Cromford, England - February 6, 2006
Some 347 days after hatching our plan aboard the decks of the Marco Polo, we find ourselves in Cromford, England on the eve of an epic adventure. Reflecting back on the almost year of planning and preparations it took to get here, it seems almost impossible that we’ve yet to log an official mile. Rather, it feels as if we’ve already walked a journey of a thousand miles. The road here is perhaps the perfect prelude to what’s ahead. It’s been a long hard slog through an endless sea of “to do’s” and our progress has been marked by triumphs and setbacks, new discoveries, countless frustrations, eager anticipation, and painful good-byes. A journey in it’s own right to say the least. Following is a brief overview of the past year:
Shortly after returning from Antarctica we set about the business of developing our game plan. We started by identifying the major items that needed to be addressed in order to establish a timeline and departure date. When should we quit our jobs (a painful matter as we loved our jobs)? What should we do about our house? How long should we go for? Where should we go? And, of course, how much will the trip cost? We spent late winter and early spring answering these questions and mapping out our plan. Ultimately, we settled on a target departure date of March 1, 2006 and an estimated travel timeline of 1 year.
In March, we met with our realtor and discussed the pros and cons of renting vs. selling our house. At her recommendation, we decided it was best to sell and we agreed on October as the target date to list our house. In preparation, she recommended we update the bathrooms, repaint our halls and furnish our somewhat bare living room. This will add quite a bit to our growing “to do list” we thought. If only we had renovated when we purchased the house 5 years ago we could have enjoyed the fruits of our soon to be hard work.
With house renovations underway and other planning in progress, we eagerly began researching our potential route. The spring weather in Washington was excellent and we took every opportunity to head outside with guidebooks and maps in hand. It was an exciting time, fueled by the open-ended prospect of a blank itinerary and a world of potential adventures to be had.
In May, US Airways announced it was merging with America West Airlines. Just as we had solidified our project plan we were now faced with several new questions. The biggest unanswered question was, How will the merger affect our departure date? Will I be out of a job far sooner than anticipated? Will I be required to stay longer than originally planned to receive a severance package? Big questions which we needed to have answers to quickly. Unfortunately, as is the case with any merger, answers don’t come overnight. Instead I learned that I would be traveling extensively over the next several months to aid with merger integration. Ordinarily, this would have been an excellent opportunity. However, with preparations already leaving us short on time, being away from home meant Sheri would have to shoulder more of the burden.
By summer, we were in full swing and our project plan was overflowing with action items waiting to be addressed. Updating vaccinations, developing an equipment list, deciphering all the bureaucracy and paperwork, talking to other overland travelers, sourcing a suitable vehicle, outlining ideas for our website, making financial arrangements, renovating our house, and the list went on and on. By this point our renovations had turned our house into a disaster zone and it was in danger of being condemned. I managed to shatter our toilet, incorrectly wire our hall lights, and botch a spackle job which required us to add an additional piece of art to our wall. Things were progressing though and we were on track.
Along the way, we tried to work in as much travel as possible in the little free time we had available. We managed to carve out time for a jaunt to Panama in April, Holland in May, and the Tour de France in July. All proved a good way to stay grounded and remind ourselves of why we’re doing so much work.
It was now mid August and our travel plans continued to evolve. Our trip’s estimated duration shifted from 1 year to 2 years (roughly translated, we’ll travel for as long as we’re inspired to do so) and we moved our departure date up by one month to January 30, 2006 – driven by our decision to head south from London through the Sahara. This shift in departure date affected our planning timeline and meant we were rapidly approaching some hard deadlines. Most notably, it meant we only had about 1 month left to find a suitable truck as well as a UK based mechanic to help us outfit it.
We’d been searching for a truck since May. Within days we’d narrowed the field to three vehicles: the Land Rover Defender 110, Toyota Land Cruiser HZJ 75/78 or the TLC HDJ 80. If only that had been the end of it. In retrospect we should have bought one of each just to simplify the process. To decide which of the three to go with took longer, months longer. To aid our decision we researched. We debated. We consulted others. We consulted others to find others to consult. We analyzed those we were consulting to assess their value as consultants. We joined forces with another America couple planning a similar trip. Together we developed financial models analyzing and comparing everything from net ownership costs to mechanical reliability to payload, to carnet related liability risks. Then we compared our analysis and debated our comparisons. All the while we were searching for vehicles so that we’d know where to find one should we decide what we’re looking for. The entire process was maddening and we were now closing in on September.
We needed a vehicle and we were totally convinced that all the analyzing and debating wasn’t getting us closer to a final decision. In the end we went full circle to where we had started. A TLC 80 series. Reliable, easy to source, good payload, and lower carnet liability risk (see planning section). Plus we already had an 80 back in the US and loved it. Decision made. Next we turned our attention to sourcing a truck. The good news was that we found one within days. The bad news was that we were in the US and the truck was in Northern England. Fortunately, I had been researching overland mechanics for quite a while and thanks to Chris Scott, we were referred to Matt Savage in Tansley, UK. Matt seemed perfect for the job. Small shop. Reasonable labor rates. Specializes in Land Rovers. (Yes that’s right. His business is Matt Savage Land Rover Parts however, Chris Scott let me in on a little known secret. Matt drives an 80 series and has done work on Chris’ TLC’s. I’m not sure this is public information as he’s known throughout England as a “Land Rover guy” and I’m pretty sure folks in the UK would think it’s sacrilegious for him to be driving a Land Cruiser) Better still, Matt lived only an hours drive from our perspective truck. After talking it over, he agreed to drive out and take a look. After a good kick of the tires, he gave it his seal of approval and a few days later we made an offer to buy it. One thing led to another and before long the drama was over. We had our overland vehicle.
September - November
With our truck in hand we were excited. It was the color we wanted. Had the options we wanted. Was more comfortable than either the Defender or 78. It was also the single largest “to do” on our list and checking it off seemed like reason to celebrate. That night we went out for a nice dinner in honor of the newest member of our family. During dinner we decided to name our vehicle and after some discussion chose Betty. Named after my grandmother, the matriarch of our family and someone we all love dearly, it seemed a fitting badge for the vehicle that we would rely so heavily on in the coming years.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon was short lived. On Labor Day, just days after our truck arrived in Tansley, I received a call from Matt. Sheri and I were on our way over to meet with our CPA. When I answered the phone Matt said he was calling to discuss the list of service items I had asked him to take care of. I vividly remember the conversation. Matt said, “Jim, no problem. We’ll start work right away. Just one thing to point out. On your list you asked me to service the A/C. The only problem is that your truck doesn’t have A/C.” Oh no I thought. It was suddenly dead quiet in our truck. I was thinking to myself. I’m dead. Sheri’s not picky. She would have been happy driving a dump truck around the world….. so long as it had one thing. A/C. That was her only request and I’m not sure exactly how I got it wrong. I was confident A/C was standard on 80’s. Plus I’d seen picture of the interior and the climate control setup was identical to ours. I couldn’t believe I had gotten it wrong. Sheri knew immediately something was wrong. She could tell by the look on my face – which was now flush. As gently as I could put it, I relayed the info to Sheri who, without a pause, went ballistic. Meanwhile Matt was on the other end of the phone trying to convince me that it’s better not to have it. “Gets in the way of the radiator” he said. “Hinders engine cooling.” His argument did little to dowse Sheri’s growing anger. We were heading for some of the hottest places on earth and that’s all Sheri had requested. After getting off the phone I tried to console her. Tried to explain that it’s unlikely we’d use it anyway. Tried to say I’m sure there’s a work around. It was no use. She was pissed. Really pissed. And the worse part was we were now sitting in front of the accountant’s office for our appointment. Thanks perhaps in large part to our accountant who may have inadvertently stood in the way of my untimely demise. In the end we survived. More importantly I survived, as it was a bit touch and go for a couple of days.
As summer morphed into fall, we were busy finalizing home renovations, working out plans to outfit our new truck and assisting with US Airways merger integration. Time was becoming a blur. In mid September Sheri and I headed up to New Hampshire where I ran the Reach the Beach Relay (my last race before our trip). The following weekend we made our way to New York to visit friends and attend a going away party for Sharikay Sloboda, part of the other America overland team who was planning a similar expedition and with whom we had teamed up to address planning issues. On October 1st we put our house on the market. That weekend we also took a two-day wilderness first aid certification course. The weeks were now flying by. October 14th marked my last day at US Airways. I didn’t have time to think about it though, as I was neck deep with problems associated with a recent parts and equipment shipment that we had placed with an expedition outfitter in Colorado (a nightmare I won’t even go into). On October 18th it was off to London to meet our parts shipment and visit Matt and the truck for the first time. Our house sold on October 24th. There’s no turning back now! Renovations were replaced by writing copy for our website and dealing with a never ending deluge of truck related issues. Sand ladders lost during shipping. Optima batteries and a highlift jack that the supplier forgot to put in the shipment. The search for an A/C kit.
Within what seemed like days, it was mid November and I was on a plane headed back to he UK. This time the agenda included off-road driver training, a second trip to Tansley to check on the truck and a trip to Salisbury Plain, with the European Land Cruiser Owners Club for a day of off roading. This would be Betty’s first real test run. We were also scheduled to have A/C installed at the Derby Toyota dealership however at the last minute it fell through when they found the part had been discontinued. A false alarm! Sheri joined me for the trip to Salisbury. We were with Sharikay and her boyfriend and overland travel companion, Eric Wagensonner. It was freezing cold and before the day was over I managed to get Betty good and stuck in a large water hole. After some doing (see video), I managed to get her out of the water. It was a good test and a learning experience for me. Unfortunately, the experience came with a price. Betty was thoroughly flooded with muddy water that has still not fully dried out over two months later. After a long drive back to Tansley to drop off the truck and then another 3-hour drive to London, it was back to the US for Thanksgiving.
Fall was now becoming winter and our departure date was rapidly approaching. On December 3rd, Elizabeth Duncan, a good friend from college, threw us a going away party in Washington. As soon as the party was over, we began packing up the house for our upcoming move. This was the first time it really hit us what we were doing. It was difficult to say the least. After all, we loved our house and our neighborhood. It was so perfect for us and we couldn’t imagine giving it up. The physical act of moving was no less painful, made more difficult by our choice not to hire a moving company. We closed on December 14th and just like that we were homeless. Our final week in DC was spent in the Residence Inn in Rosslyn, VA where Sheri rapped things up at Marriott. Her last day was December 16th. Our final week in Washington was hectic. There were many loose ends to tie up before leaving and we spent the rest of the time visiting with friends and enjoying a few restaurants for the last time. The good-byes were difficult and drained us both. We’ve made many close friends while in DC and love the city and 9 years we spent living there. It’s a lot to leave behind. And then, just like that, we loaded up our truck and were gone.
Our next destination was Wilmington, NC, our childhood home and the city where both sets of our parents still live. This is the place we’ve selected as our permanent residence while out of the country. On our way, we stopped in Winston-Salem, NC to visit Shannon and Greg Russ, college friends that went to Carolina with Sheri. It was an enjoyable, if too short, visit. If only there was more time. There are so many friends we’d like to spend time with before we go.
Our stay in Wilmington lasted about a month. During this time we celebrated Christmas, made trips to Charlotte, NC and Atlanta, GA to visit our siblings, celebrated our birthdays, and generally ran around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to take care of the myriad of items that still needed to be addressed. You’d think by this point the list of “to do’s” would be shrinking however it never seems to get any shorter. We would check one thing off and two more items popped-up. The website still needed work. There was last minute gear to purchase. Important decisions regarding health, vehicle, and personal property insurance were yet to be made. We were still working out details on installation of security glass. There was the matter of establishing ourselves as permanent North Carolina residence – which required re-registering our other Land Cruiser and getting a NC drivers license. We started our series of rabies vaccinations. On top of it all there was the matter of how to get all of our equipment and supplies to the UK. This resulted in a 48-hour packing marathon that dragged into the wee hours of the morning. We packed and repacked trying to sort out how to pack our gear in a way that it could still be transported to/from the airport. By the time it was over, we had crammed our equipment into nine bags including three duffels big enough to hide an average size adult. Getting it all done was an 18-hour/day job and in between it all we tried to carve at some time to spend with our parents. It became a joke with Sheri’s parents that anytime we were around, our heads were hidden behind a lap top screen. Not exactly the quality time we’d envisioned spending with our parents prior to departure.
And then, just like that, it was time to leave for England. Our departure date – Friday the 13th. It was a perfect day to travel as the flights to London were empty. It probably won’t come as a surprise but we were running around like mad right up to the minute we threw our 9 massive bags into our truck and headed for the airport. It was a four-hour drive to Charlotte to catch our non-stop flight. My parents drove us which was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it was immensely helpful and we wanted to spend as much time together as possible. A curse because we said our good-bye’s at the airport. Sheri’s sister, Renee, joined us at the airport as well. It resembled a scene out of a movie where a son is leaving his parents to go off to war. It was absolutely horrible. There’s nothing worse than having to run to catch your flight and leaving your teary eyed parents behind.
Our rush through the airport was a blurry dash. By the point I left my parents we were short on time. I was concerned about check-in because we had so many heavy bags. Fortunately we checked in without any hassles.Then it was off to security where we said our final good-bye’s to Renee. More tears and painful good-bye’s. By the time we made it to the gate it was time to board. We were in business class, taking advantage of our flight benefits for one last time. As we slipped into seats for the last time, we looked at each other and let out a collective sigh. The past month had been so hectic and the final days an emotional roller coaster. We were drained. Spent. Exhausted. But we were off.
We arrived in London shortly before 8am on January 14th. Our first order of business was to collect our bags (fortunately, they all arrived unscathed) and find a way to get them to our hotel in London. The train wasn’t an option as there was no way for us to manage all the bags. A taxi would have run us approximately $175. The cheapest option was to hire a car and drive to our hotel. Finding the hotel was a bit of a challenge but we made it. After checking into the Radisson, we showered and spent the balance of the day recovering and getting organized. That night we met Sharikay Eric, and a group of their friends for dinner at Ayoush, a charming Turkish restaurant located a couple of blocks off of Oxford Street.
The next morning it was time to pack-up again and make our way to Cromford, our basecamp for the next few weeks. Before we left the U.S., Matt put us in contact with a friend of his, Barry Wilmot, who owns a holiday cottage just outside of town. Oak Tree Cottage, as it’s called, met our needs perfectly. It’s is a converted barn that was built in the 1800’s. With thick stone walls and huge wooden ceiling beams, it has tons of charm. There are three bedrooms and two baths which offer plenty of room to stow and organize our gear. Located a few minutes away from Matt’s shop, the cottage is situated along the Derwent River on the boarder of High Peaks National Park. Below the cottage is the river valley and above it is woodland that ascends a high peak offering excellent views of the surrounding valley. The area around the cottage consists of lush green rolling hills dotted with wooly white sheep, old farmhouses and stone fences that zig zag across the landscape. Hiking trails abound including a wonderful path along the river from Cromford to Ambergate. Excellent for morning runs.
Sharikay and Eric joined us for about a week. During their stay, Matt and his wife, Liz, invited us to their house for a delicious traditional Sunday Roast. Built in 17xx, their home is charming and cozy (or warm and inviting??) with a large fireplace in the sitting room, to which we retired after dinner, We have enjoyed getting to know Matt over the past few months and finally being able to meet Liz was a treat. Knowing that we had to get an early start the next morning to pack the truck, we left Matt’s at 1:00am , The following day we organized and packed our gear in preparation for an overnightvehicle test run. Our goal was to make sure the vehicles were working properly and test everything from our equipment to our packing process. The next day we left for the nearby village of Kirk Ireton, a 23 mile drive from Cromford.. Kirk Ireton is a charming little village nestled deep in the English countryside where time seems to have stood still. It’s the type of place where you don’t just pull into town unnoticed (especially in two expedition ready Land Cruisers which stand out like two humped camels in Antarctica). Our arrival was quite a scene and so we decided to ditch the trucks and head out on foot to explore the village and nearby countryside.
That evening we camped on a farm owned by Keith and Vicky Pollard. We finished setting up camp just before the sun went down and, after cooking a quick dinner in the balmy 29 degree weather, we set out for the Barley Mow Pub to have a few drinks and warm up by the fire. Sheri and Sharikay drove into town while, for some unknown reason, Eric and I decided to brave the cold and walk 20 minutes, up hill, in the freezing cold, with no shoes (OK, we had shoes but it was really cold).
The Barley Mow has quite the reputation in Derbyshire. Barry and Matt said it’s not to be missed as it’s the only pub in the area that’s been relatively unchanged since it was opened in 1683. Matt described it as a small dark place where they still serve beer in jugs filled from huge kegs in the cellar. When we stepped through the door everyone stopped what they were doing and for a moment stared. The pub was just as Matt had described it. The main room was small and dark and there was a roaring fire burning in a fireplace tucked into the far corner of the room. There were long rectangular tables made from heavy slabs of slate taken from snooker tables. We met Sheri and Sharikay at a table next to the fire where we spent the balance of the evening chatting with two local men, Mark and Radcliff, about the Barley Mow, Kirk Ireton, and England. We learned of the Barley Mow’s storied history and found out we were sitting at a regulars table and were lucky to still be alive. We even met Mary, the pub’s 70 something year old owner, who says she’ll die in the Barley Mow and is committed to selling it to someone who will maintain the nearly 400 year old tradition. It was one of those memorable experience you’d never find out about in a guidebook.
After the pub closed, Eric and I made the cold walk back to the farm while Sheri and Sharikay drove back. When we reached the farm, we were greeted by Keith who invited us in for a nightcap. It was a nice gesture that speaks to the friendliness of everyone we have met so far. It was getting late, so after a short visit and some tea to warm our bones we bid our hosts goodnight and setoff for our campsite a short walk from the main house. Leaving the warmth of their home was difficult. It was freezing cold and we still had to setup our tents for the night. Once the tents were up, we climbed inside and wasted no time borrowing into our down sleeping bags. Believe it or not it was cozy inside our tent and we slept well. The next day Keith and Vicky displayed their hospitality once again by inviting us in for a quick breakfast. After breakfast, we broke camp and made our way back to the comforts of Cromford and Oak Tree Cottage. Our test run was a mere 56 miles however we learned a great deal. Perhaps the most valuable finding of all was that we have a bit too much gear to be comfortable in our Land Cruiser. Some stuff’s got to go.
With our brief test run behind us, Sharikay and Eric returned to London to rap-up loose ends and Sheri and I settled back into our all to familiar routine of working off the “to-do’s.”
departed The balance of our three week stay in Cromford has been hectic but enjoyable. We worked with Matt to ready the truck, purchased the remaining equipment and provisions, sorted and re-sorted our gear, finished mechanical training, ran some of the many miles of excellent hiking trails, received two more rabies shots, completed work on the website, took care of vehicle paperwork, spent a day exploring Chatworth Estate and the village of Bakewell, and added armor to our vehicle (12 millimeter security glass). Now, our “to do” list is finally complete. All the pieces of the puzzle are in place. Betty is fully outfitted. Our gear is packed. All preparations have been made. After months of tireless work, we are expedition ready. Tomorrow we load Betty onto the 10:15pm ferry bound for Calais. When we touch down in France we’ll turn Betty south – bound for Africa. And so a Tale of Two Travelers begins.........