Nashville surprised me. As I scanned the radio station for a country music channel playing something I could tap my toes to, I found a great city that can completely be related to Las Vegas – it is a city made of dreams.
The neon lit bars of Broadway splashed colour along the strip, enticing the hoardes of tourists in to hear the live music.
Cowboy boots and little floral dresses seemed to be the fashion statement of choice and more than one person had their photo taken with the giant guitar on the street corner.
Like Vegas, the main street was filled with people there to have a good time. And that vibe is infectious.
So even if you’re not into country music and Nashville isn’t your mecca, it still provides plenty of fun. Although don’t bother with the mechanical bull at Cadillac Ranch, it’s lame in comparison to the true country bull at PBR in Kansas City.
“I wonder if the rangers need to be accredited?” was a comment I head a young woman ask her partner as I was following a hundred Americans through Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.
I almost snorted out loud.
Maybe my attitude was tainted by the little sleep I’d had the night before and the subsequent drive, but this tour was interminably boring. Since you can only see the cave on a tour, I selected one that described the difficulty level as ‘moderate’ hoping it would weed out the old, feeble, very young and unadventurous. However we still had all of the above on the tour, as many people seem to overstate their abilities.
Perhaps my ‘tude also came from being told by the long-haired, red necked ranger that I couldn’t take my bottle of water even though I’d been told at the ticket booth that water was allowed. Apparently it had to be in a see-through bottle. Thanks for telling me earlier instead of in front of 100 waiting Americans.
On the bus to the cave entrance, an old yellow school bus that this time I was not excited to ride, I decided to close my eyes and take a little nap. I was interrupted by the small children in front of me saying “look Grandpa, she’s sleeping”. Grandpa replied “Oh no, she’s just pretending.” So when I did open my eyes to glare at them, I caught 3 pairs of little eyes watching me like I was a Wiggles DVD. Grandpa received my sleep status update with a whisper.
I probably should have cut my $12 loss on the ticket and walked back to the visitor centre from there instead of following a bunch of painful people through a largely unimpressive cave.
The last cave I was in was at Waitomo, New Zealand where I abseiled through two waterfalls and got to rock scramble. That was exciting. The cave before that in Margaret River, Western Australia was incredibly beautiful and full of formations.
This dry cavern wasn’t particularly interesting, even less so when you are traipsing behind oohing and aahing Americans in a conga line that’s enough to make someone claustrophobic.
Thankfully the last little bit of the tour took us through the only patch of stalagmites and stalactites in the 300 plus miles of Mammoth Cave, the biggest in the world. That was interesting, but sadly my enthusiasm had completely disappeared and I needed to get away from the herd.
Now I’m hellbent on avoiding anything that is “family friendly”. I need more excitement than those type of activities can muster up. Or maybe I just need to be more tolerant. A situation greatly aided with a good amount of sleep.
I met some English guys at the pub in Louisville and in the pouring rain I drove two of them to Wick’s bar where were going to get pizza and party into the night.
I half-heartedly conversed with them as my concentration was required on the roads which were like rivers, and were it seemed to take an eternity to drive the two miles there.
My knuckles whitened and gripped Esmeralda’s steering wheel harder as a weather warning for tornadoes came over the radio. No sooner had we driven past the bar did I hear the tornado sirens wailing in the streets.
I quickly parked Esmeralda behind a bank and post office, not caring if it was a towaway zone and said to the guys “We have to get out now!” and jumped out. The two Poms didn’t understand my haste and ten metres from the car I screamed at them to get out of the car so I could lock it.
“These are tornado sirens, we have to get inside NOW!” I bellowed like a fishwife.
I was petrified. I had visions of the tornado raging through the water-filled streets sucking me up along and slamming me with debris.
I ran about 20 metres to the street corner and barely checking the traffic, crossed the streets at a sloshy run holding my hands up in a ‘stop’ command to any vehicles thinking of crossing my path. I didn’t stop until I got to the safety of the bar and then turned to see the guys still standing on the other side of the street, bewildered and looking lost.
We asked a couple in a booth eating pizza if they were tornado sirens in the street and they were so nonplussed as they said “yeah” with a shrug of their shoulders. I was still packing shit. My legs were jittery from the adrenaline that had pumped through them in a state of fear just moments before.
At the counter I asked a girl about the sirens, my voice incredulous as it asked “Is that a tornado warning? Is there a tornado?” My eyes were wide with fear and she laughed it off and said oh-so-coolly “Yeah”. I asked if we were going to be okay and her reply was a not particularly comforting “Yeah, if it gets really bad we have a big basement.”
The guys clearly weren’t afraid as they were more worried about getting drinks. We had to go through to another section where you got all the beer and pizza you wanted for $10.75. The tornado warning and sirens were still on my mind and I ended up having a big conversation with the bouncer checking IDs about it. He finally calmed my nerves as he gave me all the info I was after. Apparently the tornado had touched down in Louisville earlier that afternoon (while I was in the safety of my motel room) and had taken the roof off a sports stadium. He said the danger was over and the rains were just what follows. Only after this conversation did I start to feel less shaky.
I think, even though I wasn’t right in middle the storm, that this is the most scared I’ve ever been.
It feels kind of strange to sneak up on a National Monument from behind, but that’s what happens when you come from the west to a monument signifying the gateway to the west.
I joined a throng of Americans to go up to the top of the 630 foot tall Gateway Arch, which kind of looks like a massive half of a McDonald’s M, just in silver. In the capsule to the top, a guy commented “I’m surprised McDonald’s hasn’t set up shop next door” echoing what I was thinking.
As dusk descended on my campsite on the outskirts of St Louis, Missouri, flickers of floating light caught my eye.
When one drew closer, I realised it was a firefly with a flaming tail that switched on and off. I had never seen fireflies before and the novelty wasn’t lost on me as I scanned the growing darkness with eager eyes and childlike fascination.
The small twinkling lights looked like the stars had jumped from the sky and were now playing among the lush green carpet. I felt like I was at the centre of the universe in the warm evening air.
Kansas City has reinvigorated my roadtrip. I was lonely, tired of my own company and bored. I had never planned on coming to Kansas City, but desperate for company, I took Hiker Buddy Brian up on the offer of his couch so I could have some good conversation and resocialise myself.
It was such a great decision to make as cruising around in Hiker Buddy Brian’s Mustang convertible, riding mechanical bulls, sharing meals, making new friends and having great conversations was exactly what I needed at this halfway point on my way east.
Whilst it is nice (and essential for me) to have time on your own to reflect and whatever, too much can drive you crazy. The alone time has made me appreciate my friendships so much more because without friends, my life would be interminably lonely. And I’m too much of an extrovert to cope well with long periods of solitude. I don’t think I quite thought through this solo roadtrip very well and certainly didn’t think I’d be doing it all on my own. I thought it would be easy to meet people going the same direction as me, although it turns out that if the people I met weren’t nutty, they were going west. I’ve discovered that travelling in America you need to throw out the travel manual you use in other countries or continents. It just doesn’t work the same way.
So I showed my new friends my appreciation for their company and the fun times they showed me by baking a pavlova, the first one in six weeks.
I have found so much fun in Kansas City and tonight was almost too much excitement to bear.
We went out to dinner, tapas at a cute little Spanish restaurant called La Bodega with Hiker Buddy Brian and his friend (my new friend) Hillary and then cruised around KC in The Mustang with the top down singing songs that included some Australian music by ACDC and Jet.
Then we hit the nightlife of the Power and Light District and I was told I had to ride the mechanical bull. I had always wanted to ride a mechanical bull, but never really had the opportunity, or the guts to do it when the opportunity was nearby. But, when in the Midwest at a bar that caters to the country music loving crowd and has a mechanical bull as its centrepiece, you are in the right place to take that bull ride.
And so I did.
I got off that bull jubilant and with quivering legs from gripping it so tightly. Not even watching the “professional” girls and guys working at the bar leap upon the bull and expertly ride it without holding on with their hands could take away from me the fact that I totally nailed that bull ride.
Kansas City got really exciting tonight as I filled the evening with a number of firsts, starting with my first visit to Chipotle to pick up a burrito for dinner.
Chipotle is a chain of Subway-like Mexican that has taken America by storm. I’ve heard so many people ooh over it, but had never ventured in until Hiker Buddy Brian and I popped in for a quick bite before heading to another first, a professional soccer game.
We then drove to the game in Hiker Buddy Brian’s black Mustang convertible, my first ride in a convertible. That was quite exciting and I felt super cool as we drove at 70 miles an hour on the freeway with the wind blowing wisps of hair around my face and with me playing my fingers in the wind.
The brand new Sporting Kansas City soccer stadium is right next door to Kansas Speedway, so we ended up parking in the speedway parking lot fairly far away from the stadium. I started to get giggles of excitement as I saw those iconic yellow school buses in the lot and I predicted that they would shuttle us to the stadium. I could scarcely contain my excitement as that prediction came true and I was soon climbing aboard one with the awe and wonder of a small child. Whilst they cannot hold a candle to the school buses kids in Australia travel on, and are historic relics that somehow keep plying the bus routes with the bare minimum of fittings, I was completely enthralled in the experience and emerged hot and perspiring but jubilant.
According to Hiker Buddy Brian, scalping is de rigour and an accepted practice in America. As we didn’t have tickets for the game, which had already started, I was looking forward to that first experience too, but there were no scalpers and we had to do a lap around the stadium to get to the box office.
Inside, we found vacant seats close enough to our allocated seats down the end closest to the Sporting Kansas City supporters who were cheering loudly and bringing a crazy, festive atmosphere to the ground. I couldn’t help but smile and be in a good mood.
Shortly after sitting down, we saw Kansas City score the very first goal in the newly built stadium. They’d only played one previous game in the venue which was a draw at nil all. Confetti burst out from behind the goals, the crowd jumped to their feet and cheered as loud as their voices would allow them. It was so much fun.
I bought a bag of peanuts in their shells at half time, because the cashier had a little sticker on front of the register saying “Would you like peanuts with that?”. I wasn’t sure what to do with the shells as it is a messy process and I’d never eaten them at a special event. Hiker Buddy Brian told me to throw them on the ground. My littering sensibilities struggled with this. I looked at him and said “Really?” and he was like “Yeah, of course, they come through and clean everything up afterwards.” I was still hesitant. If I didn’t throw the shells on the ground, it would be easier for them to clean up, but the only other place I could put them was back in the bag with the ones I still had to shell and eat. I tentatively tossed one on the ground under the seat in front of me and felt desperately naughty. I then countered with the argument “why would you want to throw them on the ground and make a mess at your feet”. But with little other choice and hankering for salty peanuts, I threw the shells on the ground, kicking them under the seat in front of me so as to avoid getting the shells and skins between my toes.
It was so much fun. A night of calculating firsts and then to top it all off, from the safety of the apartment, we watched an amazing thunderstorm sweep across the city with flashes of light, cracking lightning bolts and some claps of thunder that made you feel as if you’d been cuffed behind the ear.
I got the hell out of Dodge and drove 350 miles to Kansas City where I was catching up with Hiker Buddy Brian who I met in Utah.
Arriving in the pretty city that was surprisingly devoid of people, I found what I’d been looking for – a nail salon.
After several weeks of travelling my feet were desperate for a pedicure. My heels were cracked and flaky skin formed a ring around my feet like a chalk outline on the footpath.
It turns out everyone in Kansas City was in the nail salon. All the Midwest bridal parties were having their nails done in preparation for “the big day” and engagement and wedding rings adorned the hands of almost all the women in there. After a short wait I sank back in the massage chair and had my feet primped and preened and my back and shoulders pummelled.
I felt like a million dollars when I walked out the door and into the surprisingly sultry weather. It was the perfect start to my city break and my feet sang with excitement.
The big billboards along the interstate between New Mexico and Texas announced that I could follow the Yellow Brick Road to Dorothy’s house and the Land of Oz. After Googling where the Land of Oz was, I found that it would be on my way to Kansas City, well on my way via one possible route.
The significance of this little tourist attraction was not lost on me as the company we set up in LA is called Yellow Brick Films, with an origin steeped in Wizard of Oz fascination.
I was prepared to be overcome by tackiness at the attraction, clearly the only reason people would actually stop in Liberal, Kansas. However I was completely taken aback and overcome by the sweetness of the experience.
Our teenage guide showed us through a replica of Dorothy’s house, pointing out things like how food was kept fresh and how to churn butter. I think there were others on the tour who had had first-hand experiences with those vintage implements.
Then our guide morphed into Dorothy as we entered a big shed with “Land of Oz” painted above the door. Her drama classes paid off as she led us along the yellow brick road past life-size dioramas of the story and she narrated in the first person of Dorothy.
I was completely surprised. It hadn’t expected to admire it so much and was super glad to have made the stop. So with a big grin, I spent up at the little gift shop and noticed how the Emerald City looks like a bunch of silos painted green.