Walking near London’s 16th-century St. John’s Gate in the city’s East End, I was looking for an old pub called the Jerusalem Tavern early on a misty Saturday night when a young woman in a skin-tight miniskirt approached me with a question. I was about to apologize and say, “I’m not from around here,” when she pointed to her friend, who was wearing a dress with deep slits practically up to her waist on both sides, and said in a distinctive Cockney accent, “What do you suppose she’d be good for?”
She extended her right thumb and said, “I think a snog,” released the index finger while saying, “a wife,” and then flipped down the third, suggesting a possibility that rhymes with truck. I had just arrived in town after a sleepless night spent on a plane, followed by a layover in Germany and another flight west to London necessitated by the vicissitudes of using miles for reward travel, and I could barely process their accents or what was being asked. As I gave them a confused look, she repeated the question as her friend turned and looked away, horrified.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe all three?”
Samuel Johnson delivered the famous line “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” when America was but a year old. He’s still right. I’ve been visiting London intermittently for 25 years and there are always serendipitous encounters and new discoveries to be made. The city is always changing, always evolving and you need to keep going back to see what you’ve missed. On a recent six-day trip to London to cover Wimbledon, I had 24 hours to kick around town before the tournament started. I’d seen many of London’s most famous sights before so I set out to break new ground in one of my favorite cities.
I’m always on the lookout for cheap eats in London and this place is a find. There are just a few tables, and you might have to wait, but the intimate setting gives you a chance to listen to the regulars bantering with the cooks.
“C’ah mon mate, don’t be stingy wit tha doh-nah, oh-roight now, that’s wot I’m talkin’ bowt,” said one obnoxious bloke, who’d clearly started drinking early on a Saturday.
I had the spicy Adana kebab, which was outstanding and came with rice, salad and bread for £6, a bargain by any measure in this pricey megacity.
There are at least 7,000 pubs in London so to recommend just one is almost perverse. But a surprising number of London pubs offer just mass-produced beer and no craft beers, so even though there are pubs on nearly every block, it’s not always as easy to find good beer as you might expect. The Jerusalem Tavern is operated by London’s St. Peter’s Brewery, so it has great beer, plus atmosphere in spades.
It’s a tiny little place, with just three rooms and a row of wooden casks behind the bar. The tavern has occupied different sites in the neighborhood since the 14th century and the present building dates to 1720, though it’s only been a pub since the 1990s. I had a tasty pint of St. Peter’s Brewery Pale Ale and enjoyed something you never find in an American bar: quiet. No music, no TV, just the hum of quiet conversation.
9 p.m. A Stroll Through Shoreditch in London’s East End
London’s East End, once home to Jack-the-Ripper, has historically been the city’s gritty, working class underbelly. But in recent years, Shoreditch and other East End hoods have been transformed into the creative hub of the British capital. On the second longest day of the year it was still light out after 9 p.m. and swarms of fashionably dressed young people were lined up outside Cargo, a bar/restaurant with thumping dance music, while over at a bar called Kick on Shoreditch High Street, guys in French Maid costumes sang drinking songs and toasted each other on the veranda.
Shoreditch is filled with bars, restaurants, music venues and galleries, but it’s also a neighborhood that rewards aimless wandering, particularly on buzzing streets like Curtain road, near Rivington street, Bash street and Hoxton Square.
8 a.m. Hyde Park
I like to start the morning with a long walk in a pretty green space and in London, Hyde Park is a serene and scenic place to start the day with a little exercise. Henry VIII appropriated this chunk of land in 1536 from the monks of Westminster Abbey to hunt deer and the place has been open to the public since the early 1600s.
I visited London for the first time as a 16-year-old and one of the few things I remember about the trip was a Sunday morning visit to Speaker’s Corner, where Londoners of all stripes can stand up on top of a milk crate and speak their minds. I was thrilled to learn the term “wanker” and various other bits of slang, much to my parent’s chagrin, so I was eager to experience the spectacle again after all these years. But alas, the speakers don’t get fired up until later in the morning, so if you want to take in speaker’s corner, stop by on Sunday afternoon.
Cross London’s Millennium Footbridge at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning and you’ll be beckoned into St. Paul’s by the glorious chiming bells. The smell of roasting nuts fills the air as you cross the bridge, and even an atheist could enjoy the splendor of this magnificent cathedral, designed by St. Christopher Wren in 1675 on the site where a cathedral was first opened in 604. Stick around for the 11:15 a.m. Sung Eucharist to get the full experience of this magisterial place, which was the tallest building in London until the 1960s.
Even if you don’t like modern art, walk back across the Milennium Footbridge after your visit to St. Paul’s and check out the sixth-floor café of this museum for spectacular views of the cathedral and the city. You can visit the permanent exhibits for free and the gift shop is also a great place to stock up on souvenirs. The highlight of my visit was an exhibit featuring the works of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, but I found many of the other exhibits best left for the Sprockets crowd.
1:30 p.m. Bánh mì Time
Take the tube to Goodge street and then walk west on Goodge between Charlotte and Cleveland streets to find this outdoor stand selling freshly grilled mouth-watering bánh mì sandwiches (beef, pork and chicken) £5.
2 p.m. Dickensian London
Walk up Cleveland Street, north of Goodge, to check out Charles Dickens’s first London home, now an apartment with six buzzers sandwiched in between Indian and Greek restaurants. (Look for the blue plaque.) And just one block north, check out the workhouse that gave him the inspiration for “Oliver Twist” across from the King and Queen Pub.
Then head east to the fascinating Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, where Dickens lived from 1837-9, writing “Oliver Twist” and “Nicholas Nickelby” in his mid-20s. Seek out American novelist Jennifer Emerson, an American writer who volunteers at the museum. She can tell you all about Dickens’s troubled childhood, complicated love life and nomadic tendencies. (Look for more on the Dickens Museum on Gadling soon.)
Camden is a shopper’s paradise but the Camden Lock Market is also a great place for budget ethnic dining. The problem is choosing what to eat. I was temped by Portuguese cakes, fish and chips, Dutch pancakes, Polish kielbasa, Peruvian ceviche and Argentine burgers before I decided on a Pakistani chicken curry roti, which was outstanding. Don’t miss having a cup of the organic Ethiopian coffee; Ethiopian sisters Eden and Mercy roast the beans in a tiny little pan over a burner and they’ll tell you all about their coffee.
“People think coffee comes from Italy!” said Eden. “No! It comes from Ethiopia!”
Grab your cup of coffee and wind up with the day with a long ramble through the labyrinth of market stalls and then take a nice walk along Regent’s canal to burn off the calories.
WHERE TO STAY
On each of my previous visits to London, I stayed in hotels, but this time, I rented an apartment on Nevern Square, a stone’s throw from the Earl’s Court Tube stop via Trip Advisor’s Flipkey website. Hotel rooms tend to be small and expensive in London, and apartments aren’t cheap either, but at least you can stretch out a bit. For about the price of a mid-range hotel, I had a beautiful one-bedroom apartment that was fully equipped with a kitchen and a washing machine. Even better, the management company included use of a local iPhone, with free data, local calls and texting. It’s a beautiful neighborhood of handsome brick row houses, gardens and squares, handy and central for seeing all the sights, not to mention Wimbledon.
Air travel can be a tribulation anywhere but traveling through the world’s mega-airports is never high on my list of fun things to do. Last week, I spent some time at Heathrow (in London) and at Frankfurt International airport – two of the world’s dozen busiest, and some would say best-avoided, airports. These temples of transit require travelers to demonstrate the patience of Job, the endurance of an ultra-marathon runner and a good sense of humor to roll with the inevitable hassles. But which airport is best avoided if you are transiting through Europe and have options – Heathrow or Frankfurt Airport?
I lived in the Balkans for a spell several years ago when I was in the Foreign Service, and the government would frequently route us through Frankfurt, which was rated the 11th busiest airport in the world last year, with just over 57 million passengers transiting it in 2012. Our usual rule of thumb was that if the layover time was less than two hours, we knew the chances of making the onward flight was about 50-50 if it was in the 60- to 90-minute range. Less than an hour? No chance, particularly if you checked bags and hoped to see them again.I do not enjoy flying. My preferred modes of transport are, in this order: train, boat, bike, car, plane and bus. And so, when my plane touches down on a runway after a long flight, I can’t wait to get off the plane. In Frankfurt, though, one can taxi for so long that it seems as though the pilot might be planning to drop you off in Salzburg. Planes taxi for what seems like forever and then you often have to schlep your things onto a bus and then shuttle into the terminal.
But I like to people watch at airports and on this score, Frankfurt is awfully good. There are mysterious looking women in niqabs and burkas; flashy-tracksuit wearing Russian mafiosos and their showy girlfriends, weighed down in gaudy jewelry and shopping bags; Africans in colorful robes carrying enormous plastic bags and suitcases sealed tight in cellophane wrapping; beer guzzling Germans and their worldly dogs; and plenty of backpackers about to wash back up on their parent’s doorsteps after spending their last rupees on a bag of mushrooms and Tibetan prayer flags in Katmandu.
I had a full two-hour layover in Frankfurt last week, en route from Chicago to London, but I just barely made my connection. (This was the only way I could redeem miles to get to London during Wimbledon.) In fairness, the flight touched down 15 minutes late and we taxied for an eternity, so I wasn’t in the terminal for two hours, but I felt like I walked about 5 miles and stood in I don’t know how many lines before I got to my gate just after boarding had begun for my connecting flight. I was soaked in sweat from hauling all my gear and suffering from that putrid, exhausted feeling you have after a sleepless night on a transatlantic flight.
Frankfurt has good rail links and some reasonably appealing shopping and dining options but it’s the kind of place where you want to allow a huge amount of time. And think twice about hauling a lot of carry-on baggage there.
I’ve traveled in and out of Heathrow, the world’s third busiest airport in 2012 with some 70 million passengers, many times over the years and I have just two nice things to say about it: you can access it via London’s tube and there are plenty of bookstores and newsstands. I wasn’t sure what terminal my flight was in and there are three tube stops – one for terminal 1, 2 and 3; and one each for terminals 4; and 5. I played the odds and got out at the 1/2/3 stop at 1:15 p.m. for a 3:30 p.m. flight.
I booked the flight with United and it had a UA flight number, so I followed the signs to terminal 1. It was about a 15-minute walk, made unpleasant for me only because I was hauling too much stuff, but alas, it turned out that I was on an Air Canada codeshare, and the Canucks are based in terminal 3. After another 15-minute walk, I was thrilled to walk right up to the counter and secure my boarding pass with no wait.
But my luck ran out going through security. I’ve been in longer lines before – much longer ones, in fact – but perhaps never a slower one. I can’t tell you precisely how long I was in line, because I wasn’t wearing a watch and was carrying a broken iPhone, but I think it took a good hour. My backpack was singled out for a search but there were three other bags to be inspected by one laconic young South Asian woman who moved as fast as one might walk down a gang-plank toward some waiting crocodiles.
Once I was deemed not to be a militant jihadist or suicidal crackpot, there was another long walk in store and then another line to, get this, approach the gate area. After showing our passports and boarding passes, we rounded the corner and joined another line to do the exact same thing again. And then I was stuck in the gate waiting area with no access to shops or restaurants. A fellow passenger told me it was 3:10, very nearly two hours after I’d stepped off the tube, and the business class passengers had already boarded our flight to Montreal. It was a 60-degree day but my shirt was soaked with perspiration. Travel can be an ordeal at times, and little did I know at that point that I still had a two-hour delay in Montreal in store, plus a nearly hour-long line to get a cab in Chicago.
The verdict? CNN rated Heathrow the third most hated airport in the world, behind just Paris-Charles de Gaulle and LAX on their list of 10 most hated airports, but left Frankfurt off the top 10. I’m with them; I’ll take Frankfurt over Heathrow but it’s close. Let’s say I would avoid Heathrow like the plague, whereas I’d only avoid Frankfurt like a curable venereal disease.
Whenever I need a little escape but can’t get out of town, I fire up an episode or two of “Globe Trekker” so I can live vicariously through the adventures of travelers like Megan McCormick. Since she started hosting the show in 1997, she’s taken viewers to the Greek Islands, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, Micronesia, India, the Silk Road and a host of other exotic locales.
“Globe Trekker,” shown in the U.S. on PBS, is my favorite travel show because it focuses on real travelers experiencing slices of local cultures, not sightseeing. McCormick is my kind of traveler. Her enthusiasm for the places she visits is infectious and you can’t help but conclude that she’d be a fun person to travel with. She got the travel bug in college and has found a way to make a living out of her wanderlust.
McCormick has lived in three U.S. states plus Argentina, Japan, Spain and the U.K., but says she’s now settling down in New York. We spoke to her this week about her favorite places, how she balances family life with her nomadic lifestyle and how she landed her dream job.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Ohio but I was mostly raised in Florida. I first came to New York when I was 12 and I remember feeling this tremendous sigh of relief because I didn’t really fit in in Florida. I was this gawky, ballet-dancing geek who never went in the sun.
Were you a traveler growing up?
I grew up with a giant map of the world and a subscription to National Geographic. That was my mom’s influence. She had this wonderful wanderlust but we didn’t have the resources to travel very much. I studied abroad in France and after I graduated (with a degree from Boston University in philosophy and political science), I taught English in Japan through the JET program. And that was my first foray into traveling independently.
That was in the mid-’90s after I graduated from college. Then I stayed in Asia and backpacked around the region for almost a year and then I moved to New York. I saved a lot of money teaching in Japan and my dad said I should save that money and come home, but I didn’t do that dad, I didn’t! It’s been very hard for me to grow up and settle down.
Do you have a family?
I do. I’m married with kids now so that’s changed a lot. I have an 8-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son.
My daughter traveled with me when she was really little and I just kept doing the show. My husband is in television as well, so we would alternate jobs to keep traveling. Then about two years ago, we alighted in Brooklyn and decided to put down roots here for a little while.
What does that mean?
I don’t know. It means we’ve stopped being peripatetic and moving from place to place. When “Globe Trekker” sent me to a location, especially in the early years, I was so excited; I would just stay. The crew would move on after we finished taping but I would stay. I was consistently away. In 2001, I was based in Barcelona and I thought I was missing too many moments in people’s lives, so I moved back to New York. Then I was in Argentina in 2008 for three years.
Waita minute. I’m lost. Now you’re in Argentina? Your resume might be even more of a mess than mine.
I more or less backpacked most of the year until 2004 when my daughter was born, but I kept traveling for the first few years. In 2008, we went on vacation to Argentina for six weeks, but decided to stay. We ended up staying (in Mendoza) for three years but that wasn’t really the plan. That’s the beauty of working for yourself.
So how did you transition from backpacker to “Globe Trekker” host?
I had just moved back to New York and I was applying to grad schools for East Asian studies. I was a production assistant for “The News with Brian Williams.” I had some high level duties such as photocopying, ordering supplies and sending faxes. The whole time I was scheming to get out of there. I had a friend who was an actor and he saw this ad in an actor’s magazine announcing an audition for someone who loved to travel.
I’d never been on camera and had never been an actress, so instead of sending a headshot, I sent a collage of photos, kind of like an 8th grade book report. And I wrote a poetic, it’s-the-journey-that-matters kind of thing on the back of it. The director said she had never received a collage before and gave me an audition.
The first audition was great, but on the second one everything went wrong. We were wandering around Chinatown. A cat peed on me. I knocked over a fruit bin. I stumbled across a guy who was painting and he shouted at me like a crazy person and said I was stealing his soul.
It was a disaster but they called and said, “If you can leave in ten days, you’ll have one show and it’s in India.” This was in 1997. I think I’ve done 30-35 shows since then.
Do you know how many countries you’ve been to?
I should know that. My husband and I have a competition to see who’s been to more countries.
He’s slightly ahead. He had some hard-to-get-to ones, which was very annoying. He did this great trip from Morocco to Mauritania, down to Nigeria. But I’ve done shows on six continents.
Howlong do you spend in-country when you’re filming?
We used to shoot for nearly three and a half weeks. But times have changed and budgets have changed. Travel has gotten easier. Now, depending on location, it might be two to three weeks.
And you take your family with you?
My daughter traveled with me until she was older. I’ve only done a few shows since my son was born. My husband would watch the kids while I was working but now he has a grown up job, so the kids stay here. Now that my daughter is in school the nomadic lifestyle is a little more challenging but I still go away every summer. I can’t stay still in the summer.
On the show, you stay in a mix of places. Sometimes it’s a $5 per night hostel, other times you’re in a really nice place, right?
It depends on the location. Generally we try to find unique places to stay that are affordable for most people. And those are usually the places that have the most character.
Tell me about one of the dodgier places you’ve stayed in?
A bed is a bed as long as there is nothing crawling in the mattress. I travel with a silk sleeping bag liner, just in case. But I did stay in a very strange, concrete hostel in the middle of nowhere in Inner Mongolia. The bathroom was outside and I went to find it in the middle of the night and I had to dodge two sheep and the bathroom was a hole in the ground over some pigs. There were pigs underneath; there were pigs! That was not a pleasant experience at all.
What are thecountries you’re most passionate about?
I love Lebanon so much. And I’m also a big fan of Colombia.
What places do you recommend in Colombia?
I love cities, so I would check out Bogota and Cartagena. And from there, I would go to Santa Marta and then inland up into the mountains. If you like hiking, there is a five- or six-day hike into La Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City. You’re into the jungle and there are indigenous people there who are incredible. And then there’s a beautiful island called Providencia, just off the coast with great beaches.
When you get bad weather do you wait it out or keep shooting?
Sometimes we wait 5-6 days for it to stop raining; other times, we work around it. Ian Wright was in Ireland recently and he said it rained 24 hours a day for days, but they just kept going though. I was in Myanmar for the show about three weeks ago. It’s an amazing country that’s in transition. The people are so lovely. We were there for Burmese New Year. They celebrate by shutting down the country for five days. They have a water festival, where they spray people with water or dump buckets of water on people. You have to have rain gear on because you’re going to get wet.
How many hours a day is the camera trained on you when you’re traveling?
It’s not a reality show so the camera isn’t on me all day long. But we film from sun up to sun down.
Have they ever asked you to wear something or do something that was a little too hokey?
Yes! I would say the entire Southeastern United States program. I think I wore more embarrassing outfits there than everywhere else but it was fun. I was decked out in an antebellum gown walking down some stairs, a Civil War dress, and I was in a cotillion dress dancing with a 16-year-old.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m going to Hokkaido in Japan for “Globe Trekker” and I also tried to make my own program, “Sea Nation.” We had a 12-part series where we gave up our normal lives in New York to live on a boat sailing around the Caribbean. It was incredible! We went to 25 different islands and met people from all walks of life. It was 2008, right at the beginning of the economic downturn, and we explored the idea – what can make you happy besides all the things we think will make us happy.
Youdid this with your kids?
With my daughter, she was 4 at the time. She loved it! My son wasn’t born yet. We were at sea for about four months.
The show was on the Discovery Channel in Asia and a few places in Europe but it never found a home in the U.S. It’s with a sales agent now, so maybe something will happen with it. But there are 11 episodes available online or you can buy the DVD.
Do you consider your job a dream job?
If someone is organizing an opportunity for me to travel and paying me a small amount of money, I will never, ever complain about that. It’s been such a gift. Even the worst days, the day when they made a left instead of a right and we had to stay in the car in a desert for 14 hours, you still get funny stories. I can’t argue with anyone who says it’s a dream job.
We were locked out of the humble home where country music legend Loretta Lynn grew up and were about to leave Butcher Hollow when someone pulled up in silver Chevy Silverado pickup truck. A trim man with neatly parted gray hair wearing a pair of jeans and a red-checked shirt stepped out of the truck and introduced himself.
“I’m Herman Webb,” he said, shaking my hand.
It took me a minute to realize that this was the brother of country music stars Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gale. But how did he know that we wanted to tour the home they grew up in?
“You were just down at the grocery shop,” he explained, sensing my confusion. “They called and said there was someone here to see the house. I live just 500 feet down the road there, so here I am.”I like old school country music but I’m not so hardcore that I would ordinarily seek out the childhood homes of well-known country music artists. Loretta Lynn, however, is another story. Even if you don’t like country music, you have to love her life story.
The daughter of a coal miner, she was the second of eight children who grew up poor in a place called Butcher Hollow in Van Lear, Kentucky. (It’s pronounced and sometimes spelled Butcher Holler and is named after her mother’s family whose surname was Butcher.) She got married at 15 and had three children by the time she was 19. At 29, she was already a grandmother. Not exactly a textbook formula for success, but after moving out west she was discovered at a talent show in Tacoma and went on to record 16 number one hits, winning four Grammy awards and countless other accolades along the way.
Three of her siblings, sisters Crystal Gayle and Peggy Sue, and brother Jay Lee Webb, also pursued careers in country music, though none were as successful as she was. But despite her fame she never forgot her humble roots. Indeed her most recent album is called Van Lear Rose and her best-known hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is all about growing up in the Van Lear coal mines area.
Butcher Hollow is a destination, not a place you just happen to pass through. We were on our way back to Chicago after touring Hatfield-McCoy country in West Virginia and Kentucky and I convinced my wife that an excursion to Lynn’s childhood home was a worthy detour.
We got hopelessly lost but with a little help from some friendly locals we finally found Millers Creek Road, which meanders down to Butcher Hollow. It’s a narrow road that passes through this isolated community of trailers and modest homes. We passed a number of abandoned or burned out homes and shops, and in some ways, it almost seemed like a ghost town until we stopped into Webb Grocery, a small shop filled with Loretta Lynn memorabilia owned by Herman.
The narrow road leading down to the house is overgrown in places, and I kept stopping to get out and look at things that caught my eye: an old white school bus with “Kentucky” written in cursive script and a multicolored flag serving as someone’s curtains; a modest home with a cluttered front porch and a “God Bless America” sign; and a small home that was dwarfed by three huge satellite dishes. The nearest Starbucks, I later confirmed, is an hour and 20 minutes to the north in Huntington, West Virginia. Butcher Hollow is about as off the grid as you can get east of the Mississippi.
After a few minutes of small talk with Herman, 78, on the front porch of the old wooden cabin the family moved to when Loretta was a toddler, he put on one of his sister’s albums and we stepped into the house. The first floor has just two rooms, both with double beds, and a kitchen. (The attic bedrooms are off limits to visitors.) I was immediately struck by how tiny the place is, especially for a huge family, and by the fact that there was graffiti all over the walls.
“I can’t control what they do when they get ahead of you,” Herman explained.
The home is perched on a hilltop and is filled with period antiques the family actually used. Every inch of wall space that isn’t filled with family photos or memorabilia is covered in graffiti – people have signed their names and the date they visited the place or written other messages, like “Welcome to Butcher Holler” to mark their visit.
A trio of teenage girls turned up and Herman led us around the home, telling stories and pointing out the significance of various items on display.
“This is the best piece of furniture I got,” he said in his raspy, Kentucky twang, made horse by a lifetime of work in factories as a painter and welder, grasping a swing positioned in what was once his parent’s bedroom. “This swing was on the porch when I was a little kid.”
He pointed to a photo of his parents and said, “That’s mommy and daddy sittin’ in this swing in nineteen and fifty one. My dad died in 1959, at 52. Mommy remarried but she never did have no more kids.”
Herman told us that the town fell on hard times after the Van Lear coal mine closed in 1948.
“This used to be a thriving town,” he said. “We had plenty of stores, even a stoplight.”
The family moved to Wabash, Indiana, in 1955. Loretta and her husband didn’t care for Indiana so they gravitated west to Washington State where she was discovered. Herman said he returned to Van Lear for good in 1975.
“I don’t know why,” he joked. “Guess I was just homesick.”
A cousin lived in the place into the 70s and Herman started fixing it up, so he could open it to the public in 1986. The house had no electricity or running water, and everyone had to use an outhouse out back when nature called.
“We didn’t have much money,” Herman said. “But neither did anyone else we knew and there was always something to eat.”
He said that they learned how to forage for edible plants and berries on hikes around the surrounding hills. Herman played in a band called the Country Nighthawks; he played the “git-TAR,” but was never able to quit his day job.
“We played a lot of gigs but I could never go too far, because I couldn’t quit my job and we needed the money,” he explained. “But I still play now and again.”
His sisters still come back to Butcher Hollow for visits, and he enjoys visiting with tourists who come to see the place, especially since his wife died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease seven years back.
“This old stove, tea kettle and cabinets here are all the original things we had,” Herman said, leading us through the tiny kitchen. “That churn behind you – I’ve churned buttermilk in that, beat butter, I’ve done it all.”
He showed us a moonshine container, his dad’s coal mining helmet and a host of other items and after showing us around the living room, took a seat on a couch. As much as I enjoyed seeing the house and this unique little forgotten corner of the country, the real treasure in visiting Butcher Hollow was having a chance to meet Herman, who seemed to be in no hurry to go home.
After a nice long chat, we said our goodbyes and on the way back out of town I saw a bumper sticker on a parked car down at the grocery shop that read, “Y’all Been to Butcher Hollow?” I’ve traveled all around the world in the last four decades but I can’t remember ever getting a richer, more authentic slice of a fast vanishing culture than what we experienced in this forgotten little hamlet in the hills of eastern Kentucky.
Hell yeah, I’ve been to Butcher Hollow and I plan to come back around someday too. Hope to see you there.
Just weeks before Pat Farmer was scheduled to depart for a 20,919-kilometer run from the North to the South Pole, his major sponsor pulled out and he was faced with a choice: give up his dream to be the first man to run Pole-to-Pole or sell everything he owned to finance the expedition. Farmer, a 51-year-old Aussie who jokes he’s been having mid-life crises since he ran his first ultra-marathon at age 18, decided to sell almost everything he owned – his house, his furniture, and most of his worldly possessions – in order to take a shot at his dream.
And then he ran. Farmer completed his Pole-to-Pole run in 10 months, averaging about 40 kilometers per day or 46 marathons a month, running through blistering heat, freezing cold and the impenetrable Darien Jungle. Along the way, he raised A$100,000 for Red Cross International. Now back in Australia a year after completing the run, Farmer is trying to get back on his feet financially, but says he has no regrets.
Farmer has been testing the limits of ultra-running for decades. Four years after his wife died unexpectedly at 30, leaving him to raise their two small children on his own, he ran around Australia and the resulting notoriety catapulted him into Australia’s parliament. But after nine years in politics, he got that familiar itch, the call to get back on the road.
We caught up with Farmer via Skype recently and, now back in Australia a year after completing the Pole-to-Pole run, and fresh off a run across the length of Vietnam, he is trying to get back on his feet financially. But says he has no regrets and continues to try to live memorably to justify why he’s alive and his wife is not.
What did you do before you became a Parliamentarian?
I was a professional runner. I’ve been an ultra-marathon runner since I was 18. In between that, I’ve done other things to make ends meet.
So how did you make the transition from athlete to Member of Parliament?
I left school when I was just 14, and worked as a mechanic in a garage near the route of a big race here in Australia, the Sydney to Melbourne ultra-marathon, which was made famous by Cliff Young, who won the race at the age of 63. It’s a 1,000-kilometer race. He went without sleep and won the race. Cliff became a folk hero here in Australia and I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘I wish I could be something more than just a mechanic. I want to make something out of my life.’ With that in mind, I tried to qualify for the race. I tried and failed a few times but I finally qualified – it took me three years – and I competed in that race four times.
Then in 1991, when I was 22, I went to America and ran from Huntington Beach, California, to Central Park in New York in the Trans-America Footrace. I finished second. It took 54 days to cross the States.
Were you making a living from running?
I made some money from endorsements and there was a little prize money, but not much.
I completed in other races all around the world. I was asked to do a run around Australia in 2001 with the idea that I would link together all the states and territories of Australia with my footsteps – putting one foot in front of another to show Australians that this is a huge country, but if one man can link it together, imagine what we could all do if we worked together. I did that, it was 14,964 kilometers, and it took six months and 19 days. I got wonderful support and got a huge reception on the steps of Parliament in Canberra.
The Prime Minister at that time, John Howard, welcomed me at the finish. I got a call from him about a month later and he said he was impressed with my community-mindedness and how I was received around the country. He said, ‘Look, I don’t know what side of politics you are on but if you’re interested in getting involved in politics, I promise you my support.’
I took the opportunity and moved into politics. I became a Junior Minister for Education, Science and Training, a Shadow Minister for Sport & Youth, and I held those positions for about 9 years while I was in politics. Then I got out of it and did the Pole-to-Pole Run.
You quit politics to do the run?
When I ran around Australia, I was originally planning to do a run starting in England and going to all the countries where most immigrants moved to Australia from. As it turned out, it was too expensive. But the whole time I was in politics I felt like I had some unfinished business with my running. That’s what prompted me to kick off the Pole-to-Pole run; to do something that no one had ever done before.
Tell me about your family.
I was married but my wife died when my kids were very little. My son, Dylan, was 10 months old, and my daughter, Brooke, was 2 years old at the time. My wife had Mitral Valve Prolapse, which meant that the valve in her heart just popped out one day and she died completely out of the blue at age 30. So I raised my two children on my own since that time and still do. My daughter is 18 now and is at the university. My son, Dylan, is in high school. But the whole country has gotten to know my children because I’ve dragged them all over the world competing in races.
So they stayed in Australia while you ran Pole-to-Pole?
They did, but Women’s Weekly, one of our magazines here, flew Dylan out to meet me after I came off the ice on the North Pole and touched Canadian soil on Ward Hunt Island. It was a surprise; he came off a plane and wrapped his arms around me. It was quite an emotional moment.
Has anyone else attempted to run Pole-to-Pole?
No. There aren’t many challenges left in this world where you can be the first. It was a matter of taking on the longest possible run I could. People have run across the equator, but they are more or less island hopping – not running continuously. I wanted to run every day. So I had to get on a plane and fly from Ushuaia at the bottom of South America to the South Pole region, but it was only a five-hour flight and I got off the plane and started running.
How much did it cost to finance this expedition?
It was about $2.4 million dollars, most of that financed by myself. One of my sponsors pulled out at the last moment. I was supposed to go from the South Pole to the North Pole and I had about 15 months to do it, so I felt it was quite achievable. When my sponsor pulled out, I’d already paid deposits for the Russians to fly me into the South and North Poles and I’d already paid for a lot of crew support, so I had to decide whether to ditch the whole thing or try again the next year. I felt like if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it. I ran out of time to do the South Pole first, because you have a short weather window for that.
So I had to reverse it and start with the North Pole and complete the whole thing in only ten months. It was a race against time to make it to the South Pole. I found one major sponsor – Channel 9 here in Australia and some minor sponsors, but I was still short by a lot of money. I sold my house in Sydney, sold my furniture, paintings, everything I had. My children were in boarding school, so that was fine. We rented a unit so that my children would have a base to go to on the weekends and I sunk the rest of the money into the run. I sold most of my belongings so I had to start from scratch again when I got home.
Did people say you were crazy?
It’s gone beyond the crazy stage. It’s this burning desire to get back to basics. To move away from the computer and out of the office; to experience life and walk the path that no one has walked before. Guys will go through a mid-life crisis. They use to buy red Porsche but now it’s different. They’re looking for more from life. So people get into these adventures – they want to climb mountains, or hike in exotic locations or go trekking through jungles or forests or run in ultra-marathons.
For guys, in particular, it’s a burning desire to rediscover themselves and prove to the world that they’re not done living yet.
So was your Pole Run the result of a mid-life crisis or not?
For me, I’ve been like this since I was 18, so I suppose I’ve been having mid-life crises since I was a teenager! The fact that I’m still on this planet makes me feel that I have a destiny to fulfill. I don’t know what that destiny is, but every time an opportunity presents itself, I figure, maybe this is what I’m supposed to do with my life. So I accept the challenge and then go off and do it. Life is full of adventure and bends in the road – you either take them or you live on regrets.
Stage 1 of your expedition was a 760-kilometer trek across the ice of the Arctic. How does one get to the North Pole?
The Russians are the experts at taking people into the Arctic and the Antarctic. If you have enough money, you can buy half the Russian army. I flew from Australia to New York. I trained in New York dragging tires around Central Park for six weeks. I needed to get used to dragging a sled in the Arctic, so I would drag my truck tires from the apartment I was staying in on 118th Street in Harlem down through Central Park, and I would do four laps around the park each day. That’s just under a marathon.
From New York, I flew to California where I picked up my support vehicles – two Winnebago vans – met my crew and we drove up to Vancouver. From there, we flew up to Norway and drove up to Longyearbyen, a tiny island, north of Norway that Norwegians go to for holidays. There are polar bears and a little village that looks like something out of a Hans Christian Anderson novel. From there, they flew me in a Russian truck carrier plane into the Arctic Circle, where they have a base. We landed on an airstrip about 160 miles from the North Pole itself, and from there we went by helicopter to the North Pole itself and that’s where we started the expedition.
There were four of us on this phase of the expedition. We all had to drag our own sleds, set up our tents each night and so on. The sleds had our food, our tents, our spare clothing and fuel from our burners, rifles, in case we came across polar bears, and our ice axes and boots and snowshoes.
It was a 40-day trek across the Arctic? What was a typical day like?
It was 39 days from the North Pole to the Canadian shoreline. A typical day we would be on the ice for 12 hours per day. The temperatures got down to about minus 40. We had 100-kilometer winds, total whiteouts. Often there were days when you couldn’t see which way was up, which way was down and the snow was blowing right in our faces.
The Arctic Circle is like an ice cube that floats on the ocean. If you get a warm current that comes through, the ice cracks, so you have to decide to jump across, as the ice cracks apart, or you’re left stranded on one side and you have to put on a dry suit, zip it up, grab two ice axes and tie a Kevlar rope around your waist and swim to the other side. And you have to drag your sled across. The sled is like a cut down plastic kayak.
How cold was it in the tent at night?
It’s 24 hours of daylight so it’s hard to sleep. I’d go to sleep with my clothing still covered in ice. There was no way I could get it all off; it’s too cold. The only bit of comfort was inside my sleeping bag, and that was only after about an hour of being in there when you start to warm up again. It was miserable. There is nothing more horrendous than the North Pole region. The South Pole was a piece of cake by comparison. The South Pole is a solid mass of land with snow and ice on top of it. It gets cold down there but you don’t have to worry about Polar bears or falling through the ice.
Did you run throughout this expedition or did you walk at times?
In the South Pole, I put on my Baffin boots and just ran. In the North Pole, I had those on, plus snowshoes.
So it took you 39 days to make it to Ward Hunt Island in Canada and then you were airlifted to Radisson, Quebec, where there’s a road?
That’s correct. It’s the northernmost road on the eastern side of Canada. We ended up running through 14 countries from there. Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, through the Darien Gap, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.
Stage 2 was an 11,744-kilometer road run through North and Central America and then Stage 3 of your expedition was a 250-kilometer trek through the Darien Jungle? How long did that take?
It took five days. I had 14-armed soldiers from Colombia and Panama assigned to me.
Has anyone run through the Darien Jungle before?
No. It’s a dangerous place. My crew wasn’t allowed in. The soldiers had machine guns and sniper rifles. We bushwhacked our way through it with machetes. There are a lot of drug runners holed up there. It’s a trade route to smuggle drugs up through Central America and into the United States.
When we got to Colombia, some of the soldiers broke down in tears. They were really moved by the experience we had, and it highlighted for me what we achieved on the run. It wasn’t just about one person running. It was about changing people’s attitudes toward life itself. It was about inspiring people to see what they could do with their own lives.
I had people travel long distances just to run with me for half a day or sometimes less. I met people who traveled long distances just to share part of my run with me, for maybe 10 or 20 miles.
After you made it through the jungle, you ran 9,693 kilometers through South America. How did that leg compare to the North America leg of your run?
North America was a Godsend. In the Arctic Circle, I was surviving on olive oil, butter and dry noodles for the most part. Our food intake was minimal because we could only take what we could carry. I weighed 65 kg (143 lbs.) but dropped to 49 kg (108 lbs) by the time we got to Canada. I was nothing but skin and bones.
But there was plenty of good food and shops all through North America, and I had my support crew, so instead of sleeping on the ice, I was sleeping in the Winnebago. In South America, there were longer distances where we weren’t close to stores and places to eat.
Did you take any days off on this run?
No. I read about people who ran around the world but took breaks to go home or nurse injuries and I just didn’t think that wasn’t the same challenge. The challenge is you start something and you don’t stop until you finish. And I couldn’t take breaks because it was a race against time. There is only a certain window of opportunity to get to the South Pole and once you lose that, no one will fly you down there.
I was on tenterhooks the whole run. Because what’s the point of starting something like this if you can’t finish it? There was one day in Mexico where I ran 140 kilometers in a 24-hour period. I ran about 90 kilometers a day all through Colombia to try to make up some time.
How many kilometers did you average per day?
The average was 65 kilometers per day with no days off. I covered 20,900 kilometers. It was much higher than that on the mainland but the North Pole pulled the averages back. We had one day in the North Pole when Jose, my cameraman, fell through the ice and we only did 5 kilometers for the day and he nearly died but managed to recover.
How did your body hold up on the run?
My feet weren’t too bad. My fingers ached continuously at the poles; they were so cold they felt like they were on fire. I thought for sure I would lose some fingers, but I survived.
What was the weather like at the South Pole?
It was minus 30, minus 35 and we had a few days with whiteouts, but I did that leg – 900 kilometers – in just 20 days. It was much easier than the North Pole because it’s solid ground underneath the ice, and I didn’t have to drag a sled. My support crew was on Skidoos.
How did you know when you’d reached the South Pole and what did you do when you got there?
There’s two things down there: the geographical South Pole, which changes slightly every few years and the old barber shop South Pole set up by the early explorers. It’s a little village. Unlike the North Pole, there are some buildings. It’s more stable than the North Pole, which is moving all the time. There’s a U.S. science base at the South Pole and a lot of the scientists were following my journey so they came out to cheer me on at the finish. There are some researchers living there and when I was there, there were about 20 explorers there as well.
What did you do the night you finished the expedition?
I slept for starters. My hands were swollen very badly, so I had to see a nurse there. They took my gloves and boots off and immersed them in some hot water to bring down the swelling. I ate some decent food, which was a relief after eating rations for so long.
So you came back to Australia and had no home. You had to start fresh?
Yes. I’m renting a small home at the moment. I’m gradually trying to get back on my feet financially, but it’s taking a while to get back to where we were. But I have no regrets. You can always have a house and a car. But very few people will get to see the places I’ve seen, meet the people I’ve met and change people’s lives like we did during the run.
Did the proceeds of the book help to offset your expedition costs?
I’m yet to see any royalties from the book. I hope things will come in time. It will be a long time before I can recoup the expenses of the event itself. The North Pole alone costs $500,000; the South Pole was similar, and then there were all the expenses in between.
How much of this did you pay for from your own savings?
About 50 percent.
What other challenges do you have in mind?
I just recently completed a run through Vietnam. It’s only 3,000 kilometers from the border with China to the tip of the country. It took about six weeks. It was the 40th anniversary of the end of the war. I did that run and was supported by a lot of Vietnamese runners.
Other than speaking engagements, what are you doing now?
I don’t think I’ll go back into politics, but we have an election coming up here later this year, so I’m helping a few of my former colleagues with that. I want to continue to help Red Cross with their disaster relief projects. For me, it’s not about money; it’s about having a purpose in my life. It’s important for me to look back on my life and see that I did something worthwhile.
My wife died when she was too young. Every single day of my life I try to justify why I’m still on this planet and she’s not. I try to make my life count for something. People say to me, “You could make money off of this,” or “You haven’t got any money.” That stuff doesn’t matter to me. So long as I can put a roof over our heads and food on the table, that’s enough.