BEST OF THE EAST 2011

05/08/2011 – 18/08/2011

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My first Trek – Westerner 2 – was such a brilliant experience. It left me wanting more of Trek, so as soon as I got back from LA in June 2010, I started looking at what I could do next.

I was after something similar to Westerner 2, but not on the West coast. Best of the East immediately tickled my fancy. Like W2, it had a mix of hikes and city life. Perfect!

Below is a revised and updated journal from Best of the East. I’ve published it here to give you an idea of what my experience on this Trek was like. If you manage to make your way through this ridiculous recollection and have any questions, feel free to contact me and I’ll try my best to help.

Wednesday 3rd & Thursday 4th August 2011 (London, Heathrow & New York)

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It was a little over a year since Liz and I officially met on Westerner 2. I was sitting in the waiting area of Victoria Coach Station with a smaller suitcase than last year, but a bigger appetite for all things American. Westerner 2 felt like a taster to what we had planned for this year’s Trek. It was a strange feeling. I kind of knew what to expect (in terms of basic Trek procedures) but I had no idea how much of a blast the next two weeks would be. The only trouble was comparing it to Westerner 2. Would it be as memorable and unique? Would the trekkers all get along and have fun together? Was the first Trek just a fluke?

Liz soon arrived and we sat down for coffee outside Starbucks. It was a beautiful day and we were giddy and excited to embark on our East Coast adventure. We stayed a little catching up and conjuring plans for the big nights, such as Liz’s birthday and Chicago. It was crazy, in a good way, how I was sat here with someone I had met as a result of Trek. I suppose thats another great reason why these kind of trips exist. You’ve got a good chance of meeting friends for life.

To make the holiday last longer, we decided to book a night’s stay in the Travelodge at Heathrow. Our flights weren’t going to depart until 16:15 on the 4th, but it saved so much hassle travelling on the day. It simply made sense to go early and start the celebrations!

We made our way to Heathrow via the London Underground and then caught a shuttle to the hotel. Once checked in, we relaxed for the rest of the day and continued to catch up.

Thursday Flight Day

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We took full advantage of the breakfast buffet and stuffed ourselves. It appeared that a kid in the hotel had also opted for this, because he ended up vomiting right where Liz and I sat. Good times. Despite this, it seemed like luck was on our side today. I checked myself into my flight on my phone and noticed that the details of our flight had changed.

We had been upgraded from Economy to Premium Economy free of charge!

We rushed to the airport, glided through security and then waited and stared at our tickets. We couldn’t believe we’d been upgraded. I’d never flown above economy before.

We soon boarded the plane and sat in our seats. It was glorious. Big, leather seats. A glass of bubbly upon sitting down. We felt on top of the world, and this wasn’t even first class! Good ol’ Virgin Atlantic.

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The comfort and class didn’t stop when we landed in New York. The hotel we were scheduled to meet the trekkers was the Hilton in Newark. We booked a night before and after the Trek, and it was more than worth it. The hotel was grand and bright. Everything was shiny, new and classy. I wasn’t used to this, and let my gaping mouth hang open all the way to the room.

It was around nine in the evening when we had finally settled in. Liz and I tried scouting the lobby for trekkers that we might recognise from Facebook messages prior to departure.

We had no luck. We decided to retire and sleep one last time before beginning Trek America Round 2.

Friday 5th August 2011 (Washington D.C.)

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My alarm woke me up and I immediately knew what I had to do. I jumped out of bed (in just my underwear), loaded up the American Dad TV Theme and blasted it to wake up Liz.

Good morning, USA!

I got dressed, which I’m sure Liz appreciated, and readied my stuff to take down into the lobby. The plan for the morning was similar to my first Trek. We were to meet everyone at 7.30am, exchange insurance details, give our tour slips and then head off.

It was fairly easy to spot the BEAST trekkers. Massive backpacks and large suitcases were dotted around the lobby. I noticed a few from Facebook and began chatting away as we waited for our tour leader to arrive.

The group was slightly smaller this time around with just ten trekkers. Well, nine in the lobby and one was waiting for us in D.C. in the evening. Not that this was a problem – more room in the van this way! The male/female ratio was a little off. Just two gals and eight guys.

As I got to know everyone, I couldn’t help but keep glancing through the window to see if I could spot the Trek van. Like some uncontrollable tic, I kept flicking my eyes at the windows that gave a clear view of the entrance off the main road. Finally, a large, white van pulling the infamous Trek trailer shot into the car park.

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Blue, our young and bubbly tour leader, came bouncing through the front of the hotel. She looked incredibly happy to see us, and us her! She was friendly and full of energy at such an early time of day. We each felt safe in her hands and had complete faith that she’d gives us an incredible two weeks around the East.

We all sat in the lobby and formally introduced ourselves and gave Blue our food kitty money. Apart from our Spanish trekker (whom we’d meet later), the rest of us were all from the UK.

We were also given a trip planner that outlined the details of the trek. It included where we were staying, how long for, what we would do and how many miles between each stop.

We swiftly moved on and began packing the trailer. I also remembered to use the bathroom waaaaay before Blue came so I wasn’t left with the front seat this time. As I stepped inside the van, I immediately felt at home.

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Blue rocked the navigation old school with her flash cards filled with directions and scribbles. She ended up using this navigation method for the whole trip. And you know what? It worked a treat! We didn’t get lost once.

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The first day of BEAST saw a delicious 200 mile road trip to Cherry Hill Park Campground. Located just 20 minutes from the heart of D.C., this wooded wonderland would serve as our home for the first two nights. After a few gas stops, coffee refills and lunch, we made it to the camp around late afternoon. Our area of the site was situated in a beautiful place for us to cosy up near the trees. We set our tents close to a large, wooden structure that provided decent shelter for us to have our food and relax. We didn’t have long to explore the site before Blue wanted us back for some dinner. We wanted to eat as soon as possible so we could venture into D.C. for an evening illumination tour.

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We were split into cooking, cleaning and washing up groups, then we were paired up with a tent buddy.

Before I move on, I shall make note of my sneakiness. I packed an inflatable bed this time around instead of having a Trek camping mat. This was probably the best decision I have made since I decided to switch from squirting suncream to spraying suncream. Every single sleep was a dream on that thing. I was even fortunate enough to be able to throw my inflatable bed above all the luggage in the trailer during trips to new places.

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Our first trip in the van (without the trailer) was to D.C. for a stroll near the United States Capitol building. There was a brass band playing patriotic tunes as the sun went to rest. It was a toasty evening and we were all walking around the city in our t-shirts despite the disappearing sun.

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The Washington Monument was lit up like a thin, static flame and reflected beautifully in the water. It was such a peaceful evening and a welcomed way to end a busy day travelling and meeting new people.

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Once we were done, we met our tenth trekker and we all climbed in the van and headed towards the Lincoln Memorial. The building is a colossal, concrete structure with tall, thick columns along the entrance. The whole place was illuminated and busy with tourists.

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We entered and snapped pics of the ridiculously detailed Lincoln, then took a quiet walk around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Names of servicemen were etched into the wide, gabbro walls that made up the main section of the memorials. It was a touching and emotional display that could be quite overwhelming when you start walking past the long list of names.

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It was starting to get late, so we returned to the campground and collapsed in our tents.

Saturday 6th August 2011 (Washington D.C.)

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Waking up and sticking the big, blue kettle on the portable gas cooker is something I love doing on Trek. Another thing is making coffee from the blue kettle and sipping the boiled beans in the (almost) wilderness.

Cool story, bro.

Today was our free day to explore some of D.C. without Blue. She planned on taking us to see The White House, then we’d have the best part of the day to ourselves. Come evening, she’d pick us up for a trip to a baseball game.

IN THE VAN, GUYS. WE’RE OFF.

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We stopped by some toilets just before walking to a decent place to view The White House. Reason being, Liz had brought an amazing morph suit and wanted a picture with her all morphed up. The looks she received as she stood in view of The White House were priceless. What a trooper!

Blue left us and we went about our day. First up was the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. There were a lot of museums dotted around D.C. so we were spoiled for choice.

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Next we headed to The Old Post Office to grab a grand, panoramic view of the city.

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YOU WANT MORE CULTURE? YOU GOT IT!

We were fierce explorers and weren’t satisfied with just one museum, so we took a wander to The National Museum of American History. Just like the Smithsonian, this museum was bursting with historic goodness and made for a throughly enjoyable and educational jaunt.

It was late afternoon and time to meet up with Blue again. The moment we stepped inside the van, the heavens exploded and D.C. became a waterpark. The downpour followed us all the way to Baltimore where we planned to watch the Baltimore Orioles play against the Toronto Blue Jays.

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Now, look. I know nothing about baseball. So for the whole day I thought I was going to see a team named after Oreos play. This is why it pays to pay attention, guys. Imagine the devastation I faced when I realised there were no Oreos in sight that evening.

Although I had no idea of the rules or workings of Major League Baseball, it was still an enjoyable experience to watch my first baseball game in the States. It was a bit of a slow game, and the weather was throwing out all sorts of hate on us, but I was quite happy munching on my hotdog and cheering whenever people cheered.

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The game finished pretty late, so we quickly made our way back to camp for a rest before our next day of travel.

Sunday 7th August 2011 (West Virginia - Shenandoah)

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330 miles of Trek van goodness today. No time for blue kettle coffee!

Hashtag joking THERE’S ALWAYS TIME FOR BLUE KETTLE COFFEE.

We dismantled our tents and rolled out. Our final destination today would be a place called Rivermen. This is where we would camp and also receive our white water rafting experience tomorrow. But, before we could reach the camp, we needed to do some hiking at a little mountainous area called Shenandoah.

We stopped for gas along the way in a place with some dodgy looking hotdogs on sale that were probably there to relieve constipation. I filled up on granola bars and water in preparation for the hike in Shenandoah, then nestled back in the van.

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The Compton Gap Trailhead at Shenandoah was our official starting point. We geared up and had a mild hike towards the top of a rocky trail. The view was phenomenal. We were overlooking a gorgeous arrangement of trees that rose and fell in green waves. It was peaceful and silent. The type of place you’d come alone to and do some soul searching, or scream away your frustration at the fact that Breaking Bad is over for good.

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We returned to the van after a while and focused on getting to Rivermen.

Rivermen is an adventure resort that offers all sorts of lodging options and activities. We were staying in the camping area that was full of tall, thin trees and away from other campers.

Yes, we took advantage of this fact.

No, we didn’t get too loud.

Yes, we played card games and drank until a stupid hour.

No, I can’t really remember what happened once the beers were opened.

Monday 8th August 2011 (West Virginia - White Water Rafting)

Before we start – I took absolutely no pictures today, so this journal entry doesn’t have anything pretty to look at 🙁

It was a question that had followed me around my whole life. Today I would get an answer.

Just how waterproof was my waterproof factor 50 suncream?

Rafting of the white water kind was happening today. We put on our waterproofs and clothes that we didn’t mind getting wet and walked over to the rafting section of Rivermen. We were given a brief presentation of the day to come and the basics of white water rafting. Once enlightened, we grabbed an attractive helmet and a heavily-padded lifejacket then boarded an old, school bus to take us to the start of the rafting experience.

During the bus ride, the rafting team gave us detailed directions, warnings and procedures. These included things like how to lift someone out of the water correctly, what to do if you find yourself stuck under the raft and other scary scenarios that were very real and very possible.

This didn’t phase me at all. I was too excited! Plus, the rafting team were ridiculously entertaining and humorous about everything. Their laid-back attitude was oddly reassuring and made us feel that they knew what they were doing and we’d be in good hands.

When we reached our destination, we were split into groups to fill the boats and then assigned a person from the rafting team. Our group was assigned John, the funniest, most knowledgable and wildest guy I’ve ever met. He wore a baseball cap, a massive grin and had a raspy voice.

We all grabbed an edge of the boat and carried it into the river. Oars in hand ready, we started our journey down the gorge.

“Leeann back!” John would cry as we got sucked into fast flowing river. “LEEEEEAAAAN BAAACK!”

The next few hours were exhilarating. We navigated crazy rocks and waves and were thrown around the boat like dice in a cup. During the quiet stretches between the small rapids, we plopped into the calm river and floated alongside the boat. It was utterly refreshing to relax my body as the lifejacket kept me afloat.

Halfway through we stopped for some lunch, then we had a relaxing ride to the end of the course. Minutes before the end, we encountered a gigantic, fallen rock that was settled in the middle of the river. We climbed the rock and, one by one, cannonballed into the river.

We all pulled the boat out of the water and headed for the school bus. I was parched after spending so long in the heat. Waiting for us at the bus was a cooler box full of ice cold water and beer. I took a beer and chugged. It was the most thirst-quenching thing in the world at that point.

The bus took us back to Rivermen. All I could think about was how amazing the experience had been.

Once back at the camp, we washed and then my group made some spaghetti bolognese. It just so happened to be beer o’clock, so we started on our supply of Corona as well.

As it was our last night in the delightful company of Rivermen folk, we wobbled our way to the resort’s bar and restaurant area for some live music, drink and dancing.

Oh, and the answer to ‘just how waterproof was my waterproof factor 50 suncream?’ is NOT AT ALL WATERPROOF.

Tuesday 9th August 2011 (Smoky Mountains)

My legs were on fire.

If you’re fine with seeing extremely sunburnt legs then click underneath to reveal the result of washed off suncream. If you’re not okay with that, or if untannable, ginger legs offend you, then don’t you dare reveal the image.

Repeatedly climbing in and out of the raft + exposure to the raw sun all day = this.

Luckily, it’s written in my unwritten ginger rule book that I must carry aftersun moisturiser when entering climates of double digit degrees. I applied as much as I could to my sensitive legs and packed up the tent.

Today was another van day. We had 290 miles between Rivermen and the KOA campsite situated near the Smoky Mountains. We didn’t stop for any activities or sightseeing as we wanted to make great time to our new home. Also, It was Liz’s birthday and we wanted to have some campsite celebrations to mark this occasion!

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We had a brief stop for lunch along the way and then bought some groceries from a local farm shop. We also made a special trip to the supermarket so we could buy Liz a cake, and for me to get a picture frame with our first group pic in as a birthday present.

You can also bet I picked up some aloe vera to relieve my burnt legs!

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We reached the Townsend KOA early evening and put up the tents. The site was fantastic. We were parked adjacent to a shallow river and surrounded by beautiful, thick trees and fellow campers. The KOA had amazing washing facilities as well! I took a long shower, layered the vera on my legs and then explored the site a little more.

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As dawn approached, we readied a fire pit with coal and used this to grill our chicken skewers. The cake soon came out and we celebrated Liz’s birthday with beers and shenanigans.

Wednesday 10th August 2011 (Smoky Mountains - Horse Riding and Tubes)

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I woke up inside a dismantled tent. A few of the guys decided that this would be the best way to wake me up as I slept late. Joke’s on them, I could stay warm in my sleeping bag and also enjoy the smell of the great outdoors.

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I somehow made it out of the fallen tent. Coffee and breakfast was next, then we headed down the road to the Davy Crockett Riding Stables. We spent the early afternoon pleasantly trotting around the woods and the meadows.

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It was a gorgeous day and the riding was a perfectly relaxing experience. Our steeds were well behaved and carried us around without any problems.

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It had started to come to my attention just how easygoing BEAST was turning out. I had long abandoned comparative thoughts relating to Westerner 2 and I was simply living in the moment. I felt that It would be unfair to compare BEAST to Westerner 2 for they offer two vastly different experiences. Yes, BEAST was a bit more tame compared to the city-filled Westerner 2, but that wasn’t a bad thing. I was grateful for the differences and thoroughly enjoyed the change of pace. It made the feeling of being a hiking/trekking warrior real and authentic.

The plan for the rest of the day was simple and fun. We were going tubing!

We rented a tube/rubber ring and took it with us to a spot located far up the river. The river would lead us past our campsite and end a little further south.

I couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing activity. I placed the tube on the water, sat down, covered my healing legs with a towel and then let the river take me away. I repeated this a few times before returning to camp for dinner.

The night was spent around the camp with a few beers and thoughts of Nashville!

Thursday 11th August 2011 (Nashville)

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Two hundred miles to Nashville. That could be a song title. Fortunately, we were heading to just the right place for such CRAZY thoughts.

Like the cheesy guys that we were, we all decided that we needed to get our cowboy look on for Nashville. After we left the KOA, Blue found a dollar store where we bought our ridiculously cheap and flimsy cowboy hats and balaclavas.

We stopped off at White Castle for some mini burger fun and then raced to Nashville. This was going to be our first planned night of painting the town red. We were all buzzing and bouncing with excitement.

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We reached another KOA camp and set our tents up faster than a line dancer’s heel-toe heel-toe TAP TAP.

COME AT US, NASHVILLE!

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We caught a shuttle from the camp to the heart of Nashville. As soon as we stepped out of the shuttle, we were hit with live music blaring from a nearby bar. This became standard as we walked past bars towards the Wildhorse Saloon.

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Nashville is a delightful place, positively characterised by a plethora of shops selling cowboy boots and bars blasting country music. There were all sorts of cheesy photo ops available. You could get a great selfie with a life-size statue of Elvis or an oversized cowboy boot. Take your pick!

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Nashville was vibrant and exuded the type of warmth you’d find at a place that made you instantly feel at home. The buildings lining the street towards Wildhorse reflect the cowboy and old American look that we immediately felt upon arrival. I loved it all.

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We reached the wickedly western-themed Wildhorse Saloon and sat at a large table in our group. The Saloon was a beautiful restaurant and bar. Tables surround its large dance floor and stage, which can be seen from the upper two levels of the atrium. The Saloon hosts concerts and, as expected, conducts line-dancing sessions on the dance floor.

We ordered food and I took up the Saloon’s offer of having a beer inside a (free-ish) souvenir pint glass. A singer was entertaining the crowd throughout the night by singing classic country hits or popular songs with a country twist.

Then the line dancing began.

Well watered and keen for some proper Nashville line dancing, we made our way to the dance floor and kicked and tapped our night away. The singer made sure the moves were easy to pick up so everyone could take part. It was a blast.

It was getting late and our ride home was due soon. We crawled to another bar to grab one for the road.

Back at the camp. Most of the group decided to get some sleep and rest their happy feet. Me, Liz and three others weren’t ready to call it a night, especially since this was our first and last night in Nashers!

It was about 1am and we polished off the rest of our beers in the cooler box. All this line dancing malarky had worked us up a mammoth appetite. We used our phones to find a fast food place and planned to walk there.

We found a McDonald’s! About a 45 minute walk from the camp.

We were true trekkers. We could do this!

We had only walked for about 15 mins and Liz and two others turned back. I powered on with my Trek buddy. You see, when I get the McDonald’s munchies, I GET THE MCDONALD’S MUNCHIES. I neeeeeded it.

After what seemed a much longer walk than 45 minutes, we reached our safe food haven and basked in burger glory. We then strolled back to camp to find the others waiting for us. We only had a few hours until we needed to be up and pack, so we finally turned in.

Friday 12th August 2011 (Indiana)

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Nashville came and went. We were Oscar Mike.

The original plan was to get on the road as soon as possible. But we felt we had to see a little bit of Nashville in the day before we left the place for good.

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It was a cloudless day and hot and this meant only one thing.

Ice cream for breakfast.

And you know what? If ice cream isn’t an acceptable substitute for breakfast then I don’t know what is.

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Nashville was, as expected, quieter in the daylight. It didn’t change the fact, however, that the place was a creative, country-themed wonderland. I was gutted we couldn’t spend another day here. What my 2011 self didn’t know was that I’d return the next year with my best mate because this one night had left such a lasting impression.

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We hit the road to start making a dent in the 260 miles we needed to cover today. With Nashville’s wild night yesterday and Chicago’s tomorrow, today was a strategically safe one for us to get our energy back. The only major thing on the menu was a tour of the Jim Beam factory.

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We went down a few countryside roads and entered a serene spot where the factory was located. A bouncy tour guide gathered us and a few other groups to start the quiet tour of Jim Beam’s world of whiskey. We walked along the rooms where they would age some Jim Beam in barrels and were even given free samples to taste.

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The tour guide gave us a lot of detailed information and history on Jim Beam and the production of bourbon whiskey. Made me feel like a whiskey connoisseur. Until I tried the whiskey samples. I’m sure it was good, but my mouth just wasn’t tuned to the taste of bourbon. Give me sweet and fruity any day.

We finished the tour and took to the road again. We made it to McCormick’s Creek State Park in the early evening and set up for dinner. Night came quickly and we ended up cooking food in the dark. Some Spanish omelette filled our stomachs and then we began speculating what shenanigans we’d all get up to in Chicago.

Saturday 13th August 2011 (Chicago)

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For some silly reason I decided to put a giant plaster over my sunburnt knee. I thought the plaster would help heal the skin and also protect it from further exposure to the sun. Turns out – nope.

We entertained ourselves in the morning by having breakfast and taking pictures of me ripping the plaster off. It felt like I had kneed a cactus.

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I eventually got over the physical pain, but would never forget the emotional distress. We packed up the tent and then we were promised a leisurely hike through a beautiful forest not too far from the camp.

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We hopped over fallen trees and shimmied along rocks to get around a few streams and rivers. This would be our last outing in woodland for a bit as we were going to spend two nights in Chicago.

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The ride wasn’t that bad today. Just 210 miles. What made the journey easier was knowing we would be sleeping in actual beds.

What I found refreshing about this Trek and Westerner 2 was the degree of flexibility offered by the tour leaders. Although group activities were encouraged, it wasn’t a problem if you wanted to do your own thing. I had the impression that the tour leaders just wanted you to have an amazing time and supported whatever you thought would make your trip enjoyable.

The reason I mention this is because me, Liz and another trekker had different plans to the rest of the group for our first night in Chicago. The main group activity planned was a nighttime bike ride through the city. Although this was tempting and a unique way to see Chicago, I wanted to check out the nightlife and eventually settle in a blues bar that our former Trek leader had recommended.

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It was raining when we reached Chicago so we parked up and ran to HI Hostel – our new home. The hostel was incredibly clean and spacious. It had large lounge areas and plenty of places for travellers to unwind. Liz and I noticed that there was a hostel pub crawl taking place in the evening. We put our names down and then went to our room.

The rooms were quite big for a hostel. The beds were nicely spaced apart. Good stuff.

I was in the same room as Liz and our trek buddy who was accompanying us tonight. Us three changed into some smarter clothes and then waited for the pub crawl to start.

The guy leading the crawl worked at the hostel. He was a charismatic, late twenty-something who wore a baseball cap and smiled a hell of a lot. He made it easy for everyone to break the ice with each other and also for the group to chat together. Our first stop wasn’t that far from the hostel. It was a dark, Irish bar packed with party folk. We had a quick drink and then powered on. The second stop was at a nightclub. Neon lights decorated the walls and music with coma-inducing bass rocked the venue. We danced away and then us trekkers decided to leave the crawl and head to the blues bar. We convinced two girls on the crawl to come with us and experience some old fashioned blues.

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The blues bar was The Kingston Mines. It’s a popular place for music fans as they have two stages with live blues music that goes on into the very late night. It was absolutely up my street and a place I found incredibly hard to leave. I opt for a live band over anything any day.

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Although KM had two stages, the bar itself wasn’t actually that big. It wasn’t long before the placed filled up and everyone was on their feet swaying and bopping to blues hit after blues hit. Speaking of blues, our tour leader, Blue, eventually joined us. It was an epic and fun night, one that didn’t finish until 5am.

Sunday 14th August 2011 (Chicago)

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My head was absolutely killing. I was dehydrated. I was hungry. I needed grease.

“It’s 11am!” said Liz. Her raspy voice indicating she was probably as parched and hungover as me.

“Who are you, the time master?!” yelled the brave trekker who lasted until 5am with us.

Us three lay awake in the darkened hostel room, eyes closed and hands on heads. If we were home, we’d sack today off and keep sleeping. However, this was our only full day in Chicago and it was already nearly noon. We had to force ourselves up.

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We reluctantly got out of the hostel and bought a coffee. We tried to walk off the groggy anchor that dragged behind us. After a quick stop at the Bean, we headed north to The Original Pancake House. If you happen to be in Chicago and fancy some great pancakes, I highly recommend this place. They’re utterly delicious, and the constant queue outside shows that I’m not the only one who appreciates this pancake palace.

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I ordered an omelette and pancakes, then washed it down with more coffee. We were all starting to perk up but still didn’t plan on doing anything too taxing for the rest of the day. We visited the Willis Tower (where my leftover omelette was stolen!) and then got lost in Chicago’s grand streets.

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I had already fallen in love with Chicago last night, but seeing the place in the light was an added bonus. The buildings and skyscrapers were magnificent and towered marvellously above. The streets were wide, spacious and pedestrian heavy. Although It was a busy city, it didn’t have the same anxiety-inducing pace of other large cities like New York or London.

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We wandered down Michigan Avenue (The Magnificent Mile) then strolled to Lake Michigan. As expected, the wind levels here were fiercely high. It was a good job that I love wind (JUST KIDDING I CAN’T STAND IT).

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One of the more simple and pleasant sights in Chicago is the river that runs through the city. It’s gorgeous!

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The day was quickly passing by and we were scheduled to meet the rest of the BEAST trekkers in the hostel. Blue wanted to take us out for some authentic Chicago food – Deep Dish Pizza! It was delicious. Rich in saucy goodness and packed with melting cheese that you needed to chew a thousand times before swallowing. It was heaven. I washed this down with a beer and left enough room for evening drinks.

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For our last night in Chicago, a handful of us found a local blues bar and drank there. It wasn’t supposed to be a mad one like last night, but we somehow managed to wobble home late again! Tomorrow’s 300 mile van ride was going to be interesting…

Monday 15th August 2011 (Ohio)

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It was difficult leaving Chicago behind. In the short amount of time we had there, I had took a delicate shining to the place. There was so much left to explore! And what I did see, I loved. Thanks to the wonder of the future and retrospective journal writing, I fortunately returned to Chicago once in 2012 and again on three separate occasions (one lasting a month!) in 2014.

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Back in the Trek van and back into the state of Indiana towards Menno-Hof. Menno-Hof is an information centre/museum that has fascinating information and offers tour guides about the Amish and Mennonite communities. We took part in a guided tour of the museum and then stayed in the quaint, Amish village for lunch.

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It was going to be a long day travelling to the Sandusky KOA in Ohio. Fret not! The reward was an exciting evening at Ceder Point.

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Cedar Point, the second-oldest running theme park in the States, was exactly what we needed towards the end of the BEAST trek. Chicago hadn’t quite managed to make me sick, so let’s see if the rides at Cedar Point could pick up the slack.

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We reached the theme park in the evening. It was open late, and as soon as night fell upon us, the whole place was beautifully lit up in an assortment of flashing lights and mesmerising colours.

Screams served as white noise as we made our way across the park to find the biggest and best rides.

We experienced a mix of rides. One of them went insanely fast and took you to a ridiculous height before gunning it down a vertical death drop, and one was a ferris wheel. Who doesn’t love a ferris wheel?!

It had been a long day and we’d done a ton of travelling, so we headed back to the campsite to rest before bed.

Tuesday 16th August 2011 (Niagara Falls)

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We were inching ever so close to our final destination for BEAST. There wasn’t long left and this was starting to hit me. I didn’t want it to be over!

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We left Sandusky and calmly made our way through Pennsylvania. We were going to be staying at 4 Mile Creek State Park, a stunning campsite facing the delightful Lake Ontario. This campsite felt different to the others. It was larger and provided a lot of open space. This made for a peaceful stay and an ideal spot to site near the lake and relax.

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For some reason, I felt like having three waterfalls spray my entire body to cool me off. Luckily, we were heading to Niagara Falls for the Maid of the Mist tour to tick that box.

I wish I could show you some pictures from Niagara, but I didn’t take my camera with me for obvious reasons.

Niagara Falls was, in every sense of the word, epic. The thunderous sound of water plummeting over the falls is extremely satisfying. Watching hundreds of thousands of gallons of rushing water was so alluring and created an image that would forever be burned in my memory. It was hypnotising, and I could have easily stayed watching the waterfalls do their thing all evening.

We didn’t stay too long observing the falls as we were about to head on down to experience the misty madness. There were chances to buy ponchos but I wanted to feel ALL THE WATER.

We boarded the boat and started heading near the waterfalls. The Maid of the Mist looped around the falls and back again. It was a hot day, so as soon as the water started spraying over me, I felt invigorated and refreshed. It was amazing! I was completely drenched but cared not one bit. It was such an incredible experience to witness the colossal waterfalls and feel the cool mist mix with your hot skin.

We headed back to the campsite to make dinner and enjoy a quiet night under the stars. It was a warm evening, so I dragged my inflatable bed out of my tent and lay on top of it in the open.

We soon retired to start our last full Trek day nice and early.

Wednesday 17th August 2011 (Finger Lakes)

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It was such an unusual feeling. The last full day of Trek. How had the last two weeks gone so fast?

We had a lovely, lazy morning today. We weren’t in any real rush, so a few of us went back to the lake while we waited for everyone else to get ready and pack up.

Before we could make our way to the next site, we needed to head back to Niagara Falls to drop off one of the trekkers. He was leaving the group here as he was meeting a friend to continue travelling. We said our goodbyes and then took to the road.

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We weren’t going to be covering as many miles as we usually did today. Just 180. This felt like heaven to us as it was the lowest amount of miles we had needed to do so far.

After an hour or so of listening to some relaxing music and enjoying the extra space in the van, we pulled into Americana Vineyards in Interlaken, NY. We entered a large, wooden building that had a sign above it that read ‘Tasting Room’. Inside there was a brilliant assortment of wines from the Finger Lakes region. We went to the counter in the middle of the store and took part in some wine and fudge tasting! It was just $20, and we were able to sample a generous selection of fudge and a few small glasses of delicious wine. My favourite was the Americana Blush, so I bought a bottle of that to enjoy in the evening.

Merry and fudged, we eventually made our way to Taughannock Falls State Park. We quickly set up camp and then changed into our swimwear. Blue planned to take us for a dip in the nearby lake, then we had a small hike through the park. We didn’t have much time to swim in the lake, but it was just enough to cool off from yet another scorching day (and wash out the wine sweats!).

We headed back to camp and then celebrated our last night on Trek with large amounts of wine and giggling.

Thursday 18th August 2011 (Newark - End of Trek)

This is the second time I’ve had to write a last day journal entry for Trek. It doesn’t get easier!

We slowly packed our tents away for the last time. I also bid a sad farewell to my incredible, inflatable bed. It was definitely my Trek MVP, hands down.

With the trailer locked and packed, we entered the van and reluctantly made a move towards the Hilton in Newark. Before reaching the hotel, we stopped for lunch at a Chinese restaurant, and then we went to Walmart to buy white T-shirts and marker pens. We each had a t-shirt and passed them around the van for everyone to leave messages for each other. It was a creative keepsake and also entertained us during the mammoth 300 mile journey.

We arrived at the Hilton close to 5pm and had one last group photo. We then said our goodbyes to the trekkers who needed to leave, then me, Liz and five others met at our room a little later for pizza, drinks and a farewell party.