks like). It's not much longer than my old travel trailer but it's much wider and when the three 'sides' are out, it's VERY roomy.

We'll be going on a trip soon to test how the 3 of us get on in such 'cozy' conditions but I'm sure it'll be fine. Hell, we camped with a popup a few years ago and if we survived that and remained friends, the 5th wheel should be a mansion.

And that was it. It total I walked 6.3 miles and ended up with a neck the same colour as the previously mentioned cross walk hand. Thankfully I'd worn a cap or I dread to think what I'd have looked like - the only head to be visible from the space station !

I'm ending with a shot of the house that is my home for the next few months. I know, it's a hard life. It's even in my favourite colour

The power lines spoil this shot and I could edit them out but hey, lets go for realism for a change. No touchups.

So all in all I think I'm going to enjoy my walks here. It's hard to better a good combination of light traffic plus beautiful scenery and this route has both. I'm sure I'll master the intersection - hopefully before a local runs me down - but if nothing else, it gives my heart a much needed boost !

I got back, had a shower, shaved off my hair (seriously, I did) and fixed supper for myself as I was home alone. That just about ended my 2nd full day here - only 176 more to go !!! Sighhhh.

What A Summer That Was !

Well it was great while it lasted and helped to take all our minds of the dismal England performances in the World Cup, Wimbledon (tennis) and the cricket series against Sri Lanka. What am I talking about ? Why the summer of course.

You see it ended today......or maybe it's tomorrow. Course we could have more hot sunny days in August but we can't expect the forecasters to tell us that. THEY say is over. But what do they know ? Well, they know as much as we do. They spend millions on new super fast number crunching computers and feed in global weather statistics and climate patterns and what comes out the other end ? Lovely maps and hi-tech graphics presented via blue screen backdrops by blonde ex bimbos who have a degree in meteorology from a correspondance college in Salt Lake City.

Are these wonderful forecasts accurate ? Are they heck as like !! If they say rain in Scotland, you'd better slap on the factor 16. Bone dry in the South West, invest in flippers and a snorkel. Calm in London, don't dare open your umbrella.

They've having a laugh. I mean no one is saying that weather forecasting is an easy task. Way too many variables. Too many people killing butterflies in Asia for one thing. Don't they know the effrect this has on the British weather for goodness sake ??? So yes, it's a thankless, hopeless task and quite frankly, I can't ever see it getting better till we all live under huge dio-domes with a switch near the door to control the atmosphere. A dimmer switch I think. Yes, definitely a case for a dimmer switch. Oh and can the last person to leave, please make it night time ?

So please don't spend any more money on weather forecasting. By all means give us a few minutes of it every day as by the law of averages, it'll be right sometimes. But don't stand there in front on your blue screen and look like you're telling us what's going to happen today, tomorrow and for the next few days. We can look at the sky and work it out for ourselves, thank you very much.

Nevertheless, despite the forecasters, we've had a glorious period of summer with cracking temps and enough sunshine blasting down through the remains of the ozone layer to toast our flabby bared bellies and guarantee a generation of skin cancer victims in 30 years time. All Winter and Spring we've prayed for a summer like this and a few days after it arrives. we're all moaning and groaning that it's way too hot and miserable and want it to end ! Who'd be God ? There's another thankless job for you.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I leave for America on Tuesday. If the weather does really break here tomorrow or Sunday, I could care less. I'll be busy packing. Next Tuesday it's to be 91F where I'm going and a few months of that will suit me just fine. Then I'll be in Florida for 3 months and we all know how that goes weather wise. Of course weather forecasts in the US aren't that much different than here but I kinda like their use of doppler radar graphics. I'm a sucker for technology and even if they get the forecast wrong, I still feel that I've been richly entertained for a few minutes. The point is, over there they don't have to know much about forecasting as it's relatively simple. If it's May-October, it's gonna be bloody hot. The evening forecast goes something like this : " Hi there, it's Wednesday, it's July, it's gonna be hot. News at 11 ".

So for me, summer will go on till February and you won't hear me moaning about THAT. In fact, from Tuesday onwards, when I hear the expression "have a nice day", I'll actually be tempted to smile and reply to it without my usual sarcasm.

Time to go press my swimming shorts..........................

Green Light To Happiness

Well after a very nervous time involving a trip to the hospital, I got the all clear healthwise and can look forward to my trip to Michigan on Tuesday. Woooooohoooooo.

It has been a VERY weird time as although I've obviously had to plan things thinking I'll be leaving in a few days, I've not been able to get 100% into it as there was a chance I'd have to put the trip off for a while.

Thankfully it's now GO GO GO and I can start planning and getting ready in earnest. Wooooohooo again.

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