Monthly Archives: October 2012

They Think It’s All Over

So Sandy has left us and is now bothering New York instead.  We’ve survived really lightly, with our city only suffering a few downed trees and flooded streets, nothing major.  And for us personally, no problems at all.

The husband went off to work on Sunday night while the storm was working up to its peak, so some friends who live in the same apartment block kindly invited me down for the evening to stop me feeling lonely or scared in the dark and stormy night.  Nice idea in theory.  What did we spend the evening doing though?  Watching a TV drama about Zombies.  Yeah, that will help with the fear when I’m back in my own apartment in the dead of night and we have a power cut!

Hubby made it home without problems in the early hours of Monday.  This was meant to be the worst day of the storm so we had no plans to go anywhere and kept our pyjamas on for the whole day.  Heavenly.  Contrary to expectations we had no more power cuts so it was a really uneventful but lovely day spent catching up on TV and just having a nice time together.  We normally want to use all our days off going out and exploring this new place that we live in, so it made a change to just hang out and do nothing.

We did venture out in the evening (finally having to get dressed at 8pm) for a games night with some friends.  I’m pleased to report that I kept my games champion tiara with a convincing victory 😀  Also by the time we finally crawled home in the early hours the wind and rain had definitely dropped off a bit.  This morning we woke up to a tiny bit of sunshine and dry streets.  The temperature has dropped significantly but this just means that it’s a bit more like your average October day in the UK rather than the sunbathing temperatures that we had a week ago.  It’s a bit strange actually having to wear a coat now.

So, overall no real harm done here by Sandy.  It’s felt just like a UK Bank Holiday weekend as pretty much everybody was off work/school and we had the chance to get together with friends.  Oh, and the weather was horrendous.

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Calm Before the Storm

It’s still fairly quiet here.  Well, for this area it’s actually really really windy and wet, it hasn’t stopped raining for about seventeen hours, but it’s no worse than your average October day in the UK.  In fact I’m starting to feel quite at home.  Anyway, the power went out at around 11am, back on for about 30 seconds, then off again.  Followed by sirens wailing everywhere.  I really shouldn’t have watched that Derren Brown programme about the end of the world last night.  We thought we were going to have to eat cold shepherd’s pie leftovers for lunch, but after about 45 minutes the power came back on again and has been on for the three hours since then.  We are fully expecting it to go off again sometime in the next twenty four hours and to come back on … erm … hopefully some time this side of Thanksgiving.

Hubby has just gone off to work so my only worry now is whether or not he can make it back home again tonight.  His workplace is fully hurricane-prepared so he’d actually be better off there, but I don’t really want to be stuck here by myself in a severe weather event.

Latest predictions are that the hurricane will not hit us directly but that we will still have extensive and sustained problems from it, i.e. flooding and power cuts.  We expect the worst of it to be with us sometime on Monday.  Given the fact that the eye of the storm is still a long way off and we are already suffering problems, it looks like it’s going to be a particularly interesting next twenty four to thirty six hours.  The balcony doors are already rattling in a threatening way so I’ll try not to look too surprised when they blow in in a spectacular fashion in the early hours ….

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Batten Down the Hatches

So Hurricane Sandy is on its way to us.  Aside from experiencing the same hurricane on two sides of the Atlantic in 2004 (in Cuba and in Cornwall), I’ve never actually had to worry about such things before.  I also vaguely remember the UK storms of 1987 and I really enjoyed sitting around the radio by candlelight with my parents for several evenings during the lengthy power cuts, actually having conversations for a change instead of all staring blankly at the telly, but I didn’t have any actual responsibilities that time around so it wasn’t really a worry.

Hurricane season should be over now but we’ve just got wind (yes, pun intended) of this last-minute bonus “severe weather event”.  I thought we would get by without having any excitement of the weather variety this year.  We started noticing Sandy crossing the Caribbean a couple of days ago, but this is something that we’ve become very accustomed to, despite having only lived in the USA for a couple of months, and as usual we paid it only cursory notice because every other hurricane or tropical storm has passed us by without any bother.  Not this time though.

It’s pretty exciting for the hubby and me, as well as for the other Brits that we know who have been out here for less than twelve months, simply because a hurricane is not something we normally have to deal with.  As far as we can tell, at the moment the eye of the storm is predicted to make landfall a fair bit further north than here so we shouldn’t get the brunt of it, however these predictions can and do change fairly swiftly.  Whatever happens, we’ll get heavy rain, flooding and high winds, peaking somewhere between Sunday and Tuesday, or thereabouts.  So we shouldn’t have too much of a weather issue.  Hurricane Irene went right through here in July 2011 and that was a fair bit worse, by all accounts.

The issue we are really expecting to have is either losing water supply or, most likely, major power cuts.  The electricity can get knocked out at the merest puff of wind here, and it can take days to get it back.  And you thought America was a highly developed country, huh?  Multiply this by the fact that a massive chunk of the East coast is all likely to lose power at the same time, and you start to have some serious problems.

The mass panic buying started late yesterday morning and seemed to peak around tea time.  By this morning the supermarkets were out of water and no doubt a few other basic staples too.  Given the fact that the power should only be off for maybe five days at the most (oh I sound so blasé, just wait until I’ve been without t’internet for 48 hours then I’ll be moaning!) we personally haven’t gone too mad.  We already had a hurricane lamp, radio and torch passed on by some of our British predecessors out here, so I did take the sensible route of buying batteries for all of those items, along with some water, bread and cheese.  We’ll live on cheese sandwiches for a week.  The hubby then sent me back out for the secondary essentials – beer, wine, crisps and chocolate.  Oh and the flat is full of candles anyway, cos we’re romantic like that.

The weather has definitely changed over the last twenty four hours, although it now resembles your average breezy day down on the front at Southsea.  Given the fact that we normally don’t get any wind here though, this has come as somewhat of a shock.  I was thinking about it, and we’ve probably had no more than about seven days of rain since we moved out here.  We might just be making up for that over the next seven days.  Well I was only saying the other day that it didn’t feel like proper October weather out here.

So here’s to the next few days of hiding by candlelight in our designated “safe room” (otherwise known as the walk-in wardrobe) with a stash of beer and snacks until this thing blows over.  Hubby is pleased though – it looks like trick or treating might be cancelled…..

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All Creatures Great & Small

We’ve seen quite a bit of wildlife over the past couple of days.  Yesterday we went to the Zoo.  I’ve still not really made my mind up about this.  On the one hand, it’s a great idea for raising awareness and funds for conservation projects and a fair number of the animals would probably not survive in the wild as they have injuries, such as the bald eagles with damaged wings that just wouldn’t be able to look after themselves or hunt properly.  It’s just that, well, on the other hand the animals in the zoo just look so depressed.  They’re usually not in their natural environment with its accompanying geography or climate.  A bit like me actually (but I’m pretty happy about my situation).

Today, however, we went for a cycle around our local wildlife refuge which is an expanse of 9,250 acres that sits on a very narrow strip of land along the coast.  This gave us the opportunity to see snakes (at least three different types, including the venomous Cottonmouth Snake), birds of prey and turtles, lots and lots of turtles (Yellow-Bellied Sliders, in fact).  No matter how small, I think it’s still more special to see real wild animals scuttling past and surprising you than seeing even the most majestic elephant or giraffe that’s been ushered into an small enclosure to meet you.  Especially when you’re not entirely sure whether or not the snake blocking your path is the venomous one you’ve been warned about.  There is nothing quite so heartwarming as seeing a family of turtles sunbathing together on a riverbank.  There’s also nothing quite so pants-filling as standing in a wooden shelter in the woods reading about the dangerous feral hogs when you hear a loud crashing nearby.  Even if it does only turn out to be a squirrel (I swear it was wearing clogs and tapdancing on the roof).

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Skyline Drive – Day 2 (or, Oh Deer!)

Today started off pretty crisp and chilly (I had to zip up my fleece and everything) but still a lovely sunny morning.  We began by climbing to Stony Man Summit which is 4010 feet high, all before ten o’clock in the morning.  Okay, so the car park is pretty high up as well and we didn’t do the whole 4010 feet on our own feet.  The views from the top were stunning, although somewhat breezy.  There was one other hiker already at the top, hanging perilously off the edge of the rocks so I made a mental note of his appearance in case he fell off.  Although I suppose my description probably wouldn’t bear much resemblance to any squished remains found at the bottom.

Next we took a trip down to Dark Hollow Falls, which was deceptively easy to start with as it was downhill.  Unfortunately this meant it was uphill back (see, I’m good at geography too).  Let me tell you, it’s really not a good idea to hike down to a waterfall when you need to go to the toilet.

We scored quite highly on the wildlife sightings today.  The most impressive sight was four deer (a herd?  A prancing?) which trotted across the road and hung about for a bit in the trees looking adorable and Bambi-like.  We also saw quite a few chipmunks which are surprisingly small and a lot more slender than their cartoon counterparts would have you believe.  Then again, the ones we saw didn’t sing in a high-pitched voice either.  Weirdest of all was the bat that flew around us in the forest in the middle of the afternoon sunshine.  Still no bears though.

By the early afternoon the sun was well and truly out and we were back to blazing hot sunshine in a clear blue cloudless sky again.  See what I mean about Virginia weather?

Finally we took another leisurely hike up Blackrock Summit which gave us yet more stunning and memorable views.  After four days of this, we’re starting to get a little bit blasé about it all.  The two parks we’ve been in certainly have some of the best scenery we’ve ever seen in our lives, and I can’t imagine what future sights will live up to it.

We covered about another mile or so of the Appalachian Trail today, but I also discovered that it is in fact 2,184 miles long, so I’ve now got to complete another 183 miles more than I thought in my quest to complete it.  Might save that for a while then …

We drove most of the remaining twenty  miles of the Skyline Drive without getting out of the car but just stopping at a few of the scenic overlooks.  Then off to the 7-Eleven for a 7-Election Coffee, where you cast your vote by choosing either an Obama or a Romney cup.  As I’m not eligible to vote over here, I can only cast my Obama vote via the medium of coffee.  Back to our hotel for a bit of food and an early night as we’ve worn ourselves out!  By the time we get home tomorrow we will have travelled over one thousand miles.  I need a rest!

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Luray Caverns & Skyline Drive – Day 1 (or, Underground, Overground, Wombling Free)

Today we started with a trip underground to Luray Caverns, which is, as the name suggests, erm, a set of underground caverns in Luray :).  It was pretty spectacular, we walked about a mile and a half around the network of caves looking at gazillions of stalactites (growing down from the ceiling) and stalagmites (growing up from the floor – see I still remember the lessons learnt in primary school).  My favourite part was Dream Lake, which is a small pond with stalactites growing above it.  Because it’s underground and there is nothing to disturb the surface of the water, it’s completely flat and like a mirror, so you can’t even see the water; the reflection creates the illusion of another set of stalagmites below it and is mindblowing.

The other highlight of the caverns was the Stalacpipe Organ.  It’s a traditional organ but instead of normal pipes it’s connected to the stalactites so that each note played on the organ is sounded by hitting a stalactite.  After the big build up (as it’s the USP of Luray Caverns) it was actually rather quiet and underwhelming.   Weird, yes.  Kitsch, certainly.  And just a little bit freaky.  But still not quite Phantom of the Opera enough for me.

The only thing to spoil the tour was the actual tour guide, who had the most annoying whiny high pitched stage school voice ever.  This isn’t me being anti-American.  In fact several of the Americans on the tour also felt the same way.  The difference is that they were very happy to grumble loudly about it, whereas the reserved Brit just seethed inwardly.

We then spent the afternoon on the northernmost 40 miles of the Skyline Drive.  As the name suggests, I think this is more of a drive than a hiking opportunity, although there are some well hidden short hikes along the way for the day tripper.  We stopped off at many lovely outlooks to take photos across the Shenandoah Valley.   The Drive parallels the Appalachian Trail (for the serious hikers) for much of its 105 mile length and today we completed maybe a mile or so of the Trail at different points.  So, only another 1,999 miles to go before I can tick the Appalachian Trail off.  The highlight of the Drive today was the 1 mile trek to Little Stony Man Cliffs which gave us some brilliant views of the red trees across the valley and also down to the tiny road far below that we had just driven along.

Today was the first time that’s it’s actually felt autumnal here for me.  (What’s the American word?  Fallish?)  I’ve been finding it incredibly difficult to believe that it’s halfway through October.  Only 9 days ago I was sunbathing in a bikini on the beach near where I live.  Although we are currently a couple of hundred miles north of home, this weekend has still been full of blazing hot sunshine and around 20 degrees.  Today it was quite cloudy to start with (which gave the brilliant sensation of being above the clouds when up in the mountains) and there are quite a lot of leaves on the forest floor here, so it finally felt a bit more “normal” for the time of year, at least for me.

It was pleasantly sunny up on Little Stony Man Cliffs and I was even regretting not having taken my sunglasses up there.  Ten minutes later as we got back into the car we noticed a few spots of rain on the car.  As we pulled into a visitor center a mile or so further on, from out of nowhere there was a huge flash of lightning and plenty of thunder preceding a torrential downpour.  Another half hour later, the sun was back out again and we saw some lovely rainbows.  As they say, if you don’t like the weather in Virginia just wait fifteen minutes …

We took the opportunity for a coffee break and I was most disappointed to discover that in the middle of all this lovely nature they only serve Starbucks!!!  It gets ruddy everywhere 😦

We checked into our hotel (not as nice as last night’s, but far superior to the first night!) and then went in search of some food.  We’re staying in Luray which feels like proper smalltown America and is utterly charming with the spectacular backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains to frame it.  After the alarming number of posters across the state proclaiming that “Virginia is Romney Ryan Country” it was very heartening to see a big Obama campaign office on the main street in Luray.  Anyway, we found a little independent Italian restaurant which didn’t look that promising but BOY did it deliver.  For the last two months when eating out I have been desperate to find a restaurant that offers a simple dish of pasta with tomato sauce.  Nothing complex, in fact I think it’s the most basic thing that restaurants in Italy always offer.  For some reason, none of the big chain places we have been to have been able to provide this.  Tonight’s little place totally succeeded where all others have failed.  Full tummy, happy me.

And now I’m tucked up in my hotel bed with Flashdance on the telly.  What’s not to like?

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Blue Ridge Parkway – Day 2 (or, Health & Safety Gone Mad)

Well, we survived Bates Motel but wasted no time in checking out.  After a cup of Hot (I hesitate to call it coffee, as it had no discernible taste, but it definitely had some temperature to it) we got on the road back to the Parkway to pick up where we left off and complete the remaining 60 miles at the northern end.

As we were travelling further up there was definitely a more reddish tinge to the leaves on the trees; a trend that we hope will continue for the next couple of days.  We stopped at a number of overlooks and did a few short climbs to look at some scenic views and to take a huge number of photos.  Today I started to get serious panorama fatigue; it’s amazing how easily you can start to get nonplussed about yet another spectacular vista with an amazing array of fall colours blah blah blah.  You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.  Each one is even more stunning than the last.  Still, I was longing to see a skyscraper or something for a bit of variety.  I did discover the video function on my camera and had fun trying that out for some of the drive.  None of the pictures or videos really do any of the scenery justice though.

Our major excursion today was to Humpback Rocks, which is a 740 foot peak on the way up to Humpback Mountain.  It was pretty steep in places, being just as difficult to descend as it was to ascend, but the view at the top was amazing.  The Rocks are a rocky outcrop that jut out over the Parkway far below.  What amazed me is that there are no safety barriers whatsoever and there were adults and children of all ages just scrambling up and down the fairly smooth and slippery rocks with seemingly no regard for their safety and the very real possibility of slipping over the edge to a gruesome death.  There is no way that we could climb on something like that back in the UK, Health & Safety would just not allow it.  More’s the pity.  Still, Health & Safety seems to be the opposite in the USA, i.e. scarily non-existent.

For one part of the trip up Humpback Rocks we veered off the popular path and a little further onto one of the trails that leads towards the Appalachian Trail (just to say that we’ve been on it.  Well, a few feet of the 2,000 mile length anyway).  Very quickly we found ourselves alone and suddenly slightly more worried about the very real possibility of coming across wildlife now that we didn’t have strength in numbers with our fellow hikers.  It’s uncanny how loud and bearlike a tiny squirrel can sound when it unexpectedly crashes past you on the woodland floor.  We swiftly rejoined our fellow hikers on the more popular trail 🙂

Once back on familiar tarmac, we dropped into the nearby Visitor Centre to see a replica farmstead to learn about how the early settlers lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  This included a couple of real life banjo players who were really good and totally added to the atmosphere and didn’t put us in mind of Deliverance at all, no siree.  Diddle-ling-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding.

That brought us to the end of the Parkway but we skipped across the border to the start of the Skyline Drive to pick up our annual pass (the Blue Ridge Mountains are free of charge, the Skyline Drive is not) and some information in order to plan the next two days’ trips in advance.  Then on to tonight’s hotel which is lovely and far far superior to yesterday’s lodgings.  Then again, this one is about twice as expensive.  This time I’m not scared to take a bath or remove my shoes.  We only have one microwave in this room, but it looks as though it would actually work without electrocuting anybody.  Time for Bed.

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Blue Ridge Parkway – Day 1 (or, Bates Motel Revisited)

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469 mile long national park that runs through Virginia and North Carolina.  Today we covered about 25 miles of it.  We had a 4 hour drive from home to reach the area first; all pretty uneventful except for the sight of a car randomly careering across the road right in front of me into a crash barrier, and that was only about 2 miles from home.  Thankfully it quietened down a lot after that.

We entered the Parkway at the James River Visitor Center and picked up lots of useful information from an incredibly lovely Park Ranger who gave us many suggestions of places to visit along the route.  We didn’t have a lot of time today so we made our way straight to Sharp Top Mountain which is 3875 feet high and has spectacular views all around from its summit.  Being short on time we opted to take the bus to the top and then walk (stumble/slide) back down.   Imagine a chunky minibus being controlled by a slightly unhinged driver on a very steep, very narrow, VERY bendy mountainside.  We had a few Italian Job moments, I can tell you.  The driver has been doing the same trip every hour for 8 hours a day, six months of the year for the past 11 years and has now covered 107,000 miles.  No wonder he’s a little deranged (but also pretty skilled at navigating the road, it has to be said).

On departing the bus, we had a short walk up to the summit of the mountain and were rewarded with some amazing views on a lovely clear and bright day.  It may be October but it was still really warm up there in the sunshine.  We also had the dubious pleasure of sharing the summit with “two old hippies playing some didgeridoos” as one of our fellow travelers so eloquently put it.  You haven’t truly lived until you have looked out into the distance while feeling like you’re actually in the dentist’s waiting room listening to Abba played on panpipes.  It was certainly a special moment.

It took about an hour to walk back down the mountain, although at a couple of points I thought I was going to take the very quick route straight down the side, not necessarily through choice.

In the UK, the only place that complete strangers say hello to each other is when they are out on a walk in the countryside.  In the USA, complete strangers say hello all the time, on every street wherever you are, which we are just about getting used to (although I was slightly perturbed the other day when a man told me “I like your pants”.  Fortunately that does at least mean trousers, not undercrackers, in the USA.  I think even he realized he was being a bit too forward, as he then apologized and said he only meant he liked the colour (they were teal, FYI).   I just smiled and kept on walking.).   Anyway, in the countryside, they take this friendliness up a notch and so today we had countless people saying “excuse me” and “sorry” and “thank you very much” every time they passed us on the trail.  Which was quite a lot, as it’s a busy old place.

We saw a couple more friendly helpful Park Rangers on our way around, including one who was wearing a corn snake as a kind of living serpentine scarf (very lovely it was too).  No encounters with bears today (the husband is desperate for an ursine encounter) except for the bearskin in one of the nature trail huts.  Oh but we did see a squashed antelope (well, some kinda deer thing) on the highway.  Reckon the car would have come off almost as badly in that encounter.

After a really nice dinner in Pizza Hut (great waitress, you get free refills as standard in this country but she even gave me an extra one to take home, I loved her!  I think the tiredness was seriously kicking in by this point) we checked into our motel for the night.  We had already booked hotels for the next three nights but at the last minute we decided to come a day early so yesterday we booked a one star motel online, one of those “we don’t show you the name until after you’ve booked” affairs.  Well it feels rather Bates Motel and I am definitely not getting into the shower, that’s for sure.  On the plus side, we have two double beds and, bizarrely, two microwaves, plus a “vintage” TV.  And free wifi, which was unexpected.  Oh and an outdoor pool.  It’s still pretty warm here but perhaps not bathing weather.  Actually it’s not a bad place, certainly not for the money we paid, and it’s only for one night as we’re off on our travels again in the morning.  Nighty night.

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